The human desire to connect breathes its life from the understanding and compassion of others. Therefore, it is no surprise that with the advent of the Internet we have found an instantaneous avenue to connect in ways that were virtually impossible only a decade ago. We find immediate attention, affirmation, empathy, prayers, and release, all at the mere click of a “send” or “post” button. Our sacred thoughts and experiences no longer reside tucked away in the safety of our minds or in the collective security of our confidants. Instead, they are cast from our private thoughts into public arenas called Twitter feeds, blogs, chat rooms, and Facebook pages.
The line between public and private information has become blurred—and what was once considered confidential has been pulled into a seemingly bottomless forum feasting on “likes,” comments, feedback, forwards, and re-tweets, each offering a measure of our connection and each validating our worth. The veil between the author, the reader, and the subject becomes thinner, and the adoption world is certainly not immune. What results is a culling – a removal of parts that are sacred to each of us individually and to all of us collectively. This is particularly true for adoptees, and at the heart of the matter resides our stories, our histories, our identities, our trust, and our very ability to trust.
For example, a few months ago a friend explained to me the RAD-ish terminology. This term is used frequently on the Internet to describe children and teens who have been diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (or RAD). Though no doubt intended to be cute and whimsical, I personally found this label disrespectful and dehumanizing. After scouring the web, what I found was not only appalling but denigrating to anyone touched by adoption. Beyond the categorical label that is so easily and readily affixed to adopted and foster children by professionals, the intentional (and sometimes unintentional) disregard by parents for keeping their child’s story protected and private astounded me.
Over the years I have witnessed many examples of parents ‘oversharing’ the private and confidential information that belongs to their adopted and foster children. Such oversharing is based on all sorts of justifications, not the least of which is a desire to connect and be understood. I have also seen agencies and professionals overshare such information in the name of “best interest” and in an effort to promote permanency. But viewed from the perspective of the child or teen whose private and confidential information is digitally disseminated for the whole world to see, we have to ask whether it is really in their “best interest” to share their diagnoses, labels, birth family history, relinquishment story, accounts of their behavioral meltdowns, attachment challenges, details of their rages, hospitalizations, medications, mental health histories, previous placements, counselor visits, and on and on? At what point do parents, agencies, ministry leaders, and advocates alike ask themselves, and then struggle with the answers to, these questions: “Who is really being served? How does this oversharing honor these children and their stories? And is this really in their long-term ‘best interest’?”
I don’t pretend that there is a clear, bright line for every situation. We are not afforded easy, one-size-fits-all answers to every difficult question. But make no mistake, there is a line. When adoption professionals and agencies cross the line and overshare (in terms of what they share or how they share it), they violate the very foundation of best practices. These practices place great responsibility upon those called to serve and protect children.
Still for adoptive and foster parents the stakes are even higher and the consequences far more costly. The very essence of trust for adopted and foster children is being securely and safely connected. Parents stand on shaky ground when they encourage (even demand of) their kids to “trust me,” all the while undermining and betraying that trust by oversharing with others.
Don’t get me wrong — I know firsthand the longing of a social worker to fulfill her role and find a permanent family for a child in need. I have seen and understand the deep pain, suffering, helplessness, and hopefulness felt by many adoptive parents, more so adoptive mothers. I respect and would always advocate for parents to be connected to and benefit from the prayerful support of others who may be able to relate to the challenges, upheaval, and heartache taking place in their family. However, this is not a blanket license to freely share the sensitive, private information that ultimately belongs not to the parents, but to the child. To do so not only feeds into painful stereotype of the “problem adoptee,” but also inadvertently perpetuates the fabled notions of the “rescued” and “rescuer” — reinforcing a sense of helplessness and a voiceless position that many adoptees already experience and feel.
Personally, I have often wondered what my parents would have posted about my brother and me had they had the Internet? Growing up in a transracial adoptive family, we had more than our fill of probing questions and stares in addition to behavioral challenges. I have distinct memories of my mother sharing our adoption story with complete strangers. She did this out of a desire to explain and educate. But it still left me feeling exposed and inadequate to stop the inertia of the conversation. The difference is that those conversations were not inscribed on a digital page and distributed far and wide, but in a temporal moment. Her oversharing resides only in the confines of my memory and not for the world to see. There is safety in that, but that safety rarely exists for today’s adopted children.
Let’s be honest our children are powerless to stop their parents from posting or sharing their personal information. Children are rarely afforded the opportunity for public rebuttal, and if they are it certainly is not without tremendous consequences. I know that the vast majority of information posted is offered with good intentions. However, one day these children will find the information that has been shared about them (along with the “comments” sections), if they have not already.
The decision to broadcast a child’s personal and private information is most often a unilateral decision made by the parent. The authorship is singular. Yet it’s ironic that when the tables are turned and the adoptees become adults and begin to use their own voices to post their own thoughts and honest feelings about their own adoption experiences, the reactions are often quite different. They are not called “transparent” or “courageous.” They are not celebrated or praised for being “honest” or being “real.” Instead, too often they are labeled as “angry,” “ungrateful,” or even worse.
We must acknowledge that we teach our children by our actions. What we model for them shows them what is sacred. Adoptees have experienced significant fractures in trust, introduced mainly by the adults in their lives long before they ever arrived in their adoptive families. They need reassurance by their parents’ words and actions that the sacred nature of their stories will be honored. Parents must model sacred because for many adoptees they do not view their own life story as sacred.
Parents honor their children’s information today so that their children will learn to honor it tomorrow. They must be willing to resist the false notion that sharing their children’s struggles will somehow bring the release, relief, and reassurance they seek. Ultimately it will not, but the impact of what is shared and how it’s shared will remain. For many adoptees, their information is all they came with. It’s the only thing they can actually call “mine” from a past and a life that seems so far away.
Our Heavenly Father promises us that it is not the affirmation or even understanding from others that will ultimately bring us comfort, but rather our connection to His love and grace. Adoptive parents need to be willing to ‘unplug’ in order to reconnect to the sacred—and in doing so show their children where redemption and hope truly reside.
Melanie Chung-Sherman is a licensed clinical social worker in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. She is a wife and mother of two, and is committed to serving adoptive and foster families, adoptees, and first families. She was adopted as an infant from Korea.
You can read Michael Monroe’s thoughts on the topic of ‘oversharing’ in his article entitled Before You Share, Make Sure It’s Yours to Share. Amy Monroe also shared her thoughts in Oh No, I’ve Said Too Much.