Every Child
11/9/15 at 09:25 AM 0 Comments

Why Adopted Children Need to Know Their Stories

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The following was written by Angie Johnston, adult adoptee and mother, and originally appeared in Lifelines, Bethany Christian Services' quarterly magazine.

Good information about how and when to talk with your children about their adoptions is available, and I highly encourage you to read it. But before you do that, let’s grapple with the issue of why talking with them is important.

The purpose of open, age-appropriate dialogue about adoption is to connect our children with their existence so they can freely become themselves. To become secretive, afraid, or even passive about adoption dishonors a child’s very being and creates more doubts about the significance of his or her existence.

All children need to know they matter. They need experiential knowledge that their existence on this earth is real and that it is good. From that internal sense and knowledge, a child can form the virtue of self-acceptance and develop the all-important ability to give and receive love. For our adopted children, that internal sense about their existence is harder to find. What does all that mean? Let’s break it down.

Sense of Being
This is a sense that most of us take for granted. If we had mothers and fathers who nurtured us, loved us well, and met our needs for affection, we probably have a strong sense that we are here, we exist, we are alive, and being here is good.

Any number of things can hinder a child from developing a sense of being—separation from one’s birthmother is one of many. The degree to which a child has had to escape his or her existence to survive is the degree to which that child will need to recover a sense of being.

In the movie The Color Purple, the main character, Celie, was oppressed and abused. The one person she knew loved her—her sister, Nettie—was forced away from her life. Twenty years later, she found letters Nettie had written to her, and the discovery facilitated her healing. She was finally able to realize that her sister still loved her and had not abandoned her. Celie was eventually able to break away from the man who had kept her under his thumb in shame and abuse.

As Celie drove away from him, he yelled at her, saying she would never amount to anything. She emphatically yelled back in freedom, “I may be all those things you say, but I’m here, and I’m alive!”
Celie had lived her entire life without a sense of being and without a voice. Her declaration of existence set the stage for her healing and for her to live her story.

When we openly talk with our children about their stories—however good or bad—it connects them with their existence. When we as parents are unafraid of their stories we honor our children’s existence. We say to them, “You are real. You are here. You exist.”

Consistently and courageously honoring their stories is one of the primary ways we heal the question of existence that troubled their souls when they were separated from their birthparents.

Sense of Well-Being
This is not to be confused with a sense of being, although one cannot have wellbeing without having a self to feel well about. A sense of well-being is not only the self-knowledge that “I am here,” but it is also the sense in our core that being here is good. It is a sense that “I enjoy being alive, and I matter.”

The circumstances of our birth speak life or doubt to our sense of well-being. Every child asks this question about well-being, but adopted children ask it with more doubt. An adopted child begins to question the goodness of his or her existence upon the discovery that he or she was separated from the one who made space in her womb for the child’s first nine months.

We do not need to be afraid of creating a wound in our children when we speak openly about their stories. In fact, when we embrace and explore their stories with them, we bring healing to their doubts. With time, our children will become less afraid of their wounds and become more free to grow. If we accept our place in our children’s lives as well as the people who gave them life, our children will be more likely to embrace their unique journeys.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to accept one’s self without a sense of being or well-being. Self-acceptance is the ability to freely accept who we are—both our strengths and our struggles.

As a mom, I used to think that openly praising my children for anything and everything they did would nurture their self-acceptance. I wish I had learned sooner that children who have a sense of self-acceptance should not be overly praised. If anything, overpraising breeds insecurity by creating in our children the need to be constantly affirmed to feel okay.

Self-acceptance stems from being rooted in foundational truth: I do exist on this earth. It is good that I am here. I matter. Self-acceptance comes from love, nurturing, and patience, but it also comes from connecting our children with their stories.

Connecting adopted children with their stories in appropriate ways from day one is a powerful way to cultivate the kind of soil in the soul in which self-acceptance can grow.

Ability to Give and Receive Love
Isn’t this skill the foundation for healthy—not perfect—relationships? Isn’t this what we ultimately hope for our children? In the last six months, two mothers shared with me that the reason they chose to adopt from another country was that they were afraid to deal with the biological family. International adoption gave them the distance and security they needed to become a mother to a child who was not biologically their own.

Later, those same two women shared how surprised they were to grieve, literally weep, over the fact that their little girls will never have the chance to know the women who gave them birth or the stories of how they came to be. I was moved to tears hearing them, knowing the wonderful gift they are now giving to their daughters by not living in fear of their daughters’ roots. They never imagined that love could move them enough to want their daughters to know the mothers who gave them life.

We do not need to be afraid of our children’s stories, no matter how painful they are. We do not need to be afraid of our children’s birthparents out of fear that we will mean less to our children because we did not give birth to them. We can courageously embrace and connect our children to their stories, knowing this is an act of love and will ultimately bring greater security to our relationships with them.

What a gift of love our child’s story of adoption is. Enjoy your role as mother or father in giving your child a sense of being, a sense of well-being, a safe place to accept him- or herself, and the ability to give and receive love. This is why we talk with children about adoption.

For more information on how you can become an adoptive or foster family, visit www.bethany.org.

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