Arming adopted kids with answers to those sometimes insensitive “Where’s your real mom?” “Didn’t your dad love you?” type queries
For every parent who has adopted a child, I honor you. Adopting parents are a special breed and research proves it.
Studies show that most parents who adopt are highly motivated, better educated, and better off financially than parents who do not adopt.
Adopting parents are also more likely to get help from mental health professionals for their adopted child when behavioral problems arise.
But there are unique challenges in parenting an adopted or foster child, of course.
Helping Adopted Kids Handle Tricky Questions
Over the years I’ve worked with hundreds of parents who adopt, grandparents who assume full custodial care, foster parents who take with temporary custody. I’ve also worked with parents with adopted children who suffer from attachment disorders. I’ve learned much from those parents as well as the special challenges they face.
One of the big concerns from adopted parents is: “How do I help my child cope with those insensitive questions from peers and adults?”. You know the ones:
You’re ADOPTED!!!! Why?
Where are your real parents?
Didn’t your real parents love you?
Are you ever going back to your real family?
**Sigh!** The reality is some folks are not only thoughtless but also cruel. The more we can help our children be prepared for those queries with responses the better. Here are tips to help you through some of those challenges and equip your kids with answers to those tactless queries.
Start Your “Adoption Chats” Early
Begin using the term “adoption” during your child’s toddler and preschool years to help you feel more at ease.
Look for natural ways to bring up the topic such as a friend who is pregnant, a book, or a program on television or movie about adoption.
One of the biggest mistakes many parents make is trying to shield their child from knowing the truth about their adoption too long. Of course, parents do so out of love, but waiting until “the best time” or “when he’s later and can understand” actually makes those tougher questions like “Why did you parents give you up?” harder for the child to handle as well as learn to assert themselves to their peers’ tactless queries.
Create an Open-Door Policy
Peter L. Benson, lead researcher of one of the largest studies on adoptees says that, “Quiet, open communication about adoption seems to be the key” to helping kids thrive and take their adoption in stride.
Your child needs to know he can come to you in ease and comfort with any question and at any time.
Your child always needs to hear information about his past from you told in a context of love and commitment.
Reassure your child that his feelings-whatever they may be–and quest for information about his past are normal.
Stress that you will do whatever you can to fill in those details. And thank your child for asking!
That kind of calm, reassuring helpfulness – letting the child know you’re “there” anytime and there’s nothing he should ever feel uncomfortable about asking–helps kids keep coming to you for those crucial talks and clarifications.
Sometimes the right book can help open the dialogue. “Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born” by Jamie Lee Curtis or “Over the Moon” by Karen Katz are wonderful, but there are dozens more. Find books that matches your views, your situation your child.
Stick to What Was Asked
While you should be honest, only give your child the information he needs to know at the time he asks. Too much information is overwhelming for a child.
Remember, this is an ongoing conversation, instead of a one-time marathon.
Keep in mind that your answers will often be the same ones your child will use to respond to peer queries. Your answer can be a model he can use later to repeat to classmates or nosy grown-ups.
Be Age Appropriate
Use words and language that are suitable to your child’s age and ability to understand. Do know that leaving out certain facts due to the age of your child is okay. You can always add more information later.
Keep Painful Stuff in the Closet
Painful details about your child’s past (such as sexual and physical abuse, a parent’s criminal background, the birth mother’s alcoholism or drug-addiction or that the pregnancy was caused by rape) should be kept confidential. Besides you and your parenting partner, only the child’s doctor or mental health professional need to know those details for now.
If anyone asks (like a nosy relative or friend) simply say: “When Kevin is old enough he can choose to share about his past. He has all the information he needs now.”
Then say no more and protect your child.
Every once in a while a: “It’s none of your business” may be just fine as your response to a rude adult.
Tell your child he can always say, “I don’t know. Ask my Mom.”
Or “If I don’t want to know, why should you?”
Don’t Hide It from Your Child
Keeping the adoption “secret” – or trying to “hide it” from a child – only connotes to a child that there was something to be ashamed of when he does find out.
The central fear of adopted children is that they will be “given up” again.
Your child needs assurance–both now and forever—that your relationship is permanent.
