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Why Talking About Adoption with Children Is Important

Rebecca I Nelson, PhD – Licensed Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychologist rinelson@comcast.net

“Only by moving away from preconceived notions about adoption and entering the world of the adoptees, can researchers [adoption professionals and parents] ever hope to understand their experience and be helpful to them when needed.” (Brodzinsky, 1993) [emphasis mine].

While outcome studies often present mixed or conflicting results regarding the well-being and adjustment of adoptees, it is generally agreed that the multifaceted issues inherent in adoption pose unique challenges.  Adjustment to adoption is a process that is influenced by children’s perceptions of themselves and their families. Self and familial perceptions are also affected by societal messages as well as pre-adoptive history, experiences, and developmental maturity. Incorporating past ambiguous relationships and histories, coming to terms with adoption related losses, reconciling fantasies with facts, and securing a sense of familial belonging are just a few of the complex issues adoptive children encounter. 

Families who talk about adoption openly and non-defensively support positive adjustment in their children. Yet, talking about adoption may not come easily. Feeling unskilled in facilitating adoption related conversation can hinder parents from engaging in important and meaningful dialogue with their children.  Additionally, parents may be unaware of how developmental maturity influences children’s knowledge about adoption and perceptions of themselves as adoptees. 
Middle childhood is often the period when being adopted is first seen as a  problem … realize[s] there’s a flip side to his beloved adoption story - that in order to be “chosen,” he first had to be given away.”(Brodzinsky, 1992)

At what age can a child most benefit from exploration of their adoption status and related adoption issues?  Clinically and empirically based information strongly suggests middle childhood (6 to 12 years) is an appropriate time given greater cognitive capacity, more mature verbal expression, increased self-awareness, and the emerging ability to think abstractly about relationships and ideas. While younger children benefit from familiarity with adoption language spoken in loving terms, latency aged children use emerging abstract thinking and reasoning skills to make logical sense of their world. Newly acquired problem-solving skills are actively applied to all facets of life, including the interpersonal.  Middle childhood is also a time when ambivalent or negative perceptions, feelings, and realities related to loss through adoption may surface and may conflict with the joyful adoption story relayed by parents. 

Prior to middle childhood, children may have easily accepted information about their adoption told to them by parents.  In many situations, information may be little or fragmented given ambiguous or complex pre-adoptive histories. During latency, children can feel a strong desire to make sense of this preliminary information surrounding their origins and subsequent adoption. They may experience themselves as a mystery. Uncovering, understanding, and sharing one’s unique adoption story are parts of the important passage for children coming to terms with the meaning of being adopted.  Putting together the pieces of one's adoption story is a challenging developmental task.

Within the family, qualitative changes in the parent-child relationship also occur during middle childhood as well.  Increased independence, full-day school schedules and greater investment in social relationships and activities can result in less familial communication, especially related to adoption matters.  Thus, the need for supportive adoption dialogue during middle childhood is critical. Sensitively addressing children’s emerging thoughts, feelings, and experiences related to adoption can assist in providing a firm foundation for further healthy identity development and a more secure adoptive family. Open, empathic dialogue within a supportive milieu can facilitate this process. 

Brodzinsky, D.M. & the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, New York, New York (2011). Children’s Understanding of Adoption: Developmental and Clinical Implications. Professional Psychology, Research and Practice, 42(2), 200-07.
Brodzinsky, D.M. Lang, R. and Smith, D.W. (1995). Parenting adopted Children (Ch.8).  Handbook of Parenting. Vol 3: Status and Social Conditions of Parenting (Ed.) Marc H. Bornstein (pp. 209-232).  Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, New Jersey. 
Brodzinsky, D.M., Schecter, D.E., & Braff, A.M. (1985).  Children's knowledge of adoption.  In Thinking About the Family (Ed.) R. Ashmore & D.M. Brodzinsky.  Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum.
Kirk, H.D. Shared fate.  New York: Free Press, 1964.
Nickman, S.L. (1985).  Losses in adoption: The need for dialogue. Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 40, 365-398. 
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children's Bureau (July 2014). Adoptions of Children with Public Child Welfare Agency Involvement by State      FY 2004–FY 2013. https://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb
U.S. Department of State (March 2014). Incoming Adoptions by Country of Origin. U.S. Department of State. http://travel.state.gov/content/dam/aa/pdfs/fy2013_annual_report.pdf

U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (March 2014).  Statistics Branch,  http://www.dhs.gov/yearbook-immigration-statistics
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