by Mary Grossnickle
Many of us have experienced loss in our lives: Loss of a loved one, a marriage, the possibility of not having biological children. All are losses that can be life-altering and/or lifelong. Do you rage against the unfairness of it? Do you overeat or quit eating, cry in public or withdraw into yourself, sleep all the time or have trouble sleeping? All these, and more, can be expressions of grief.
Children also have many different ways of expressing grief because of the losses they’ve experienced. We know that loss is part of everyone’s adoption story. Could a child’s behavior be related to that loss and the grief that accompanies it? Often it’s hard, if not impossible, to know whether a child’s behavior is adoption-related, or just typical behavior for the child’s age and stage of development. Sometimes you do get clues—for example, when you see negative behaviors every year around the same time: Mother’s Day, birthdays, anniversaries of adoption-related events. But often you just know why your child is sad or angry, and your heart hurts for your child.
Children who have lost their first family through adoption benefit when they are given permission to acknowledge and grieve that loss.
So how can we help children get through these tough times, when their acting-out behavior is disrupting school or family life?
One critical component of helping children, when they are experiencing strong emotional reactions to some trigger, is to make sure you have built an atmosphere of open communication about adoption.
In my work with adoptive families, I often hear about children and youth who are exhibiting behaviors that cause their parents concern. Parents wonder if the behavior could be related to adoption, and they try to remember when they last talked about adoption with their children. Was it months ago or years ago? It’s interesting to note that while many adoptive parents think they talk about adoption often, many children who were adopted think they rarely talk about adoption in their families.
If you can’t remember the last time you talked about adoption, it’s probably time to bring it into the conversation. Children may not respond positively to a comment such as, “Let’s sit down and talk about adoption.” Instead, look for natural openings.
Be alert for stories about adoption in the news. Stories that portray adoption in a positive or negative way can easily lead to a conversation about how adoption builds a family, which in turn can provide openings for dialogue about some of the feelings and underlying realities of what it means to live in a family different than the one you were born into. Remember: Even a story that gives a misleading perception about adoption can be a conversation-starter. For example, if you see a story that talks about a child being taken away from his or her adoptive family, you will probably find, with a little research online, that it wasn’t a legal or finalized adoption, or that the parents were prospective adoptive parents, rather than legal adoptive parents.
Of course adoption-related news stories, books, or films (such as Stuart Little or Despicable Me)—can cause anxiety for children who are adopted. But you can use them as vehicles to talk about how the various situations depicted are different from your own family situation, and to reassure your child that no one can take them away.
Be on the lookout for other adoption-themed movies for children and teens, and try to watch them together. By doing so, you are creating opportunities to answer your child’s deeper questions without necessarily talking about them. You might say something like, “What did you think when the man asked the character if he wanted to go back to live with his real family?” Such rituals can eventually become opportunities for you and your somewhat-older child to have conversations about your reactions to such problematic language. For example, you might say, “That makes me so mad, because every adopted person has two real families (at least) and why should they have to choose?” You might also ask if your child has any questions, or if they’ve ever felt the way a fictional character feels.
Adoptive parents can sometimes feel threatened by the suggestion that their child wants to know or connect with another mother or father, but therapists and other professionals tell us that a child’s longing to know about his or her birth family is not tied to feelings about their adoptive parents. This curiosity about where we come from–whom we look like, what characteristics we might share with those to whom we’re biologically connected–is perfectly normal. But we know that if not given the tools and permission to do so, children will often hesitate to bring up their birth parents because they’re afraid it will make their adoptive parents sad.
Reading stories about adoption is an excellent way to bring up adoption-related questions and let your children know it’s okay to talk about and ask questions about birth parents. Reading books about adoption to young children, even before they can understand the difference between being born and being adopted, is a good way to normalize the conversation, and to build a foundation for open communication.
My mother, who is now 96, tells me over and over, “We read The Chosen Baby to you because we always wanted you to know you were adopted.” However, when I looked back as an adopted adult at The Chosen Baby, its focus on the experience of the parents and the notion of adoption as an all-positive experience is problematic. Unfortunately, I see a lot of children’s books today that come from this same perspective. I feel children who were adopted need a story that captures the longing we sometimes feel for knowledge about our birth parents; a book that actually uses the words “birth mother” and “birth father;” a book in which the parent recognizes that behavior might have an adoption-related cause, and who then responds in a loving way. These themes are too often absent in the children’s adoption literature I have found, and it was because of this vacuum that I decided to write a contemporary book for children who are growing up adopted.
A Place in My Heart is the result of my own experience with adoption, and also the result of talking to many children who were adopted. In one of the first drafts of the book, I had included the word “love” directed towards birth parents. When I read this to a group of adopted children, an insightful young boy said, “It’s not that we love them, because we don’t know them. How can we love them if we don’t know them?” And I agreed. Thinking about someone, and caring about where that person is or what the person is doing, can be very different from loving that person. But feelings about birth parents are real and valid, and whether they are love or caring or even something else, they need to be acknowledged and nurtured.
Sometimes reading a children’s book to older children or youth can be appropriate, even though the book is written for a younger audience. For example, my stepdaughter, who is a school guidance counselor, read my book (written for ages 3-8) to a 12-year-old boy who was adopted and who was having behavior issues at school. “Do you have any of these feelings?” she asked him when they talked about the book. His response: “All of them.” That allowed her to open the door for further discussion.
Many adoptive parents regularly read about adoption, about their child’s birth culture, and about how their children might feel about being adopted. Parents should also look for age-appropriate books for children that speak honestly about adoption. Reading together, or talking about a book you’ve each read separately, is one way to create an opening and to keep the conversation flowing.
Whatever medium you choose, the important thing is to find ways to launch and continue these important conversations during your child’s growing-up years, keeping in mind that, just as adoption is a lifelong journey, talking about adoption is something neither your child nor your family should ever outgrow.
Mary Grossnickle, author of A Place in My Heart (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2014), was a foster child and was adopted when she was three. She has worked in the field of adoption and foster care for years, providing information, training and support to adoptive and foster families. In 2012, Mary received the prestigious Champion of Adoption Award, which recognizes a professional who is an advocate for children who have been adopted.