A while back, we received a question from a mom that absolutely broke my heart (and made me see red)! How do we explain an adoption dissolution to adopted kids without making them feel like they too could be given away?

How to talk about adoption dissolutions with adopted children

The gist of our Creating a Family Support Group member’s question is as follows (edited with her permission to remove identifying details):

She is good friends with a family who had two biological kids and had adopted two siblings from Congo – a little girl about 2-3 years old and a boy less than a year old. The Creating a Family (CAF) member has a 9-year-old son who is friends with the older kids, and the two families have a lot in common and interacted frequently.

After the adoption, the mom of the Congolese children gave birth to another child. The CAF member never saw anything outside of normal kid behavior and a very overworked mom of 5 in all their time together. Then three years after the adoption, seemingly out of the blue, the mom called her up and told her that they were dissolving the adoption of the two Congolese children. The reasons the mom gave seemed insignificant. For example, the kids were playing one parent against each other when one said no to get the cookie they wanted. The little one kept giving small objects, etc. to the new baby. The CAF mom is reeling.

I am devastated and never saw this coming. What do I tell my son who has been raised to believe that adoption is forever. That families are made by love not blood? I am terrified that he will not understand. I don’t. She said she would not have done this with her bio kids. I don’t know how to deal with this subject with him. I don’t want him to think we may give him away. That he is less valued because of the way we became a family.

Oh, how my heart hurts at reading this. I alternate between wanting to cry and wanting to scream!! I fully and completely understand that some children have experienced so much trauma that parenting them is next to impossible, especially in a home environment. In these situations, I pray, rather than judge. BUT, I also fully and completely understand that some adoptive parents have unrealistic expectations about kids in general and kids adopted from hard places in specific.

I have devoted the last 13 years to try to prevent this type of situation from occurring. And yet, it still happens. We must reach these parents BEFORE adoption to educate and AFTER adoption to continue to teach them when they are most educable. We also need to envelop them with support and encouragement once they are home.

Make sure he knows that you are open to talk about anything and that he can bring it up and talk again.

My advice to parents of adopted kids impacted by another’s adoption dissolution

Is your son firmly attached and secure in his relationship with you? If so, I would explain that those parents were no longer the best place for those children. When that happens, other adults step in to take care of those kids and find them a better home. Keep it simple. Don’t focus on the other child’s adoption, but pay close attention to how your son interprets this info. He may not go to “she got rid of the adopted kids.” If he is not firmly attached and secure in your relationship, then I would talk with a therapist.

Someone from the Creating a Family Support Group wisely added to my advice.

I would start with the conversation as Dawn suggested, then I’d keep an eye on him for the next few months. It will take time for him to work through it in his mind. He may not go immediately to the adopted kids were gotten rid of, but he may in his mind get there later. Make sure he knows that you are open to talk about anything whenever, that he can bring it up and talk again. And watch for signs later that he’s internalizing it, such as not being himself or being moodier so that you can start a new conversation at that point if needed.

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Find an Adoption Competent Therapist for help talking over these and other hard topics with your kids.

Advice from Adoptees about Dissolution

I think your concerns are very valid. Speaking as a firmly attached (still 50 yrs later) adoptee – I had the fear of being given away at that age, because if it happened once (at birth) then it could happen again. I think it would have shattered my little world to know that parents, like my parents, gave their adopted children away, and worse kept their bios. Having said that: an honest hard conversation that you are not, nor ever will, turn your back on him is something you need to do now especially as he is at camp with the ones kept. I would suggest figuring out ways to remind him of that – perhaps as normal talking points from time to time, things like if you were caught doing something wrong, I’d be sad, I might even be mad, but you will always be my son and nothing you do will ever change that. Those types of reminders that nothing will ever change the fact that he is your son and you are his mom. Only you know whether your son will need to talk to someone outside where he might be able to talk through any fears it brings up.

The adopted children will be better off without this lady serving as their mother. Just reassure your son that you love him and you will go to the ends of the earth for him. You see I am adopted too.

Advice from an Adoption Therapist

We also posed this scenario to Angela Welch, an adoption therapist and Post Placement Services Consultant with Bethany Christian Services. Her response radiates wisdom.

Just like deaths, moves, and tragic events, it’s good to talk with adopted children about the variety of losses they will see throughout their life. Unfortunately, dissolution is a very unique and complex loss but fortunately not common. As much as we want children to know this is their forever family, some children don’t stay forever-so how do we not look like liars? I’d be curious to see if suggestions about how to talk about divorce could be used here.

Without getting too gossipy about the details, I would emphasize that this mom of the children from the Congo feels she cannot be what the children need and that she wasn’t able to read the future and see how difficult it might be FOR HER. And that the agency is going to work very hard to be sure they find a family prepared to meet those needs. I would then have this mom tell her child that she has faced challenges (as I am sure she has) but had support in x, y, z and gets stronger with every challenge. Children need to know that EVERY family has struggles. It’s just that some have more support, inner strength, or faith, and they’re all bundled like the cable/phone/internet company to be strong!

This might also be a time to be extra attentive to “claiming” activities. Choose something that reiterates “we’re sticking together.”

This might also be a time to be extra attentive to “claiming” activities. You can plant a tree together or make a new photo album called A Lifetime of Vacations (or Christmases or birthdays). Choose something that reiterates “we’re sticking together.” I’d also be sure to do some grieving work with her son about losing friends. They can make a card to say they will miss them, say prayers, send balloons with notes in them, etc.

My Final Thoughts

The research on adoption dissolution is not robust, but we know that adoption failure after the adoption is completed is uncommon. However, even one is one too many, and there are far more than one — so folks, we have a problem!

We need to do more to help prepare realistic expectations in parents before adoption. I think we should specifically address risk factors, such as in this case the addition of another child, whether by birth or adoption, to the family within the first couple of years post-adoption. And I especially think that we need to continue to surround parents post-adoption with continued opportunities to learn. It is after adoption that parents are most open to information.

As the director of the national adoption education and support organization, I feel the need acutely. I have seen more and more agencies truly embrace education. I’ve also seen a shift in the orphan/adoption ministry movement to embrace education more fully.

But, we MUST do more.

How have you explained adoption dissolution to your adopted child?

Image credit: the great 8; Extra Medium; Howard County Library System