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The Tough Cookie’s Guide to Annoying Adoption Questions

C’mon. Didn't your real parents love you enough?

I've wanted to do a post for a while about what parents should do when their child comes home from school or camp or karate and says the kids were bugging them about being adopted.

Even for the child who is the toughest cookie, some of the questions can leave them speechless. Often questions come from other parents, teachers and coaches, stuff like: What happened to your real family? Didn't your real parents love you enough? Don't they want you back? are typical. I know, I know, people say insensitive things all the time (whether you're adopted or not-sometimes knowing, sometimes not knowing they're hitting a nerve). So how best to deal?

I asked Dr. Michele Borba, award-winning author of 23 books and recipient of the National Educator Award to weigh in. She's a regular parent expert on the NBC Today Show as well as on Dr. Phil, The View, CNN Headline News, MSNBC, The Early Show, and others. Her proposal: "Ending School Violence and Student Bullying" (SB1667) was signed into California law in 2002. Her latest book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries* is available now.

Meredith: I know, I know, every mistake is an opportunity to grow and learn, but what is the biggest mistake (in your opinion) parents make when they hear their child is confronted with the question: Why did your parents give you up? What could parents do differently?

Michele: Believe it or not, I think one of the biggest mistakes is that many parents try to shield their child from knowing the truth about their adoption too long. Of course, they 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 your parents give you up" harder for the child to handle and assert. I find that when parents are open and talk about adoption from the beginning and centered at the child's developmental stage and age he is far more secure in handling those tricky questions and in stride and can handle just about any question with a little more ease and security. (And those questions are never easy but kids pick up on who is an easier target.

Meredith: Underlying fear about these questions is a certain "shame" that somehow there is something wrong with being adopted or, really, just being different than the person who is giving the child a tough time. How can this shame be reframed and transcended?

Michele: First, don't keep an adoption "secret" - or try to "hide it" - that behavior only connotes to a child that there should be something to be ashamed of. Yes, there's always an underlying fact 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. The first step to reducing the shame is to normalize it. Reassure your child that his feelings (whatever they may be) and quest for information about his past are normal and that you will do whatever you can to fill in those details.

Meredith: Sometimes parents kind of (unknowingly) transfer or project their fears/shame onto the child. This is at times part of being in a relationship--sometimes you don't realize you're doing it, particularly to you kid. What is the best way for a parent to correct this?

Michele: One secret of effective parenting is to push our pause button every so often and take a reality check on how our relationship is going with our kids. (Ah the agony of the honest self-appraisal!) We seem to be on hyper-drive these days—doing, doing, doing and going, going, going. The frantic pace can make us forget to tune into those every day parenting moments-those little things we say and do that can have such lasting influence on our children. One way to stop or at least be more conscious of what we're projecting is for parents to adopt a simple, little nightly ritual with a post it attached to our bathroom sink to help remind us. The simple ritual: Asking ourselves one question each night: "What did my child catch from my behavior today? Did my words and deeds strengthen her beliefs in herself and help her cope with life?"

Meredith: How should a parent help a child cope with questions like: Are you adopted? What happened to your real family? Didn't your real parents love you enough? Don't they want you back? etc. and perhaps, also addressing for different age groups of kids.

Michele: Let's face it, kids can be cruel (and seem to be getting crueler these days). So one of the best things parents can do is arm their adopted child with vocabulary or a couple great comeback lines so they're ready for those guaranteed insensitive questions. The trick is for the parent to anticipate what kind of questions their child may be asked. Then help the child master the "right" delivery of the line through rehearsal. (It's usually not what the child says, but how you say it that's key to success). Stress that the child does not have to give out any information he is not comfortable giving. And a simple yes or no is just fine. (By the way, questions kids ask about adoption are hopefully the child has already discussed with the parent. The adopted child wants to know why was I adopted...what happened to my real family....didn't my mom love me enough and want me back...). If the parent has already answered the child's queries he will be more confident answering his peers. A few:

"Are you adopted?"
Answer is 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."

Meredith: Finally, is the question of adoption sometimes really no different than any other personal issue for a child? In other words, might it be okay to simply respond to the question of adoption "it's none of your business!"

Michele: Yep, I'm all in favor of a tactful: "It's none of your business." In fact, 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. We have all the information we need." Then say no more and protect your child.

[*The following chapters that will be helpful for more info on this subject (describes research, age by stage expectations and solutions); Adopted, New Baby, Angry, Dependent, Fearful, Separation Anxiety, Stressed, Bullied, Teased.]

Photos: Courtesy of Michele Borba

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