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How to talk to your kids about adoption

Social worker Janie Cravens has been educating adoptive parents on how to talk to their kids about adoption. She will give online seminars on the subject through Adoption Advocates in February and March.

Janie Cravens has made a career of working with adoptive families on how to talk to their kids about being adopted and how to weave the story of their birth family into their lives. 

Cravens will do three virtual seminars in February and March through Adoption Advocates, a nonprofit Austin adoption agency, about how to talk to children.

When she first started as a social worker in adoption in 1979, closed adoption was the norm, and having an open adoption, where the adoptive family knows about the birth family, just wasn't done. 

Then she did her first open adoption. She came out of that meeting, during which the birth mother thanked the adoptive family for taking her baby, and saw what she calls "the blessing" in the biological parent giving permission to the adoptive family.

She also began to think about the way parents talk to their kids about adoption and the way to handle the story of their birth and their adoption, and whatever happened in between.

One of the things she learned from her years working in adoption is that adoptive parents really have to be prepared to talk about adoption openly and in a positive way with their children from the beginning. 

The first step is for the adoptive parents to claim a sense of entitlement to be that child's parents, to not see themselves as less than the birth parents. That also might mean dealing with the trauma of not being able to have children biologically or having miscarriages. It means coming to terms with the idea that they will not share a biological link with this child.

Then parents need to create a narrative around that adoption to make it a positive thing. It's not an all-encompassing thing. If your child's life was a yardstick, adoption would cover about an inch of that yardstick, Cravens says. The rest of the yardstick would be the same for other kids, she says.

Cravens likens talking to kids about adoption to talking to them about sex or racial justice. It's your job as parents, and it's important, but you don't start out by talking about hormones or systemic racism before they are developmentally ready for those concepts.

That adoption narrative changes as children age and begin to understand more about the world, come in contact with more than just their family and begin to developmentally understand hard things. 

The story for kids before age 6 is about that they were meant to be in their family. Some parents use language of faith, others use more magical words or a sense of wonder, but it's always the goodness in the fact that they are with their family. 

"When they are little, it's a positive creation story that they will talk about out in public," Cravens says. "They'll tell the lady in line at the H-E-B, 'I'm adopted.'" 

It's not a secret. It's not full of shame. It's full of wonder.

Around age 6, kids begin to understand hard things, and they come in contact with other kids who are not adopted. They become more inquisitive about the "why" behind adoption. Parents have to be ready to shift the story beyond just the magical or sense of wonder, but still in positive ways. 

By age 9, Cravens says, kids really begin to understand that everybody has good qualities and more difficult qualities. Their parents are no longer on a pedestal, which means questions follow. 

Cravens says parents want to "create an environment in which the child can talk freely about their adoption story."

Some of the harder details of their story will begin to be told, so that as they age they have the full picture of what their birth story was, even if that's a story of court involvement. Parents want to make sure their child doesn't hear the details from other family members or neighbors or family friends.

This is also when kids are more aware of harmful (and untrue) messages about their family being less than a biological family. These can come from peers, teachers or family members. 

Sometimes even the best, well-meaning statements can be hurtful. Cravens gives examples such as people saying "what a lucky boy you are" or that "you were chosen" to be in your family. Those statements can send the message that a child was "unchosen" by the birth family, or that something was fundamentally wrong with them at birth that they had to be "lucky" to get adopted. 

"Every kid deserves to be in a family," Cravens says.

The job of parents is not to spare kids from hurting, but to show them how to hurt, to acknowledge those feelings and lean into them instead of trying to take them away, Cravens says. 

"The kid always feels the loss of what would life have been like in a birth family," Cravens says, or this idea that "there was something about me that caused me not to be kept." 

Working with a good adoption agency or good counselors can help parents and their children create that positive, realistic adoption narrative. Cravens said adoptive parents use to think that if they "loved their kid right," they wouldn't be curious about their birth family.

"That doesn't make sense," Cravens says. "What the kid needs is to tell a narrative that makes sense. ... They need a narrative about why did this happen to them. ... If they think they fell from poison tree, they are not going to grow up to be the self-loving adult you want them to be."

Nicole Villalpando writes about parenting for the American-Statesman. She can be reached at nvillalpando@statesman.com.

'Talking About Adoption With Tweens' 

10 a.m. Feb. 6 and 10 a.m. March 6

'Adoption Talk: Ages 5-9'

10 a.m. Feb. 20

$150 per family

Register at adoptionadvocates.net/events.