Recently I’ve received a request to discuss adoption and issues that arise unique to this family experience. According to Terry Levy and Michael Orlans, authors in “Attachment Processes in Couples and Family Therapy”, adoption touches the lives of approximately 50 million Americans. As a result, this is a topic that is broad and deep. This discussion barely scratches the surface of the many dynamics and issues unique to adoptive families.
In the past, adoption used to be considered something you really didn’t discuss. In fact, telling children they were adopted was discouraged. Now, adoption is seen for the very positive gift and blessing that it is: a chance for adults to be parents to a child, and a chance for children to belong to a parent who wants to love and care for them. Types of adoption are broad-ranged: open vs. closed, domestic vs. international, racially mixed vs. racially the same, and private vs. agency adoption. Some adopted children are family relations (i.e., the child is really a niece or grandchild) and others are adopted from the other side the globe.
Adoptions are increasingly become “open”, meaning that the child, the birth parents, and the adoptive parents have an ongoing relationship with each other. This can be highly regulated where the communication is controlled through a third party or a very unstructured and free interchange. A “closed” adoption, on the other hand, is one where the identities of the birth parents are sealed and they are not involved in the adopted child’s life. Closed adoptions are becoming less common due to the growing belief that access to the birth parent is more beneficial to adopted children than blocking that access.
With the emerging belief that open adoption is better, there is a coinciding belief that it’s better to tell adopted children about their adoption than to make this issue “off-limits.” Certainly, it’s believed to be much better for the child to be told the truth rather than a lie about their origins. Lies of this kind are rarely done to protect the child anyway: it’s more about protecting the family from some truth that makes them uncomfortable. The thing is if it’s a “family secret” then that means everybody knows about it but nobody is allowed to talk about it.
The authors Levy and Orlans encourage parents to discuss adoption with their child when they reach the age of three to four years old. This is about the time they can start to understand that while they didn’t “come from mommy’s tummy” mom and dad are extremely happy they could adopt. Rather than overwhelm the preschoolers with information regarding the adoption, its best to follow their lead by allowing them to ask the questions they are comfortable with asking.
By the time adopted children reach middle childhood (age 8-12), issues of identity and self-worth come to the forefront and questions regarding their adoption are more likely to come up. Often there will be questions regarding why they were given up for adoption, whether they have other siblings, why the adoptive parents adopted them, and so on. Parents are encouraged to answer their child’s questions as openly and sensitively as possible. While sharing this information may be uncomfortable, it is ultimately an opportunity for trust building.
This can be a difficult time for adoptive parents, as it may trigger insecurities. Reacting out of insecurity will only hinder the open communication the adopted child needs at that time. If conflicts or communication problems arise through this normal process of questioning, it is recommended that adopted families seek professional guidance. The most important questions are often the ones left unasked. Nevertheless, they need to be answered. The answer by the parents needs to be “You are loved as my own” and “I will never leave you.”