your child's birthmother

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Have you thought of *your* child's birthmother? How do you explain abandonment to your internationally adopted child?

Feature Articles in the June/July 2001 Issue:
Volume 3 Number 6

Five Simple Guidelines to Help Your Children Understand Their Friends in Adoptive Families

Jesse slammed the car door, swung his backpack over his shoulder, and waved good-bye to his mother. As he headed toward the crowd of kids lining up on the playground, he passed Marta, a girl in his class.

"Hey, Jesse!" she called out. "Is that your mother who drove you to school? Why don't you look like her? Are you adopted?

Families formed through adoption are on the increase in the United States. The numbers of adopted individuals in the country are estimated to be as high as five million. A key survey completed by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in 1997 found that 6 in 10 Americans have had personal experience with adoption, i.e., that the person completing the survey, or a close friend, was an adoptee, an adoptive parent, or had placed a child for adoption.

It is therefore quite likely that most children will come into contact with adopted children and their families... as friends, neighbors, and classmates. Like most children, they will quite naturally want to understand why some children have been adopted.

For many parents, adoption turns out to be somewhat challenging to explain. Adoption is, after all, about adult decisions. Most children are uncomfortable, or even upset, when they learn that not all parents are able to raise their children, and they may worry that it will happen to them.

When parents don't explain adoption to their children, it is often the adoptees themselves who are asked about it. Sometimes, those questions are very difficult to answer, such as these commonly-heard queries:

Why were you adopted?

Where is your real mother?

Is your brother your REAL brother?

Adoptive parents are usually quite pleased to have the opportunity to provide guidance to their friends on how to talk about adoption. Actually, "pleased" is probably an understatement. More likely, they feel intense gratitude. This is because most adoptive parents today care a great deal about sending the message to their children that being part of an adoptive family is a positive thing. To accomplish this, most adoptive parents try to learn how to effectively and appropriately communicate with their children about adoption. They strive to create an atmosphere in their families where adoption is openly discussed and questions are welcomed.

If non-adopted children are taught to understand adoption, that understanding would be a gift for adopted children.

Following are five basic guidelines on the most important information your children will need to understand adoption. Included are some facts that may be useful as you as you speak with your children.

Adoptive families are just one of many different kinds of families.

Adoption is certainly a different way to build a family, and it can most easily be explained in the context of the many different kinds of families that exist today. Sometimes children equate "being different" with being bad. Parents can normalize adoptive families by matter-of-factly pointing out other kinds of families: single parent families, blended or step families, foster families, families living with extended relatives, families with only one child, families with many children, families with two parents of the same sex, and of course, adoptive families.

Parents can also explain that while adoption means that children entered the family in a different way than by being born into the family, being in a family is the same, that in adoptive families parents and children love each other deeply and the family is permanent.

Children who have been adopted were born to other parents, called birth parents.

For children who are not adopted, one of the most confusing aspects about adoption is the concept of birthparents. They may easily accept that they have friends being raised by aunts, grandparents, or stepfathers. However, children seem to require more explanation when the term mother and father are being used with several people, or when they can see that their friends are calling someone mother and father who clearly did not give birth to them.

The language that is used to explain adoption to children can help make it clear and simple. Some years ago, several terms were identified within the adoption community to help adoptive parents talk with their children in a positive, realistic light. The term birthparent (birthmother, birthfather) is used to refer to children's biological parents, and parent (mother, father) is used to refer to adoptive parents.

Children also may be interested to know that their friends were born to birth parents who may live anywhere in the United States, or in other countries all over the world. (Many adoptions today are from China, Russia, VietNam, Latin America, and East Europe.) These children may be of a different race from their adoptive parents. Children may be adopted at a range of different ages ? from infants adopted at birth or shortly thereafter to those adopted as adolescents. Some children may have lived with their birthfamilies, or in foster care, or orphanages before being adopted by their parents.

It is also important for children to know that especially in domestic adoptions (adoptions of children born in the U.S.), their friends may have no contact with their birthparents, but others may, in fact, know and have visits with their birthparents. Each family's relationship with the birthparents is unique, not better or worse than any other adoptive family.

Adoptees have many feelings about being part of an adoptive family. The attitudes of other people (especially their friends and classmates) can influence how they feel about themselves as adoptees.

Through research and information shared by adult adoptees, we now know that it is quite normal for adopted children to have a range of feelings relating to their adoption. These feelings will change and develop as they grow. Double Dip Feelings: Stories to Help Children Understand Emotions, by Barbara S. Cain is a book written for all children to help them understand how a person can have two opposite feelings about a situation at the same time. It is an ideal term to help adoptees understand themselves.

The same concept can help non-adopted children to understand that while their friends love their families the same as they do, adoptees may also feel sad sometimes about not being raised by their birthparents. Young adoptees soon learn that most children in the world live with parents who gave birth to them, and that can make them feel different. Thus, you can help your child to understand that the way he speaks to his friend about adoption can make his friend feel bad about being adopted.

Parents can talk with their children about what it means to be a mother and father?what mothers and fathers do for their children?to help their children see how very realtheir friend's parents are!

If you are also alert for messages from the media, books, and television that send either inaccurate or negative information about adoption, you can point out the misinformation to your child. For example, the movie, Stuart Little, strongly suggests that adoptive parents return their children to birthparents if the birthparents want them back. As a parent viewing this movie with her child, you could say, "Yes, I really enjoyed the movie, but I'm concerned that something they showed here was a mistake.When parents adopt children, it is forever.

People need to respect the privacy of each child's unique adoption story.

