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Talking about the Hard Truths, part 3

November 12, 2012

This is part 3 in the series “Talking about the Hard Truths of Adoption.” For Part 1, CLICK HERE. For Part 2, CLICK HERE.

In the two previous articles, we looked at some of the reasons that science supports providing children with information about their past, even when it’s hard and even when they don’t have verbal memories of those experiences.

How do I begin?

It’s really important to consider where your child is developmentally when giving them information, especially hard or confusing information. What is even more complicated about children who have experienced trauma, abuse, or neglect is that often times our children are not in the same developmental stage as their chronological age would suggest. With that in mind, the ages and stages given in this articles are mere guidelines.

Age birth to three

If you are lucky enough to be parenting your child since birth, I recommend that parents start telling their child’s story right away. Even though your infant will not have verbal memories of their story, they will encode all the nonverbal information that accompanies their story, such as your facial expressions, tone of voice, and your own emotions regarding their story. At this age, it is also helpful to begin constructing a fact based narrative that you can share with your infant and toddler. It may sound something like “We met your mother in a restaurant and talked for hours. We were lucky enough to be at the hospital when you were born. We were so happy and loved you immediately! It was very hard to know that your first family was going to miss you so much and we are so glad that they chose us to be your parents. We drove you home from the hospital and Grandma Mary was here waiting for us! It was a beautiful, sunny day.” Not only is this narrative helpful for your child, it is also a great way to start practicing how you are going to share the story before child is truly able to understand the verbal words. Additionally, this narrative will help your family avoid “the day my child found out she was adopted.”

Age three to seven

Children in this developmental stage are egocentric and have magical thinking. This means that they erroneously believe that they have caused events to happen. This developmental stage is why children are at risk for believing their parent’s divorce or other family trauma is “all my fault.” During this stage, it’s important to use language that makes it clear to your child that the reason they were adopted was because of the choices of the adults. Unfortunately, it’s common for adopted children to believe they were a “bad baby” or there was something wrong with them which ultimately led to the adoption (or led to them experiencing abuse or neglect). Children need to hear their story in simple, concrete language.

Age seven to 12

The most important thing to remember about this stage is that it is very common for children to STOP ASKING QUESTIONS. This does not mean that they are not thinking about their adoption and past. There are many reasons children stop asking questions. Often times, children want to “protect” their adoptive parents. They worry that asking questions about their first family makes them look like a “traitor.” They also want to avoid bringing up upsetting memories and making their adoptive parents feel sad or angry. Children in this stage are developing a greater capacity for abstract thinking. They need more information about the why instead of just the what.

Age 12

In their book Telling the Truth to your Foster or Adopted Child, Betsy Keefer and Jayne Schooler recommend that children are given all negative information before age 12. There are several reasons for this but the primary reason is that they believe it is important for children to be given all their information before entering into the difficult years of adolescence. A teenager is supposed to separate and individuate from her parents. Combining this appropriate developmental experience with the adoptive parents giving new, negative information about their birthfamily or adoption story can create a significant disruption in attachment and trust.

If you live in Central Texas and are interested in exploring this topic more in depth, including tips on activities that will help you share your child’s story as well as the type of language you can use, join me on December 7 for a three-hour workshop focused on talking about the hard stuff. I have noticed that this is a topic that is catching parent’s attention and it seems that many parents are looking for assistance with these difficult topics. For more information about the workshop, CLICK HERE.


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Robyn Gobbel, LCSW is a child and family therapist in Austin, Texas specializing in adoption, trauma, and attachment counseling.

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