In October we celebrate a holiday where we wear masks and pretend to be someone we are not. Halloween is not the only time people wear masks; figuratively speaking people often wear masks in daily interactions. This is especially true in the age of social media where pictures and videos are commonly posted only after they are edited, using special filters, lighting, and backgrounds. In reality, behind the screen, there is a broken person searching for belonging, acceptance, and identity. Masks represent the idea of who we want to be or how we want others to see us.
Adoptees often wear masks that hide their brokenness and the trauma they have experienced. Masks can be a defense mechanism or a learned survival strategy used to protect a person. Masks can help give them courage to face tough situations or to pretend to fit in.
There are many misconceptions or stigmas about adoption, which are often encouraged by misguided and uneducated assumptions. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines stigma as “a mark of shame or discredit.” Common stigmas about adoption are that adoptees were unwanted, unloved and “given up” by their biological parents. The majority of children are in need of a loving home due to a series of unfortunate circumstances. However, because society has these stigmas, adoptees feel like they need to hide behind masks to protect themselves from this “mark of shame,” but they should not have to.
Adoptees often struggle to answer questions about who they are and where they belong. This struggle can be intense for some adoptees and interfere with their ability to form their identity. Many adoptees have no information about their biological parents, birth culture, medical background and much more. The lack of information can create a gaping hole creating a sense of feeling as if they do not belong.
Identity formation occurs throughout childhood and adolescence and continues into adulthood. During their search for identity, adoptees may try on different masks and search for where they fit in. Here are some tips for adoptive parents to help support their child by encouraging them to take off their mask and find their true self:
- Embrace their birth culture – Maintain connections with others who are from your child’s culture – your child should have role models who look like them. Celebrate your child’s racial and cultural identity. Cultivate an accepting cultural environment at home by incorporating holidays, traditions and recipes from your child’s culture into your daily life.
- Give choices – Adoptees may not have had a choice regarding their family so it is essential to provide other choices such as allowing them to pursue their own interests, hobbies, and finding things they are passionate about and join groups with others like them.
- Respect their birth story – Help your child create a Lifebook by detailing important dates, events, pictures, names, stories, accomplishments, and any memories they have about their journey. If possible, support your child if they want to have a connection with their birth family and help them do it safely.
- Encourage open communication – Initiate conversations about identity and belonging. Listen and validate their feelings.
- Connect with other adoptive parents and adoptees – Find community among others who understand the struggle and can provide perspective and support. Talking to others about their struggles can help you prepare your child for any challenges they may encounter down the road.
Every adoptee and their identity journey is unique and it may take a lifetime to form completely. Adoptees may continue to ask themselves, “where do I belong?” but parents can provide a good foundation for identity formation by creating an environment that encourages them to take their masks off and be their true self.