As adoptive parents you have likely heard that adoption adds an extra layer of complexity as a child grows. But what does that really mean and why does it happen? Even if your family talks about adoption openly and honestly, your child has questions and feelings that come up frequently, as they mature, or when a life event triggers them. Adoption counselor and adoptive mom Judy Stigger, LCSW, explains.
Adoption weaves an additional thread into everything.
Who am I? Why didn’t my mom want me? Was I loved? What is wrong with me? Even if your family talks openly and honestly about adoption, questions and feelings come up frequently for your child as she matures, or when a life event triggers them.
You can easily see how these questions may come up throughout life events. But catching it in the moment is the hard part. Be cognizant of the fact that these questions may come up when something “happens” and that the feelings arise because she’s figuring out if it’s adoption… or not.
Simply growing up can be a trigger for feelings surrounding adoption. As your child’s brain changes, particularly around the age of 8 and again at 12, their ability to understand the ins and outs of adoption changes. They may be able to understand more of their story, or may process the facts they already have differently. This also means their peers have a new understanding. Questions your child has to answer become more sophisticated and teasing can become significantly more hurtful and specific.
As they grow, they may have different abilities than others in their family. A child may be musically or artistically inclined and his parents are not. Perhaps there are learning disabilities now recognized at school. These things can happen regardless of how a family is formed. But for an adopted child, feeling “different” can raise deeper issues of not fitting in or belonging.
As children get older they often start to experience more loss. The death of a relative, a birthparent or even a family pet can trigger emotions related to adoption. Breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend can raise questions around self worth – “What’s wrong with me?” “My birthmom didn’t want me either.”
What to do?
Bring adoption up. Realize that while you are so glad and grateful to have this child through adoption, being adopted might not always feel so great to the child. Naming both the positive and the painful feelings – putting them on the table – lets your child know that what she’s feeling is OK, and it's OK for her to talk to you about it.
She still may not want to talk about it, however, because she doesn’t have the right words to convey the feelings inside, or she doesn’t have it figured out enough herself. Many kids don’t talk to their parents about their feelings surrounding adoption because they don’t want to worry or hurt their parents’ feelings. It’s hard to talk to your mom about your other mom. It can feel disloyal. Consider this – and consider an adoption competent therapist to help.
In my experience, when I put adoption on the table with a tween or teen, they never dismiss it. They may not want to talk about it, but they acknowledge its importance to their feelings – so we should, too.