March 2, 2022
How to Talk About Birth Family with Your Adopted Teen
Every adoption story is different. First, there are the three main types of adoption: foster adoption, private adoption, and international adoption. Second, the stories of why children are placed for adoption are unique to each individual.
Some may come from situations where their first parents couldn’t care for them for one reason or another. Others may come from situations where their parents were unsafe to be with and had their parental rights taken away.
Either way, the removal of a child from their original parents is traumatic—whether the child remembers that event or not.
Because of the trauma involved, talking about birth family can be a very sensitive situation. Here are some tips to help you navigate these often difficult conversations with your teen.
1. Be Okay with Positive Expressions About Birth Family
Many adoptees feel like they can’t say positive things about their biological family. They may feel guilty talking about happy memories, expressing feelings of missing or loving that first family, or trying to incorporate the cultural traditions of where they came from in their lives.
Where does this guilt come from?
Unfortunately, this guilt can (though not always) come from the parents and how their children observe their reactions when the topic of birth family comes up. Your children are very mindful of your feelings and expressions.
Whether or not it’s intended, a startled or reserved look, a change in subject, or focusing on the negative parts of the past when your child brings up the positive parts of their past may be interpreted by your child that they shouldn’t have those positive feelings about where they came from. Such guilt may even affect their self-esteem as where they come from (a key part of their identity) is associated with negativity.
Of course, not every parent reacts to the subject of birth family negatively—and most certainly not intentionally in a way meant to cause guilt. However, it is important to understand that how you respond to your teen when they are talking about the past can have a huge impact.
So, how can you positively respond to your teen talking about their birth family? Check out this next point!
2. Ask Your Teen Questions About Their Birth Family & Adoption Experience
When you ask positive, conversation-encouraging questions, your teen may feel more comfortable talking about the past. They may also feel more understood and respected for where they come from.
Now, the type of questions you ask may depend on the type of adoption your teen went through and the specifics behind their story. However, here are a few questions you might want to ask as either conversation starters or in response to when they willingly talk about their birth family. They won’t be applicable to every adoptee, but some might!
- What is one good memory you have of your birth family?
- If you could visit where you came from, what is one thing you would want to do there?
- What is one thing you wish you knew about your birth parents?
- Do you think you’d ever want to meet your birth family?
- Which personality traits do you think came from your birth family?
- How do you feel about being adopted?
- Do your friends know you’re adopted? If so, what do they think of that?
- If you could tell your birth parents one thing, what would it be?
There are so many different questions you can ask. As you have these conversations, be sure to feel it out. If the conversation gets to a point where your teen indicates that they aren’t comfortable talking about their birth family anymore, that’s fine. You can say something like, “That’s okay. I love you, and I appreciate you sharing all of this with me. When you’re ready, let’s continue this conversation. I’m always here for you.” It’s also important to note that your child’s answers to these questions and comfortability answering them may change over time.
3. Make the Conversation an Experience
While this won’t be necessary for every conversation, every now and then it might be a good idea to revolve the conversation around an interactive, positive experience. It doesn’t have to be extravagant, but there are many different ways to help your teen form a positive connection with their past and have fun talking about it. Here are just a few ideas:
- Share pictures from their adoption or any pictures you might have of where they came from.
- Cook and eat a meal together that represents their heritage.
- Celebrate a holiday that is unique to where they came from.
- Watch a documentary or movie that respectfully represents their culture.
- Do a fun art project that has do with their past
While some of these ideas may seem only applicable to international adoptions, you can still find some creative ways to make them applicable to local adoptees as well.
4. Ask Your Teen How They Want to Refer to Their Birth Parents
Some adoptees can be very particular about the terms that are used when referring to their adoption experience. How you and others talk about their adoption may be triggering, so understanding what those triggers are is very important. For example, how do they want their birth parents referred to?
Some may use biological mother/father, birth mother/father, birth mom/dad, first parents, etc. Some adoptees are very sensitive about using the terms “mom” and “dad” when referring to their birth parents. If you know the names of your teens birth parents, ask your teen how they feel when those names are mentioned. Those names may or may not be triggering.
Many adoptees are also triggered when their biological parents are referred to as their “real parents”. While this may not be said within your immediate family, it is a common experience for adoptees to be asked about their “real parents” by individuals outside their family who do not understand adoption. If this happens with your teen, let them express how they feel and talk through with them some potential future responses. If someone were to says “Do you know your real parents?”, for example, a response could be something like “No, I only know my imaginary parents”. That may be a funny way for your teen to show others that such a question could be offensive, and then they can take the opportunity to educate the other person on their preferred terms.
Because every adoption experience is unique, your teen’s preferences and triggers may be different from other adoptees. It just might depend on the level of trauma involved, how your teen is coping, and if there are any attachment issues. So, it’s important to know how your teen is most comfortable referring to their birth family when that is the conversational topic at hand. This will help make those conversations more productive and positive.
5. Involve a Therapist If Needed
Adoption can be a tough subject. While some parents and adoptees may be fully able to have the conversation, it may be difficult for others. It can come with both trauma and drama. Talking about it in a parent-child relationship may require mediation or some form of guided conversation which is best done by a licensed therapist who understands the complexities of adoption.
If your teen struggles with talking about adoption or if you as the parent struggle talking about their adoption, then look for an adoption therapist near you. It’s important that your teen learns how to cope with and process their past, so they can move forward towards a happy, successful future.
Note: There are so many different ways for you to have a healthy conversation about birth family with your teen. Remember to be honest no matter what, welcome questions, and respect your teen’s emotions.
Turn-About Ranch Serves Adoptive Families!
At Turn-About Ranch, our team has a lot of experience working with adopted teens and their families. In fact, about 20 percent of our teens have experienced adoption. Here, they’ll participate in individual, group, and family therapy where they will get the opportunity to talk about their past and process it in a safe and healthy way. They’ll also be able to process any attachment issues they may have as they are assigned horses and care for them while participating in our equine therapy program.
While teens are in our care, we’ll also work with their families on how to meet their needs and understand how to navigate adoption and other issues that they may be struggling with. If this sounds like something your family needs, please contact us and feel free to ask us any questions you may have.