On Psychology

Jewish World Review June 24 / 30 Iyar, 5758

Dr. Wade Horn

When to tell the truth

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

Q: I need help with how to tell my 7-year-old daughter that she was abused by her biological mother and that my wife and I will now be adopting her. We have had custody of my daughter since she was 11 months old, and she has grown up believing my wife is her biological mother. Now that her biological mother has consented to the adoption, we will be going to court to finalize things. We understand that at the court hearing the judge will be telling my daughter that this is an adoption. She has no clue what is going on. Do you have any advice as to how we should approach this topic with her?

A: If, when and how to tell a child that he or she is adopted is a very controversial issue.

The controversy dates back at least to 1960 when California psychoanalyst Marshall D. Schechter reported on a study of 120 children he saw in his private practice between 1948 and 1953. According to his calculations, adopted children were over-represented in his practice "a hundred fold" compared with what one might expect in the general population.

But Dr. Schechter didn't stop there. He went on to suggest that the reason adopted children were over-represented in his psychiatric caseload was due to their having been told when they were between three-to-six-years old about having been adopted, triggering an enormous sense of rejection and "severe narcissistic injury." As a consequence, he advised postponing telling children of their adoption until they were well into elementary school and were more firmly identified with their adoptive parents.

Others, however, argue that children should be told of their adoption as early as possible so that the child grows up with a matter-of-fact understanding of the adoption and a greatly reduced possibility of accidentally "discovering" the fact of their adoption.

Proponents of this strategy point to evidence that adopted children who later in life become obsessed with searching for their adoptive parents are more likely to have "discovered" they are adopted, rather than having been told purposely.

Finally, there are those few who advise never telling children they were adopted because finding out that their birth parents "gave them up" is too painful an experience for them. Better, these advocates say, to simply maintain that the adoptive parents are the child's "real" parents.

To help sort through this complicated picture, I called my friend Bill Pierce, president of the highly regarded National Council For Adoption. True to form, he gave me the following thoughtful advice.

Never lie. Pretending a child is not adopted early in life, only makes it even more difficult to tell the truth later on. And the child may wonder, if you lied about this earlier on, about what else are you lying to me? If you want your child to trust you (and what parent doesn't?), never lie.

Take into account the developmental status of the individual child. Keep in mind that very young children are quite concrete in their thinking. As such, they have a hard time understanding exactly what adults mean. For example, if you tell an adopted child that their biological mother "loved them so much that she gave you to us," that child may come to equate love with adoption. Then, the next time you tell your child how much you love him, he may become afraid that you are about to have him adopted by another family.

Follow your child's lead. There is no need to press the issue until your child shows an interest in where they came from. Whether adopted or not, kids often begin asking questions like "where do babies come from" when they are late preschoolers.

Adoptive parents should answer these questions as honestly as possible, without offering information that is either too complex or too simplistic given the child's age. And early on, don't offer more information than what the child is seeking. A child's question, "where do babies come from," is not necessarily an invitation to discuss adoption. A simple, "babies grow in a special place under a mommy's tummy," is usually a sufficient response.

Complicated discussions of what adoption means usually should wait until after the child understands at least the rudimentary details about human reproduction. Until a child comprehends that babies are not dropped down a chimney by a stork or grown in a cabbage patch (and parents really shouldn't perpetuate either of these myths), it is difficult for them to truly comprehend what adoption is all about.

Pick your own time. Don't pick a time to tell when your child is under heavy stress or is distracted by other family issues. And if you can help it, don't let a court pick that time for you. Unfortunately, some judges believe that the only way to ensure that adoptive parents will tell their children they are adopted is if they are directed by the court to do so.

But judges are seldom privy to the highly idiosyncratic dynamics that exist within any given family. Rarely would I recommend substituting a court's judgment on timing for that of the parents.

So my advice in this particular case? First, approach the court to determine whether it is a legal requirement in your jurisdiction that your daughter be present at the adoption proceeding. If not, request that your daughter not be present, and then develop a plan (with the input of a family counselor or adoption expert) for telling your daughter of the adoption.

In developing a plan for telling, don't over-rely on books. There are, of course, lots of books on the market today that can help with telling children about adoption. The National Council For Adoption has even published a coloring book to help.

But as Bill Pierce points out, books are only a tool. And like any tool, they can be used for good or ill.

They should not substitute for parental judgement and sensitivity.

Second, don't tell your daughter that her biological mother abused her. I can see no good coming from telling her of the abuse. Simply say that her mother was not in a position to care for her, and so requested that you and her adoptive mother take care of her instead.

Let her know that this doesn't mean her biological mother didn't care about her, only that she knew she wasn't in a position to provide her with the kind of home you and your wife could provide. And reassure your child that you do indeed love her very much, and that she is a permanent part of your family, no matter what.

The bottom line is this. Children who are adopted should be informed of this fact.

But telling requires both truthfulness and sensitivity. So pick your time to tell carefully, taking into account your child's developmental status and when your child is not distracted by other stressors in her life. Don't let the court -- or anyone else, for that matter -- pick that time for you.

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


6/17/98: An ode to a dad who stuck around
6/11/98: No-fault divorce and the partner who "wants to make things work"
5/28/98: The oys and JOYS of fatherhood
5/21/98: When child-support becomes a 'catch-22'
5/15/98: Why ‘shacking-up' for marriage's sake fails
5/6/98: Collision with a pathetic reality
4/26/98: It's time parents learned to 'Just Say No!'

© 1998, Dr. Wade F. Horn