As Seen on TV: What's Real?
Adoption storylines have become very popular on TV these days. On Glee, a birth mom is pretending to change her image and hoping to somehow reclaim custody of the child she placed for adoption. On Parenthood, a couple who has been waiting to adopt wants to “ask the coffee girl if they can buy her baby;” and on Once Upon a Time, the birth mom is portrayed as having “tossed her son away” and the son believes his adoptive mom has only “pretended to love him.”
Adoption Therapist Dori Fujii, MSW, LCSW, offers advice to adoptive families on how to cope with what is often offensive or outrageous in such adoption storylines and how to use the situation as an opportunity to support your child, and adoption in general, through education and advocacy.
Television often sends the wrong message. Use this hair color and everyone will think you’re beautiful. Drive this car and everyone is going to love you. Buy this game and you’ll have a lot of friends. We’re used to discounting the myriad advertising messages we and our children are bombarded with on a daily basis. You’ve certainly had plenty of opportunities to explain to your children that no matter what the commercial’s message or how often it airs, they really don’t need every single Barbie accessory or Wii game.
But when the message on TV touches on something so fundamental to your family as adoption, and when that message is so inaccurate or outrageously misleading, it can leave you in shock. How could anyone portray adoption in that light? Why did those characters use that awful language? It’s maddening for sure and may leave you feeling paralyzed – how do you react? What do you say to your child after seeing this? What do you do???
You certainly have every right to feel outraged and to express this in letters to the TV stations responsible for the offending programming. There are also some petitions going around that you may want to sign. But what else can you do to help your family and your child?
This is a great opportunity to create a teachable moment. While frustrating and concerning, these storylines provide a good framework for discussion. Whether your child asks you about it or not, they are likely to have questions about their adoption story and about their birth family. Even if they have a relationship with their birthparents, there is likely some aspect they have always wondered about. Talking about the TV families is a good way to open a discussion on a topic your son or daughter may be struggling with. You might start with “Wow, people really don’t understand how adoption works, do they?” A conversation about their specific story that contrasts to the fictional TV story may elicit more insights from them or more questions.
If adoption is something you discuss on a regular basis, this can be used as a way to continue your conversation, or reinforce concepts. The storylines in these recent shows are made to elicit feelings of belonging and identity. Be sensitive to those topics. Watching the shows together may bring out new feelings or just more questions.
How you talk about birthparents depends on your child’s particular situation and their developmental age. Remind them that their birthmom didn’t toss them away. She made a difficult, loving decision and a plan to make sure they were taken care of in a way she didn’t feel she could. Explain that adoption is a commitment of the heart that is also supported by the law. At the same time that their birthparents made a decision to make a plan for them, you made a commitment to open your hearts to them forever. And together, you made the commitment to your child’s future a legal action.
How you discuss that legal action will depend on your child’s age. It may be as simple as explaining that there are rules and people get in trouble if they try to break the rules. For older children you can explain that adoption is a legally binding agreement that no one can break even if TV says they can.
In the Community
As you likely have already discovered, being an adoptive parent can bring with it the opportunity to educate and advocate on the topic. Many people have myths and misperceptions about adoption. You can use these misguided storylines to further educate the people in your community, as well as your child’s teacher and classmates, with the facts.
Show them how adoption works in real life. Provide adoption education at school. If your child’s classmates have a better understanding of the realities of adoption, they may ask fewer questions.
If you'd like to discuss your family's specific situation with one of our therapists, we would be happy to help.