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Explaining Adoption to a School-Aged Child

Learn what to say about adoption to a school-aged child .

Explaining Adoption to a School-Aged Child

As children grow, they start to ask even tougher questions about adoption. For example, if the birthmother was poor, why didn't someone give her money so she could be a parent? Or, if she wasn't ready to be a parent, why didn't someone teach her what she needed to know? Why did she think a child had to have two parents? Your child might know lots of kids who have just their mom or dad. In fact, maybe you're a single parent yourself. If so, why couldn't the birthmother be a single parent?

The thing is, although school-age children often have the intelligence to ask these tough questions, they also usually still see the world in simplistic terms. People are either good or bad. You're either starving, or you're not hungry. If there's a problem, somebody should figure out how to fix it and solve it.

You probably can't explain the difficult social problems that lead some birthparents to choose adoption. You can, however, admit the obvious: The world can be an unfair place sometimes. The birthmother couldn't solve her problems, and the people she knew didn't know how to help her solve them, either.

Here's a tough thing to admit: You don't know how to solve all of the problems in the world, either. What you do know is that you wanted to adopt a child and when you learned about your child, you knew you wanted to be his parent.

Here's another aspect that's tough for adoptive parents to accept: Although the preschool child may (and usually does) blithely accept whatever cheery explanation of adoption you offer, the older child is more skeptical and might feel sad for his birthmother. He will have his feelings hurt if classmates and friends ask him why his “real mother gave him up.” He might not want anyone to know he was adopted.

How can you make the pain go away? You can't make it all go away, any more than you can protect your child from many of the other slings and arrows involved in growing up. However, it really helps when you accept and acknowledge your child's feelings. If your child says he's sad about his birthmother not being able to be a parent, admit that it is sad. All the emotions associated with truly understanding adoption are not positive ones. And that's okay.

What if your child is teased about being adopted? Sometimes it's because the teasers are feeling inadequate themselves. In Talking with Young Children About Adoption, the authors cited the teasing of Teddy, who was told by other children that he didn't have to listen to his mother when she said to put his seat belt on because she wasn't his real mother. Said Teddy, “What do you think she is, a cartoon character?” The author later discussed the incident with her child, who said, “Gary is jealous. He doesn't have a father, and I do, so he's attacking my adoption.”

Of course, not all children react so matter-of-factly. Here are some important points to convey to your child:

  • Kids tease other kids about a lot of things: wearing glasses, being thin, being chubby, not doing well at math, or not being good at baseball. Sometimes, if they can't think of anything else, they'll choose adoption.
  • Convey to your child that you are a real parent, and you will always love him and be his real parent. He's real, and you're real. You're not a “cartoon character,” and neither is he.
  • You might tell your child that he can tell his friends they can see you and touch you and hear you. This means you exist. This might sound silly, but I think it makes an important point.
  • Do understand that sometimes teasing hurts. If you were teased because you're a “mere” adoptive parent and told you weren't “real,” you'd be mad, too! In fact, adoptive parents sometimes are treated as if they were inauthentic parents by others, who don't understand adoption. The reality is that we can try to protect our children, but sometimes the teasing happens anyway. If they're prepared for it, however, they'll have a little more psychological armor. So that's your job.

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