As an adoptive parent, here’s my main goal:
Try not to screw it up.
When the kids first arrived, I read every parenting or adoption book I could find.
Intuitive and logical strategies sparked implosion.
Counting (“be in your seat by the time I say three…”) invited blank stares.
Time-out sent them into screaming fits. For hours.
Hubby and I tried it all: positive rewards, negative consequences, ignoring, praising, celebrating, whispering, raised voices…if a book or counselor suggested an idea, we attempted it.
The problem with using conventional child-rearing tactics in an adoptive or foster situation:
when children lose family, not much else matters.
Children of loss, trauma and neglect, our kids needed more than we—or the books—could provide.
I wanted to know that we weren’t alone. That I wasn’t crazy. That maybe someday we’d see positive results.
Three years after the kids came to live with us, I found an online group of now-adult adoptees willing to share their experience and advice.
And learned we aren’t alone.
That I’m not crazy (much). And thanks in part to their support and advice, the kids have made great progress.
Now, my central goal is for Hypervigilant.org to be a resource for other adoptive parents who feel alone and overwhelmed. To pay forward what I’ve learned. To bring hope.
The adoptee group’s input has been an incredible gift to our family. I asked for their best advice to adoptive parents. They responded enthusiastically.
Here, in my words and theirs, are the first five things you should know:
1. Be open about the adoption from the beginning.
“Surprising” your child with the knowledge they’re adopted can cause lifelong traumatic repercussions. Allow your child to grow up aware of the adoption. Don’t be afraid of their questions. Hearing your child shout, “you’re not my real mom!” is exponentially better than hearing your sobbing teen whisper, “you lied to me all this time?”
In our family, the kids came to us at 5 & 7 and know they’re adopted. However, our friend adopted her son (the same age as our oldest) at birth. He is still unaware. How will he feel, realizing that everyone he’s known since infancy has been part of the deception? Telling him from the beginning would have been so much better.
RB: It’s best to be completely open about it from the start. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know that I was adopted, and I even took it somewhat as a source of pride because it made me feel unique.
TT: The child should be told about their adoption, in age-appropriate ways, right from the start. I can’t remember not knowing. It was just another part of my life story. Not ignored, not overemphasized, just a fact. My Mom told me everything she knew about my Bio’s the year I graduated high school. Just give the child the facts. Don’t discourage the child from searching, don’t force them to search if they don’t want to. In my case, I had zero interest, yet my Mom kept bringing it up. It wasn’t til my 40’s that I had any curiosity at all.
DOMI: The two “rules” (and I put that in quotation marks because I believe in the importance of context and every rule should have exceptions) I think adoptive parents should follow are these:
1) Be open about adoption with adoptees right from the beginning. It saves a nasty shock later.
2) Act as a normal family would. Do not make a big deal of the adoption or this perceived loss. Let the kid decide if they feel a loss. If you fill a kid’s head with how awful it must be to be them, their life will feel awful. They’ll begin to pine for something they don’t even really want or need because they were told they are experiencing a loss.
2. Ask for a full medical history.
We have some, but not all, of our children’s medical history. I wish we’d pushed the social worker harder to get a full family history. If you’re in the beginning stages, get as much information as you can.
Just before the adoption, social services sent me the kids’ full medical files…18 months after I first requested the paperwork. I read every page and found that our son was born with a heart defect requiring surgery. I found a record of one check-up at six months, then…nothing. I called the cardiac office.
“We’ve been trying to track him down. I’m so glad you called,” the office manager said. After an EKG to confirm, they scheduled his surgery.
“This murmur is so quiet, your pediatrician would have never heard it. You probably saved his life,” the surgeon said, after he closed a 3-centimeter hole in our boy’s heart.
Get all the records. Read every page. Ask the doctor about anything that doesn’t seem right.
STEVEN: Help me get my family medical history. This should be a no-brainer. And help me revisit and update it every few years, because it’s not enough to know what a teenage girl wrote down at the maternity home 20-30 years ago. Even if she knew her family’s medical history, and my father’s family medical history, it’s certainly changed since then.
3. Ensure due diligence.
Be sure you’re receiving true information. If something doesn’t seem right, ask questions. We’d all like to assume social workers and agencies are ethical. Unfortunately, stories of coerced birth mothers and baby-selling abound. Be sure to use a reputable agency. Double-check everything.
