In adoption, great joy and many blessings coexist with grief, sadness, curiosity, regret and other complicated but very real and profound emotions. We've focused several recent blogs on proactively establishing an adoption-attuned safety net for our children. Comprehensive and open communication. is one essential ingredient of any family system. For adoptive families this means we talk about 360° of emotion surrounding adoption. The entire range of feelings are acknowledged, validated and respected. Children need regular reassurances that all topics are "open" for discussion, even--perhaps especially--those which may be difficult for adoptive parents to hear.
When kids feel hopeless, overwhelmed by their challenges, or believe they are unable to broach issues, whether their belief is grounded in reality or their imagination, they flounder emotionally and suffer greatly. In some extreme cases it leads them to consider, or tragically, to choose suicide. (The suicide rate is higher among adoptees than non-adoptees.)
No parent wants their child to feel that desperate. No parent wants their child to choose suicide. But it happens. This is why it is essential to talk about suicide before it is too late. Parents cannot afford to sugar coat their child's struggles or to live in denial about the depth, intensity and reality of their child's traumas.
This dad, unable to find the proper resources, learned to understand his daughter's adoption losses too late. Now he speaks out so other families will not face the same excruciating emotional tragedy. Yes, it is hard to listen to this interview, but it is also too important not to do so. #ThePainIsReal None of us want to learn too late that our child is contemplating suicide. #TalkAboutTheHardStuff
In some situations, our children are not contemplating such drastic measures for themselves but it exists in their family background. We must resist the urge to protect them from the information and instead prepare them gradually to learn, process and accept their history. Read our earlier post that addressed how to reveal and discuss issues like rape, abuse, suicide, etc., when they are part of a child's biological history. Although these topics are emotional, traumatizing and difficult to discuss, we cannot afford to stuff them under the rug.
Obviously, there are no guarantees, Sometimes a child's problems, traumas, depression, etc., are too much for them to bear and they may still consider suicide as a possible solution. Be sure to seek professional help.
Here are two links to click. The first is a Mother's Day video letter from an adoptee to his birth mother back in Africa. It dramatically demonstrates how children remain viscerally connected to their birth parents.
The second link is an article by adoptee, Joanne Bennett. Her brutally honest post about her childhood in a family plagued by mental illness, alcoholism, divorce and denial deserves our attention.
In this week’s blog, we continue last week's exploration of Difficult Conversations in the context of adoption. GIFT—Growing Intentional Families Together—is pleased to include another important voice from the wider adoption community. Beth O’Malley M.Ed. She is a lifebook expert. Her life experience as both adoptee and adoptive parent infuses her writings with compassion, and understanding of the adoption journey . Sign up for her free newsletter at www.adoptionlifebooks.com copyright 2014 Beth has written three books. (See the links at the end of this post.)
How to Talk about Difficult Topics
Whether it's rape, suicide, drug abuse, mental health, prostitution, or robbing banks--- if it involved the birth parent, then it's part of the child's story. So do you create a lifebook page detailing the grown up situation and read?
You may have known about “this part” of the birth parents' history. Ugh. How to tell your child or a child on your caseload?
At what age to tell them and what words to use ?
Take a deep breath.
Step 1. Start with age appropriate discussion outside of the lifebook. You build the foundation by helping them understanding the topic. Just not in relation to them.
The topic is raised impersonally. Maybe there is a teaching moment that occurs. Maybe a bank was robbed in a nearby town. Great news.(Your son's bio dad was a bank robber)
This gives you an organic opening to talk about "ta da” —robbing banks. You can wonder out loud "Gee, I wonder what would make someone decide to do something like that?" Perhaps think out loud if there is some grown up problem like drug abuse or gambling that might bring a person to do something so dangerous.
Step 2. Talk about the bank robber as a person. That person made a really bad decision that could change his life or his family's life. But making a bad decision doesn't make him a bad person. (It doesn't make him Mother Teresa either) Maybe his parents didn't teach him about right and wrong. Maybe they taught him how to steal.
You can stop at whatever point feels right and you have planted the seed.
If your child was placed at a young age, then you'll have a number of years to build and work the foundation. By the time, you feel the child is ready and able to hear this on a more personal level----- you are not trying to explain suicide/criminal activities/drug abuse etc all in one breath.
Then you can add the lifebook page in more detail (assuming you child is older and not planning to share with the general public.)
Let’s review: The best way to start discussion on tough topics is by
1. Fact Check
Before you go ahead and present a situation as the child's truth, make sure you investigate. Locate other sources (for example if only the birth mother reported the situation). Can you talk with other birth relatives to verify? Is there a social worker or court official who might know some unwritten details? What about a police report?
2. Google It.
Google your child's birth name. Google the bio parents and sibling names, if known. If it was a front-page-news story, locate what is on the internet. Assume your child or their friend is an avid Googler.
3. Who else knows what?
If you want your child to trust you, the last thing you want is for them to learn important history from someone else. If the adoptees' birth circumstances are well known (for whatever reason) in your family or the community, then you want to stay ahead of the information. You might be sharing information younger than you had planned.
