Before pregnancy, Kayla and Eric and didn’t give much thought to how they would talk to their child about donor conception. Fertility treatments consumed their emotional energy and anxiety took over during pregnancy. The first few years after the birth of their twins was a blur, but when the dust settled, they realized they needed to think about how they would talk to their kids about their conception. That’s when they asked me, ” When is the right time to tell our children and how do we say it to them?”
One of the first issues donor recipient parents must address is disclosure, in other words, how to tell their child about their donation conception. The most common misconception parents have about disclosure is that telling a child is a single event. Talking to a child about his conception is a process that unfolds naturally over time and extends well beyond the storybook stage.
As a donor conceived child develops, his cognitive understanding of conception increases and different aspects of identity emerge, opening up new opportunities for communication and parental guidance.
The optimal time for parents to begin talking about donor conception is during the preschool stage or earlier. Children told at an early age, accept the information more effortlessly. Parents can tell their babies as soon as they begin talking to them with phrases like, “We are so grateful we got help to have you.” Even though psychologists do not fully understand the extent that infants absorb information, simple statements at this stage lay the groundwork for the child’s conceptual understanding. Early communication also helps parents become comfortable talking about their child’s conception story. As children transition into the toddler years, simple story books help explain their conception story. Currently, there are dozens of storybooks published for donor families with babies and preschool aged children. Storybooks may be sufficient until children are able to comprehend more complex information, beginning around middle childhood.
Based on Erikson’s psycho-social model of adjustment, a child will begin to understand donor conception during middle childhood, ages 8-12. During middle childhood, it is important for parents to pay special attention to a child’s emotional reactions. Children at this age will be grappling with issues like ambivalence and begin to make social comparisons. Imagination may take on a strong role in anonymous donation and grief may emerge in unexpected ways. It’s also important to know to respond to unexpected questions or emotional reactions from children. The more work the parents have done, the more flexible and capable they are of validating their child’s emotional reactions without taking it personally. According to sociologist, H. David Kirk, non-genetic parent-child relationships benefit when families engage in distinguishing behaviors. Parents who are able to distinguish and honor the child’s genetic uniqueness, while also celebrating their shared traits have a positive outcome on the child’s adjustment.
Parents who wait to tell their children during or after middle childhood, may feel more anxiety around telling, especially if unresolved infertility grief is involved. Families dealing with infertility grief may be resistant to open communication with their children but it’s never too late to grieve. A counselor can help parents work through any residual grief that may be getting in the way of open communication in their family.
Donor-conceived children face unique developmental challenges across their lifespan and psychological education plays an important role in supporting donor-conceived families long-term. Parents are also well prepared if they understand how genetic differences effect family dynamics and learn social skills to manage their family’s privacy. Counseling or consultation with a specialist in third-party family building can help a donor conceived family work through disclosure and enjoy a healthy parent-child bond for a life time. For more information on how to guide a donor-conceived child through various developmental stages, read, Three Makes Baby- How to Parent Your Donor Conceived Child (available on Amazon.com, Target.com and BarnesandNoble.com).
Jana M. Rupnow, MA, LP
Jana M. Rupnow, MA, LPC, is the author of Three Makes Baby and a licensed professional counselor and consultant specializing in fertility and family building. Jana is internationally known for helping individuals who are preparing for third-party family building. She also helps parents learn to communicate with their children about donor conception and serves as a liaison for communication between donor-conceived or adoptive families and genetic or birth parents.
Jana works independently in private practice and consults with couples, parents, donors, agencies, and endocrinologists across the nation and in her Dallas offices and via Skype or FaceTime.
Jana is a speaker and a member of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine’s Mental Health Group and a professional member of the National Infertility Association, Resolve. She has built relationships with fertility doctors across the country to help their patients with the psychological challenges of donation conception prior to medical intervention. Jana has a clinical background in physiology and has published articles through Baylor University Medical Center.
Jana is also an adoptee and adoptive mom. She and her husband, Scott, live in Dallas with their son, daughter and two goldendoodles.
For more information subscribe to Jana M. Rupnow’s newsletter at janarupnow.com. For consultation, counseling, training for professionals, or a speaking engagement, email Jana@JanaRupnow.com or request an appointment with her at JanaRupnow.com. Follow Jana Rupnow on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @janarupnowlpc