It is the rare adopted child who has not received questions and comments about adoption. They come from people who know them or from complete strangers:
- “Do you know anything about your ‘real’ parents?”
- “Why were you adopted?”
- “Do you want to find your ‘real’ parents?” or
- “How come you don’t look like your parents?”
Some people ask adopted kids questions because they are being friendly or curious. Most are unaware of the embarrassment and pain their questions or comments may cause. Other kids may intentionally attempt to tease or bully an adopted youth. Their comments can be painful. These questions often go right to the heart of adoptees’ self-concept and self-esteem, challenging who they are and where they belong. This may mirror the exact questions that adopted children may be pondering themselves as they struggle to make sense of what being adopted means to them.
As they cope with normal feelings of loss and grief related to adoption, they may be wondering “Why didn’t my birth mother want me?” or “Was something wrong with me?” If children who bully look for vulnerability, they may sense they have found a good target. Kids can feel caught off guard, do not know how to respond or may regret what they say or don’t say. Children and teens report being left with a variety of painful emotions…confusion, anger, embarrassment, sadness or frustration.
In response to this predicament, it is important to empower youth to respond to questions and comments made about adoption. Whatever the context for the adoption-related question or comment, adopted children feel most confident when they feel a sense of control.
The Center for Adoption Support and Education developed a program “W.I.S.E. UP!℠” to give children a tool to take control. The program promotes the following:
- First, empower children to realize that they have a wealth of information about adoption, because of their first- hand experience growing up in an adoptive family.
- Second, when an uncomfortable situation occurs, children should stop and think about who is asking the question/making the comment and evaluate the reason for the question. Is it from a trusted teacher or friend or someone who is trying to bully? Is the person just curious or trying to be mean?
- Third, children need to learn to identify how they feel about 1) the person asking the question/making the comment, 2) how they feel about the question/comment, and 3) when the question is being asked – for example, are they alone with their friend, or in front of other classmates. This thought process helps children “slow down” and take charge, in preparation for the next empowering step which is to actively CHOOSE how to respond.
In the final step, children learn that they have four possible options for responding – each represented by the four letters of W.I.S.E., a tool designed for quick memorization:
W = WALK AWAY, or ignore what you hear.
I = IT’S PRIVATE, I do not have to share information with anyone, and I can say that appropriately, even to adults.
S = SHARE SOMETHING about my adoption story, but I can think carefully about what I want to let others know.
E = EDUCATE OTHERS about adoption in general, for example, I can talk about how adoption works today, successful adoptees, inaccurate information in the media, etc. I know a lot about it.
Through role-playing and lots of practice, children/teens can choose how they want to handle a potentially hurtful situation without hesitation. They also learn to anticipate additional questions that may come when they respond. Having tools on hand can turn a challenging moment into an experience of confidence and success.