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Asian Children & Racial Identity: 10 Tips for Talking to Your Child

Adoption News USA

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  Written by Rebecca Hackworth & Martha Osborne on 01 Jan 2006

In the midst of the heartbreak that all Americans, and many others through-out the world, are experiencing after the tragedy of Virginia Tech, there are a group of families who shoulder an additional concern. Some Caucasian parents of children adopted from Asia, and more specifically South Korea, are reporting an unexpected reaction to the tragedy from their children: Shame.

The same children who celebrate and identify, consciously or unconsciously, with Asian athletes, artists, teachers and business people in the media, are now inexplicably also feeling remorse and shame at finding out the perpetrator of the shootings in Virginia was an Asian man.

Cheryl Palmer wrote in with this comment, "I was in shock myself when we heard the news. My daughter is only ten years old and we adopted her when she was just an infant. She's always been extremely proud of her heritage all of her life."

She learned from another student at school that the shooter was, like me, mom, Korean.

"For the first time since Lacey became our daughter, I felt completely helpless. No matter what I say, I don't understand her feelings because I am not Asian. I can again and again tell my daughter this has nothing to do with her, but her pain is very real."

While Lacey Palmer may identify immediately and openly to the shooter because of their shared tie to Korea , the questions must be asked: "Will all children of Asian heritage react in this same way? How can Caucasian parents relate to something they have never experienced?"

Rebecca Hackworth, Director of Family Services for Dillon International, had this to say:

If children are feeling fearful or vulnerable in public, it is important to validate their feelings and not minimize their discomfort. Caucasian parents have the least capacity in our country to relate to racism or the circumstances that people of color experience in a time like this.   Many of Middle Eastern heritage were fearful for their safety after the events of 9-11.  And some of those folks were targeted in the aftermath of that tragedy. 

Your children could have similar feelings related to this event .  Perhaps you have access to people of color who could talk about these experiences with your children to let them know they are not alone.  These positive role models in a child's life can reassure your child that these are normal feelings.  We always need to equip our children about what to do when they are the victims of racism.  They need to turn to a trusted adult for help whenever they are feeling unsafe, anxious or fearful. 

As a parent of a transracially adopted child, each family must ask themselves how each individual child is processing this


Racial Identification:

10 Tips to Use When Talking with Asian Children


terrible tragedy. The truth is, your child may be concerned or have a point of view that is completely different than what you are expecting to hear.

"The biggest mistake parents make in parenting is this," says Teri Bell, Special Needs Coordinator  for Americans for International Aid and Adoption , "Guessing . Every child will react differently to a given situation. As a parent, it's important to get the facts directly from the child. Don't base your beliefs on each action, each word your child utters. Listen."

How do you get your child talking? By listening . "Ask opened ended questions and don't be anxious to finish sentences or jump-into the conversation while the child pauses in speech," Teri recommends. With so much at stake, where does a parent begin? There are a few good conversation starters that give children room to make there own concerns known.

If the child has not yet heard about a disaster or tragedy that includes a great deal of attention on the race of those who were effected on either side of the situation, one way of introducing the topic may be by openly stating the facts. For example:

"Jennifer, there has been an incident in the news and I wanted to be the one to tell you about it," State the facts clearly, without emotion. Include race in the middle of the facts, and then conclude with an opened ended question such as: "I know this is a lot to think about. What are you feeling or thinking as you hear this?"

At this point, it is important to follow the child's lead , and not make any suggestions. No mention of how they might be feeling or what they may be thinking. A child may feel frightened, insecure, overwhelmed, or they may focus on a part of the issue that has absolutely nothing to do with race. The child's emotions may be jumbled and words may be slow to come. But the only way to know exactly what those emotions are, is to wait with patient understanding.

If the child simply clams up and does not want to talk about it, give them space to process the information and follow up within a few hours.

Another scenario and more likely in this particular situation by now, is that the child has already heard about the incident. A parent might say, "Obviously you know about this. What have you heard?" Try to be as calm and relaxed as possible. For a child whose answer is expressed in emotions, instead of words, one helpful tool might be to ask, What is making you cry? The answer very well may be more simple or complex than you had imagined, but you will only know the true answer if you are willing to wait and listen when the child is ready to share.

Frances Hoag, MSW with Catholic Charities brings up a controversial, but often silent fear of parents, The question parents should ask themselves is this: 'Am I planting a seed? If my child is not identifying with the racial aspect of this tragedy, am I telling her that she should?'" The opened ended question and practice of actively waiting to hear a child's response is the only way to know for sure.

Most transracial adoptees are proud of their heritage and of the role models that they have seen in the media.  So it follows that they also may tend to feel sadness or shame when people of their own nationality are in the news associated with some type of tragedy. Every parent understands that the there are good people and bad people and those in between in every culture and country.  Mental health statistics for depression, schizophrenia and other illnesses are the same world wide.  How cultures deal with those illnesses vary, but the rate of occurrence is the same.  Conveying this fact to our children, however, must be done with a sort of 'Emotional Intelligence'. What your mother may have told you with the words, "There is a right time and a right place for everything"

The bottom line is: Every child, in every family, is different and will deal with life's happenings in their own unique way. Only you can know your child, and only they can tell you what those feelings and thoughts are during this challenging time.

Rebecca Hackworth, MSW , LCSW, is Director of Family Services for Dillon International, Inc.  Founded in 1972, Dillon provides adoption and humanitarian aid in Vietnam , South Korea , China , India , Guatemala , Haiti , and Ukraine .  For more info, please contact: .

Martha Osborne is an adoption advocate, adoptive mom and adoptee. She is also the editor of the online adoption publication, , the leading online resource for adoption and waiting children.




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