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Explaining Adoption to a Child: Handling Sensitive Situations

Learn how to handle difficult situations concerning adoption and your child.

Explaining Adoption to a Child: Handling Sensitive Situations

In many cases, parents can tell their children that birthparents made a positive choice to place them for adoption. But sometimes the situation was not so upbeat or easy to explain. Here are a few situations that make telling problematic for some adopters:

  • You have an open adoption, and the child already knows the birthparents.
  • The child was the result of a rape, or the child of a birthparent with severe problems, such as drug addiction or mental illness.
  • The birthparent's parental rights were involuntarily terminated by the state (usually in a foster child situation) because the parents were abusive or neglectful, or because they abandoned the child.

Open Adoption

Many people think that if an adoption is open (and especially to the extent that the child actually knows and has met with his birthparent), then there is no need to explain anything. After all, the child knows who you are and knows who the birthmother is, right? It's all known.

Wrong. Even in an open adoption, children need explanations about why they were adopted and what adoption is. Here are some issues that might come up:

  • Why the child doesn't live with his birthmother. As I said before, most preschool children readily accept whatever you say, so at that point you can explain that his birthmother was not ready to be a parent.
  • As your child grows older, he might wonder why she wasn't ready and how come he doesn't get to see her all the time. Then, you might want to explain more about the birthmother's circumstances. You'll also want to emphasize the permanency of adoption.
  • If the birthmother is raising other children, why didn't she parent your child? This is a tough one. Remind your child that the birthmother wasn't ready to be a parent at that point in time. It was not the child's fault, nor did she think he was “bad.” She just couldn't handle a child, any child.
  • If the birthmother already had children when she placed your child for adoption, she must have felt unready to parent more than one child. If she had children after your child was placed, she was older then, and might have felt more capable of parenting.

  • If the child becomes angry with you, he might threaten to go live with the birthparents. You need to explain, as calmly as possible, that you are his legal parent. He may not choose to live with anyone else until he grows up. At one level, he won't like this. At another level, it'll make him feel safe. Children really don't want to call all the shots, even when they think they do.

Unfit Birthparents

Are there some things children should not be told? My opinion is that it's a bad idea to tell small children that they are the product of rape or that their birthmother was psychotic. This is tough information for anyone at any age to grasp and to accept.

So when do you tell them, if ever? I'm going against the grain here, but I think the child should be an adult (or nearly an adult) before hearing such painful and sensitive truths. Certainly she should know well before she is old enough to search for her birthparents—finding out the circumstances of her birth then would be extremely traumatic.

If the problem was something like alcoholism or drug addiction, it's probably a good idea to tell your child as a young adult or perhaps as early as age 10 or 11. Remember, children are very judgmental at that age. Try not to chime in if your child condemns her birthmother for her “bad” behavior, but explain that some people have addiction problems.

Be sure you know what your child is learning about substance abuse in school. If he is told that alcoholism is hereditary, and he knows a birthparent had a substance-abuse problem, he might feel doomed to becoming an alcoholic or a drug addict. You need to reassure him that studies show that substance abuse can sometimes be hereditary but certainly that no one is condemned to such a fate. You can tell your child that some people think such problems are mostly due to the family environment, and no one really knows for sure what's true. Tell him it's important for all kids to avoid drugs and alcohol, no matter what their family background, because they're too risky for kids.

Foster Children

If you've adopted a foster child, usually the birthparent's rights were involuntarily terminated because of abuse, neglect, or abandonment.

When you've adopted a child who was abused or badly neglected by a birthparent, it can be extremely hard to work up any positive feelings or sympathy for the birthparents. In fact, you might be very angry about what they've done to your child. It's not easy to forgive someone who has hurt your child so badly.

But if you don't try to find it in your heart to somehow accept what has happened, you could end up hurting your child. Many children think that what their parents did was their fault. They also sometimes think that if their birthparents were “bad,” then they might grow up to be bad, too. So avoid saying unkind words about the birthparents to your child.

This doesn't mean you can say only sweet things about the birthparents. Try instead to convince yourself (and your child) that the birthparents simply could not be good parents. Maybe nobody ever taught them how. Maybe they couldn't overcome their problems, or they didn't realize they had problems. Don't excuse their problems or depict them as victims. While you don't want to condemn them, neither do you want the child to think their behavior was okay or unavoidable.

With the child in foster care, the birthparents were given a chance to solve their problems, but they did not. For whatever reason, they weren't capable of being good parents. So the child was placed with someone who was ready and capable: you.

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