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Ask AF

March/April 2008

When to share birth family information

Q: Recently, our five-year-old daughter has been asking lots of questions about her adoption. The latest is what was her "other mother’s" name? I would rather wait until she is a teenager to tell her, but my husband thinks we should answer her now. Your advice?

A: The earlier you begin these discussions with your daughter, the easier it will be, and the more time you will have to help her understand what it means to be adopted. Now is a good time to give her factual information about her birth family, especially if she’s asking. She is too young to make judgments about it. For a five-year-old, facts are just facts. If you wait until she is an adolescent, the information might seem "loaded." Your task is to help your daughter understand that her birthmother is a real person (not a saint or a sinner). Giving her name, showing photographs, and so on, is the best way to communicate this idea. In short, by telling your daughter her birthmother’s name, you will give her the assurance that you are available to help her understand this and all other aspects of her life.

—Ronny Diamond, Director of the Adoption Counseling Team, Spence-Chapin, New York City

Birth sibling in another family

Q: When I adopted my two-year-old son, I was told that he has a biological sibling who was adopted by a family who lives in another state. My son is my only child, but his brother has adoptive siblings. How do I explain this to my son? How and when should we introduce the children to each other?

A: Research shows that siblings are very important to adoptees—many would rather find birth siblings than birthparents, and sibling relationships often continue after the initial emotion and curiosity over finding a birthparent has passed.

The first step would be to get in touch with the other family and work out starting parameters and language. You might begin by exchanging holiday cards and photos, then decide to meet once a year.

Show your son the photos. You can tell him, "This is your brother, because he shares with you the same birthmommy in Guatemala. Both of you grew in her tummy, and she chose our family and his family to be your mommies." You can explain that siblings are made both by birth and by adoption, and that his birth brother has adoptive brothers and sisters.

These concepts probably won’t make much sense to a child as young as your son, but he will begin to grasp them around the age of three or four. Even so, you’ll want to start showing him the photos, and talking, so that he’ll grow up with the idea of having a brother.

—MaryAnn Curran, Director of social services, World Association for Children and Parents, Seattle

Keeping a child’s immunizations on track

Q: We recently adopted a 15-month-old child, and were told we need to "catch up" with his immunizations. How quickly should we proceed?

A: Proceed at the pace that is right for you. Vaccinations can be spread out, but I would advise against spreading them too far apart, for two reasons—you’re starting a little later than is generally recommended, and you don’t want your child to fall far behind on the immunization schedule (see recommended schedules at Also, keep in mind that any shot is traumatizing to a child. Giving vaccines at the rate of one per week increases the risk that the child will anticipate the weekly visit, crying as you pull into the parking lot of the doctor’s office. For a child, there is little difference, psychologically, between one shot and many. Thus, spreading out the immunizations over too long a period may simply lead your child to develop a serious "doctor phobia."

—Deborah Borchers, M.D. , Eastgate Pediatric Center, Cincinnati

Preparing for the birth of a sibling

Q: I just found out that I’m pregnant, and I want to know how to prepare an adopted child for the birth of a sibling. My daughter is two, but I worry about her questions in the future. I don’t want her to feel she is in some way less a part of the family because we are not her birthparents.

A: Because your daughter is so young, you should simply begin by preparing her for the birth of a sibling as you would prepare any child. She will have the typical feelings—excitement, a bit of jealousy—any child has about sharing her mommy and daddy with another child. Adoption will not be at the forefront for a child this age.

Sometime around age four, she will ask whether she grew in your tummy, and may feel sad upon learning she did not. She may also ask whether her sibling did. You will assure her that you love her as much as you would if she had grown in your tummy.

When she is a little older, she will understand that she and her sibling joined your family in different ways. Your goal will be to make sure that both your daughter and her younger sibling understand clearly that, no matter how someone joins your family, you are all equal family members.

—Joni Mantell, Infertility and Adoption Counseling Center, Pennington, New Jersey

Two moms, two roles

Q: Our 12-year-old daughter’s birthmother has always signed her cards with her first name—until this past Christmas, when she signed "from Mommy." It bothered me. Am I overreacting?

A: It’s great that you have maintained a close relationship with your daughter’s birthmother over 12 years. You note that this is the first year she signed her card "Mommy"—it’s not unreasonable that you’d be upset. Go ahead and tell the birthmother that you want her to sign cards with her first name in the future.

That being said, it’s an understandable "mistake." I’m sure your daughter’s birthmother understands that you are the mom, but she probably considers herself a mom, too. And, in fact, she is. Adopted children have two sets of parents, whether or not they have contact with birthparents. Adoption professionals and adoptive parents are always careful to refer to the birthmother by her first name or as "your birthmother," but kids figure out that they have another "mom." They aren’t confused by this reality, nor does it diminish your role as mom. Each of you plays a different role in your daughter’s life.

—Kathleen Silber, Co-author of Dear Birthmother (Corona) and associate executive director of the Independent Adoption Center, Pleasant Hill, California

Alleviating a child’s anxiety

Q: My seven-year-old daughter becomes very anxious when I cannot immediately meet her needs for food, drink, and so on. How can I help her feel more secure?

A: Many other parents are in the same boat! Their children are well-adjusted—except when they have to wait for attention. Then they shift into anxious, controlling behaviors.

Here are some self-calming techniques you can teach. Tell your daughter that she can change anxious feelings through her thoughts and positive self-talk. For example, she can think, "I know my mom will always take care of me," or "I can wait a minute." These thoughts will shrink the anxious feeling. Or she can try saying aloud, "Calm down," "You can do this," or "It’s no big deal." Practice these scripts with your daughter.

Another helpful approach to try is deep breathing. This entails taking several deep breaths—in through the nose, out through the mouth, with an emphasis on breathing out. To help, have your daughter visualize being a whale who surfaces and blows out noisily—and then breathes in. It will also help your tension level to coach these positive thoughts and techniques!

—Deborah D. Gray, Author of Nurturing Adoptions: Creating Resilience After Neglect and Trauma

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