DD: Prospective adopters would do well to respect the child’s family, history, and roots and identity. At a minimum, verify and ensure that what the agency or whoever tells you is actually true.
4. Allow your child to own the story.
Everyone should be in control of sharing their own narrative. Sure, we’re all in this together and we have a part in the story, but it’s mainly their story. We have our side of it, but the story didn’t begin with us.
Let them choose when and where to tell the story.
We also may have to guide them regarding times NOT to tell the story. Our girl craves attention and shares gritty details indiscriminately with new acquaintances to get attention. It’s still her choice, but we encourage her to wait until she knows her friends well.
MARCUS: I was adopted at birth in closed adoption. I am fortunate to have great parents. One thing they did that I really appreciated was allowing my adoption story to be mine.
I am a different race than my parents, so it was always obvious that I was adopted, but my parents never made a big deal about me being adopted. If I wanted to talk about it, they were all ears. They left it up to me to decided who I wanted to share my story with from the time I was able to talk. It wasn’t a secret, but they made it clear that it wasn’t their story to tell. It was mine.
PG: Particularly with older children who have memories of the natural families, allow them to honour their natural families and own their own story. (We use Darla Henry’s 3-5-7 model in my job. I don’t know about long term success with it but in the short term it’s really helped many of the kids I worked with get to know why they are where they are, get answers to questions adults often shelter them from and gives them permission to feel however they want to about their birth families).
5. If possible, give your child origin information.
“Who am I?” is the central question we must all answer. Knowing where you come from aids in determining who you are, your identity.
Our daughter constantly asks questions about her origins. We share what we can, like “even though your grandparents couldn’t take care of you, I know they loved you. The social worker said your Nana is happy you have a good family.”
Unfortunately, because the biological family may be dangerous, I’m not able to share many of the details she seeks. However, we plan to provide full disclosure of all the information we have when the kids turn 18. It’s their life and they deserve to make choices about contacting family. But for now, we protect them.
RUBY: Growing up, I wish I had known more about my genealogy, but I also don’t know if I would have been okay with an open adoption…I think it would be confusing.
RB: Do not withhold information from your kids. I always felt I had the right to know anything and everything my parents knew about my biological family, yet over the years my questions were met with vague answers or they would simply say they didn’t know…I thought they were being honest and really didn’t know the answers to all my questions.
Then my aunt got a little drunk at a family reunion and blabbed a bunch of stuff about me and my sister’s biological family (who is also adopted but from a separate family). As you can imagine this opened up a total sh** storm of animosity between us and my parents. Now as a result my sister is still dealing with tons of issues regarding the secrecy of the whole thing.
The bottom line is if your adoptive kid has questions, and you know the answers to those questions, it’s better for both of you as well as the overall health of your family to tell them when they ask instead of having it blow up in everyone’s faces later on. After all, it’s an integral part of who we are, and staying silent on the matter won’t make it magically go away.
PEPA: Something a lot of adopted kids miss out on is the stories from the time leading up to their birth. One great memory I have: in 5th grade my birth mother sent me a complete family history, including a tree going back to the 1600’s and tons of old pictures. Almost any school at one point or another has a family tree project and before then they were difficult.
On the other hand, I only have this information now because my adopted mom was amazing about putting her own ego aside and letting me foster a relationship with my birth mother.
Every Christmas and Birthday without fail my mom amidst all the chaos set aside time to see “Cassie,” as I call my birth mom. My mom has also been incredibly supportive of my process with a therapist in adulthood to put words to the previously nonverbal feelings I have about my adoption.
She’s there for me every time reaching out to my birth mother is disappointing without forcing the whole issue to be about herself and how she always tried to be a good mother.
I underlined a few things in that last note from Pepa. Her words are a beautiful summary.
This is not a “To Do” list with boxes to check as “Proof I’m an Awesome Parent,” but instead is a reminder. A few specific acts can lead our children to hope.
Our job as parents is to support our children, to put their needs above our own, to be the unshakable ballast through the greatest storms of their lives.
Thanks to the honest feedback of my adopted friends, we have a better chance of getting this right.
Stay tuned for more tips from some incredible adoptees. Feel free to drop by anytime! Hypervigilant.org