How do cultural misperceptions and adoption stereotypes affect our children, ourselves as parents, and our family dynamics? When movies or books paint adoptees as a “bad seed” or unwanted inconvenience, how does it impact us emotionally and shape our relationships within our own families and beyond our inner circle out in our communities? When thoughtless folks ask demeaning questions it both shocks and offends us.
Let me set the stage. Like most adoptive families, we discussed adoption with our kids from an early age. They knew they’d been adopted. With the naive innocence of little ones, they’d absorbed the story with little appreciation of the complex realities of adoption that would evolve as they matured. They felt no need to hide their adoption. Their circle of friends and classmates all knew this fact about them.
I recall when my now-adult son reported being teased by his first-grade peers because he had a small birthmark on his face. His intense distress felt significant. I sensed this was a Big Deal Moment, not routine. When I pressed for more details, I learned his classmates asserted his birthmark resulted from his being abandoned by his birth mother (untrue) and left out on the street (untrue) where he became so dirty he could never become completely clean. Let me repeat that.
He. Could. Never. Become. Clean.
The inference he drew left him feeling, dirty, inferior, rejected. In addition to any personal adoption-connected loss and grief issues the friends whom he had trusted with his story betrayed him in a way that cut deeply. He absorbed their words on several levels. Felt judged. Ugly. Rejected. Hurt. Othered.
For years we dealt with the fallout from this–and unfortunately many similar incidents. Like all bullying and mean-spirited words, they could not be “unheard” and remained deep within his memory. Part of him feared this hateful message might be true.
Where had his “friends” picked up this message about adoption? At home? Through the media (TV, film, books)? By absorbing cultural myths about adoption? Regardless of the source, we had to deal with the fallout.
Parents currently raising adopted children, what do your children’s friends and classmates believe and “know” about adoption? Their attitudes will determine how they will treat your kids. (Also, be aware of the attitudes and biases of extended family and friends. Unless you’ve educated them in adoption-attuned awareness, they will rely on what they subconsciously “know” from cultural messages and biases. Consider sharing Patricia Irwin Johnston’s book, Adoption Is A Family Affair.)
This raises another important caveat. How to teach adopted children how to respond to these kinds of conversations. Parents must be pro-active and must not wait until a child has been blindsided by adoption-ignorant. bullying talk.
Explain that many people do not understand adoption and might question the real-ness of their family or might imply that adoption was their fault. (Unfortunately, kids are pre-disposed to believe this already. They assume something must be wrong with them because they can imagine no adequate reason for their birth mother to have opted not to raise them.)
Teach kids the distinction between private and secret when it comes to their adoption. Remind them not to share the specific details of their history. Instead help them internalize a generalized response. Distinguish between private which is a boundary issue versus secret which implies shame.
Arm them with responses that enable them to feel strong, worthy and assertive. Practice so they can stand in a position of strength not vulnerability. For example,
Birth moms have adult problems that prevent them from raising any baby, etc.
My parents worked very hard to bring me home.
No, Miss Hannigan did not run my orphanage….
If your adopted child has been affected by a classmate’s or friend’s comment, or even something on the news or TV, make sure you stay attune to his feeling and needs when you discuss this issue with him/her. Let him/her express what they feel without adding your own feelings or outrage. Validate their reactions. Avoid minimizing or intensifying them. Once they have completely expressed themselves, share your own reasons for your thoughts or positions without trying to persuade them. Simply offer your side of things with an eye to show as we discussed last week that multiple points of view can co-exist, be contradictory and be simultaneously true.
In summary, parents must be mindful of the media messages that your children encounter regarding adoption. Vet films and books ahead of time so you can identify potential triggers. Talk, talk, talk about adoption when everyone is relaxed; don’t wait until it’s a “situation.”
Writing to Connect reviews books through adoption-attuned lenses. Most of the titles are not directly about adoption. The intent for these reviews is to identify talking points from every day literature which naturally evolve into important adoption-related conversations. Find suggestions for books that contain a theme that might help you address specific issues with your adopted children.
Consult resources like Adoption at the Movies for tips on films that contain adoption themes or triggers.