Most children fantasize about an alternate family when growing up or engage in magical thinking. It’s a normal part of development and coming to an understanding that parents are real people with strengths and weaknesses.
In my fantasy family (FF) my dad was president, and I was allowed to have sleepovers at the White House every weekend, which did wonders for my popularity. My mom was a famous movie star who took me with her on shoots. And of course, my FF loved pets—the more the better. Oh, and did I mention that in my FF there was a big brother that thought it was cool to have his kid sister hang out with him. I don’t remember exactly, but I’m pretty sure my FF had lenient bedtimes and definitions of what constituted healthy eating.
All children fantasize about another family, but with adopted and foster kids, it is a bit more complicated because another family actually exists. When they fantasize about an alternate family they often fantasize about their birth family. Their magical thinking can lead them to some interesting places.
An 8 year old who was removed from her incarcerated mother at birth “remembers” going to the park and getting ice cream with her and not being made to sit in a babyish booster seat or use a stupid seat belt.
A 14 year old who is convinced that his birth father, who denied paternity and relinquished his rights, will welcome him with open arms if he runs away from his strict adoptive parents.
A child who entered the orphanage as a young infant who talks about his mom being a school teacher and he was her favorite student.
A child adopted at birth who says her birth mother was mean, always screaming, and made her do all the cleaning and cooking.
A child whose mother was a drug addict and turned to prostitution to pay for drugs tells everyone that her mom is a famous singer.
Why Do Foster and Adopted Kids Create Fantasy Families
Probably the top reason is because pretend and fantasy is fun, creative, and emotionally healthy, and all kids (and most adults) do it. Without pathologizing a normal behavior, however, with adopted and foster children we may need to look deeper.
Some other reasons an adopted or foster child might feel the need to create a fantasy family in place of her birth family might include:
- The child may be confused by the lack of information from his past and fantasizes to fill in the gaps and explain their history to themselves and the rest of the world.
- Fantasies can take the edge off pain by substituting a more pleasant version of a difficult reality.
- They may not be ready to face the hard truths about their first family.
- A fantasy is something the child can create and control, which feels especially good to someone who has had so little control over his life.
Remember: fantasies are not lies; they are a manifestation of how the child is processing their life story.
Distinguishing Fantasy from Reality in Adoption & Foster Care
Most children are able to distinguish fantasy from reality by around age six to seven. Children who have experienced abuse, neglect, or institutionalized care may have some developmental delays, so this age might be older. Also, kids with this history may fantasize more and for a longer period of time as a result of painful life experiences.
Fantasies are usually private, and most kids stop sharing their fantasies as they get older.
When Should Parents or Foster Parents Become Concerned
Fantasies may be normal and healthy and creating an alternate version of their first family may be common in adopted kids and children in foster care, but parents should consider seeking help from an adoption-competent therapist if they notice the following:
- The child becomes excessively withdrawn.
- The child is frightened by his fantasies, or frightens and threatens others with his fantasies.
- The child has difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality after she is past the age of eight.
- The child’s fantasy life interferes with learning or making friends in real life.
- The child receives negative reactions from his peers or school as a result of sharing his fantasies.
- If a child continues to talk about her fantasy family openly as she reaches upper elementary school age.
What’s a Parent to Do??
Probably the best thing a parent can do is not be threatened by their adopted child’s perfect fantasy family or feel smug about their horrible fantasy birth family. It really isn’t about you; it is likely your child’s way of making sense of her life.
If your child has an active fantasy about their birth family, consider the following:
- Encourage your child to talk about his fantasies and express his feelings about adoption and his birth family.
- Reassure her that it is normal for adopted kids to imagine what their lives might have been like had they not been adopted. Assure her that it is OK to talk to you about it.
- Get your child information about their birth family.
- Increase openness if that is an option. Prepare birth parents in advance for the questions the child may ask.
- Find others in your child’s earlier life if contact with birth parents is not an option. Is there a former foster parent or orphanage caretaker you can connect with? An extended family member?
- If more information about birth family is not an option (and even if it is), embrace your child’s race or birth culture if different from yours and provide role models from his race or birth culture.
- If the child’s fantasy involves glorifying her birth mom acknowledge how much your child loves her.
- If your child’s fantasy parents are particularly skilled at something such as singing or sports, consider getting your child involved in these activities.
Can you share an example of your child’s fantasy family?
Other Creating a Family Resources You Will Enjoy:
- Balancing Discipline and Nurturing in Adoptive Parenting
- Talking with Young Children About Adoption and Birth Parents
- My #1 Pet Peeve in Infertility and Adoption
Image credit: Igor Menezes Fotógrafo; Rudy Garcia