Our latest blog comes from our friend, The Adoption Maven. For many adoptive parents, questions arise once the kids head back to school about their background. Kathy Ann Brodsky, LCSW, a New York and New Jersey licensed social worker, adoptive mom and advocate for ethical adoption practice, shares her advice for how to navigate the school years with your adopted child.
BACK TO SCHOOL, DAYCARE and AFTERSCHOOL
It's that time of year. The weather is starting to turn a bit cooler and you and the kids are thinking about the changes to come. School looms large. Some of you are looking forward with hopes and dreams for a promising academic year, with smooth transitions, good peer relationships, understanding teachers and plans that fall into place. Some of you may also be a bit anxious on how adoption may come into play during the coming months. The two biggest issues parents contact me about are: in-class and homework assignments related to family formation, and decisions about disclosure, including when and how much to reveal.
At various stages of the education process, these assignments and discussions crop up. For an adopted child (and parent) the lessons can raise anxiety in their not being able to complete an assignment on a Family Tree. Do they need to reveal the adoption? Can they make up answers? Will they fake a stomach ache to stay home that day? How much sleep will you lose as the concerned parent? Should you talk to the teacher? How can you help prepare your child on what to say or how to answer questions from others?
In the early years, it is usually about a time line showing HOW MUCH I'VE GROWN (including a baby picture). This is most problematic for a child not adopted as a newborn or one that does not resemble other family members. How do they complete an assignment without that photo? How will they answer questions from peers? Should you as the parent talk to the teacher? And what about that parent, who many years ago, told me she cropped an infant's photo out of a magazine for her child's timeline and has felt bad ever since?
Even a young child can learn about their adoption and how to answer simple questions from others. Often, they repeat what they have heard. So, choose your words wisely and be aware of any body-language or other non-verbal messages you are relaying. If you are anxious, identify what is upsetting you - that others will look at you and your child differently? Have more questions than you are prepared to answer? It is up to you and your child what to reveal about your situation or about adoption in general.
In elementary school, there are discussions of WHO IS IN MY FAMILY. By now your child should know a bit about their early history and how they became a member of your family. How do they view their birth parents and siblings (if any)? What do they call them? How rigid is the teacher or school about the assignment? Are their options for family formation depictions (trees, orchards, photos, etc.?) Is it up to the child to devise their family profile? How will you feel with birth family members included (or not included) in the family assignment? Can you discuss this with the teacher so that you understand their concept and share your views prior to the assignment? To do so, you will need to disclose the adoption.
Later years may include the genetic chart HOW I GOT MY EYE AND HAIR COLOR. By now, your child should have the tools to disclose what they want and to whom they want? They should understand the concept of sharing their information, sharing generic information or choosing not to share anything. Reinforce their choice while you explore why they are making that choice. Help them express their thoughts (do not interject your thoughts) and help them practice how to talk to others, if needed. Since many children disclose during this stage, prepare them for questions from others. Not all information in your child's history needs to or should be shared, except by your child, if and when they are ready.
Afterschool activities are another area where questions may arise. Your child may share their adoption with another person or someone may assume and ask you questions. Remember, you do not have to answer any question that is posed to you. Or you may choose to give basic adoption process information, but not any personal details of yours or your child.
Often meeting with the adults in charge of classrooms or activities at the start of the program and sharing the adoption status allows you to ask them to alert you if an assignment is coming up or if academic or casual discussions are occurring or if your child is talking about adoption. A simple email or phone call can give you a heads-up or can catch-you-up on social or classroom activities.
I started doing this when my kids were 5 years old. I would ask for an early year meeting with each teacher and explaining that we were a family built through adoption. I would ask for any feedback during the year and for any assignments that may relate to family. It worked - I got emails, calls or was pulled aside and told of - books they would be reading - overheard conversations between friends - upcoming assignments. That was all good. I was asked if I wanted to read a book about adoption at circle time in my daughter's classroom. I could answer questions from other kids. I left the book in the classroom library. For all I know, it is still there. I was also told of introductions teachers made of my daughters to other adopted kids. Not so good, although the teacher had good intentions. The other mother was not pleased either. I took the opportunity to privately educate the teacher about keeping the confidentiality of the children.
Overall, my experiences were positive. I gave out the information I wanted and thought pertinent. As a mother and social worker, I taught them proper adoption language. I trained teachers, school administrators, clinicians and more. Somedays it was enlightening, others exhausting. I still counsel parents and kids about disclosure and school interviews.
Each September is a new beginning. Wishing you a great school year.