In honor of National Adoption Month lets talk a little about talking with children about adoption.
When our youngest joined our family via adoption in 2003 we knew that we be discussing her adoption with her at some point. And from our pre-adoption training we knew that any such talk should probably occur sooner rather than later. Gone are the days of my parents' generation when many adoptive children were never even told that they were adopted. Since I can remember the general consensus of the psychological community is "the sooner and the more open, the better." Besides, being of Asian dissent she doesn't look anything like the rest of our family so talking about it was a no brainer.
In my preparations, I found Watkins and Fisher's book Talking with Young Children About Adoptionmost helpful. It lays out what the younger child is thinking and how to approach this often difficult topic in the most empathetic manner. As a non-adoptee myself I had very limited understanding of how my child might see her situation as an inter-racial adoptee.
Even more eye-opening was Eldridge's Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish their Parents Knew. Indeed, I knew other parents who refused to read Twenty Things arguing it was "too scary". My response (truly mavenish): "I'd rather know up front what she may be facing inside." It was, in the end, providential that I was prepared. E had a lot to say and act out about her feelings on the topic of adoption.
When E was not yet three we were sitting together watching a children's program on TV when she saw an ad for diapers. In the sweet clip a father rocked his baby while feeding her a bottle. With no warning, E, then a very happy-go-lucky kid, began to cry saying something to the effect of "I miss my parents". I was tongue-tied. No amount of reading had prepared me for this. In fact, up to this point, we had felt she was too young to really understand that she had another set of parents out there. We obviously were mistaken.
Fast forward to her birthday when she blew out her candles on her cake and ran upstairs sobbing saying "I miss those other parents". From my reading I knew birthdays could be an emotional trigger, but this reaction to what we viewed as a happy occasion still blindsided me. There hadn't even been any discussion about her adoption or her birthparents. Now her heart was breaking. Sitting beside her on the bed I initially felt a protective side of me well up - were we not good parents; did we not love her enough? Luckily, I quickly recalled Watkins and Fisher's wisdom: do not take it personally, rather, show empathy and compassion. She was not rejecting me as her mother, but merely sharing her grief over something lost. So I rubbed her back and said over and over again, "I know. It is sad. I am sorry."
Since that day five years ago I have had to sit and listen to E's laments on more occasions than I care to count. She went through an especially difficult time shortly after our move to Asia in 2005 when we spent several hours a week with her screaming and me soothing. Something would tick her off and she would disintegrate leaving me to play back the day in my mind to determine what event had sent us down this road. Often it would be something barely obvious to the untrained eye: a Disney movie involving a new baby (Lady and the Tramp) or seeing a friend she hadn't visited with in a while. Thankfully, around age 6 these tantrums decreased into mere sadness and then simple, only sometimes tearful, conversations about having two mothers, both of whom she loves and wants but only one of which she can have.
Along this very emotional jounrey I have found three other tools invaluable. One, the "pebble practice", was taught to me by a fellow adoptive mother (and social worker). This gem is especially useful with children who do not, unlike our daughter, share their emotions openly. The premise is to broach a subject, like their feelings about their birthparents, with a small comment - like throwing a small pebble out into a pond. If ripples occur then you know that this is something your child has been thinking about, even if they have not yet brought it up. In doing this, you are hopefully reminding your child that you have an open and positive attitude about discussing their adoption (even if you are shaking in your boots on the inside).
Second, are children's books on the topic of Adoption. Reading age appropriate books can provide a segue into a conversation about their feelings on adoption. (As with the pebble practice, I have found this to be great for opening up dialogue about everything from God to puberty.) But remember, not all books are created alike. You will want to read the book ahead of time, out of the your child's earshot, in order to decide if it captures your family's situation or not. Our family's favorites so far: Cole's How I Was Adopted; Let's Talk About It - Adoption by Mr. Rogers; Hodge's Emma's Story, Kasza's A Mother for Choco;Dorow and Wunrow's When You Were Born in China;and Ying Ying Fry's Kids Like Me in China.
Third, for the truly difficult emotions there is the oral narrative story. Lacher, Nichols and May's Connecting with Kids Through Stories is a slim volume that sets out in easy to understand language why narrative stories work in healing raw emotions and how to "write" your own narrative stories tailored to a specific situation. Generally your "story" will have a heroin (woodland animals seem to make nice characters) who is dealing with a similar (though not exact...our kids are too smart for this) situation. And like your child, the heroine will struggle with the situation, perhaps mull over some good solutions and not so good solutions and then in the end come to a resolution.
During one particularly bad tantrum with E, she was blasting herself for not being lovable enough to have been kept (by her birthmother). I came up with a story about a little turtle who was left in the woods by his family. Though he found another family, he still felt he did not deserve to be loved. It was very spur of the moment and I felt a bit foolish telling a screaming child a story (surely she wasn't listening). Well darned if she didn't scream with one side of her brain and listen with the other. Her tantrum abated in record time that night, thanks to our friend the turtle who decided in the end he could learn again how to be loved.
So in honor of National Adoption Month lets remember to talk with our children about where they came from, what they mean to us and where they are going in life.