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September/October 2004

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An Invasive Assignment

Q: My 12-year-old son received an assignment in health class to write a report about birth, including his mom's feelings about pregnancy and facts about his birth. We feel that what little information we have about his birth family (a photo of his birthmom breastfeeding him) is private.

My son wants to explain to the teacher himself that he can't complete much of this report, though I wonder if it would be better for me to speak to the teacher. What can we do about this tricky assignment?

A: This is a new one! While middle schoolers are capable of dealing directly with their teachers, this situation begs for parental input. Applaud your son's courage in wanting to negotiate with his teacher, but explain that, in this situation, you need to intervene so that he—and other students who are unable to complete the project—can benefit.

Next, schedule a face-to-face meeting with the teacher. Preface the conversation with your appreciation for his/her time. Then, inquire about the educational goals for this project. Be prepared to offer alternatives that achieve the same ends. [Consult the resources on AF's Adoption and School page, at, for ideas.] It is important to convey that many other students might have difficulty with this assignment.

This was clearly an unfortunate assignment, but it could spark a family discussion about your son's birth and adoption. Good luck!

—Lansing Wood,
Co-editor of Adoption and the Schools

Tough Birthfather Info

Q: My 6-year-old son was conceived from sexual abuse, and we are struggling with how to handle information about his birthfather. He hasn't asked questions yet, but he will. We want him to know the truth, but what can we say to a child his age and how can we tell him?

A: There are other adoptive families with difficult birthfather situations, so you are by no means alone.

Most 6-year-olds don't ask about birthfathers, as they don't yet understand the role of men in reproduction. Still, introduce the topic now. You can tell your son that someone close to his birthmother didn't always know how to express love nicely. Later, as he approaches adolescence, you can explain that his birthfather thought it was okay to have sexual relations with his birthmother, even though she said "No." Emphasize that what his birthfather did was wrong. But remind your son that something wonderful came out of the situation—him.

—Ronny Diamond,
Adoption Resource Center,
Spence-Chapin, New York City

A: Handle the conversation in a casual, matter-of-fact manner. You don't need a therapist to do this. You are his parents, and he'll be more comfortable hearing the story from you than from a stranger. Also, the involvement of a third party suggests that "This problem is so big, even my parents can't handle it." He needs to feel that you trust him with this difficult information and that he can trust you to always share the truth with him—even when it's not good news.

—Gregory C. Keck, Ph.D.,
Attachment and Bonding Center of Ohio,

Anger Management

Q: Before I adopted my 9-year-old daughter last year, she had spent five years in an orphanage. Recently, she's been raging: screaming, throwing things, and hitting me. She talks about the abuse that she endured at her orphanage, and says she misses her birthmom (though she spent little time with her). What can I do?

A: The set of behaviors you describe is common in children coming out of orphanage settings. Feelings of grief and loss are obvious, and I doubt that any explanation would totally resolve them. Punishing her when she acts out in this manner won't do more than heighten her anger.

Think about enrolling the family in group therapy (find a mental health professional familiar with adoption and attachment issues at, so that she can see you're on her side. Parenting the Hurt Child (Keck and Kupecky) has ideas for enhancing family attachments.

A painful aspect of adoption is parents' perceived impotence in healing hurts that may last for a long time. Once you've identified some things you can do, you'll feel less helpless about things you cannot control.

—Gregory C. Keck, Ph.D.

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