Thoughts for Adoptive Parents

I am a Vietnamese adoptee raised in an Anglo-Saxon Australian family since the age of 5 months old. I have written this in response to an adoptive parent who asked what advice I could give to adoptive parents to help assist the adoptive child in dealing with their adoption issues. 

Following my suggestions are responses from adoptive parent, Julia Rollings who has adopted (internationally and domestically) and fostered many children.

Here are some of my thoughts about what parents can do to assist their children in dealing with the adoption issues.

I’ve also expressed these on various radio interviews and discussion with social workers. I’d like to clarify that my thoughts are based on my own experience as an intercountry adoptee as well as the numerous conversations I have with intercountry adoptees in my role of providing on-going support to them at ICASN. Much of this support is done via phone, one-to-one get togethers, e-mail, as well as working in conjunction with various groups who also support adoptees (such as the Post Adoption Resource Centre, Dept. of Community Services) and the projects/forums that I participate in.

The first point I’d like to mention is the importance of establishing a close and loving relationship with the adoptee and help them to feel safe enough to express the good and the bad feelings/thoughts they have on being adopted.  Even when the bad feelings are expressed remember it is not a reflection on the adoptive parent (my only exception is in the case of abuse/violence from adoptive families which sadly has happened to too many adoptees). Many adoptees that I know, no matter how good their parents were, experience conflicting emotions and unless these can be expressed, the feelings become bottle up and become more negative and exaggerated than is real. I would summarise the importance of this point as saying, “In the long run, it is better to express than to suppress”.

Response from Julia Rollings:
I agree completely with this. I’ve told my kids as they got older (late primary school) that negative feelings or questions don’t threaten us and we know they don’t indicate a lack of love. I’ve occasionally encouraged my kids to talk about negative stuff by asking questions like, “What do you guys think about adoption?”. Wehn all their comments were positive I said, “Okay, now tell me about all the stuff that sucks”. I’ve also raised questions like, “Do you wonder what your life would have been like if ..” so they know that all topics are open. If parents don’t specifically give permission for discussion on these things and encourage it, kids aren’t goign to be the ones to initiate the difficult topics if parents don’t set the example and make the discussion easy. (Now – how do I teach a 12 year old to stop discussing sex?)

Include as much of the adoptee’s cultural heritage in their upbringing as possible.  For example, go to restaurants/shows/events, read books, watch movies that explore and/or have been created by the adoptee’s culture of origin. But at the same time allow the adoptee the right to choose which culture(s) they want to incorporate into their life.

Many intercountry adoptees in the past were denied their culture due to a lack of understanding of its importance. I’ve seen a huge change in this today and am glad.  The adoptee experience has often been one of “not-belonging” to either culture. I believe that in integrating the culture/heritage into the adoptee’s upbringing, we will assist the adoptee in establishing a better “sense of belonging” and help them to understand that they can benefit by taking “the best of both worlds”. Having a choice is important. If the adoptee wants to reject their culture/heritage of origins (whether this be temporary or permanent) than that is fine – but they must have the choice rather than feeling that they were picked up and placed into a different country/culture and forced to take on their adoptive family’s culture or their own from their adoptive family.

I’ve also met intercountry adoptees who say their parents forced cultural things onto them that they weren’t ready for and didn’t want from their birth culture. Goes to show there is no set list of rules as to how to raise adoptive children .. adoptees are as complex as any other human being.

Response from Julia Rollings:
I wonder how the culture was integrated for the kids who didn’t want it? I worry a bit that paernts might take the easy option of non-involvement, with the excuse that the child “wasn’t interested” or didn’t want to. I also wonder whether involvement was introduced at a later age, or in a way that made the child feel out of place, rather than having it as an ordinary unremarkable part of family life. It isn’t a special “adoptee only” thing for us. We have friends from our kids birth countries and we could hardly stop involvement with their cultures without changing friends, our ordinary family diet, our usual weekend activities and so on (we have a mega jar of Kimchi on our kitchen bench and at least 20 varieties of chilli products in the fridge). I have allowed my younger kids to drop language lessons because they were not enjoying the classes.

I was guilty of gently pushing Madhu into cultural involvement and not allowing him to choose to reject his birth culture – which he was trying to do. Within a couple of weeks of joining our family, my mother asked him what he thought of Australia. He said, “Australia good – India yuck” and that became his mantra. He wanted nothing to do with anything Indian when he joined us and I was sure that was because his biggest need was to be part of our family. We spoke english – so that is all he would speak. We didn’t have any other Indian friends before Madhu and Sadan, so he wanted to leave behind his Indian-ness. I felt that to do so would be to reject a part of himself and his identity, so I didn’t allow him the easy option. He didn’t need to do language lessons or come to cultural nights or speak Marathi, but if as a family we were enjoying something with an Indian content to it, we occassionally required him to join in. His attitude ended up doing a complete 180 degree turn as he started learning a little more about his birth culture and country, and as he started to undersatnd that his Indian-ness was a part of him that we loved and valued. He only knew poverty and suffering overseas and there is a lot more to India than that. He now knows a little of the history and richness of his heritage, so he can appreciate it in a way he couldn’t before. I hope the month long trip we are making in November will help consolidate this for him.

