When and how do you help your child come to terms with his/her adoption?

In the children’s book, The Lonely King & Queen, author Deepa Balsavar sensitively narrates how a couple feels an indescribable void in their life until a tiny “voice calling out” goes home with them to create a happy family. At the end, the author explains that this is the story that she and her husband enacted many times over to tell their daughter of her adoption.

With an increasing number of Indian couples adopting children, the question of how and when to tell their wards “their story” is indeed pertinent. Some parents opt to follow Balsavar’s strategy where, from a tender age, the child is made aware of how he or she entered the family, often through child-centred stories. The argument for telling children early is that they don’t ever experience a sudden jolt when they eventually learn of their adoption.

While this seems to be a healthy strategy, parents have to remember that merely knowing of one’s adoption is not the end of the story. As a child traverses different cognitive and socio-emotional stages, the understanding of what it means to be adopted also changes. By understanding the demands and complexities of various stages, parents can be better prepared to help their children develop a robust sense of self.

David Brodinsky, Marshall Schechter and Robin Henig have written a compelling book based on research studies and their clinical experience. The authors chart the major issues that adopted children contend with, as they mature from infancy to adulthood. During infancy, families with biological and adopted children tend to look very much alike and face similar issues of feeding and sleeping. Just as biological parents respond to an infant’s cries and smiles with coos and caresses, adoptive fathers and mothers also provide high levels of nurturing care.

Some children first learn of their adoption during the preschool years, usually as a story of how they entered the family. At first, most children seem to accept it in a matter-of-fact manner. However, as their cognitive understanding is still at a rudimentary stage, they do not quite comprehend the import of the term ‘adopted’. Brodzinsky and colleagues quote a five-year-old boy: “My father’s a dentist, my mother’s a teacher and I’m a dopted.” Some children assume that all kids are ‘born’ this way.

However, by the age of six or seven, children realise that birth and adoption are different ways of creating a family. The child also becomes aware of the fact that she has or had another set of birth parents. Brodzinsky and colleagues suggest that between the ages of eight and eleven, as children gain a more textured and layered understanding of adoption, there is a “rise in psychological, behaviour and academic problems that are more common” among adoptees. As the child tries to grapple with her sense of loss and form a cohesive sense of self, parents can help by being nurturing, supportive and open to communication. By acknowledging and being prepared for children to experience emotional angst at this stage, parents can help them weather these storms. Brodzinsky and colleagues recommend that “parents can show their children that these ups and downs are normal, real, acceptable — and temporary.”

While most research on adoption is based on Western mores, Professor Vinita Bhargava, a pioneer of adoption research in India, offers a culturally-nuanced perspective. Interestingly, in the Indian context, after studying 63 adoptive parent-child units, Bhargava found that “a child’s global self-worth was not influenced significantly by the knowledge of being adopted.” More importantly, when parents did not place undue emphasis on scholastic success, there was “much less conflict between parents and child, and higher overall approval experienced by the child.”

Even though adolescence involves a multitude of physical, hormonal, cognitive and social changes, this period, contrary to popular conception, does not have to be marked by emotional stress and storms. While some youngsters may experience emotional turmoil, others coast through the crests and troughs of the teenage years relatively seamlessly. During this stage, children may come to terms with their adoption while remaining curious, in a healthy way, of their origins. However, some children may quell their desire to explore their roots, not necessarily literally but metaphorically, so that they do not hurt the sentiments of their parents.

It should be noted that only 50 per cent of children in Bhargava’s sample were aware of their adoptive status. Indian parents prefer to shield their wards from knowing the truth of their origins possibly because society is not yet wholly accepting of adoption. While we, as a society, should embrace adoption more openly, we have to be empathetic about the sweet-sour emotions that adoptive families contend with. In fact, the life-long process of coming to terms with one’s adoption is movingly captured by Nicole Callahan who wrote a column in The New York Times on how she hesitated to communicate her own adoption to her biological daughter. After explaining what adoption entailed to her then four-year-old, she was ridden with ambivalent feelings when her daughter promptly asked, “Am I going to be adopted, too?” While Callahan is glad that her daughter knows of her mother’s adoption, she can’t help feel a twinge of regret. She writes, “Before I told her about my adoption, she never had reason to even consider what it would be like to be given up, or given to others. Now she does.”