Six Things Your Adopted Child Might Be Thinking, But Will Never Tell You

[Written by By Mark Hagland, Margie Perscheid and Terra Trevor; Originally published in Adoption Today magazine, and also available on Terra's blog, In Writing Motherhood.]

What kinds of issues around adoptee racial and cultural identity, racism, multiracial family dynamics, cultural interactions and complexities, are swimming around in your child’s head? Mark Hagland, Margie Perscheid and Terra Trevor talk honestly about six emotionally charged adoption topics, and what they’ve learned by living through them.

MARK HAGLAND: The reality is that virtually every adult adoptee I have ever known has at least to some extent avoided broaching these tougher, more challenging, more complicated topics with their family members, especially their parents. Below are several subjects that I’ve brought up, with Terra’s and Margie’s comments following each opening statement.

#1: Your transracially adopted child will have racial identity issues but will be generally reluctant to talk with you, particularly if you are a white person, about what he/she feels in that area.

TERRA TREVOR: Adopting transracially meant our family no longer fit standard racial categories. After adopting Korean children, we had a third race blended into our mix, a race we were initially unfamiliar with. From my own experience growing up half white and half Cherokee, Delaware and Seneca, I was familiar with calling two cultures home and acting as the solder between communities. I’d discovered early on the reality of America’s neuroses with race and skin color. In fact, I learned that having light skin meant that, even though I didn’t try to pass, society automatically granted me white privilege, something denied to my darker skinned cousins and friends who were never mistaken for white. Since I’ve stumbled across racial lines, straddling cultural expectations in my own development, naturally, I wanted better opportunity for my kids. I did my best to keep an open dialogue with my kids, but of course, like most children, mine were hesitant to mention the subject of race unless I brought it up first. On those occasions when they did want to talk, they wanted me to be a quiet listener. I also made sure my children were around other Korean adoptees, and we brought Korean ethnicity into our lives so they would have other Asian children, teens and adults around them whose experiences might be similar to theirs. My kids also grew up in the Native community and with my family and friends who are racial mixes.

MARGIE PERSCHEID: Let me tell you about this exchange I had in the car with my children one afternoon awhile ago:
Son: What’s for dinner?
Me: Meat loaf.
Son: What else?
Me: I don’t know, what do you want?
Son: Rice.
Me: Rice with meatloaf?
Son & Daughter: Mom, we’re Asian! We eat rice with everything!

There was something in their tone of voice that spoke volumes. And it had nothing to do with side dishes. With those words I heard my children claim their Korean identities – not easy for two Korean kids with white parents who were virtually ignorant of Korea when they arrived. My husband and I had to learn fast, so we did the only thing we could – we jumped feet first into our children’s culture and community, taking them with us. And somehow (the “how” is another story), with the help of the many friends we’ve made along the way, we’ve managed to get here, to two confident kids who know they are Asian, Korean, Korean American. This journey has been its own reward. For my husband and me, it has been an enriching, enlightening experience that has taken us out of our world into a culture that we would otherwise never have known. And for our children, it has been a journey to themselves.

I am a white woman from Cleveland and my husband is white man from Dsseldorf. We both grew up in areas that were overwhelmingly white, and both had our first real interactions with people of other races in college. We had had no personal experiences of racism to enlighten our parenting. The only thing we had was an understanding of the importance of our children’s racial and ethnic heritage, which motivated us to learn as much as we could about Korea and the Korean people, and to reach out to their community, which in our area has given us many opportunities to make lasting connections. We are fortunate, too, that we have been able to develop friendships with other adoptive families. Within our family, our children talk openly and easily about their Korean identities and the fact that we don’t share the same race. Although it’s impossible for me to know if they speak with the same confidence about being Korean and adopted to their friends, but I believe that my husband and I have done all we can to make that confidence possible.

#2: Your adopted child will assume that you can’t understand what she/he is going through.

TT: Being adopted transracially is huge, as are the feelings it carries. I don’t believe I fully grasped this in my beginning parenting years. But I’ve always been open to hearing what my children had to say, and sometimes this meant accepting their feelings and remaining calm while they expressed opinions I was uncomfortable hearing. I’ve also learned to welcome the opportunity to listen to the variety of experiences of their peer group of adopted adults; giving them the same respect I’ve shown my son and daughters. Now that my oldest daughter is in her early thirties we have begun to have conversations about our common experience of being racially compartmentalized. However, although I’m mixed race, since I look white, I’m generally bracketed as Caucasian, so I’ve never had to deal with the what-are-you grilling as she has.

MP: The fact is that I, a non-adopted white person, can’t understand what my children are going through. Although as a fellow human being I can extrapolate my own experiences in an effort to gain understanding and to sympathize, at the end of the day I can’t really empathize. I openly acknowledge this with my children, and at the same time I make sure they know I’m always ready to listen. I think this has given them the confidence to own their feelings about adoption, and also to make their own decisions about how much or little to share with my husband and me. When they do choose to talk about adoption, I try hard to listen actively, and to validate their feelings and experiences.

#3: Your child will generally not tell you about bullying or discrimination incidents at school or at play, unless you learn about them independently anyway.

TT: When it comes to race, white society tends to believe there is little discrimination in America today, and white people think of it in terms of incidents that happen now and then; whereas people of color know that, while it plays out in ways sometimes blatant and intentional, sometimes in ways more subtle, it’s always present. From experience, I also know the worst thing that can happen to a kid over the age of six is to have their mother call the school and make a big deal over the fact that their child was teased. I know, because I attended a racially mixed elementary school where kids were teased and tested, and I know because once I almost broke the rule and called my son’s teacher. Fortunately I had three kids, and the older two reminded me it would make it worse for him not better. Instead, I spent the evening rebuilding my son’s confidence, letting him blow off steam, talking about some of his newfound strengths, allowing him to take charge of the situation, showing my confidence in his judgment.

