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What should I tell my adopted child about their past?

One of my adopted kids said to me once “I feel a big hole inside me. My adoption effects me every day. Even when other people don’t notice and everything is normal, my adoption effects me. I will always feel this way. I’m mad at my birth mom for what she did, but there is a part of me that loves her too.”

Wise words from a small one.

As parents we only want the best for our kids. For adopted kids, however, their lives have been formed through loss.

100% of foster and adopted children come to us with a history that was before us. Adoption always begins with loss. At the very least it’s a loss of their first family, culture, genetic connection, and the sound of their mother’s heartbeat and voice.

Even children adopted at birth carry loss.

Birth mothers can have unexpected pregnancies and be in crisis and unsafe situations. Sometimes they struggle with mental health and self medicate with alcohol and drugs in pregnancy. This the most intimate connection a human can experience, and for many adoptees, the loss begins there.

Other children lost safety, bonding, food, clean diapers, and normalized brain chemistry created by having their cries and needs met. Some kids have experienced unfathomable horrors.

Their stories are as vast and unique as they are, but 100% have a past before you. Making space for their past is part of loving the whole of who they are.

Giving you some tough love now. Their pasts can be painful, so can ours. No matter how much it hurts, if we want to create an environment of healing, we must acknowledge it.

“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” George Orwell.

One of my adopted kids has been more emotionally dysregulated the past few days than normal. She was calm, so we talked about it. She expressed having bad dreams about people hurting each other. She’s been thinking about her birth mom, afraid she would come find her and hurt her again.

She does not carry a cognitive memory of her harm, but the emotional memory stays with her nine years later.

Adoptee’s pasts and losses are heavy and hard to hear. The temptation can be to ignore. Pretending pain is not there doesn’t make it go away. It delays and compounds it.

The key to moving forward, is to begin first by accepting the way things are. If this feels overwhelming and impossible, it’s okay. I’m here to walk you through and give you some hope and practical help.

  • It starts with us. Adoptive parents, we cannot lead our kids somewhere we haven’t travelled. Beginning by working through, and accepting your own losses. Fertility losses, expectations of what you thought your adoption journey would be like vs. reality, not being able to protect or bond with your child, or experience milestones before they came to you. Loss of peace, normalcy, or relationships. I’m sure you could list more. You can check out Faith Forward Adoption on Amazon for comprehensive tools to work through your own burnout, emotions, and loss.

  • There is no one right way to do it. Adoptees stories and feelings are as unique as they are. What will work for one, won’t for another. Knowing that you won’t be able to do it perfectly, will free you to try. The only mistake is to not acknowledge their past or losses at all. Do it the human way, messy and imperfect.
  • It’s not about you. Adoptive parents will do harm if they take personally their children’s desire to connect with who they were before adoption. It’s like being mad they have a different hobbies and likes. It’s not against you, it’s simply part of who they are. When you accept their past and hurt, you accept the whole person.
  • Adoptees often live with a deep core of shame and rejection. One of my adopted kids often lies over small things and falls apart when she can’t do things perfectly. She’s not trying to be manipulative, she simply feels not good enough and is trying to make up for it with perfection. I have her write or say “I make mistakes AND I am enough and loved.” And “God made me, knows my flaws, and loves me completely.” Adoptees need to hear their worth affirmed often.
  • Listen and ask question. Be genuinely curious about their thoughts and feelings. Hold space for them to process. Let them know even the most painful parts of their experience is welcome. When they express a thought, memory, or feeling, invite them to explore it more but asking what that feels like in their body. Tight, hot, jumpy, heavy, etc.
  • Accepting your child’s past is an ongoing process. Allow them to talk about it whenever they want to. It’s part of who they are, not a one and done conversation. It’s common for kids to explore their adoption at new levels as they mature. You will teach them by your response if their thoughts are safe and welcome.
  • Be proactive with cultural connections. A once a year cultural themed meal does not count. Kids who are adopted from other countries, cultures, and races have lost that piece of who they are. Parents need to proactively create cultural connections for them as a routine part of their lives. This is will require most families to make some major changes in where they live, worship, or what groups they are involved in. Be willing to be uncomfortable, and give your child one less hurdle.
  • Ask for forgiveness. If you are a human, and you have children, you’ve messed up. We all mess up and will continue too. One of the most powerful ways you can teach an adoptive child their worth, is by showing them you make mistakes too, and are forgiven by God. If you’ve missed the mark in accepting your child’s past, ask them to forgive you. Nothing builds bridges more than vulnerability.