I just asked Madhu for his opinion and comments having told him what I wrote. I asked him what he thought of us having pushed him to include Indian culture in his life when he was trying to reject it. He said he feels it was the right thing to do because he now feels he belongs to both cultures. He did confirm what I thought – that he originally rejected Indian-ness in an effort to identify with our family and forget his past. (Funny how I never thought to confirm this with him. I’m glad you’ve raised the topic). He said if he had been allowed to forget his Indian identity then he would have missed out on something that is now important to him.

I think one thing that made it easier for our kids to be involved with their birth cultures and to integrate that into their identity was that it wasn’t something that made them stand apart from us, it was something we all valued as an important feature of our family. So it wasn’t like we took the Korean child to the Korean culture show, or the Indian child to Diwali celebrations. We all joined in and had fun. I go to Korean school along with Haden every Thursday and we practice together. This nex Sunday our entire family is going to a Korean friend’s to celebrate her daughter’s 1st birthday – the major birthday for Koreans are the 1st and the 60th. My Indian little are very excited because they all adore kimchi and they know In-Hwa will make tons of it. I think it would be more awkward if we only had one intercountry adoptee in the family and if we did these cultural activities as a token effort rather than becuse our friends now include Korean and Indian families.

Establish role models that adoptees can identify  with. Include other adoptees or people from the adoptive adoptee’s  country of origin/culture in the child’s life as they develop. I think  this is important for their sense of identity. I know I grew up hardly seeing another Asian person and I felt ugly because I wasn’t white “like  everyone else”.  And sadly society doesn’t help much if growing up in a Caucasian country. For example, how many black/asian supermodels do adopted girls see in magazines and on TV?  Interestingly, many adoptees hated seeing their image in the mirror or their photo and had problems believing in and building a positive sense of their own attractiveness.  I believe this is enhanced when we are surrounded by people we can’t identify with in terms of race/physical attributes.

Response from Julia Rollings:
So true, and thank goodness for SBS. There are positive racial images around now if parents looks for them and make an effort. We have tons of books, music and so on and now some of the most popular things are Asian. My kids all love Jackie Chan films and their all-time favourite is
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (I like the strong female roles in that film too). We also borrow Korean and Indian pop music videos from the Asian grocery stores. Sabila (my 6 year old daughter) loves her Indian barbie doll a friend brought from the USA and her favourite baby doll has skin the same tone as hers. I had to order that from the USA too!) I made sure it was here before she joined our family.

One real benefit of involvement with community groups from their birth country is that kids grow up knowing lots of peole who look like them, even if commercial tv channels still present white Australia as the norm. When Sabila was 5 years old she said to me, “When we go to the Hindi Temple you are the only white person there but when I go to preschool, I am the only brown person there”. I am so glad that her experience is not just “I am the only brown person”.

Adopt more than 1 child. I believe this  helps because the adopted child doesn’t feel isolated in their  experience. The adoptee can see they are not alone and there is someone they can identify with. Talking to ICASN members, it appears that those  who were adopted into a family where there is another adoptee enabled the adoptee a much greater sense of security and they appear more well-adjusted and emotionally stable.

Response from Julia Rollings:
Very important and borne out in a psychology study of adoptees carried out by Leith Harding. The intercountry adoptees with the best scores were the ones that had an adoptive family involved iwth support groups and/or cultural groups, and where the families had adopted another child from overseas.

Be aware of racism and the effects it has on the adoptee’s sense of self and worth.  This seems to be more an issue in remote/rural regions of Australia. I’ve seen that adoptees who were raised in a multi-cultural region (Sydney is an example of a region that is amazingly multicultural and culturally open to differences amongst people) had far less of a problem with racism and the feelings of isolation than their counter-parts in rural/remote areas.

Response from Julia Rollings:
I’ve also told prospective adoptive parents that I believe adoption from overseas limits the places you can comfortably live with your child. I would not move to a rural community as I don’t believe my kids would grow up feeling the same way that they do about themselves. My husband wrote a newspaper story (he’s a journalist) maybe 10 years ago about a family who lived only 40 minutes out of Canberra but whose Filipino kids had experienced ongoing racism (called “dirty japs” and so on by school kids) to the extent they were selling the family business and moving.

Allow the adoptee the freedom to express desires to contact  birth family members without fearing that they will be “disloyal” or “ungrateful” to the adopted family for wanting this. Be supportive of this natural desire to know things about their origins such as “who do I look like”, “what attributes/personality characteristics do I have that are from  my birth parents”, etc. These feelings are very innate and play an  integral role in feeling good about oneself and knowing “who you are”. 

