For parents, having “the talk” with their child is a challenge that is often put off because it is an awkward topic. Adoptive parents have an even more daunting task. For them, “the talk” is not about the birds and the bees but about how their child came to be their child. These parents must reveal the fact that an adoption created the family relationship. Unfortunately, this information is too often kept from a child or kept for too long with adoptees remaining in the dark about their own story.
Adoption is a positive thing, right? A child receives the opportunity to be raised in a loving forever home, couples desiring to parent have their dream fulfilled, and a birth parent is assured that their child will be adequately provided for and nurtured. If these results are so wonderful, then, why would an adoptive parent keep the fact of an adoption secret from their child?
A variety of reasons exist for not revealing a family connection through adoption. Valid or not, adoptive parents may feel if a child knows of their adoption, they might decide to look for their “real” parents with the parents ultimately losing their child. This reason is, of course, understandable, but it is also selfish. Doesn’t a child have a right to know their own story?
A more palatable reason for not spilling the beans about an adoption is that the parents do not want to upset the child. While this reason is superficially appealing, in the end it flies against all that a parent is supposed to do. And what is that exactly? Do what is best for the child. As any parent well knows, most of the time when they do what is best for the child, the child does not like it. What child wants to be disciplined? Forced to do their homework? Made to go to bed at a decent hour? Children forced to do those things may have been upset by it, but it was best for them in the long run. Knowing the truth about their story, specifically that they were adopted, is best for adoptees in the end.
Sometimes adoptive parents avoid revealing they have adopted because of the stigma often associated with infertility. They do not want to have to confront the fact that they could not have biological children, which they may perceive as a personal failing on their part. While feelings of grief and loss in this regard are real, the way to cope with it is not by setting children up for trauma when they belatedly or unexpectedly find out they are not biologically connected to people they have always believed were their biological parents.
Finally, adoptive parents may avoid revealing a child’s adoptive status because it will diminish the parenting process. The child will seem less “theirs,” and the child can throw it in their face that they are not his “real” parents. The flaw with this reasoning is children are not property to be owned or possessed. Further, regardless of how the parent child relationship came into being, a child may cop an attitude with their parents.
Keeping a secret this day and age is a very difficult thing to do. The reality is that an adopted child is likely to find out how he came to be a family member at some point anyway. Three scenarios for this big reveal aside from parental revelation can be identified.
First, their adoptive status may be revealed by a family member. Older siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins may be aware of the status and either let the news slip or intentionally reveal it in anger or for some other reason. Second, a DNA test may establish that biological relatives unknown to the adoptee exist leading to the discovery of his adoption. Third, after an adoptive parent passes away, the adoptee may learn his legal relationship to his parent when going through the parent’s paperwork and belongings. If this discovery is close in proximity to the parent’s death, grief may be compounded.
Consider this true story. A woman in her thirties is experiencing health issues. Her doctor requests family medical history, so the woman asks her mother for information. The mother is evasive, and no helpful information is obtained from her. The woman decides to do some DNA testing to see if she can learn something about family medical history. When the results are received, the report provides information about her biological mother who is noted to live in another state—a different state than where the woman whom she has believed all her life to be her biological mother lives. Is that the way an adoptee should learn she was adopted? Is that how you would want to find out this news if you were an adoptee?
If adoptive parents tell an adoptee the truth, it precludes bombshell news from being revealed in an unsettling manner and from an unexpected source. They may control the way in which the adoptee learns this information as well as control the manner it is explained to him. Parents, biological or adoptive, know their children and are in the best position to determine the most appropriate way to convey this information.
Some parents put off having “the talk” because they are not sure when the best time would be to do so. However, delaying the task is likely to do more harm than good. The longer they wait to deliver the news, the more likely the child is to feel he has been lied to and to experience trust issues. If the child is told early on that he was specifically chosen to be a part of a family, his perception of adoptive status is more likely to be positive. The older the child is when the news is revealed, the more of an explanation of the circumstances is likely to be called for. Young children will not need, or even ask for, all the details. Any explanation, of course, should be age appropriate.
Honesty is, as Benjamin Franklin noted, the best policy. That adage does not, though, mean that adoptive parents need to divulge all the details surrounding an adoption or that they should interject any negative feelings towards a birth parent. Their child is a product of that parent and may feel if their biological parent was bad, they somehow are too. While the story does not need to be related from a rose-colored glasses perspective, positive points can always be the focus. Perhaps the birth mother had a drug problem and used illicit drugs while pregnant. A good explanation might be, “Your birth mother had challenges and was struggling to take care of herself. She knew she could not take care of you like you needed to be cared for, so she took steps to make sure you would have a good life in an adoptive home.”
When and whether adoptees should find out about being adopted has been debated for decades by experts. The most common recommendation to adoptive parents is to disclose the adoption story to their child at a young age. The reasoning is that a belated revelation can be harmful to mental health because a child learns his parents have misled or lied to him for a long period of time. No one likes to be lied to, but lies from a parent are especially hard to take. A major breach of trust has occurred.
