News of who his mother is will stun boy, 12

Child Life


I have a 12-year-old son from my first marriage, and his birth mother is my sister. We never told him that his birth mother is his aunt (whom he really doesn't care for much). Circumstances have arisen now that we need to tell him. I do not want to see him hurt, and I worry how this will affect him. Can anyone help?

-- C.B. of Dallas, Texas

Tell this child the truth without delay or run the risk of someone else in the family revealing the secret.

"There's no way family secrets stay family secrets. They always come out," says Patricia Irwin Johnston, an adoption educator and board member of Adoptive Families of America, a national support group.

The child is likely to be shocked, angry and feel a great sense of betrayal. But experts say the damage would be much greater if the child heard the news somewhere else.

While adoption professionals still disagree about whether all adoptees should know the identities of their birth parents, adoption within a family is different.

"When the birth parent is a member of the family, he has to know," says Ms. Johnston, the mother of three adopted children.

To help rebuild their credibility, parents should be prepared to answer questions honestly and to admit they made a mistake.

"I think that they can explain why they did it -- that they felt it was the best thing at the time but that it wasn't the best thing, and they're sorry and will he forgive them," says Lois Melina, author of "Making Sense of Adoption: A Parent's Guide" (Perennial, $13) and two other books on adoption.

"The key is to allow him to work out his anger, not to expect him to forgive them right away," says Ms. Melina, also the mother of two adopted children.

At 12, children are beginning adolescence, which can make an adoption revelation even more difficult. Be ready for angry outbursts such as: "Why should I listen to you? You never told me the truth about my birth mother."

But telling a child at 12 can also provide huge relief for children who have "sensed that there is something weird about their conception," Ms. Melina says.

"When there are missing pieces about an adoption story, children tend to fill in the blanks," Ms. Melina says. Those blanks may include scenarios far worse than the truth.

Of course, the ideal time to tell a child is while he's young, making it a part of family history, experts say. Show pictures or videos just as you would to a biological child.

While toddlers and preschoolers won't understand the concept of adoption, they will grow up hearing about it, and it won't come as a shock later on.

"The longer you wait to tell kids, the harder it gets because you're building on an implied deception," Ms. Melina says.

Here are more tips:

* Find a family counselor with expertise in adoption issues, recommends Chris Rath, a Cleveland, Ohio, adoptive mother. Parents can find qualified counselors through support groups such as Adoptive Families of America. Call (800) 372-3300 for a nearby chapter. Local adoption agencies also recommend qualified counselors.

* If communication is strained between parent and child, try a journal or exchanging notes, Ms. Melina says.

* Don't force a relationship between the child and his birth mother. "If he's not comfortable with her, it doesn't have to be any more intense than it is now," Ms. Johnston says.

* If the child wonders what he should now call his aunt, Ms. Melina recommends sticking with aunt. "When you adopt, you create different family constellations."

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