Adopting a Healthy Attitude: The Emotional Issues Surrounding Adoptive Families
In Celebration of National Adoption Month, We Examine the Emotional Issues Surrounding Adoptive Families
Each year, as more and more families are joined through the process of adoption, parents hope to provide a loving environment that both embraces and celebrates their adopted child's uniqueness or cultural differences. Adoptive parents want nothing more than to have their child feel cherished and accepted, but they can feel caught in the paradox of helping that child to understand what it means to be adopted - knowing that, in the process, he or she may experience feelings of rejection or abandonment.
While there is no formula for raising an emotionally healthy child, adopted or otherwise, experts agree that adoptive families benefit most from three criteria: an early dialogue about adoption, ongoing and open discussions, and guidance from adoption professionals and support groups.
According to Ronny Diamond, director of post-adoption services for Spence-Chapin, a New York-based full-service adoption agency with an office in Central Islip, parents must begin talking about adoption with their adopted children as early in their development as possible. "We think that children should grow up always knowing and not being able to remember when they were told they were adopted," she says. "That means when children are toddlers."
Although a child's understanding of what adoption means is not fully developed at such an age, parents can present the concept in age-appropriate terms - through pictures of the child's birthmother or with videos of the day the child came home."Each child has a story," says Diamond, "a true story about how you became a family, like a bedtime book. As children get older, you fill in the story, the details. If parents did it that way, it would be so natural. No secrets. Children can adjust to lots of different non-conventional family forms as long as the adults are comfortable with them."
Even for families who have adopted children internationally, where there may not be much in terms of ancestral information, "you still have the story," Diamond says, adding that a parent might say to her adopted child, "A lady in China was not ready to be a mommy." At this stage, it's not about political situations, but personal ones."
Open and Honest
Jean Gray of Massapequa Park, NY, has two children - son David is 9, daughter Grace Ann is 5. Both children are adopted. "It's something they've always known," she says. "I think that if they had found out suddenly, they might have felt a little cheated, because it's their information, and they have a right to know from the beginning."
Roslyn, New York, native Kevin Cohen says, "My parents used to tell me that I was the fattest and baldest kid in the orphanage. Truth is, my adoption was private, but my parents dealt with it with humor. Because of that, I never remember not knowing that I was adopted, and that's exactly how I think it should be." Cohen recently founded The Adoption Annex, a nonprofit center that offers services to the adoption community and features a museum, media and research center and counseling services.
In addition to being early, the adoption conversation needs to be open and honest. Such a dialogue not only helps to provide solid self-esteem, but also equips adopted children with the tools they need to respond to the difficult questions and attitudes that they are bound to encounter as they grow into adulthood.
Jennifer Valentine of MassapequaPark, NY, has three children - Holden, 5; Alexandra, 4; and Aidan, 1. Valentine, who adopted Alexandra from Korea when she was an infant, says, "Without a doubt, the biggest challenge has been in dealing with the outside world - just people making comments. It's out there and Alexandra's just starting to realize it now. But, in my family, we don't point out any differences. I'm part Finnish, my husband is Italian, and Alexandra was born in Korea. We try to integrate the different cultures and learn about them and just try to make the world seem smaller."
"There are too many adopted children who are being raised as victims of adoption," Diamond says. "They're being "protected" from information about themselves, but that's not helping them understand that it wasn't their fault. Adoption is a decision adults make, often before the child is even born. Children need to know that. This way, if someone says something that's hurtful, they've had practice dealing with the difficulties of adoption, not just the pleasantries of it."
"I remember my sister and I once had a fight," recalls Jericho resident Lori Kurn, - and she said, "Mommy and Daddy paid for you." And I said, "Well, you were a mistake." And my father grabbed each of our pigtails and said, "You have no idea how much we wanted both of you. And if you don't like this house, the both of you can leave together." To this day, we joke about it."
Cohen recalls, "One night - when I was 5 years old " I told my mom, "I wish you never adopted me." I said it and cried, because I didn't mean it. My mother said, "Kid," she called me Kid and Junior," Cohen explains, "Kid, I always knew you were going to say that and that you were never going to mean it. If you have a healthy realization that certain feelings may be there, you won't be surprised when they manifest themselves."
Experts recommend that adoptive parents seek outside support and guidance from adoption professionals and counselors, or find organizations devoted to adoptive families and their needs. By obtaining as much information as possible and educating themselves about the issues adopted children face, parents are better able to help their children understand adoption at each developmental stage. "When adopted children become teen-agers, parents need to know when to back off and when to be there or intervene," says Debby Peoples, therapist for post-adoption programs at Pederson-Krag Center in Smithtown, NY. "Some parents want to dump all this information on them. But this is the hardest time to do that. They're so involved and struggling with their own identity, it would be overwhelming."
Diamond agrees, "Once your child reaches adolescence, he or she won't be available to talk to you." She views the adoption dialogue not as one big conversation, but as a lifetime of little ones. "It may not always feel like a discussion. Sometimes it feels like a monologue, but do it anyway. Children don't always want to engage with you on the issue, but they take in what you say. If they don't want to hear their background, write it down and give it to them. Children can get caught in loyalty struggles. They think that if they seem interested in what you're saying, then you might think they don't love you enough. But you want them to have the information, because it's theirs."
"I think it's unfortunate that the adoption world uses the template of birth to fit the story, rather than the template of marriage," Diamond says. "Adoption is much more like a marriage. A marriage shows that you can love someone who is not your flesh and blood. We have a wonderful model that we haven't used."
Raising Adopted Children, by Lois Ruskai Melina, Perennial Currents, 2011.
The Post Adoption Blues, by Karen J. Foli, Ph.D. and John R. Thompson, M.D., St. Martin-s Press, 2004.
Adoptive Parents Committee � Bellmore, 516-795-4034, www.adoptiveparents.org.
Pederson-Krag Center - Smithtown, 631-920-8302, www.pederson-krag.org.
Spence-Chapin - Central Islip, 631-232-3636, www.spence-chapin.org.
The Adoption Annex - Roslyn, 516-484-4941, www.adoptionannex.org.
Wide Horizons for Children - Oyster Bay, 516-922-0751, www.whfc.org.
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Dina Santorelli is a freelance writer and mother of three living in Massapequa Park.