Helping Families Discuss Adoption
By Allison Martin
Carol Peacock is a psychologist, adoptive mother and talented writer. In Mommy Far, Mommy Near - An Adoption Story, a young Asian girl learns that being adopted means having two mothers - one remaining in China and one "here." This tender picture book encourages parents and children to explore the themes of adoption together.
What prompted you to write "Mommy Far, Mommy Near"?
Carol Peacock: In choosing children's adoption books for my own daughters, I saw a real need for a more psychologically focused book that dealt with what I think is the core issue of adoption : having two mothers. Although many of the existing books were quite good and helpful, they tended to tell us about birthparents' feelings (sadness at relinquishing their child, hoping for the child's future), or adoptive parents' feelings (joy). We did not hear enough about the adopted child's feelings. So, over a three year period, taking notes on my daughters' experiences, I wrote Mommy Far, Mommy Near.
What suggestions do you have for parents who wish to talk with their children about adoption?
Carol Peacock: I think that first of all, parents should sort through their own fears around talking with their children about adoption. Often parents worry that by raising the issue of adoption, they will cause their child pain. There is truth to this fear, for understanding adoption will stir up in the child many hard feelings, specifically loss and rage. But since these feelings exist anyway, who better to bring them out in the open and address them, than the child's own, loving parents?
The best practice for new parents just beginning to talk with their children is the telling of the adoption story itself. At a very young age, children love to hear how the parents went to the adoption agency, or got on airplane, etc.. Telling this story, usually over and over again at the child's request, builds parents' self confidence to handle other, more complicated aspects of their child's adoption.
To keep the topic of adoption alive, but not harped upon, I suggest a range of household props. Family pictures, pre and post-adoption, are curiously discussed by even the youngest children. "Treasures," such as the jacket a child wore when adopted, or keepsakes from the child's country, if adopted internationally, are also sources of pride and again, productive talk. An "adopted" pet provides hours of discussion, about how and why the pet was adopted, how the pet feels, how the family can help the pet understand adoption.
As children grow up, can parents do to help their children sort through their feelings and understanding?
Carol Peacock: I think parents should create an environment which makes talking about adoption "okay,' even welcomed. Parents can do this by talking about adoption early. How early, parents ask. Often our children tell us that. If we as parents present "too much" information, our children are adept at "tuning us out," or changing the subject. I remember when my daughters were very small, say two or three, I sat down with them and spread out some colorful, new adoption books. I was ready! But the girls soon tired of the new books and chose our dog eared "Green Eggs and Ham" instead. They weren't ready for this kind of talk and they knew how to tell me!
Parents' own attitude is very important. An open, quite matter of fact approach works best with children. Youngest children respond to concrete facts, and these facts become the foundation for later emotional working through of the adoption process itself. When hard topics do come up, such as the birthmother relinquishing the child, and the child's response to this, parents should refrain from trying to "fix" the child's sadness, etc.. We can hold our child, sit silently with our child, but well-intentioned trying to "cheer up" the child denies our child her very real feelings. She must experience these feelings in order to resolve them.
Parents should allow plenty of one on one time, or "in between time" to talk about adoption, and should be prepared that children often raise adoption questions when we are least prepared. Just as adoption is a process, talking about adoption is a process. There is no "one" talk or one well-stated answer that allows a child to resolve adoption. Rather, it is a series of talks and re-visits of well-known material that builds a child's understanding, over time.
Of course, children's adoption questions change as she grows. Mommy Far, Mommy Near deals with young children's questions. In my practice as a psychologist, I see many adopted adolescents. It is at this stage that some adopted adolescents may want to search for their birthparents, may experience themselves as "different" from their peers, and may feel estranged from their adoptive parents. If we have laid the groundwork, we can still be available to these young people and can be receptive to the questions they raise, as they do the normal work of separation, made more complex by adoption.
Finally I think it is important that parents realize that if, at an early age, they are emotionally attuned to their children's questions about adoption, they are creating a responsiveness that helps a child confront not only adoption, but all of life's complex issues. Talking about adoption can provide a connectedness that serves a child well, thoughtout life.
Carol Antoinette Peacock earned her BA at Cornell University, her MSW at Columbia University School for Social Work, and her Ph.D. at Boston College. Carol Peacock is a psychologist with a specialty in family and adoption issues. Besides Mommy Far, Mommy Near, she has written Hand Me Down Dreams (Schocken, 1981), which traced four mother-daughter relationships in welfare families, and co-authored Sugar Was My Best Food: Diabetes and Me (Whitman, 1998), a psychological book helping children first diagnosed with diabetes. Carol lives with her husband, Tom Gagen, and her grown stepson, Jonathan, along with Elizabeth, aged 7, and Katherine, aged 5.
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