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
- Defining and discussing the topic completely separate from the child’s life. Educate them about i.e.drugs, mental health, poverty or whatever relates to their personal life story.
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.