"Mommy, where do babies come from? Was I in your tummy? Do I have Daddy's eyes?"
These perfectly normal and expected questions can make an adoptive parent squirm. How do I tell my child she is adopted? How much do I tell my son if his past was painful? When do I tell and how do I help him understand?
Obviously if your child came home at an older age, she already knows. Brain science is showing that no matter what age children come home, they know.... Memory is at a cellular level and begins in utero, so they know. Maybe not at a cognitive level, but there is an implicit memory. Therefore it is important that adoption is something children feel safe talking about with their parents.
That doesn't mean you have to tell every stranger in the grocery store, but I believe adoption should be talked about from the day your child comes home. There should be an honest communication that this is a safe topic and as we build a trust-based relationship, it is healthy to talk about the child's story and help him make sense of it - even the sad and scary parts.
Often the discomfort is more reflective of the parents' fears than the child's. What if my child rejects me? What if she one day leaves me? What if I don't know what to say?
A simple way I help parents remember how to talk to their child about his adoption story is to use the acronym, HOW.
How do we tell them?
H - Honestly
O - Often
W - With
Honestly: It's important as we build a trusting relationship that we never lie or fudge the truth. Telling a child he is adopted should not be some big family secret that is revealed at some designated future age when the parent thinks the child is mature enough to understand. Just ask any adult adoptee that was told that way. The child will feel betrayed and if you lied to him about the way he came into the world, what else might you be holding back from him? If you have already waited too long, don't beat yourself up. Why not begin today to open up some dialogue and if needed, admit you should have brought this up earlier but it was hard for you.
It is important to develop an adoption culture in your home that is built on honesty. That doesn't mean you tell him his whole story when he is very young any more than we tell a biological child the "whole story" about where babies come from. We tell them in age appropriate conversations over many developmental stages. Many moms and dads choose vocabulary such as, "you grew in Mommy's heart" when the tummy questions begin to arise and "Yes, you grew in another mommy's tummy."
Making a memory book is a great way to talk about your child's story as she gets older. One resource I love is the book, Before You Were Mine by Susan TeBos and Carissa Woodwyk. It's important that we don't make judgements about the birth parents or impose our beliefs about why they were unable to parent. On the other hand, we shouldn't candy coat a hard story and make it sound like a fairy tale of happily ever after. How believable is that?
Often: Talking about your child's adoption story will look different at different developmental stages. During some periods, children may have many questions and want to know as many details as you can provide. Try not to squelch their curiosity and let them know they can talk about this as often as they would like to. If the child senses that you are uncomfortable talking about it, he will be hesitant to process his story the way he needs to.
Adoption is an important part of his lifelong identity and he needs to be able to understand and make sense of it. Adoption questions look different as an infant, toddler, school-aged child, adolescent, dating teen, married adult, young parent, even grandparent. These stages may bring new awareness of loss or pain that we didn't think of.
With: Perhaps most important is that the child feels that you are with her in these conversations in a very attuned, emotionally present way. Our verbal and nonverbal message needs to convey, "I am with you in this no matter what."
This is a "put the cell phone down, stop what you're doing, and give undivided attention" time with your child. Sometimes parents try to explain away too much to keep their child from experiencing pain. For example, parents may say something like, "I'm sure your birth mother loved you" or "You are safe with us now and we'll never leave you." While that may seem reassuring, it can be a bit dismissive of the emotions the children are feeling in the moment, and they may instead need us to help them put words with the intense feelings.
Adoption involves pain, separation, loss, and grief. Rather than being overprotective by trying to stop the tears or questions, comfort the child and be with her for as long as she needs. Match her facial expressions, listen, give compassionate eye contact and comforting physical touch. Look for ways to meet her needs and be mindful. Allow the child to tell her own story and express her feelings. If you don't know an answer, ask what they think the answer might be.
If we are to be trust-based parents, we must be able to talk about the hard stuff with our children from "hard places."
How does your family stick together through the hard talks?
P.S. Honesty does not mean we are insensitive or provide too much information. Pray for wisdom about what you are to tell and when.