Battle Adoptive Family Distress From Day One

challenging communication and distress in adoptive families
Minimize distress + anxiety with an open communication journey—immediately

I recently read about new research that supported what I’ve known intuitively since becoming an adoptive parent: Children who learn that they are adopted later than three years old experience an increased level of emotional distress and more overall life dissatisfaction than children who learn by the time they are three. I’m repeating this only because of its significance: by time they are three years old; not during the year that they’re three or older, but between their birth and through age two. More distress occurs the older the child discovers that they’re adopted. Respondents in the study shared in their narrative accounts that the betrayal they felt was a significant factor that added to their distress, and the findings also emphasize how secrecy and lies in adoption become destructive to the relationships involved. Delaying Adoption Disclosure: A Survey of Late Discovery Adoptees, first published May 14, 2019, Journal of Family issues.

For their own emotional well-being, adopted children need to be informed of their roots as early as possible, and long before they have the cognitive ability to fully process the meaning of their adoption. The goal would be for the child to be able to think back and have a recollection of always knowing their life story from the time of their first memories; and, it is as common place for the child to remember their parents talking with them about their adoption as, for example, about their love of soccer. The communication regarding their life story may start out in general terms. As the child develops and is better able to comprehend the intricacies of their life experience, more detail needs to be filled in to the best of the adoptive parents’ knowledge. Avoiding this important function of adoptive parenting will only serve to undermine and potentially harm the parent’s relationship with their child.

Through the years. I have seen hundreds of adoptive families during various stages of their adopted child’s development that do not deeply communicate about the wounds associated with adoption, in the way that the child desperately needs in order to feel understood and connected. They present for therapy for a myriad of reasons, typically none of which the family believes at the time center around adoption issues. Lovingly and well-intentioned, when asked about communicating about the challenging aspects of adoption with their child, many parents tend to respond by explaining that their child doesn’t bring up questions or issues about their adoption, or they feel their child simply doesn’t think about their adoption, it’s somehow insignificant in their present life, and/or they certainly don’t want to cause their child pain. Usually the underlying issue when further explored is either the parent’s lack of understanding of the psychological/emotional needs of adopted children, denial of the challenges involved with adoption for their own self-preservation, or general discomfort and anxiety around how to communicate about challenging and emotionally painful issues.

Honestly, as an adopted parent, I get it. Can’t we just wipe away the negative parts of adoption and pretend that our child’s life began the day we were united as a family? What adoptive parent in their right mind wants to talk about the fact that their child experienced a significant loss at birth or sometime later when the focus can be on the beauty and joy of the adoptive family? Who wants to broach those difficult, challenging, and painful conversations about the not-so-pleasant details and early history, especially if the child is not initiating the conversation and seems fine with their adoption?

None of us do, but literally if we don’t, we as their parents eventually cause our children more distress in their lives. We put our own relationship with our child at risk as potentially or eventually being seen by our child as untrustworthy with a lack of understanding and empathy of their needs.

Our children have suffered a profound loss, one that we as adoptive parents are not responsible for nor contributed to. One that we, with all of our might and determination, are not able to take away or protect them from. The quicker we realize that, come to terms and accept it, the better position we put ourselves in to help our child cope and build lifelong emotionally close, authentic relationships—not only with us but with others.

Points to ponder in communicating to minimize distress:

  1. How are adoptive children able to formulate and communicate their questions or concerns if there is no context or space in which to bring up the issues?
  2. Is there such a thing as communicating perfectly or waiting for the perfect moment? Isn’t it better to just start talking then not communicate at all? Communication about hard issues is messy; get used to and comfortable with that idea.
  3. Talking to your adopted child when they are very young and unable to fully grasp the significance of the losses involved gives you time to practice how and ways in which to explain their story. You will set the important stage of your child being able to trust and communicate with you—not only about their adoption, but likely about other significant issues as well.
  4. Natural opportunities and everyday moments consistently present themselves in which to bring up adoption issues with your child. Having this on your radar will help you recognize and utilize them.

Additional resources on how to communicate with children regarding adoption issues + distress:

Consistent communication from the very day the adoptive family is united is key; and ideally before the child is three, yet with the understanding that it is never too late to start.  We can help, either in a group setting in our future workshops, or contact us in our private practice(s) through “our journey” page.

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