When Your Adopted Daughter Asks the Tough Question

Your adopted daughter may not actually verbalize it, but this question will one day enter her heart and mind: “How could my birth mother give me away?” Adopted girls may not ask the question consciously, but it’s there. If you are an adoptive parent, I encourage you to read on, even if you see no evidence now of what I am going to tell you.

My wife and I are adoptive parents, and nothing we have done as a family has brought us more joy. Our daughter is from Peru, and our story is typical of international adoption back in 1993: infant girl, born in poverty, her birth mother contacted a judge, a Christian agency connected us, and the rest is wonderful history. She is beautiful, full of life, successful in school, and, amazingly, she shares many of the traits of our family. She knows that her birth mother loved her enough to give her a family — a loving act when one considers the alternatives. She knows the story by heart, including all the corny but true parts about “loving her all the way to Peru and back.” She loves her family and sees adoption as normal.

If you are an adoptive family, you probably have a similar story to tell. Every adoption story is a miracle, especially those whose lives would otherwise have been trafficked as a commodity. Any adoptive parent knows, however, that “happily ever after” is a Disney myth. We have noticed a trend in adopted daughters (less so in the boys) at the commencement of adolescence. An adopted girl, like every other girl, imagines having a baby and the amazing bond between mother and child. Inevitably, she considers her own situation and begins to ask, “How could my own mother abandon me?” She knows intuitively that something had to be wrong.

In addition to the normal adolescent challenges, her heart is profoundly touched by wondering what could be so wrong with her that her own mother would let her go. She may question her identity, especially if she does not look like her family. She may have feelings of rejection that translate into insecurities. She may suffer from a fear of abandonment or attachment disorder, two of the more common traits in adopted children. If there was physical or emotional trauma prior to her adoption, she may have post-traumatic stress syndrome.

We have met with many families, and we have yet to find one with an adopted daughter who has not had a serious challenge in her life as a result of one or more of these issues. Their behavior is as confusing to the girls as it is to their parents, because they do not understand it any more than the parents. It was not until my wife, Cathy, was doing research on post-traumatic stress that the light came on for us. As we listened to many other adoptive parents, we discovered consistent trends. The initial parental reaction is relief that they are not alone. Immediately, the next thought is always the same: “What can we do now?”

Here are our recommendations:

1. Be still for a moment; calm down. You need to be still on multiple levels. First of all, you need to adhere to the invitation from your Father to be still and to know that he is God. You and your spouse need God more than you need advice or parenting classes or anything else. Also, knowledge is crucial. As a parent, learning about this is a major step forward for you. In Philippians 1:9, Paul’s prayer was that “your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.” Loving your daughter will take wisdom, and you need discernment to see how the adoption has affected your girl’s precious heart and soul. You need to take some time to observe and pray and communicate as parents. However, do not overwhelm your daughter with this information. Your role is to wisely help lead her to a heart that is healed by grace and truth. She may not be able to discuss any of this freely with you until she is out of adolescence.

2. Parenting takes courage. In the words of Margaret Thatcher, “This is no time to go wobbly.” Your child needs your love, but as a parent you cannot need her to love you. Love demands a willingness to be unpopular with her at times. She needs your protection more than your friendship. Dads: You, in particular, must lovingly and confidently say “no” when circumstances demand it. You cannot live for her love; rather, live to love her. We know one family who would not say no to their daughter, and this precious young woman now needs a miracle to escape her cycle of poor choices.

3. Look for the signs. You need to understand your daughter’s heart. Her heart may be profoundly affected by a sense of abandonment. She may suffer from feelings of rejection that affect friendships. Attachment issues are common for adopted children and are expressed in a variety of ways, typically in the ability to trust. Perhaps identity is the confusing question for her. If you have a child from another race, you can nearly guarantee her schoolmates will ask or say something insensitive that will hurt her. Post-traumatic stress is a possibility for any adopted child, and the amount of trauma is often unknown to the parents. The effects of these various issues are profound. We have seen children cutting themselves over the pain they feel. Others feel that no one can truly love them, so they often choose “lowest common denominator” friends. (If these abandon her, she figures she has not lost much, and finding more bad friends is easy.) While adopted daughters are amazing and competent people, they may lack security or confidence. All of these can play out in either mild or severe complications, and as a parent you need wisdom to help her, to guide her, and to love her through all of these challenges. It is possible!

4. You need each other. Of course, you need your family, your extended family, and your church family to support you. You also need friendships with other parents of adopted daughters. When you are parenting through teen years, you are in territory where you need allies. Better yet, find someone who made it through who can encourage you.

We suggest you find others like you and get in relationship. To get started, register your interest at fbcharleston.org (click on the “adoptable” logo), and we will try to connect people in support groups geographically. If you already know of other parents and you want to start your own group, go for it. In addition, there are resources available on most of these topics; our goal is to connect you with these. For all of you adoptive mothers and fathers, do not despair; God is sovereign over your lives, and you are not alone!

— Marshall Blalock is pastor of Charleston First Baptist Church.