While parenting any child has its trials, parenting an adopted child comes with its own set of unique challenges.
Some may come from your family – through relatives who treat your child differently or refuse to accept them. Others can come from the school – through classroom assignments about the family tree or classmates who tease. They can stem from the community – by nosy neighbors or friends who feel entitled to interrogate you about the adoption experience.
Terilee Wunderman, whose two adopted children are now adults, has been through it all. Now the Kendall psychotherapist, who has 30 years of experience working with adoptive issues, helps guide other parents through the process.
The first tools in your arsenal should be a sense of humor and a little advance preparation, Wunderman said.
"Use humor, and have a canned reply ready for insensitive comments. If someone says 'Don't you want any children of your own?' or asks your child 'Don't you want to know your real parents?' then say something funny like 'They're real enough for me!'"
The bottom line is to deflect intrusive comments while keeping the relationship between you and your child your No. 1 priority.
"Most people don't know anything about adoption except for what they've seen on TV. A lot of times, it's an adoptive parent's job to educate others about it," she said. "In the process, parents are showing their children how to deal with it when the world doesn't accept them, whether it's because they are not athletic or have curly hair, or for whatever reason."
Here are some quick tips from local adoption experts:
Why is it important for adoptive parents to seek support?
Cherish Adoptive Families, a South Florida support group for adoptive families, and those considering adoption.
South Dade Foster and Adoptive Parents, a new support group for adoptive families.
Adopting.org includes articles and resources for adoptive parents, adoptees and those looking to adopt.
Adoptivefamilies.com, a national magazine for adoptive families.
Tapestrybooks.com, specializes in books on adoption
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Jeanne Becker, president of Cherish Adoptive Families, a support group that serves South Florida parents considering adoption, as well as those who have already adopted, said adoptive parents can benefit from each other.
"Many issues can come up, and it's comforting for parents to talk to other parents," said Becker, who adopted her 13-year-old son from Russia when he was 14 months old. Cherish Adoptive Families meets four to six times a year and sponsors family picnics and educational programs.
When should I talk to my child about adoption?
Start using the terminology and getting comfortable with it from day one, because it's part of him, Becker says. "Adoption is a joyous, beautiful thing, and it should be something you embrace," she said.
At age 2 or 3, put together a life book that tells your child's adoption story. Then answer questions as they come up, in terms they can understand.
Adrienne Rich Hochman, a Miami clinical social worker and psychotherapist with Adoption Associates of South Florida, recommends using storybooks about adoption as a jumping off point - www.tapestrybooks.com has several. Becker likes Talking to Young Children About Adoption, by Mary Watkins and Susan Fisher.
My adopted child is starting school. Should I tell the teacher he is adopted?
If a child is young, Becker advises telling the teacher "because some teachers need to be educated about how to talk about adoption," she said. But as your child gets older, "you want to respect the privacy of the child," Becker added.
Hochman said it can be helpful to tell the teacher in advance if the child is struggling with the adoption, or if the adoption may be obvious to others. For example, if the child is a different race from the parents, and you fear the other kids may pick up on it and tease your child.
"But if it's not obvious, keep it on a need-to-know basis," Hochman says. "If it's not going to affect their school performance, then why should it be an issue?"
What advice should I give my child about talking to his friends about adoption?
If it comes up and the child feels comfortable talking about it, then they should talk about it, but if they don't want to talk about it, that's OK too, Becker says.
"Sometimes, as a child gets older and enters their teen years, they don't want to be set apart, and they may not want to talk about it. And that's OK," she said. "It's a non-issue in many ways. It's just part of who they are."
What if someone asks intrusive questions about the adoption that I don't want to answer?
You are not obligated to disclose anything you want to keep private. "Answer as much as you feel comfortable answering," Becker says.
If someone asks why their birth mother give them up, it's OK to keep that information private, she said. "You can say, 'That's my child's personal information, and that's up to him to discuss it if he chooses to do that one day.'"
Becker adds a word of caution: Parents are guardians of their child's information, so be careful about who you share the intimate details with. You want to your child to hear the back-story from you, not in passing from a friend or relative.
My child feels rejected because their birth parents didn't want them. What do I do?
When a child is very young, they parrot what their parents tell them about adoption, Hochman says. But when they reach the age they can cognitively understand adoption, around 5 to 7, they may experience some feelings of rejection because they feel someone "didn't want" them. Kids may wonder if it's because something was wrong with them.
The first thing a parent should do is correct that assumption, and tell them it has nothing to do with them, but with the birth parent's inability to raise a child.
"It is a loss when they come to the realization that they won't be raised by their birth parents," Hochman said. "I tell parents everyone lives with loss, and it's important to validate their feelings and tell the child that in times of pain and loss, people will be there to support them. That's an important lesson."
I have both adopted and biological kids, how I do help ensure a happy blended family?
Act and let them know you love them equally, Wunderman says. "It has to come from the parents, that both are loved equally, regardless of their birth parents," she says. "I like to say we all have birth parents, we just don't all grow up with them. The bottom line is, if they're your children, then they're your children."
My adopted child doesn't look like me. How do I answer questions like 'Where did he get that hair or those eyes'?
Have an answer prepared that speaks to who they are and not who they look like, Wunderman advises. "If someone says 'Where did he get that black hair?' you say, 'Isn't it gorgeous?'"
Honor who they are, and honor their differences, she says. Sometimes biological children have a different hair or eye color, or are taller or have a different look than their parents. Don't blame a different look on the adoption, just accept it as different.
How do I get my extended family to treat my adopted child like the other kids?
Some of your extended family will be thrilled and supportive and others may not want anything to do with your child, Wunderman says. Accept the fact that it has nothing to do with you or your child, and that it has to do with them. Your No. 1 priority should be your relationship with your child.
"It can really hurt because you may not have the relationship with that relative that you would like, but a lot of times people do come around," she says.
What happens if my child wants to search for his adoptive parents?
"In Florida, a child has to be 18 to access the adoption registry, so I tell parents to wait until their child is 18, so they will be more emotionally mature," Wunderman says. "If they are curious before, answer them in a way that's appropriate for their age."
Don't look at it as a rejection, but as them seeking a better understanding of themselves. And if they're not curious about their birth parents, that's OK too, she says.