“Yep, my parents are stuck with me forever” is a fine peer response. And “Sorry, you’re stuck with me forever,” is a glorious parent response to your child.
Develop Comebacks for Insensitive Questions
Let’s face it, kids (and adults!) can be cruel. One of the best things parents can do is arm adopted kids with the right vocabulary or a couple great comeback lines, so they’re ready for those guaranteed insensitive peer queries.
The trick is to anticipate what kind of questions may be asked, then help the child master the “right” delivery of the line through rehearsal.
Stress that the child does not have to give out any information he is not comfortable giving.
A simple “yes” or “no” is just fine sometimes.
Here are a few of the tougher questions about adoption and possible answers:
- “Are you adopted?”: Answer: A simple, “Yes.” Tell your child lengthy information is not required. Just a simple “yes” or “no” and moving on is just fine.
- “What happened to your real family?”: Answer: “You mean my biological parents? They live in Korea.”
- “Didn’t your real parents love you enough?”: Answer: “They loved me so much they wanted me to have parents who could take care of me. I’m really lucky.”
- “How much did you cost?,” “Did your real mother have AIDS or something?” “Why did your parents give you up?” The answer to any rude question (Oh the questions kids can ask! Adults can be far worse, so be prepared!) is simple: Tell your child to smile and say, “That’s personal,” and then move on.
Stress that some folks just lack a “tactful gene” so anything your child does not feel comfortable about does not deserve an answer. Emphasize that you’ll back your child up!
The trick for answering those really insensitive questions is to give a “That’s personal” type of an answer from the get-go.
You may have to practice the delivery again and again with your child until he or she can pull it off! Rehearsal helps!
These type of questions are hopefully ones your child has already discussed with you. The adopted child typically wants to know anyway these answers so be prepared:
Why was I adopted?
What happened to my real family?
Didn’t my mom love me enough and want me back?
Why (and how) did you choose me?
If the parent has already answered those queries, the child will be more confident answering his peers. Remember, the child takes his cues from you.
Adopted Kids Turn Out Just Fine!
One of largest studies ever conducted on adoption was conducted by the Search Institute and is called “Growing Up Adopted.”
The study included over 880 adolescents who were adopted as infants.
What’s more, 55 percent of the adopted teens reported high self-esteem and self-understanding compared with 45 percent of those teens not adopted.
Their acceptance about their adoption was reflected in their response to the question: “Which of the four different ways young people might feel about adopted is most like you?”
Here are their responses:
68 percent: “Being adopted has always been easy for me.”
15 percent: “Being adopted used to be hard for me, but now it’s easier.”
12 percent: “Being adopted used to be easier for me, but now it’s harder.”
5 percent: “Being adopted has always been hard for me.”
This research should put your mind a bit more at ease if you’ve ever had that gnawing concern as to how adoptees turn out.
Remember all kids need loving, safe homes and that’s what you’re providing.
All the best to you and your child!
Dr. Michele Borba, Parenting Expert
This blog was adapted from The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. Please respect the copyright. Chapters that may be helpful about this issue are: Adopted, New Baby, Angry, Dependent, Fearful, Separation Anxiety, Stressed, Bullied, Teased.
For more parenting solutions, refer to my blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check
Follow me on twitter, @MicheleBorba.
Resources for this Blog:
A. Gardner, “Adopted Children at Slightly Higher Mental Health Risk,” U.S. News & World Report, Aug. 5, 2008.
Rutgers University professor emeritus David Brodzinsky: M. Trudeau, “Adopted Teens Face Higher Risk for ADHD,” Oct. 4, 2008, NPR.
C. Wetzstein, “Verdict on Teens Adopted at Birth: The Kids Are Alright,” Aug. 8, 1994. News World Communications, Inc. Retrieved Oct 5, 2008:
D.M. Brodzinsky, L.S. Singer, and A.M. Braff, “Children’s Understanding of Adoption,” Child Development 55 (June 1984); 869-878.
P. L. Benson, A. R. Sharma, and E.C. Roehlkepartain, Growing Up Adopted: A Portrait of Adolescents and Their Families (Minneapolis: Search Institute, June 1994), 3-4.