Adoption and Sexuality: Having 'The Talk' with Your Adopted Child
For many parents, few discussions are as angst-inspiring as talking to their children about sex. For the parents of adopted daughters, this task may generate additional anxiety as adoption and sexuality can become intertwined in complex, emotional ways for both adoptive parents and their adopted children.
Where did I come from?
Many adults who were adopted as children have noted that they encountered additional difficulties because their well-meaning but uncomfortable parents neglected to provide certain information about their birth when sharing their adoption story.
For example, when some parents talk to their adopted daughters and adopted sons, they convey the message that their adopted children’s lives began for their children at the time of the adoption placement. For example, the question “Where did I come from” may be answered with "You came home with us on an airplane from Korea when you were six months old," or “We worked very hard to find you through an agency.”
This desire to ignore or “gloss over” the children’s pre-adoptive experiences can be especially compelling if the adopted children had experience traumatic events early in their live. Unfortunately, though adoptive parents may make these decisions with the best of intentions, the result is that conception and birth can become confusing and mysterious for adopted sons and adopted daughters.
Answering with honesty
In the book Communicating with the Adopted Child, Miriam Komar writes that "parents of adopted children have no choice but to teach them early in life about sexual issues."
But in the cases of children who were voluntarily placed for adoption by birth parents, the adoption story may involve aspects of sexuality that are difficult for children to comprehend - unplanned pregnancy (and the option of abortion), pregnancy outside of marriage, teenage pregnancy, multiple sex partners resulting in unknown birth fathers, and even rape.
Parents often fear talking with their children about these issues out of their desire to protect them. They worry that their child's self-esteem will be compromised and/or their child will "follow in their birth parents' footsteps."
- The truth is that children need information and guidance in order to develop self-esteem and positive sexual identities.
- They need parental support to ensure their health and physical safety, and reduce the chance that they will make undesirable decisions about their own sexuality.
- Communication is critical. Such discussions include helping adopted children develop empathy for their birth parents and the choices they made.
To accomplish this, is important that parents feel comfortable sharing the entire story of their adopted children’s birth and adoption.
Adoption experts encourage parents to include information about their own story about becoming adoptive parents when they discuss reproduction with their adopted sons and adopted daughters.
For example, parents can tell about wanting a child, planning to become pregnant, and then beginning the process of adoption, while at the same time a woman was growing her baby but wondered whether she could raise him/her.
Again, this helps the adopted children know that they were born like everyone else and encourages their understanding of reproduction. It also helps them bridge the gap that may exist in their minds between their past with their birth family and their present life with their adoptive parents.
- In addition, while most children do not like to imagine their parents as sexual beings, adopted children also sometimes believe that infertility means asexuality.
- Adoptive parents need to look for appropriate ways to correct this misperception so that their adopted daughters and adopted sons will view them as a resource for information on sexuality as well as role models to identify with.
- Single parents who are not in relationships must also establish themselves as authorities on healthy sexuality.
In addition to issues faced by all adopted children, some adopted children are also forced to cope with the trauma of having been victims of sexual abuse, or siblings of victims. Parents of adopted children who come from these types of traumatic background will likely need extra guidance in this area.
An ongoing process
Most experts agree that talking to children about sex isn’t a one-time event, but rather an ongoing dialogue. The following tips may help adoptive parents participate in this conversation in a way that is most beneficial to themselves and their adopted children.
- Familiarize yourself with books about talking with children about sex. Choose some to share with your child.
- Don't wait for adopted children to ask questions. Think about what your adopted child needs to know, and look for "teachable moments."
- Be familiar with sex education programs in your adopted child’s schools.
- Model talking about feelings.
- Answer questions directly and honestly.
- Ask questions about your adopted child's peer group. "I've read some disturbing news about middle school children engaging in certain sexual practices. Is this happening with your friends or school mates?"
- Point out the challenges of making decisions related to sexuality.
- Model positive attitudes about sexual orientation, diverse standards of beauty, including identifying role models from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Most importantly, realize that neither you nor your adopted children are alone as you work to engage in this challenging yet essential dialogue.
Depending up on your adopted child’s background and other issues your adopted child has experienced while growing up, professional assistance (in the form of outpatient therapy, ongoing counseling, participation in an adoption support group, or enrolling in a private boarding school that is prepared to provide comprehensive assistance for adopted children and their adoptive families) may be the ideal option.