Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Tough Talk. Crucial Conversations. Difficult Discussions. Call if what you's still not easy!

Your three year old is totally content playing the the sandbox and swings. But as you watch, you wonder how will you ever tell him that his birthmother abandoned him in a public place prior to adoption?

You've been able to avoid questions about your 10 year old's birthmother, but lately, she's been asking a lot of questions.  How do you tell her that birthmother was addicted to drugs?

Your teenager seems to have a really short fuse lately.  Could it be because you told him that he is the only one of his birthmother's children that she placed for adoption?  Maybe telling him wasn't the right thing to do...

Adoption is an amazing experience that comes with some sadness along the way; especially when there are difficult parts to your child's story. Your natural instinct is to shield your child and maintain innocence as long as possible. You try to focus on the happiness he's brought to your family. Is it ever ok to avoid, or just plain bury, sad truths of the past?

Should You Tell All?
"During my 30 years working in the field, I've never seen information an adult adoptee shouldn't know," says Ronny Diamond, an adoption therapist and director of the adoption consultation team at Spence-Chapin, in New York City. But that doesn't mean you tell it all at once.

When considering what information to share, and when, ask yourself: ‘Why don't we talk about this?'" Is it because you think he's not ready to know, or because you're not ready to tell him?
Be sensitive to share information in ways that are appropriate to your child's age, maturity, and understanding. "Children are entitled to information, but that doesn't mean a parent needs to say everything at once," says Diamond. "Parents have the responsibility to make decisions in the child's best interest, including what to share and when and how to share it."
Preschoolers are unable to understand abstract concepts or cultural prejudices. They don't know how babies are made, so they can't make sense of rape/prostitution. Experts disagree as to when older children should be told painful personal information. But no matter how you choose to approach this difficult task, is is important that you tell your child the story of his past at some point. "It's not a parent's job to keep information from a child," says Diamond. "It's the parents' job to help the child make sense of that information." You do that by explaining things in a positive, understandable way, by answering any questions your child asks, and by providing the context, as well as unconditional love and support, to help her begin to make sense of her birth family's actions.

Preschool: Telling the Story!
There are two important parts to sharing adoption information with preschoolers. First, tell the child's story as a story, not as a list of facts. If "Once upon a time..." catches your child's interest - which it probably will - go from there. Just make sure your child understands that, unlike a fairy tale, this story is true.

Second:  no lies. Sometimes it can be tempting to embellish an adoption story. But anything you say may be taken and remembered as fact, so leave the story unaltered. "
Limit negative details at this tender age, too. "You wouldn't explain rape and incest to a six-year-old," says adoption therapist Brenda McCreight. "So why talk about such things in relation to the child's own life?"

Marvleous Middle Years
Around age seven to nine, children make huge leaps cognitively. They understand more abstract concepts and will probably have more questions about their adoption story. Although kids this age seem young and tender,  they're pretty resilient, and this is often an ideal age for sharing or revisiting thorny realities.

Older elementary school kids haven't quite entered the volitile stages of adolescence. They're still talking to you—and listening to you! They're able to process new information about their past before defining their identities as teens
Keep in mind that each child processes information at his own pace. But at this stage, a child can understand the social context of his birthparents adoption decision. Learning about the social conditions that may have lead to infant abandonment, or extreme poverty, drug or alcohol addiction, or prejudice against unwed mothers, can be very important in helping a child try to make sense of his past.
And please-don't forget to balance facts with feelings and speculation. If you are someone comfortable with hard facts, try to ask open-ended, emotional questions. In cases of abandonment, you may say: "I wish we knew more about your birthparents! Does it ever make you mad that we don't?" If a child's biological siblings are being raised by his birthparents, you could say: "I wonder how your life would have been different if your birth family had been able to raise you?"  I would probably end each question with a positive reinforcement of how happy and blessed you feel to have your child as part of your family.
Buck Up and Be the Messenger
In most situations, with most children, adoption experts agree that adoption information - especially the difficult stuff - is best shared by the child's parents. After all, you are the people who love him and he trusts you. Parents may benefit from consulting a therapist for advice on what to say, how to say it, and to otherwise prepare for challenging conversations.  (I know we have!)
Thoughtful discussions throughout childhood will help your child develop compassion for families in difficult circumstances—families like their birth families—without the resources to cope. The goal is not to excuse neglect, abuse, or other hurtful behavior. In fact, it's wise to validate your child's negative feelings. If your child reacts by saying, "I hate my birthparents!",  don't rush into an explanation of why they shouldn't hate them or why they have problems. A gentle "I understand" can work wonders. The rest can come later.
One adoptive mother in the Milwaukee area has always been open with her twin sons about the fact that their parents' alcohol abuse led to their leaving the boys in a burning apartment. She tells her boys that their birthparents must have been very loving when they weren't drinking, because the boys were so affectionate when they joined their adoptive family. "I guess I'm trying to help them see alcohol as the culprit, not their birthparents," says this mom.  What a wise woman!
Ultimately, says Diamond, "We want our children to be able to say, ‘My birthparents did the best they could.  And placing me was the best they could."

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