Talking with Children About Sadness in Adoption

by Dawn Friedman


“It’s very dangerous where I was born.”

The little boy* in my office was eight years old and worried. He was sitting on the edge of his chair, fiddling with the markers in front of him, popping their lids on and off. “There are dangerous people there and sometimes there are floods. Sometimes there isn’t enough to eat.”

He was speaking in a hushed voice, even though the white noise machine was humming outside my doorway, shielding our conversation from his parents in the waiting room.

“I worry about my birth mom. What if she gets washed away? What if she gets hurt? Where does she get her food? My mom says there aren’t grocery stores there.”

Adopted from Southeast Asia as an infant, my client’s parents brought him to counseling because he was starting to ask why his birth mother didn’t love him enough to keep him. Without having any concrete information about his biological parents, my client’s mother had told him about the particular challenges for people living in that country at that time. She talked about how hard it might have been to keep a baby safe, hoping this would help her son feel better about his placement in the orphanage.

“I wanted him to understand that his birth mom made a very, very difficult choice because she wanted him to have a better life. So I told him how harsh living conditions are there,” she explained to me. “I didn’t want him to feel like she turned her back on him.”

Whenever her son would bring up his birth mom, his adoptive mom would tell him the story again—about what a hard life he’d left, and how treacherous his birth country could be—all with the hope that he would feel grateful instead of feeling rejected. However, her son still felt rejected, and he also felt guilty and anxious about his birth mom. He told me that he resented his nice things: his big soft bed, his gaming console, and his room full of toys.

“Just give it all away,” he said. Or alternatively, “Forget those orphanage kids. They’ll probably all starve to death anyway.”

The adoptive parents I meet in my practice are incredibly concerned with protecting their children from the cold, hard truth of adoption, which is that before you can join a new family, you must lose your old one.

Many of these parents don’t want their children to feel rejected by their birth parents, so they create a narrative meant to comfort. Their stories—whether they are of sanctified birth parents wise enough to know they cannot parent, of demonized birth parents who placed their children as penance, or of countries too dangerous for babies to thrive— have unintended consequences.

Children internalize what they are told. They believe that if their birth parents are perfect, then there must be something wrong with them. They believe that if their birth parents are bad people, then they must be bad people, too. They hear about the trials of the land of their birth, and they fear the lives they never got to have, often feeling guilty for missing a country that they are told is not good enough for them.

Parents who are struggling for a way to tell their children their stories without doing further harm would do well to bear in mind the following truths:

  1. There is no way around sadness. While many well-intentioned adoptive parents change or shape their children’s stories in an effort to avoid creating sadness, there is no way to ensure our children don’t grieve their losses. Instead of thinking that we need to shield them from pain, we must remember that our parenting task is to help them cope with it.
  2. Stories need to grow and change with our children. Many adoptive parents tell their children their adoption stories at a set, formal time: before bed, perhaps, or each year on the day they celebrate their child’s birth or adoption. But these stories need to live in children’s everyday lives, and they need to respond to children’s ever-changing developmental needs. While the rhythm of ritual has power (the sing-song story of the ride home or the repetitive language used to describe the first time an adoptive parent held her child), there needs to be room for the story to become more nuanced, more detailed, and more honest in its lapses.
  3. Adoption is full of paradox. Adoption is never ever all one thing or all another. Children who have come from war-torn countries or inadequate orphanages do not need their beginnings romanticized or pathologized. Parents can introduce the idea of ambivalence (what therapist Barbara Cain calls “double-dip feelings”) early on.[1] Countries can be troubled and still have beauty. Birth parents can be good people and make mistakes. Children can be happy to be in their adoptive families and still sad to be away from their birth parents.

In the course of our work together, my client and I talked about what was actually happening in the part of the world where he was born. I brought in library books detailing the day-to-day lives of a typical family there, and we looked at videos of the orphanages. We talked about how a harsh life is not necessarily a bad life. After talking to Beth Hall at Pact about the case, my client and I talked about how people learn to take care of themselves in environments that may seem overwhelmingly difficult to people who live someplace else. We talked about the tornados that sometimes come to central Ohio and how we practice being safe when the test sirens go off. We also discussed how people in other states without heavy storms may not understand what it’s like to live through an Ohio spring; how they might worry about us more than we worry about ourselves.

Of course, we also talked about my client’s birth mom. We talked about how anger and sadness and love and joy can be all mixed up in adoption, and how missing his birth mom and loving her doesn’t mean he can’t also feel angry that she let him go. We talked about how adoption is confusing and sometimes it’s hard to make sense of it all. We talked about how the grown-ups are doing the best they can to make good decisions for the kids, and how the kids get to have their own opinions about those decisions.

The journey of adoption is an ongoing one. For now, books about my client’s country and videos from YouTube are enough to calm his fears. But he will need more complex answers as he grows. I encouraged his parents to keep the conversation going, to check in even when he seems disinterested, and to do their own research during “down” times (when adoption seems less pressing), so that they are prepared when their son comes to them with more questions.

* All identifying information has been changed to protect the confidentiality of the child in this essay.


Dawn Friedman MSEd LPC, is a counselor and writer in Columbus, Ohio.

[1] Cain, Barbara, Double-Dip Feelings: Stories to Help Children Understand Emotions (Magination Press, 2001)

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