MP: Because my husband and I made a conscious decision to live in a diverse area, we thought that it was unlikely that our children would experience racially-motivated teasing in their schools or in our neighborhood. But when our son came home from kindergarten one day chanting a racial slur that had previously been aimed at him, we were quickly awakened to reality. The fact is that racial divisions are a part of American life. Since that first experience, we’ve made a point of asking our children from time to time if they’ve been the targets of any teasing or bullying because they are Asian. They’ve both shared several incidents, the majority occurring during their junior high years. Although it’s hard to accept that this has happened to my children, I’m glad that they were able to tell my husband and me about it. It has given us the opportunity to talk about how they reacted to the situations, their feelings at the time, and their feelings looking back. It has also given me an opportunity to talk to our daughter about the sad prevalence of fascination that some men have with Asian women. This is something that I believe she will be better able to handle if she is prepared for it.

#4: Your child will spend some years trying on different identities and aspects of identities. But again, she/he will feel it difficult to communicate how/what/why he/she is doing in the moment.

TT: I know what it feels like to be caught between two worlds, and I’ve explored my own racial identity. Though I’m half white, I seldom refer to myself as Swedish and German American, because I don’t feel connected to those cultures. Culturally, I’m Cherokee. It sounds absurd, since I look more white than Indian, but I don’t feel white, even though I went through a stage when I dyed my hair blond. While I never deliberately passed or tried to cross over, I also didn’t go out of my way to let it be known I was Indian, hoping it would make my life less complicated. I was playing with the idea of what it might be like to actually be an all-white person. I’ve also gone through periods when I’ve embraced only my Native side. I think being adopted transracially might be similar to being mixed race, because neither is a singular experience, and both dynamics often carry an internal brokenness from our experience of being between. Often, it takes years of trying on different identities to find our balance.

MP: Although my own search for identity didn’t focus on my race, it is still fresh enough in my memory to remind me how difficult it can be for a teen or young adult to struggle with figuring out who they are. I remember, too, how painful it was when I allowed a facet of my identity to become visible, only to have it be brushed aside by my parents. And so my husband and I have tried above all to let our children know that they are whoever they believe they are or want to be. This means we’ve occasionally had to let go of our images of their identities, and to trust their ability to develop their own. This process is hard enough for any teen, but is that much more complicated for a teen missing his or her genetic connections, and living with a family of a different race. This is an area in which gentle guidance is needed, not intolerant demand.

#5: Your child will, as he/she moves into adolescence and early adulthood, be silently evaluating you whenever you discuss current-events issues with him/her, especially any that touch on race, ethnicity, and his/her country of birth.

TT: Recently, while leading a roundtable discussion, I encountered adoptive parents who had negative feelings about the country their children were adopted from. They were willing to embrace the culture from an Americanized standpoint, yet harbored resentment toward the country, and spoke only poorly of their children’s orphanage caregivers and birthparents. I shudder at the message this sends. No matter how desolate a child’s life prior to adoption, some good things were also present. Find the good and praise it. I often ask parents to picture themselves 20 years from now. What kind of relationship do you hope to have with your child? Because I can guarantee our children are evaluating us now, and it will have a direct effect on the kind of relationship we have with them when they reach adulthood.

MP: I’m a 1.5-generation Slovenian-/Croatian-American. Although I don’t strongly identify with Slovenia and Croatia, I remember how little I wanted to acknowledge my heritage during the Balkan war, when so many atrocities were being committed by my people. It was a powerful reminder of how difficult it must be for our children to hear judgmental statements about their countries of birth. Although I can’t control what comes out of the mouths of politicians, newscasters, and insensitive people, I can ensure that what my children hear about Korea and the Korean people is balanced and honest. This doesn’t mean avoiding every negative topic, but it does mean putting negatives into perspective. And it means that I must become an advocate for my children’s ethnic community, here in the U.S. and in Korea. Respect for that community is really synonymous with respect for my children themselves.

#6: When issues do emerge, they will often “erupt,” seemingly out of nowhere.

TT: Back when I hadn’t yet fully recovered from the reactive state of having parented three teenagers, meaning that I was still into preventive parenting, still curbing the war, this was a big problem for me, because most of our serious issues caught me by surprise. Joan McNamara once said, If adolescence can be described as a roller coaster of emotions for teenagers experiencing it, the same can be said for their parents. Even though both of my daughters are now adults, the only thing that keeps me sane as a mother is remembering to keep my sense of humor, being open to new ideas, and remaining flexible.

MP: Parenting a teen is like parenting on quicksand. Without a doubt, it’s a challenge, and adoption adds another layer. I now parent with the expectation that something’s going to blow from time to time, and I find I’m far less surprised when it does. It’s still not easy when it happens, but taking it in stride changes my approach to it. And my reactions are far less emotional now that my children are in their mid and late teens than they were when they were younger. A sense of humor is definitely needed, but also lots and lots of love and affection. And spontaneity – in my family, anyway, making sure that we’re able to do something fun on the spur of the moment from time to time reminds us all that we’re family, in spite of the friction that may come between us from time to time.

Copyright © 2007 Mark Hagland, Margie Perscheid, Terra Trevor. All rights reserved.

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