Psychologist, Montclair State University
President, National Center on Adoption & Permanency
Executive Director of Styles 4 Kidz
Unfortunately, many adoptive parents and adopted children become accustomed to hearing and witnessing “microaggressions”.
These seemingly unintentional or offhand slights imply a child’s adopted status (or parent’s adoptive status) or race reflects some form of inferiority. Individually, or in aggregate, microaggressions can be withering.
All members of the adoption triad (adoptee, adoptive parents, birth parents) are likely to experience microaggressions based upon the fact they’re involved with an adoption.
Comments that indicate that the adoptee should be grateful (thus minimizing their loss) or that the adoptive family is somehow less legitimate than biological families are common, as well as slights toward the birth family that reinforces a shameful stigma.
Being confronted with a microaggression can be traumatizing, and watching a loved one (e.g. child or parent) try to handle them can be especially painful. Below are examples of microaggressions that are both common and deeply hurtful. They can come from friends, relatives, co-workers, and strangers.
There’s little data on how best to prepare your family for adoption-oriented microaggressions, but most experts believe talking at an early age with your children is a good idea and can help dismantle the stigma of secrecy by normalizing adoption.
Again, below is the data on how adoptees quality of life scores broken down by the age they learned they were adopted and corrected for coping mechanisms available at each age.
Many experts agree as adopted children grow up, they face complex questions around identity and loss. Visits with a therapist from an early age can help children build a “scaffolding” to wrestle with these questions in a healthy way.
Children who are racial minorities can be subjected to hundreds of microaggressions per month (English, Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology).
As a parent, it’s your responsibility to help your child maintain a healthy self-esteem and teach them how to handle and respond to these intentional and unintentional slights.
However, since 40% of US adoptions are “transracial”, many adoptive parents have little first-hand experience dealing with the subject matter, let alone guiding their child.
To address the subject, experts tend to favor two powerful tools: “cultural socialization” and “preparation for bias training”. Both have data that corroborate they improve a child’s self-esteem, sense of identity, and ability to cope.
Cultural socialization is when the whole family takes a real interest in the race, culture, and heritage of the adopted child. This means getting exposed to the history, music, food, film, books, and other facets of that child’s birth culture.
One example of a cultural socialization opportunity exists in Chicago, where Styles4Kidz provides hair styling services for transracial families so non-African American parents can learn about how to celebrate the tradition of styling and keep their kids feeling confident and proud. A salon doesn’t necessarily have to be set-up to train parents for you to go with your child, have them feel welcomed, and for you to learn a few crucial basic skills.
Not surprisingly, the data strongly supports the value of social culturalization in transracial adoptive families. A study of 241 US, caucasian families that adopted children from Korea showed that children were 26% more likely to have higher self-esteem when their families practiced social culturalization.
Preparation for bias training is having frank discussions with your child about how people may say and do hurtful things based upon race and ethnicity. These can be hard conversations to have, especially with a younger child.
Keep in mind that these discussions aren’t just about delivering bad news, but also about preparing your child how to respond externally and internally. Without your guidance, an unsuspecting child will be forced to understand it on their own.
In a study of over 66 transracially adopted adolescents, data showed that respondents whose adoptive parents practiced preparation for bias training (and cultural socialization) felt less stress after hearing racist remarks than those whose parents didn’t practice preparation for bias. This was particularly true amongst respondents who encountered a high number of racist comments growing up.