The adoptee often suffers from the conflicting pull between wanting to please the adopted family versus wanting to fill the void of not knowing where they’re from, who they innately “belonged” to by birth, and the reasons as to why they were adopted. An adoptee does love the adopted family but love is not enough to remove the innate urges to know one’s origins and find one’s identity. Respect for and allowing the expression of these two, often opposing, urges within an adoptee would help the adoptee to fully integrate the pieces of their lives together. 

My experience has been that most people, including adoptive families, ignore and deny the adoptee’s full spectrum of feelings (often out of ignorance). How many times has an adoptee heard, “Oh, you are so lucky!” upon telling about their adoptive status. Why is it not also said, “Oh, you are so unlucky to not know your birth family or birth country” or “You must find it difficult to know who you really are” or “You must wonder who you look like and where you got your personality/attributes from”? These are the unspoken and unthought of questions from those who are not adopted. If only people and families could be more open to these deep felt thoughts and feelings as experienced by adoptees. 

My approach with adoptees is to softly and gently encourage the adoptee to speak up about these feelings, all of them no matter how negative they sound. Only then does the adoptee feel heard and understood. Their burden is lighter because they feel understood and not judged for having their confusing feelings.

Response from Julia Rollings:
All very good points.

Understand the huge issue of “trust” for adoptees and the impact it will have on their relationships. The adoptee is not with their birth parents. They will naturally feel “why .. what happened?” An adoptee cannot help but feel that the world and the people closest to them have let them down, and left them on their own, hence there is always a deep fear that it could happen again. An example I can think of is that this is often  displayed in the two types of adopted children – the adoptee who acts out and  goes “wild” and “rebels” against everything the adoptive family stands for versus the adoptee who is the “perfect” child and strives to live up to all the expectations as if to prove they are worthy and good enough to have been adopted. The “perfect” adoptee is afraid of never being good enough, wanting to show gratitude, but also afraid that if they aren’t good enough then they don’t deserve to be adopted, and maybe even fear they’ll be given up/sent back if they don’t live up to the standards. The “wild rebel” adoptee is lashing out in anger and trying to understand why it happened that they’re not with their birth parents and hence don’t know who they are, as well as not feeling they can trust someone enough, or even themselves enough, to explore and discuss the feelings in depth.  

Response from Julia Rollings:
We cheered the first time Madhu said “No” to us! It was so unusual – he had been meek and compliant for the first year, obviously trying to be whatever he thought we wanted him to be. We still joke about it. He walked through the family room and Barry said something to him like “Come back and take your bag with you Madhu” and he replied, “No”. Barry was about to respond, then he saw that my older daughter and I were laughing and clapping. We figured that at long last he was starting to feel safe – suffice to say Madhu no longer acts like the perfect little adoptee though he is still a perfectly fabulous son.

Some  adoptees feel sad and conflicting emotions on their birthday. It is often the one day where an adoptee cannot help but be reminded that they are not with the person who gave birth to them, that they don’t know their birth parents & family, that they are almost “products only of their environment” because in many cases they often  don’t know their genetics.

Response from Julia Rollings:
I often feel a little sad on their birthdays too – sad for the women who must remember them on this day and sad for my kids whose real birthdays will never be known. Adoption is an odd phenomenon, bringing a lot of love and joy but built on a foundation of loss. It is often bitter-sweet.

I could continue but I think this is enough for the moment. I cannot give a complete list of do’s and don’ts because all adoptees are individual and have different needs and feelings; these can only be met by developing a loving and understanding relationship with the adoptee where you as an adoptive parent can ask what the adoptee really feels. I think it’s most important that the adoptee knows you are open and willing to hear their thoughts – both the good and the bad about being adopted. And if you struggle – where the adoptee is not willing to talk to you, then encourage them to contact someone else. It’s important the adoptee develops a relationship with someone whom they can open up and share with. Understand that if this happens, the adoptees choosing someone else is not because you’ve failed as an adoptive parent, but that the adoptee has conflicting emotions and quite often doesn’t want to feel that they are hurting you by telling you things that you may take on board and regard as having “failed” or “let the adoptee down”. Often the adoptee wants to protect the adoptive parent because the adoptee understands very clearly what it is to feel pain, confusion, anguish – and they don’t wish to inflict it on anyone else.

Please feel free to discuss any of this and remember it is only my views/thoughts. I hope it gives some insight into the world of emotions for an adoptee. Please remember that I don’t speak for any other adoptee. As I mentioned above, my thoughts have developed through my own experience and the discussions and friendships I have with many of the ICASN members. I’m sure that with time and more experience, these views may change and be further refined. For the moment, I’ve just jotted down a few thoughts and ideas. They are not intended to hurt or blame anyone and I hope these words will be heard with openness and understanding to better allow our intercountry adoptees to grow and develop into all that they can be.

Response from Julia Rollings:
I think these are all great points Lynelle. I wonder if you would allow us to use this information for seminars for prospective parents? I tend to say soemthing similar but believe it is much more powerful and valid to have the comments come directly from people who live this experience.


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