Worried about having “the talk” with your child? No, not that talk. You've decided it's time to tell your child he was adopted, and it can be a terrifying task for any loving parent. But discussing adoption-related issues with preteens doesn't have to be complicated or stressful.
Many parents already have experience talking about awkward issues, such as drugs, alcohol, sexual awareness and Internet predators, with their preteens. By using the same guiding principles when talking about adoption, parents can engage in open and honest communication. Preteens will benefit most when the information is presented in a developmentally appropriate manner, when the facts are nonjudgmental, and when the preteen has some control over the direction of the conversation.
Parents often wonder when and how often to bring up adoption. As a general rule, let the child take the lead. If she does not bring up adoption, using ordinary events in day-to-day life can be a good conversation starter. Newspaper articles, movies and books provide opportunities to bring up adoption. Birthdays are another timely occasion to bring up adoption-related issues. If the child resists attempts to talk about her adoption, then let it go for the time. There are adoptees that have no interest in talking about their adoption. That’s okay, too.
Some parents decide not to tell their child about being adopted. There are occasions when this is truly in the best interest of the child. This is a risky decision, though. There's a chance that a family member or a close friend will let the secret slip. Even if the secret is kept by others, preteens can be sneaky at times. Some children are curious about what is in their parents’ hiding places. Others might just find tell-tale papers by accident. Parents must ask themselves if the benefits of keeping the secret outweigh the potential risk of them finding out on their own.
The preteen years in particular are marked by rapid development in higher-level thinking processes. Preteens begin to analyze more complex information regarding relationships and life experiences. This brain development is what prompts adoptees to consider questions such as why they were placed for adoption, how the decision was made to place them for adoption, and how their life might be different had they not been adopted. They also start wondering what personality traits they inherited and if they have common interests with their birth parents. This is just a normal stage of adolescence for an adopted teenager.
Unfortunately, the brain does not mature equally in all areas. Preteens still have difficulty making judgments and regulating their emotions. Despite their increased ability to consider others’ perspectives, preteens continue to view situations as either good or bad. They may not be able to understand that in some situations there is a gray area that makes judgment difficult, including the reasons birth parents place children for adoption. At this point, complicated and detailed explanations are probably best left until they're mature enough to handle the emotional aspects of their specific birth circumstances. Although every child is different, simple explanations emphasizing that their birth parents could not take care of a child at that time are generally best.
Discussions about birth parents should be presented to children in this age group using a positive approach, or at least a neutral one. Preteens are just beginning to develop a personal identity, and judgmental comments about birth parents, even if true, may lead the child to construct negative views about herself.
Most background information can be shared with your child at this point. Birth parent letters, pictures, and birth certificates are ideal items to give to your preteen. Telling age-appropriate stories about her birth parents will help your child fill in the missing pieces of her birth history. Providing these facts will help your child form a complete picture of her biological parents and the circumstances surrounding her birth. It will also reduce the likelihood of filling in gaps with information from her imagination.
On the other hand, there are times when avoiding conversations about adoption is in the best interest of everyone. For example, never make adoption-related comments when angry or arguing. Comments made during this time could further complicate any underlying problems. Likewise, adoption discussions during a crisis or a major life event should be delayed until full attention can be given to the child’s questions and concerns.
Discussions don’t always work out as planned or on the timetable expected. Some adoptees start asking questions earlier than others, some do not talk at all, and others may have an intense curiosity that can only be answered with specific and detailed information. Parents know their child better than anyone else. Ultimately, each parent has to use her own judgment on what is best for her child and the family when talking about adoption.
Danea Gorbett holds an MS in special education. She currently teaches secondary students with emotional impairments. She is also the author of Adopted Teens Only: A Survival Guide to Adolescence.