With camp season almost here, we wanted to reach out to parents so that they could start considering some of the topics that their children may bring up during and after heritage camps. Being in an environment with other adoptees and discussing the culture and history of your child’s birth country may provoke your child to ask some questions or start up conversations surrounding their adoption. Here are a few of these possible topics so that you can begin to think about how you would like to respond to them with your particular child and family.
Will I ever be able to visit my birth country? Many adoptees desire to visit their birth country. This may be for many reasons, but it can help with some of their questions about their past and assist them as they work to form their own identity. Please know that this is not a rejection of you or American culture, but simply a part of your child belonging to multiple cultures. Traveling to your child’s birth country can be a big commitment both financially and emotionally for families. The best option is to keep the conversation open and try to keep culture in your lives even when in the US.
Is it okay that I’m not interested in my birth country? Most likely, your camper won’t verbally ask this question, but they may be thinking it. Many international adoptees are very interested in their birth countries at some ages and less interested at other ages. Their personality also may cause them to be more or less interested in their birth culture than their peers. Whatever their interest level is, reassure them that it is normal. If your child just isn’t interested in their birth culture right now, that’s okay. Be aware that your child might also be rejecting birth culture for various reasons such as being different than peers, bullying, racism, or unanswered questions about their birth family. Give them space to also talk about these topics. If possible, find a group that your child/teen could attend that is with other kids who have been adopted or at least has more diversity. No child likes to feel alone or different all the time, so make an effort to give them opportunities to be in diverse situations. Identity is already hard to form during pre-teen/teens years, adding on dual heritages, unknown biological history, and being different than their peers they might feel safer to just fit in and not deal with birth culture.
Can we do ___ more? Your child may ask this verbally, or they may show you by the things that particularly seemed to excite them during camp. They may be interested in embracing the music, food, language, art, sports, or something completely different from their birth country. While you may not be able to cook cultural food every night, you may be able to promise food from their birth country one night every week, cultural bedtime stories, or to take a language class together. The more you show an effort and interest in their birth culture the more it will feel safe for them to talk about the hard things. See these culture nights or times as an attachment investment for when things do need to be discussed, such as birth family questions or possible racism that they have seen or experienced.
Why did I come to need a second family? Being surrounded by other adoptees may bring up questions from your children about their beginnings and the story of their birth family. This is a great time to have discussions about your child’s past. If you made a life book, camp is a great time to go back through it together. If you haven’t made one, this may be a good time to make one with your child. Many adoptees struggle with only knowing a tiny amount of information about their past. If you do have access to some information, try introducing it or reviewing in an age-appropriate way. If you don’t know any details behind your child’s adoption or about their birth parents, it is best not to make up stories. However, you can talk about why some birth family might make an adoption plan by learning about the culture of your child’s birth place, but the best answer sometimes is empathy and we just don’t know. This conversation can be really hard for adoptees to talk to their adoptive parents about. Create a culture in your home that makes birth family conversations feel more normal. For example you can talk about something they do well or how beautiful their smile is by stating “I wonder if you get that from your birth mother or father.” or “Wow, you’re so artistic, but no one in our family is. You might get that from your birth family.”
Why don’t I look like my family? Racial issues may be brought up after the camp experience, as your camper has likely just spent three days as a racial majority, which is likely to be unusual during their day-to-day life. Be open with your child and communicate the ways that you are different and experience life differently because of race. Ask them if they have experienced racism lately and let them know you are always open to talking about it. The biggest thing is to believe them when they share about racism experiences. Stating the other children might not understand what they said or mean what they said invalidates your child’s experience. Micro-aggressions can seem like small things, but your child might get these micro-aggressions on a frequent bases where it is actually not a small thing. Your teen wants to be validated, as whatever was said did affect them. If you haven’t found ways for your family to include diversity in your daily life, use this as an opportunity to do so by examining your friend circle, the toys, movies, and books you bring into your home, as well as the places you go on a regular basis.
Why don’t I feel like I’m actually from my birth country? Children who were born in a foreign country and grow up in American homes have a radically different experience than those who are born and raised in their birth country or born in in that country and raised in America by immigrants. Your children are truly bi-cultural, and while this can be a beautiful thing, it can also cause feelings of loneliness and being different. It can cause them to feel as though they are not wholly American or wholly a part of their birth country. Listen to your child and let them know that their feelings are valid. Make sure your child is able to interact with other adoptees and see other adoptees in media, so that they are able to connect their experience with others.
Is it okay if I think about my birth parents? It is completely normal for an adoptee to think about, fantasize about, and/or want to meet their birth parents. This is not a rejection of you as a parent, and does not mean your child does not love you. Just as you can love more than one child, a child may love or wonder about two sets of parents. Make sure you validate your child’s feelings, and let them know that you are open to talking with them about their birth parents. Your child will be more likely to talk to you about their feelings surround birth parents in the future if you respond in a positive, caring way now.