To Tell or Not to Tell (About Being Adopted)

There was a discussion today on Facebook about situations in which adoptees or others within the adoption community come in contact with families who have revealed to them, but not their child, the child's adopted status.  In other words, the family believes that they have not arrived at the "correct" age for telling of this important information.

There are various viewpoints and approaches one can take when you become aware of this.  The two most common that come to mind are:

1.  You can choose to say nothing and mind your own business.
2.  You can choose to educate the family from your perspective.

#1 is the easy, conflict-avoidant way to be able to go on with your day and (hopefully) not be rehashing this in your head for another week or two.  It is politically correct to stay out of other people's business.  No risk involved.  Move on with your life.

#2 is more difficult, because you have to think of a way to approach the situation so that the family is able to hear you without becoming defensive.  Before you decide, consider this:

There may be really great reasons that the family has not told the child.  There may be serious emotional barriers, especially in an in-family situation that would cause the family to take the path of least resistance.  There are fears associated with telling a child they are adopted (will the child feel different, less loved, will they love us less?).  Every stage of development brings on new concerns when it comes to telling a child they are adopted.  Especially during the teen years, when identity is forming, waiting until this age can be risky.

I don't have the one-size-fits-all answer.  I don't have the magic age.  I can't tell you specifically what to do in your situation (if you need support, find an adoption-competent therapist).  However, I can tell you what I did.

Because I have both the view of being adopted and am also an adoptive parent, I thought about how my parents handled it (did I agree with their methods?  How did it make me feel?) and then I thought about how this approach would affect my daughter emotionally.

The #1 concern I had around the telling of the adoption story is that my daughter trust me to always tell her the truth.  So, with that being my goal, I knew that I had to always make decisions to meet this goal of truth-telling.  Our story has parts of it that are difficult to tell.  Like all adoption stories, if you get to the root of the reason there was an adoption in the first place, there is trauma, heartbreak and difficulties that led to the decision.

What my parents did:  The adoption agency where I was adopted from educated parents in 1965 to tell their children they were adopted.  I never felt unloved as it related to my being told I was adopted.  Because I was told at an age that I can not remember, I just accepted it as "the way things were".   However, I am fairly certain my parents had specific information on my birth family that they chose not to tell me.  (my birth name was listed on my adoption paperwork; however, I was not aware of this until my late 30s).  In the closed era, I would imagine most adoptive parents kept quiet about the details of their child's past.  My parents were no exception.

In weighing the approaches of my adoptive parents, I came to this conclusion:  I was thankful they told me very young I was adopted.  I was not happy that they withheld my birthname from me.

Because of my personality, I knew that nothing short of telling the truth was going to be something I could live with.  From my daughter's birth, I kept a journal with her story in it (since obviously when she was an infant, she couldn't read it or process a telling of the story yet).  I wanted to be sure I did not forget things that were important to write down.  I saved photos, mementos from the hospital . .. anything I thought she might want to see when she was old enough.

I must admit it saddens me when I learn of people who have never told their child they were adopted. . . . it grieves me when I hear of an adult who is still walking around never being told.  In my heart, I feel that it is one of the most deep betrayals that someone can bestow upon you.  I know there are people who will say that because their adoptive parents loved them so much, that this "not telling" is acceptable.  I disagree with that.  If you knew that your child had a history of a specific medical disease (because you learned the information from the birth family) and you did not reveal it to the doctor and use that information to help to diagnose and treat a condition in your child, that would be considered medical neglect.

Well, by not telling your adopted child they are adopted, is in my view, psychological and emotional neglect. It is a very important piece of your child's identity that they have a right to have.  It should never be withheld to assuage the fears and insecurities of adoptive parents.  I don't have the magic age and I don't have reassurances to give you that your child will take his adoption as no big deal, like I did mine . . . .but I will tell you that if you choose not to tell . . .there will be negative consequences to that child and to your relationship.

But . .. back to the original question.  Do you mind your business or do you attempt to educate?  I truly believe it depends on the relationship you have with the person confiding in you.  Are these complete strangers who are just dumping information on you?  I would probably just let it go.  Is this a family you are close to because of some club or group you are both members of?  I may attempt to educate.  The information is out there for people who want it.  The difficulty is breaking through the fears of the family who have not told.  One conversation may not change their minds.  A testimony from somebody who has been in the trenches may just make them feel guilt and dig in their heals.  We really can't control what other people do in their families.

One thing I have found quite interesting is how many people ask me if my husband and I have told our daughter the truth.  I used to get annoyed by this question, but now I see it as an opportunity to educate.  Yes, she knows the truth and I wouldn't have it any other way.


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