Talking with Adopted Children about Tragedy

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About 4 hours after the World Trade Center was attacked by terrorists my almost- 5-year-old son asked me when I was going to grow another baby in my tummy. I am an adoptive parent who has never grown a baby in my tummy, and my son and I have had numerous conversations about that. Why did he ask me that question at that time? Was it coincidence? As an adoptive mother and a psychologist I think there must have been some connection in his mind between adoption and what he learned that day. On September 11th at about 11:00 he learned that a bad man crashed a plane into a building, his school closed and all the kids were sent home, his mother came rushing home from work, looked at the New York City skyline on TV, and began to cry. On a day when we were all suddenly feeling vulnerable could it be that my son was feeling vulnerable about not growing in my tummy?

Is talking to adoptive children about the disaster different from talking to other children about it? Yes and no. When talking to any child about any difficult situation parents must tailor the information to the age and personality of the child. Yet, while we all felt vulnerable on September 11th, adoptive children (and adoptive parents) may have some specific concerns and experience a unique sense of vulnerability. Discussing the World Trade Center attack may evoke some of the same emotions (loss, fear, sadness) that adoption evokes. Adoption topics may surface more frequently or more intensely at times like these. Interestingly, many of the suggestions that adoption experts offer on talking to children about adoption can be helpful when addressing the complex issues of a tragedy or disaster. Below are some general guidelines and some specific suggestions for talking to adopted children.

· Tell your children they are safe. After the attack, many parents wondered if it was right to tell their children they were safe, when they didn't feel so safe themselves. I heard a Rabbi on the radio who was talking about how he went to see the children in Hebrew School the day after the attack. The Rabbi had some wonderfully sensible advice. He said, I told them the things I believe and the things I would like to believe. Tell your children that they are safe, your house is safe, their school is safe, and that their family is safe. Say it because you want to believe it.

· Create an environment in which children are safe expressing their feelings of fear, vulnerability, and sadness. Invite questions, even when you don't have all the answers. Create an environment that allows children to express all kinds of fantasies about the tragedy.

· Talk to children in age appropriate ways. It may be appropriate to tell a three-year old that there was an accident in New York City and you are worried about the people there. Older children will require much more concrete information. Realize that children of the same age may be different. Know your child and focus on the types of things that he or she will understand. What is your child afraid of? What symbols and or rituals may help your child understand? One mother told me that her three-year old has no idea of what happened, while another friend told me that her three-year old wanted to make cards for all the people who were sad.

· Don't let your urge to protect your child send the message that you don't want to talk about difficult topics. The day after the tragedy I heard many of the parents at my son's preschool telling the teachers that they didn't want their children to learn what had happened because they were "too young". Yet, on the same day I heard parents and teachers in the hallways and in the classrooms talking at length about what had happened. Children pick up on things and most children are particularly sensitive to what is going on in the world around them. It is better if difficult information comes from parents in a sensitive manner. (This of course, is the exact type of advice that adoption experts provide. Your child should hear his or her adoption story from you and not from a friend or neighbor when he is ten!) Attempt to protect but respect your child.

· Play with your children. Children may find it easier to work their fears out in play. The day after the tragedy I told my son's teacher that he would probably talk about what had happened. Of course, I was wrong; He didn't mention the disaster at all. They next day, however, the teacher reported that he built a large airport using blocks, books, and toys. He encouraged other children to join in the play and repeatedly reported to the teacher that "all the airplanes got back to the airport safely". Children make things better in their play.

· Older children and teenagers are sophisticated media consumers. Many junior high and high school students watched the days events unfold on CNN in their classrooms. These children are being bombarded with information and need to be able to talk about it. If your child finds it hard to talk to you, make sure he or she has someone else to talk to. Older children, particularly boys, may feel the pressure to "act grown up", but are actually quite sensitive. One of my friends reported that her 13 year-old son wasn't talking to her about the events (in which one of his classmates fathers had died), but was talking at length to his 17 year old sister. The sister provided sensitive reassurance and, perhaps most importantly, reported her brother's feelings to her mother.

· Older children and teenagers may experience adoption fantasies appearing or reappearing at this time. Children may wonder if a birth mother is worried about them or may decide that they want to contact birth families to let them know they are OK. I know that many adopted parents and older children were struck by the fact that victims' families were asked to provide DNA to aid in the identification of bodies. This was a reminder to many of us that our families are different.

· International adoptees may feel particularly vulnerable. In the immediate hours after the attack I heard several news accounts listing countries suspected of backing terrorism or having nuclear capabilities which included China, North Korea, and parts of the former Soviet Republic. When a child hears his or her birth country mentioned in an important news bulletin he or she may have serious questions and concerns. Discussions of racial profiling following the tragedy reminded us that people are often judged on their appearance, a reality that many adopted children must deal with.

· Take care of yourself. The way parents talk to children about tragic events has a great deal to do with how the parents themselves deal with tragedy. Parents who talk to others and express their emotions are more likely to facilitate open discussion with their children about emotion-laden events. A couple of days after the disaster I realized that I hadn't been this deeply sad since undergoing failed infertility treatments. I also realized that my children had never seen me this sad. It is helpful and healthy for kids to see parents expressing emotions appropriately. Of course, watching a parent become depressed or highly anxious about the situation will be scary for a child. Take care of yourself and be aware of your reactions. Enlist support from partners, family, friends, clergy, and or mental health professionals. Attend a place of worship, hang up a flag, make a donation. Do whatever it takes to take care of yourself and, in turn, to take care of your children.
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