Parents can tell their children that some adoptees like to share their adoption stories (or parts of their stories) with others, especially trusted friends, but others do not. Parents can teach their children that it is all right for them to ask their friends general questions about adoption, such as "When were you adopted?" "Where did you come from?" "Do you celebrate the day you were adopted in a special way?" Their friends may still choose not to answer, but these questions are OK.

What isnever appropriateis to ask adopteesspecific questions about their birthparents and the reasons they were placed for adoption, unless the adoptee initiates the discussion. It is terribly important to allow adoptees to be in control of the information they choose to share about their story. If the adoptee states that they do not wish to talk any more about adoption, or changes the subject, your child should follow that lead. Some children have difficulty knowing how much information to share about their adoption story, and can put themselves in a position where portions of their story begin to fascinate their friends. If you hear this happening, please step in and move the conversation on to a more general focus.

Many children in open adoptions consider their birthparents as extended family members and may be quite comfortable talking about them. Some children have photographs or other items received from birthparents which they may choose to share with their friends. Internationally adopted children usually enjoy talking about or sharing belongings related to their birth country.

A note about children in foster care, whose stories, like those of some adoptees, may involve difficult situations at home. You can explain that foster families take care of children who need a family other than their birthfamily for a limited time. However, it is not appropriate to ask children why they are in foster care.

Your children may have fears about adoption, especially when they have little or no understanding of it.

School-age children tend to view themselves as the center of the universe. One commonly hears how children of divorce may blame themselves for the break-up of their parents' marriage. Adopted children may think for a while that they caused their birthparents to place them for adoption. Your children may wonder about this, too, and they may also worry that you will send them away to another home.

All children need to know that the reasons for placing a child for adoption lie solely with the birthparents and have nothing to do with the behavior of the child. Parents can reassure them that this will never happen to them and that the adoptee did not cause this to happen. They can explain that there are a number of reasons why birthparents cannot raise their children, such as being too poor to provide for them or not being ready or able to care for any child at that time in their lives.

Messages that children receive either from adult biases and books and stories may further exacerbate their fears. Negative stories about evil stepmothers, such as those in the stories of Cinderella and Snow White, suggest that mothers raising children they did not give birth to are more likely to reject and abuse their children. Children, and some adults, may have great difficulty with parents who place their children for adoption, thinking they are not good people. Today, we are much more aware of how painful it can be for birthparents to place their children, and how they love them very much but know it is the best choice for their children.

There are a number of tools to help parents provide their children with accurate and positive information about what it means to be part of an adoptive family. There are several good books that you can share with your children which normalize adoption as one way to build families. (See sidebar.) Parents can point out some of the many successful adoptees who have contributed to our world. They can also look for current events or positive newspaper stories about adoption. Every year, the newspaper will carry a story in November, which is National Adoption Month, about multiple adoption finalizations, including pictures of happy families in court.

Most importantly, parents can talk about adoption and provide informative, positive statements that will help their children understand and accept it as a wonderful way to build families.


Freudberg, Judy and Geiss, Tony. Susan and Gordon Adopt a Baby, 1992, ages 2-6.

Katz, Karen. Over the Moon: An Adoption Tale, 1997, ages 2-7.

Keller, Holly. Horace, 1991, ages 2-8.

Kroll, Virginia. Beginnings: How Families Come to Be, 1993, ages 4-8.

Pellegrini, Nina. Families are Different, 1991, ages 4-8.

Rogers, Fred. Let's Talk About It: Adoption, 1995, ages 4-6.

Schwartz, Perry. Carolyn's Story: A Book About an Adopted Girl, 1996, ages 6-10.

Simon, Norma. All Kinds of Families, 1976, ages 2-8.

Taheri, Michael and Orr, James. Look Who's Adopted!, 1997, ages 4-8.

All prices include shipping. Please allow 3-4 weeks for delivery.

Cover Stories

Moms On A Mission By Kim Lively

Five Simple Guidelines By Marilyn Schoettle

Cultural Lessions Revisited By Carolyn F. Daniel

Feature stories

A Bonus Adoption

By Dawn Nowakoski

Spirit Connects Us All

By Laurie Stephens

Steps in the Matching Dance

By Kathleen Looser

Bringing Home Justina

By Dennis Donoghue

Grief and Loss

By Susan M. Ward

Yes, You Can Nurse Your Adopted Baby

By Ann Sutherlan

Creating My Destiny

By Kelly Carmody

Forever Yours

By Katherine Sanders

Loving Yulia...and Waiting

By Janet Wagner-Panella

It's Our Health

By Lani Tolman

Womb, Heart, Self The Primal Journey Home

By Marianne Bach

The Journey to Journey

By Rebecca Patton Falco

My Perfect Child

By Marla Garr

Stones in the Road

By H. D. Timmons


By Meredith Grodon Resnick

Enduring the Wait

By Mary Roberts Clark

The Gorilla on the Bed

By Sam Minner

Developing Language

By Ann Martin Bowler

To Romania and Back in 10 Lessons

By Patricia F. Hoopes, M.S.W., L.I.C.S.W

A Tribute

By Kathryn Carr

Bright Eyes

By Pam Mitchell

The Robert's Trilogy

By Cindy Robert


Editor's Thread

News Briefs



Resource Reviews

Your Guide to the Issues
and Answers Surrounding
International & Domestic Adoption!

Written by Adoptive Parents, Adoptees and Professionals in the Fields of Medicine, Education, Law, Social Work, Child Development and International and Domestic Adoption.

Six Informative Issues at the
Low Introductory Price of
$21 ? 2001 Community Internet Services. All rights reserved.

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