4. What is the right age?
My simple, not knowing your child answer, is that you lay the foundation starting when they enter school--- around 1st grade.
It's time to get specific around age 9 or 10. Even as young as 8. This is not easy. I started tough talks with my daughter when she was around 8. The topic had to be revisited and eventually became just another piece of life. I repeat it is not easy, but there are huge benefits to avoiding secrets!
5. For US Fost-Adopt Families
At age 18, they can read their own case records. Yes, parts are redacted, but they will have enough information to clearly see what happened. A lonely way to learn about one's life's beginnings.
In summary, I recommend make sure what you say is true, as much as possible. Google relevant names and events on a regular basis. Rethink who in your family might have information that could leak to the younger generation. Does everyone you know, or the child knows, already have this part of their story? Then arm your child with information.
As for age, I told my child hard truths around age 8 and then reworked and revisited the conversation over time. I recommend no later than age 9 or 10. I don't think it's a good idea to wait until they are about to turn 13, even 12.
Kids know more than we think.
Here are links to buy Beth’s books.
Here in Florida, the Parkland community is reeling from the recent deaths by suicide of two student survivors of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas School massacre which occurred on Feb. 14, 2018. On the heels of that double tragedy, the father of one of the first-graders murdered during the Sandy Hook Massacre succumbed to the weight of his grief and took his life this past weekend.
Such is the weight of trauma and unbounded grief.
Adoptees commit suicide at four times the rate of non-adopted persons.Such is the weight of trauma and unrecognized or invalidated adoptee grief.
For too long, adoption has been considered totally benign, a perfect solution that solved a three-sided problem (a mother unable to parent, prospective parents in search of a child, and a child in need of a family). Adoption provided a fairytale ending for all.
Except that the reality is far more complex than this idealized, sanitized version. Without exception, adoption is rooted in loss. Unless those losses are acknowledged, appreciated and voiced, great emotional harm can be inflicted on those whom adoption purports to benefit. As Intentional Parents we must have the courage and compassion to help our kids by creating space for this reality in our hearts, minds, and conversations. We must talk with our children about the dualities in adoption. Reassure them that we understand that adoption brought our greatest joy but that for them adoption is a two-edged sword. It provided them a family that loves and cherishes them but before our families could be created, their original families had to be broken. For our children adoption will always include a degree of loss and grief.
If we do not acknowledge this reality, if we expect total allegiance to us and total severance of their affection, connection, and interest in their birth families, if we live as if adoption is a fairy tale, we burden our children with the weight of unacknowledged grief. When they cannot share the weight of their grief and distribute it across the shoulders of family who love them, adoptees can be overwhelmed by it. Left to shoulder their grief, fear, loneliness, rejection, and sense of isolation many will turn to suicide as a way to achieve relief.
Adoptive parents must have the courage, compassion, and attunement to hold adoption complexity, to steep themselves in a Both/And reality that allows our children to express their emotions—all of them—not just the easy, positive ones, but also the heavier, more devastating and scary ones. We can rise to the challenge of adopted parenthood, embrace the ambiguous losses and lean on one another. The truth of adoption is not rainbows and unicorns but it can be about coming together to love one another through a complex reality that makes room for multiple connections, emotions, and truths. Denying these complexities isolates our kids and increases the likelihood that they will be crushed by the weight of their grief. That is a price too high to pay and must be avoided at all cost.
Check out these additional Adoption-attuned resources!
Listen to our podcasts on Adoption-attuned Parenting.
Read these book reviews by GIFT coach, Gayle H. Swift. They are written with an Adoption-attuned perspective.
Keyes MA, Malone SM, Sharma A, Iacono WG, McGue M. Risk of suicide attempt in adopted and nonadopted offspring. Pediatrics. 2013;132(4):639-46.
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As of February 3, 2020, eleven cases of Coronavirus have been diagnosed in the United States. Thousands in China have fallen ill and 361 have died. As responsible parents, we worry about the risk to our own children and ponder how we should respond. Statistics reveal that the current (as of 2/5/2020) risk to our children is small. Flu presents a far higher danger to our children as do traffic fatalities, gun violence, and drugs. Keeping our kids safe means thinking beyond vaccines, car seats, and safety equipment.
While the Coronavirus, the flu, etc., lead in many headlines, our children face a far more potent hazard: adoptee suicide. Adoptees commit suicide at four times the rate of non-adopted persons. We cannot afford to assume that our children are not contemplating such deadly choices; their lives may depend on it. As Intentional Parents, we certainly want to do whatever is in our power to reduce this risk, address the root causes, and bring counterbalancing influences into play. We dare not assume that our children are free from suicidal thoughts. We cannot afford to hope that all is well. We must intentionally work to ensure that our kids' mental, physical, and emotional health.
