School Issues For The Adopted Child

It is really important for children to feel empower and to know how to respond to questions about their adoption. We now know that children usually get asked the toughest questions about their adoption at school from their peers.

Young preschool children are usually very willingly to share how they became a family and often enjoy telling their stories to others. Despite their limited understanding, they will ask lots of questions about their birthparents and their adoption story. Preschool children are usually satisfied with simple responsive answers to their questions.

As children enter the early elementary years (K-2), they develop an awareness that babies grow from inside their mommy’s bodies. Sometimes sadness is experienced as they begin to understand that they grew inside another woman’s body. They may begin to feel different as they understand that the way they came into the world and into their families was different from most of their peers and that most other children are not adopted.

During these school age years, adopted children try to make sense of their adoption.  No longer only focused on the positive aspects of how they became a family, they may struggle to understand why they were adopted and unable to be raised by the mother to which they were born. This is a complex question for a child this age to be attempting to understand. Usually a lot of confusion exists and they may come up with a number of explanations that are often erroneous. Children can blame themselves, or their adoptive parents or their birthparents as they struggle with the “whys” of their relinquishment. They may seem a little different and you may observe more daydreaming, angry outbursts or withdrawal and quietness.

By the time children are well into the upper elementary grades (3rd-6th) they become the most vulnerable at school as they are faced with questions from their peers. Because all children’s thinking begins to change and grow at this stage of development children become more curious and ask more questions. Your child’s non- adopted peers are also trying to understand why some children are adopted. Questions may be asked about their “real mother” and “why she didn’t want you”. Unprepared to answer the questions that arise, adopted children can internalize negative concepts about themselves as they struggle to answer questions such as “is that your real mom?”  Adding to their distress, children can worry about sharing these conversations if they perceive that these may upset you.

What You Can Do As A Parent- Giving Permission

Children need a whole lot of permission to know how they can take care of themselves when they are asked personal or private information. For all of us, difficult situations can be handled with more ease when we are prepared. So here are some ways that you can help your child be prepared to field and answer those difficult adoption questions.

As parents you can teach your child that;

  • It is ok to just ignore a question that makes you feel uncomfortable. It’s ok to walk away from people who ask a question that you do not want to answer, it is ok to walk away and to say nothing.                                      
  • It’s ok to tell a person, “That’s private” and end the discussion.
  • It’s ok to change the subject instead of answering a private or personal question.
  • If something makes you feel bad while you are at school, go to a trusted adult and get help.
  • That as a family you welcome sharing, talking and hearing each family member’s experiences of handling difficult questions.

As parents you can empower your child by teaching him to think before he answers a question;

  • How does he feel about the person asking the question? Is this a good friend, does he feel good or close to the person, or does he feel bullied or insulted by them? What might happen if he shared personal information with them?
  • How does the question make him feel i.e., embarrassed and angry or proud and happy? If the question makes him uncomfortable, he should know that he does not have to answer.
  • Will answering the question educate the person about adoption i.e., if someone asks him, “where are your real parents”, does he want to educate them and say,” my real parents are right over there, are you asking about my birthparents?”
  • It’s always up to him to decide and choose who he may want to share his story with and what part of his adoption story he wishes to share.

Modeling Behavior

As a parent of an adopted child, you have opportunities to modeling how you handle intrusive questions. Friends, relatives and strangers often ask questions of you in the presence of your child. We want to show children that personal information is private and that unless you really feel comfortable about responding, you shouldn’t. You also want to model that you will speak up when others make illogical or derogatory comments about adoption. No matter how well or poorly you respond in the moment, afterwards it is important to ask your child how he felt about the interchange. Be open to asking him how he would have liked you to answer the question. This discussion is as important as the modeling that you are doing for your child.

To open up this type of dialog, you can bring up something that happened in the past. If you think back, there’s probably at least one situation when you were asked an uncomfortable or intrusive question or somewhat negative comment about adoption that you did not address it in the way that you would have liked to. Feel free to bring up the situation with your child, let him know that you have remembered it, that it stayed with you and discuss how you would handle the situation today. It is likely that you have grown as a parent through the years and have probably gotten better at knowing how to respond to certain questions.

How Parents Can Help Educators  

The school environment can be an amazing place for children, one where they will learn among other things, who they are and what they can become. Peers and teachers have a tremendous impact on how children feel about themselves and their capacities, their popularity and more. Adopted children are very impacted by how adoption is handled in the classroom yet many teachers are unaware that adoptee’s face challenges at school. One such challenge lies within particular assignments that pose challenges for adopted students, such as genealogical assignments, family history assignments, infant pictures and/ or autobiographies.

Your child’s teacher can be extremely instrumental in normalizing and creating a positive classroom environment around adoption.  By integrating adoption as one way that families are made, they can help dismiss shame, feeling different and instill more pride in children who have been adopted.  Each positive classroom environment impacts a child’s school performance in a positive manner.

As a parent of an adopted student, you can promote the need for normalizing adoption by providing your child’s teacher with information and resources for learning more about adoption. As the school semester begins, you can meet with your child’s teacher to make suggestions. You can also direct educators to the resources available for schools that provide the tools and resources to support adopted children within the classroom. These resources will provide them with strategies about how to increase adoption awareness among students, age related issues for adopted and non- adopted children, how to handle tricky adoption questions as they arise in the classroom and ways in which they can incorporate adoption into their curriculum. Once your child’s teacher is comfortable with weaving adoption into their lessons, they can provide many opportunities to normalize adoption as one way that families are formed. Once educators understand the age related issues that adoptees and their non- adopted peers face, they can develop effective strategies to address these challenges.

Teaching your child that they have options, that they are the experts that they can educate the non- adopted world, is empowering. While we may not be able to shield our children from what they will face out in the world, we can give them the tools and the sense of entitlement necessary to navigate in a primarily non- adoptive world.