Openness ~ The key to trust with adopted kids
by jane arie baldwin
My daughter is a very confident and curious nine year old. I recently found myself stumbling through the answers to questions she has begun to ask about her birth parents. I realized that I lacked important communication tools that could help me navigate these questions. I found my answers at a Q&A at the local Edna Gladney adoption agency. The topic was, “Answering the Tough Questions.”
“Perfect!” I said to myself.
The Q&A panel consisted of about 15 people with much hands-on experience in adoption. The group consisted of people who had either adopted a child from the agency (or three or six in some cases), had been adopted from Edna Gladney – these adoptees ranged in age from 12 to 42, and the panel also included people who have worked at the agency, many of them for decades.
I heard many stories from the panel, some with happy endings, some not so happy, and others continuing to unfold. What I took from that night was the importance of transparency and honesty. The main reason for this is the changing face of information availability brought about by social media – if a child can log on to a computer they can find any information they want about birth families. If a parent withholds information that a child discovers on the internet a link of trust is broken and trust links take time to mend. It’s a messy situation that can be avoided with honesty and openness. The tools that I was looking for were right in front of me ~openness, honesty, trust, transparency~ the best way to communicate in any situation turned out to be the best way to communicate with my daughter. I also realized that by being open and honest with her as practice, I’m also teaching her to communicate that way with me and others.
With that information I realized that much of my ambivalence in sharing information with my daughter came from the old ways of looking at adoption, that adoption required a certain level of secrecy mystery, an old way of looking at adoption that is rooted in fear, not love. Through those old beliefs I developed a deep seeded fear that when she met her birth mother she would not need me anymore. One night, not too long ago, practicing the openness and transparency that felt true for us, I told my daughter, Ruby, as much.
I said, “You know, I recently realized that I’ve been afraid. I didn’t want to talk to you about your birth mother because of the fear that you wouldn’t need me anymore.”
Ruby reached over and put her arm around me, “Mom! How could I leave something that is a part of me?”
They are the words I needed to hear. I am a part of her. She is a part of me. We are parts of each other. Forever.
Q & A DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: (Courtesy of Edna Gladney Adoption Agency, Fort Worth, TX)
1. We recently told our internationally adopted kids about birth siblings living in their birth country. They were insulted for us to call them “birth siblings”. Should we insist on this distinction when they’re referring to them? How can we convey to them that this info should not be shared with peers? Or should we allow them to tell anyone what they want? The answer to this question could potentially vary depending on the age of children at the time of adoption, the age of the children currently at the time of finding out about their birth siblings, and whether or not they had a relationship with their birth siblings prior to being adopted. We recommend that parents follow their children’s lead on what term they feel most comfortable using, whether that is “sibling”, “birth sibling”, “brother/sister”, “(name of sibling)”, or another term. This opens up an opportunity for parents to have a conversation with their children about what they would like to call their birth siblings and for parents to connect with their children with where they’re at right now emotionally, developmentally, and cognitively in processing their history and birth family. For a child adopted as an infant/toddler or who did not have a relationship with his/her birth siblings, parents could introduce the term “birth siblings” to be used. For a child adopted at an older age or who had a relationship with his/her birth siblings, parents could have a conversation with their child about what they call their birth siblings. Parents do not need to insist on the distinction between “sibling” versus “birth sibling” if their children have a preference for using a certain term. We recommend that parents use the conversations as a way to connect with their children rather than as a time to correct the terms they’re using.
2.To family with 3 different adoption “openness” How are or how do you plan on talking/answering questions such as “Why does birth mom no want to see me?” We are currently dealing with this issue within our family. I think the most important thing is to let your child express their feelings, whatever they may be, and answer things honestly. It is always okay to say, “I don’t know.” Depending on the age of your child I think it is beneficial to discuss the fact that their birth mother loves them, but she might not be able to emotionally handle seeing him or her right now.
