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Gay parenting: How to talk to young children about adoption

Gay parenting: How to talk to young children about adoption

Beth Friedberg is the Associate Director of Parent Preparation and Education at the Modern Family Center at Spence-Chapin. The center provides services for parents of adopted children, adoptees, families formed through adoption, and families brought together through remarriage – including same-sex couples and LGBTI parents.

Beth has been in the adoption and parenting field for over 20 years. We asked her to give the #GSNFamily section some advice on talking to young children about adoption.

Beth, do you have any general advice for speaking to children about adoption?

BF: There are some basic well-known practices that adoptive parents should know about talking with their children about how they became a family: start early, share information slowly over time in a way that meets your child’s developmental age, and talk in a balanced way about birth family being some of the most important.

But all of these sound ideas miss one critical piece that has less to do with talking and everything to do with listening.

This is a hard thing for many parents to do – we want to say the right thing and protect the ones we love from disappointment or loss. So we can often rush in with too many words to fix things before we really know what’s on our child’s mind.

Listen for what is behind your child’s questions and slow down a bit to both tune in to your child’s ‘emotional temperature’ and also consider what their questions brings up for you.

This last part is especially important so you don’t confuse what your child is asking to talk about with what you may actually want or need to talk about.

For instance, if your child asks you why their birth family couldn’t take care of them, you might respond with something simple like: ‘Why do you think some people aren’t able to take care of a baby?’ When your child gives you their own answers, you have a great place to start the conversation.

If your child is not asking any questions, lay the groundwork to give permission for the conversation. Simply saying, ‘If you ever have any questions or want to talk about your adoption that would be OK with me,’ can open a door for a child who may feel nervous bringing the topic up on their own.

What sort of questions might adopted children themselves ask about adoption – with regard to their background, history and biological family?

BF: Children are generally curious and want to know about everything that’s happening in their world. Asking questions about their beginnings and how they came to be in their family is a natural and necessary part of their development, so a goal for adoptive families is to support and encourage this wondering.

The types of questions that children ask will depend on the specific circumstances of their placement and your child’s own character and personality.

As much as each child has their own unique experience, questions do tend to fall into some general categories such as: ‘Why did I have to be adopted? Why couldn’t anyone in my family take care of me?’, ‘Will I ever meet my birth mother/siblings?’, ‘Will I ever see my friends from the orphanage again?’, ‘Is my birthmother alive?’, and, very commonly ‘I wonder who I look like’.

Are there questions that same-sex parents might be asked by their children that they might find difficult to answer?

BF: In terms of questions that connect specifically to their adoption, children with gay parents often have similar questions as children with heterosexual parents.

All parents find some parts of talking about adoption with their children challenging, and often the harder parts are those that trigger things that we adults have sensitivity to. So for some parents, talking about conception or fertility might be challenging, while for others discussing birth family may raise some stumbling blocks.

It’s often said that parenting through adoption adds an additional layer of complexity, and for children with same-sex parents we can say that there is a second layer of complexity added on.

Regardless of how happy a child is in their home, adopted children in same-sex households may fantasize about what it would be like to live with parents of both genders, they may wonder why they were identified to have same-sex parents and what role their birth parents played in the decision.

Children of same-sex parents will sometimes go through a phase where they want to know if they too will grow up to be gay, or may even go through a time where they express homophobic feelings and reject the notion of being in a ‘gay family’.

This is all part of the child’s identity formation and struggle with being ‘different’ on multiple levels; while it is certainly difficult to tolerate, same-sex parents must do their best to respond to their children’s concerns without getting angry or defensive about their sexual orientation or choice to become a family.

It’s also helpful to remind kids they are not in a ‘gay family’ but rather have gay parents.

Is there a central message that it is important to get across to children when talking with them about adoption?

BF: There are many important messages that parents should strive to convey to their children; when our children are young we convey these messages more through our behavior and less through our words.

Unfortunately or fortunately, children often really do tune into what we do more than to what we say. In terms of adoption, some of the things that we want to reinforce with our children are that they are safe; that they are loved and appreciated just for being themselves; and that they are in a family that is going to be with them forever.

You may need to be more intentional with your behavior to help your child ‘feel’ these messages. This can happen simply by putting a protective arm around your child when you sense that they are a little scared or arranging your schedule so you can consistently show up at their soccer games.

When we think back to our own childhood, these are the things that we remember and carry with us.

The Modern Family Center has offices in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Long Island, and New Jersey. It will be hosting a workshop on Monday (22 September 2014) on ‘How to talk to young children about adoption’. For more information about its services, call 646-539-2167 or email [email protected]