Lack of disclosure, unfortunately, appears to have been widespread in the past when it was common practice never to reveal an adoptee’s origins to them. Most parents, according to research undertaken in the ‘70’s, did not make such disclosures or, if they did, they waited until their child was deemed old enough to understand.
According to the Adoption History Project, a study published in 1970 by Benson Jaffee and David Fanchel, “How They Fared in Adoption,” revealed only 12% of parents shared the facts of an adoption with their child. (See https://pages.uoregon.edu/adoption/archive/JaffeeHTFA.htm.) The prevailing pattern in the study group was for parents to withhold most or all the information on biological parents and the circumstances leading to the child’s adoption.
Reports suggest a sizeable number of adoptees who are now adults did not learn of their adoption until they were an older age. Late discovery that one is an adoptee is linked to psychological distress along with feelings of anger and betrayal as well as depression and anxiety. And who wouldn’t feel that way upon learning that the world as they believed it to be was just an illusion.
Additional research on delay in adoption disclosure, “Delaying Adoption Disclosure: A Survey of Late Discovery Adoptions,” was published in May 2019 by Amanda L. Baden. (See https://drexel.edu/~/media/Files/cnhp/Faculty%20Pub%20PDF/Baden%20et%20al%202019%20Delaying%20Adoption%20Disclosure.ashx?la=en.) An adoptee herself and a professor in the graduate counseling program at Montclair State University, Baden had studied adoption related issues for over 25 years. Her work found little research on how the age of an adoptee when they learned of their adoption affected outcomes later in life. This lack of research prompted her to undertake a study of 254 people ranging in age from 24 to 78 who were adopted as an infant and told at some point about their adoption.
According to Baden’s study, those who were in the youngest age group (birth to two years old) when they learned they were adopted reported the least distress and highest level of life satisfaction. Study participants who consciously recalled the revelation of their adoption and the age when they were told reported higher levels of distress. The older the adoptee was when they learned of their adoption, the higher level of distress they experienced. The study’s results suggested an adoptee’s learning of his adoption after age three could have negative consequences on the adoptee’s further life satisfaction and mental health.
What’s so magical about age three? Research has found most people’s earliest memories begin from when they were around three years old. The explanation appears to be that if a child has known of their adoption as far back as they can remember, then an adoption is not a startling revelation which may produce feelings of betrayal and resentment.
Baden found common themes of trauma and betrayal in adoptees who belatedly learned of their adoption. Because of the delayed disclosure, one study participant indicated that they were much more guarded about everything thereafter. Another participant learned of her adoption when she was age 49 and characterized it as the most traumatic event in her life. Perceived lies about their origin told adoptees by their parents resulted in high levels of grief and trauma even where a loving relationship with the parents existed prior to the adoption’s revelation.
The conclusion drawn by Baden from her study of belated adoption disclosure was that dishonesty about a child’s origins has worse and more permanent consequences than failure to disclose that status. But what is revealed to an adoptee may also have an impact. Jaffee and Fanchel’s research found that how forthcoming the parent is when questioned by their adopted child can have long-term consequences. When an adoptee was curious about their biological past and wanted to know more than the adoptive parents were willing to divulge, it caused the adoptee to have more adjustment issues in a broad range of life situations.
Florida licensed mental health counselor Jon M. Kinsey is in a unique position to give an opinion on delaying revelation of a child’s adoption. Not only is he an adoptee, he is a mental health professional who is actively involved in the field of adoption. He has years of experience conducting home studies and interviewing/counseling birth parents.
When Kinsey conducts home studies, he expressly discusses revealing adopted status to an adoptee; in fact, he insists prospective adoptive parents do so. He equips hopeful parents to carry out this task by providing helpful written materials and resources to which they can refer.
In his own case, Kinsey says he “never didn’t know” he was adopted. From a young age, his parents read age-appropriate stories to him related to adoption. When friends would ask him if he knew who his “real” parents were, he’d respond that he was going home to them.
Based on experience and training, Kinsey believes the reasons for not telling an adoptee they were adopted boil down to selfishness. Failing to make that revelation is extremely harmful to the adoptee because they will experience a loss of identity and feel their entire life has been a lie. Making an adoption revelation to an adoptee during the teenage years when they are already dealing with identity and separation issues is particularly devastating as it “cuts their legs out from under them,” he asserts.
The role of a parent, biological or adoptive, is to do what is best for their child. Failure to disclose information about a child’s origin is not in their best interest because it can lead to distress and mental health issues later in life. If adoption is truly a joy, a dream come true, or an answer to prayer, then adoptee status and addition to a forever family should be celebrated, not kept secret. Since each child is a unique individual, there can be no one size fits all way to handle “the talk.” But two guiding principles are clear. First, the earlier this information is relayed, the better. Second, honesty is the best policy.