Child development research shows that most children around elementary school age, will create a "family fantasy." For the child who has not been adopted this is just a stage, a short-term fantasy that is fun and can aide continued attachment development with parents despite disappointments and realizing those parents are not perfect or solely good.
For the child who has been adopted it is usually not "just a stage" or a short-term fantasy mainly because this fantasy is based on some actual facts--the child actually has "other" parents before the adoptive parents. The birth parent fantasies are also not as much fun for the child who has been adopted. They will often feel very conflicted about their fantasies. One reason why birth parent fantasies develop is to help protect the child from and also help the child to make sense of hard facts, such as relinquishment. In fantasies dealing with relinquishment and abandonment the child may wish and fear at the same time his birth parents coming to reclaim him. The child who has been adopted, often wants her birth parents to want her but not to actually take her.
Another conflicting aspect about birth family fantasies is that the child is still in the developmental stage where everything and everyone is either good or bad. These fantasies may categorize birth parents as "bad" but then the conflicting aspect is what does that say about the child himself; the biological child of said "bad" parents? If the fantasy categorizes the adoptive parents as "bad" it puts conflicting thoughts on practically everything the child has ever known of family and life. Then the last option is for the child to categorize herself as "bad" and obviously this is not conducive to healthy emotional and/or identity development.
So what do we do as adoptive parents or others involved with children who have been adopted?
- We do not encourage or discourage per se, the actual having birth parent fantasies but are to encourage the expression of the fantasies if they develop (and they most likely will develop in some form).
- You cannot help a child with the difficult emotional work, or the resolving of conflicting and ambiguous thoughts and circumstances or integrate hard facts about their life story that are contained in their birth parent fantasies if you do not know what their fantasies are.
- The fantasies can be expressed verbally but as the fantasy might have lots of conflicting and strong emotions attached to them it might be difficult for a child to just talk about them. The lifebooks can help bring about discussion of birth family fantasies safely through the use of prompts, the child's birth and adoption stories and pictures.
- When creating a lifebook, sharing the adoption or birth story etc...be careful to neither idealize or vilify people in the story. Birth parents should not be "sacrificing saints" nor "losers"; adoptive parents should not be "rescuers" or "saviors" and the adopted child should not be "lucky" etc... One possible underlying theme is we are all humans, who make both good and bad choices and no one is solely good or bad.
- You might encourage other forms of expression besides verbal, by having the child draw pictures of the birth parents and birth family fantasies.
- When discussing the birth family fantasy, name emotions both the positive and the negative that the child expresses or are most likely underlying the fantasy. Again highlight that it's hard and often uncomfortable to accept people as both good and bad but it's the healthiest path.
- Be aware of your own emotions. For example, as an adoptive parent listening to the birth family fantasy do you feel threaten? Recognize and acknowledge your emotions. Your feelings, especially if left unrecognized, can influence and even sabotage your efforts of communication with and help to your child.
- Resist transmitting society's pressure to choose "sides" and to have loyalty to only one person/family. Having a relationship, interest or love for the birth family does not mean the child cannot or does not have relationships, interest and love for the adoptive family and vice versa.
- Revisit the fantasy, rediscuss the birth family and other facts and details about adoption. Just because you have been using the term adoption or birth parent since the child was young doesn't mean they understand the meaning or concept. Children will usually need to come to terms, a new understanding of what it means to be adopted, at each new developmental stage.
- Open adoption and/or sharing the facts that you have about the birth family and adoption has been shown to help discuss and ground the fantasy in reality but don't assume that this will eliminate the child's birth family fantasy all together. Many children take the facts and elaborate on them further in their fantasies. For example, one young women who knew her birth mother did not finish high school, elaborated on that fact with the belief her birth mother went to beauty school instead, just like many of the girls who dropped out in her own school did. The young woman started considering going to beauty school, too. If an adoptive parent or other individual involved with the young woman, knew of this elaboration or the fantasy, they could help her find ways to be her own person and find other ways to feel connected with her birth mother.
This post was written using the research article: Birthparent Romances and Identity Formation in Adopted Children by Elinor Rosenberg and Thomas M. Horner.