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The Day We Told Our Adopted Son About His Past

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My heart beats hard as we sit down on the worn sofa in the therapist’s office.

Today is the day we will tell our son about his past. Adopted from foster care as a young child, our son has a history that is significant for early childhood trauma. He has always known he was adopted, and he knows things happened to him that were not good, but he does not know details.

My husband and I met with the therapist alone last week to create a plan for this session. Our son, at 10 years old, doesn’t realize the big-deal-day today is going to be.

The Therapy Session

I think my son senses that something is different, but his constant energy and anxiety keep him moving and going in a world that is in many ways his own. Don’t get me wrong, he’s not autistic or anything like that. He’s…a spinning ball of anxiety and the need to control.

Our son has PTSD. It’s not that he feels fear. He is fear. I see it in the way he walks and talks. Breathes.

He intersects with us in meaningful ways — sometimes.

Good decision or bad on our part, today is going to be a turning point day for him.

We are regulars at the local mental health clinic. The office isn’t fancy and the carpet is worn, but so what. We’ve received good care here.

We settle into what has become our familiar spots. Our son likes the big black chair. He never sits still. He turns sideways in his chair. He kicks the end table. Then he kicks it harder, watching the therapist to see if he will get a reaction. He fiddles with the musical instruments the therapist keeps around the room.

We start by discussing our son’s behavior over the last couple weeks and improvements we’ve seen. We’ve made another medication change. We continually adjust medication. None of them help much but they all help a little.

We’ve added a strict behavior plan at home, similar to those used in group homes. Our son has rages where he flies completely out of control— screaming, yelling, biting, hitting, throwing objects, and kicking and punching holes in the walls.

This has been going on almost his whole life, but as he’s gotten older and stronger, the behavior is becoming more dangerous and scary. We’ve added “call the police” as the next tier on his behavior plan. I hate that this is part of our life.

I look at my son, who is hanging upside down off the chair during this part of the discussion. What is he thinking?


Our therapist sits directly in front of our son and lines him up for close eye contact.

“We’ve got important work to do today. If you focus really well, we can play drums when we are finished. How does that sound? But before that, we have important stuff to discuss. Did you know your mom and dad came in and met with me alone last week?” the therapist asked.

He had my son’s attention now. Drums is a reward. Plus, my son can’t stand being left out of any interaction.

“Why did you come in without me? This is my therapy,” my son turns to me and asks.

The therapist answers for me. “We were making a plan. An important plan. We need to plan how we are going to discuss things today, and we need to plan how you are going to manage your behavior when you go home after this session.”

We went on to make a plan for how to signal if the information we are sharing was okay or too much, and what my son should do during the session if he became overwhelmed. We review his behavior plan, knowing this could stir up a lot of emotion.


The therapist turns to us. “Mom, Dad, I’ll go ahead and turn the floor over to you now.”

My husband and I look at each other. We hadn’t exactly made detailed plans for how we were going to do this.

Since our son came into our home, we’ve known the details of what happened to him as a baby. At times it has devastated us.

At times it has become commonplace because we’ve said it so many times to the many therapists and doctors who have become part of our world.

I think there is a part of me that thought my son would not be surprised to hear this news. After saying it so many times to different professionals, maybe he overheard it or has always somehow known it.

My husband takes over the conversation. “Son, you need to know what happened to you before you came to live with us, and why you came into foster care.”

Then my husband shares with him the details, as much as we know.

My son sits stone still as he listens to this.

Perfectly still. My son who never — ever — stills, sits unmoving.

We all wait.

My son blinks, then asks, “That happened to me?

He wants to know who did it, and why.

My husband and I both start to cry. My son comes over to stand next to me, and I pull him tightly into my lap.

I don’t care how old he is. I hold him and rock him like the baby I remember.

He reaches up and wipes away the tears from my cheek, a gesture of sad curiosity. “Are you sad, Mommy?”

It’s been several years since he’s called me Mommy.

“Yes, I’m sad, and very angry that this happened to you. It never, ever should have happened.”

My husband reached over to run a hand through our son’s dark hair.

“Are you sad, too, Dad?”

“Yes, I am,” my husband manages.

It’s quiet in the room. The clock ticks.

I hear kids playing in the therapy room next door.

“You know what though,” I tell my son. “I never would have wanted the reason that brought you, but I’m so thankful you are part of our family.”

We pass around Kleenex.

“Good work today, all of you,” the therapist tell us. “I’m impressed with you. How about we save those drums for first thing next time? I think you all need to go home and get some rest.”

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