3. We have a biological 4 year old and an adopted 2 year old. Our adopted daughter is biracial. What ideas do you have to help her not feel different as she grows up because she will clearly look differently than the rest of the family? Adopt another child of color! Seriously though, if that is not an option for your family then I think the best advice is to look at your environment. Do you live in a culturally diverse area? Do you and your children have friends of color? Are there books and pieces of art in your home that reflect your daughter’s cultural heritage? If not, try to remedy that as best you can. Try to always be positive about the differences within your family and even point out differences between you and your biological child. Help her to form a positive racial identity with the example that you set.
4. I have only one very sad picture of my daughter’s birthmother and I dread the day she sees it. When do you suggest she sees it? Now when she is young (5) or when she is older? What age? She should see it now when you are able to direct the conversation about it easily. We have many pictures of one of our children’s birth mothers, but in one she is holding our son and crying. I think seeing it has helped our son (also 5) understand that the adoption process was not easy for her. It has opened up a dialog for us about how even though she wanted him to be with us, she also wanted him with her and that made her sad. It has also, I think, made him be more open with us about his feelings towards his adoption. We all know adoption involves loss, so acknowledging that can help validate your child’s feelings and let them know that you are there for them.
5. We have a pre-teen daughter. How can we emphasize the importance of waiting to have sex when she knows her birth mom got pregnant at age 16? Both birthparents are very successful and we have an open adoption. We don’t want to say anything that puts a negative spin on her adoption. If your child is having issues warranting counseling and adoption feelings are part of their concern, is it a good idea to seek a special “adoption consoler: or even and adopted counselor? If attachment disorder could be part of the picture should we find an “attachment counselor”
6. We have a precious 12 ½ year old girl, a very open adoption, and our daughter is showing out of the norm disrespect toward her adopted parents- esp. mom. My suggestion is to contact the Post Adoption Department, if this was a Domestic Adoption and to contact the Family Services Department if this was an International Adoption to see if there are services that they can offer before contacting a counselor. They may be able to help you locate a counselor in your area, if needed.
7. I have 2 adopted children. The 3 yr. olds birth mom is very involved and comes to family events. The 6 month olds birth mom will most likely not be involved. In the future how will I explain to the Youngers why her birth mom is not at her birthday party… etc.? This is a hard situation and I know where you are coming from since we have a similar situation in our family. First, I will say that you probably have a few years before it really becomes an issue, but in that time I think it is good to lay the groundwork by mentioning that every adoption is different and help each of your children cherish their own adoption story.
As your younger child gets older and realizes that she is not seeing her birth mother like her sibling, a lot of feelings are likely to come up about each of their adoptions and issues of fairness.(A topic that elementary age kids get very fixated on!) The best thing you can do is allow your daughter to express her feelings, which might be sadness, anger, or frustration, and let her know it is okay to feel these things. As she gets older allow her to decide whether or not she wants to participate in outings/gatherings with her sibling’s birth mother. She may feel angry and not want to see her. That is okay. Accept that this might happen and be as flexible as possible. This is a topic that may come up over and over again, so just be prepared to address it calmly and as honestly as you can.
8. How does the post- adoption serve work for international adoption? Will our sons be able to see all the court documentation form Russian at age 18? Internationally adopted children have full access to their adoption records at Gladney at the age of 18, so any documentation that is in their files at Gladney would be available to them. We recommend that parents share all information about their children’s history and background with them openly at age appropriate levels over time as they grow up. It is best for that information to come from parents than to come from children getting the information on their own when they are adults. We recommend that parents have open conversations with their children about their history so that their background is not perceived as secretive or shameful. There will likely be difficult conversations, questions, and emotions that will come up at different times, and those are opportunities for parents to connect with their children and be present with them as they seek to process and understand their story and identity. It will go a long way in children trusting their parents and feeling secure in their relationship with their parents if they know that their parents have shared all of the information that they have about their background with them.