When it comes to adoptee mental health there are some strategies that we CAN bring to bear. One important action parents can take is to talk about difficult topics. Encourage our kids to share all their thoughts and feelings around adoption and reassure them that our love for them and their membership in our families is totally secure. Permanent. It is not conditional on their pretending that all is rosy, totally free of conflict, ambivalence, anger, and grief. Adoption is not a totally benign experience; all is not roses, rainbows, and happily-ever-afters. We must ensure that our children feel seen and heard for who they genuinely are as distinct from whom they think we might “wish” them to be.
Unless our children “know” that we want to hear their struggles and painful thoughts, that we do not want them to hide or deny these feelings and ideas, our children will falsely assume that such communication is taboo. They will assume that we want them to cover up their struggles, don a mask that obscures their true feelings and suffer in silence. They will believe that this suppression of their anxieties and fears is the cost of membership in the family.
Everyone will be negatively impacted. Instead of an authentic relationship built on truth, trust, mutual support and, interdependence, all will be roleplaying. Everyone will miss out on the joy of being loved as themselves. This is a great tragedy that happens too frequently.
Adult adoptees tell us in huge numbers that one of the most significant contributing factors to their mental health issues is the communication gap between themselves and their families regarding parents’ tendency to gloss over, minimize, and invalidate adoptee loss, grief and the trauma of losing their first families. Blinded by their delight at being able to adopt a child, adoptive parents often lose sight of the fact that for him, adoption is not totally benign. In fact, it is quite painful.
(Even if adoption was the best choice in a very difficult circumstance, it is still life-changing. It uproots the child from his place in his ancestral lineage and burdens him with a life-long legacy that results from his separation from his first family.) Adoption is not the result they prayed for. In fact, the “blessing” they fantasize about is to have remained in their first families, safe, rooted and healthy.
We must work to ensure that our children do not become a statistic. What action will you take to discuss these hard issues with your child? Watch a movie or read a book together which highlights some of these awkward and painful complexities. Attend an adoptive family support meeting. Partner with a coach who understands the journey, the issues and has been tried to assist you.
Learn how the coaches at GIFT Family Services can help you and your family navigate your adoption journey. We've faced our share of family challenges and crises, ridden the metaphorical rollercoaster, and our families have not only survived; they have thrived. We offer experience, neutrality, and understanding.
Read Adoption-attuned book reviews by GIFT coach, Gayle H. Swift, on her blog, "Writing to Connect"
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A friend who happens to be an adult adoptee shared a recent event from her family life. Her child is normally a “put together” kid who navigates the minefield of high school cliques and power struggles well from the vantage point of an LGBTQ person’s perspective. Unsurprisingly this means learning how to deal with snide, insulting, and disempowering comments, ostracism, and a less-than-affirming welcome by the dominant groups at the school—while keeping self-esteem and self-confidence intact.
When the school called my friend because this child had a very public meltdown her parental alarm bells rang. What could possibly have happened? Was her child hurt? What tipped her child over the edge? Who was involved? Would her child talk?
Readers of this blog who are also parents of teens know well that teens normally resist discussing their problems with their parents and instead prefer to confide in their friends. My friend wrestled with her concern for her child and her fear that this child would shut down and remain silent. She developed a strategy which she shared with me.
When she arrived at school and found her child still in full meltdown mode, my friend sat close, very close, in silence and waited. Offering the comfort of her physical presence, she didn’t try to immediately garner details nor did she offer possible solutions. She focused on #Attunement and waited for her child to compose herself and speak. (Remember David Augsberger's words: "Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable."
After the situation subsided a bit, my friend said to her child, “I will not insist on details you do not wish to share with me. All I ask is that you tell me if you are safe. Or not. If you feel safe, then the details can wait until later. You know I will do whatever I can to help.”
As my friend shared her story, I was struck with the importance of her question. Instead of focusing on her need to calm her own fears as a parent, she focused on the thing that was most important: was her child safe? She focused on her child, not on her own need for reassurance. She suppressed any inclination to engage as the 911 rescue team ready to fix the situation. She also delivered a message of confidence in her child’s ability to handle the situation, or at least decide how the parent can help.
(Anyway, we all know that no one—adult or child—in the middle of an emotional hijacking responds to a barrage of questions or the offer of kneejerk solutions. The time for those types of solution-oriented conversations is after emotions have settled and a semblance of calm returns.)
As a parent, it is easy to get caught up in worry about our kids. We hear statistics about teen drinking. Bullying, and suicide. We know that adoptees commit suicide at four times the rate of the non-adopted population. Our fears have merit; still, we cannot let fear pilot our decisions.
How might you approach a similar situation? What if the child were younger? How do you foster your child’s capabilities? How have you built a history of handling their confidences respectfully? How have you provided opportunities for your child to practice problem-solving and decision making? How have you inculcated an atmosphere of safety within your family? Life is a learning conversation, what changes will you make and what actions will you take to reflect your new understanding?
 David Augsberger, “Caring Enough to Hear and Be Heard,” Regal Books, 1982