For many adoptive families, it’s a looming, difficult decision: when — and how — should you talk to your child about adoption?
Telling your child his or her adoption story might seem like a giant obstacle to be tackled, but in reality, it should be something that is discussed openly and honestly from the beginning. Weaving the topic of adoption into everyday conversation can help create a positive image of adoption, improve your child’s confidence and sense of identity, and build trust between you and your child.
Why you should talk to your child about adoption
Most experts agree that it is important to tell your child that he or she was adopted, and it is highly recommended that children are told about adoption early on.
One major study revealed that all adopted children that were studied, regardless of the level of openness in their adoption, were curious about their birth families. If your child senses that you are uncomfortable talking about adoption or answering their questions about their birth family, they might feel isolated or guilty for having questions. Talking openly with your child is the best way to show them that adoption is normal and that they can always trust you and come to you with questions.
Telling your child’s adoption story through the years
While researchers and adoptees commonly agree that it is best for children to know about their adoption from the beginning, it can be difficult to know how to appropriately talk about adoption with your child. How much can toddlers and young children really understand about adoption, anyway? When should you start revealing the more difficult details of your child’s adoption story?
Every child develops at his or her own pace, and each may process and react to adoption information differently. The following are some rough guidelines to help you talk about adoption with your child through the years.
Infancy and Preschool: While you may feel silly talking about adoption around very young infants or children who won’t be able to understand most of what you say, this is the perfect time to start practicing talking about adoption. Use adoption terms as you talk to your infant or toddler to begin building a positive association with adoption language. As you incorporate adoption into your everyday vocabulary, it will help you as parents become more confident and comfortable with the topic.
As your child gets a bit older, he or she may become aware of pregnant women and be curious about their own birth. They might begin to ask questions about where they came from and how they were born. This gives you a great opportunity to tell them their adoption story. By now, your child has already heard you use terms like “adoption” and will know it as something that is positive and special. Young children are likely to repeat your words and model your attitudes and behaviors. If you tell their adoption story openly and positively, they will feel confident and proud to be adopted. You can incorporate adoption-themed books into story time or make your child his or her own Lifebook to help you tell their story.
School-aged Children: As your child continues to grow and develop, he or she will likely begin to focus more on the details of their adoption. At this stage, children may begin to understand the complexities of adoption — the choice birth parents had to make and the pain that comes with relinquishment, for example — which can bring up new emotions, like sadness or even rejection. They may begin to ask tougher questions, such as why they were placed for adoption, or they may stop talking about adoption altogether. They may also face their first negative comments, insensitive questions or adoption stereotypes from other children.
It is important to continue to talk to your child about adoption during this time, reinforce the positive image of adoption that you’ve helped them develop and teach them how to respond to any negativity they might face. This should also be when you start giving your child more details about his or her adoption story. Gauge your child’s reactions and determine what he or she can handle and process, but keep in mind that this is often when children are most resilient and best able to digest difficult truths. Give your child plenty of opportunities to talk to you about adoption, but don’t push the subject — just keep lines of communication open.
Adolescents: Adolescents — and sometimes especially adopted teenagers — tend to be focused on identity. During this stage, your child will likely begin to wonder who he or she truly is, and how adoption has played a role in developing their identity.
When your child is ready, you should begin to share more details about the adoption, as well as any documents relating to the adoption. Being entirely honest and answering all of your child’s questions truthfully and supportively will help build trust and keep your relationship strong.
Regardless of your child’s age, when talking about adoption, you should always be honest, positive and supportive of your child and his or her adoption story. Give your child plenty of opportunities to ask questions and bring up adoption on their own, and remember that all children develop and mature at their own pace. If you need help talking to your child about adoption, consider consulting a counselor or therapist for suggestions and support.
Adoption is a lifelong journey, and it should be a lifelong topic of conversation as well. Instead of waiting until your child brings it up or until you think she or he is old enough to fully understand adoption, introduce the concept little by little and build upon your child’s knowledge as their understanding of adoption develops. Raise your child to know that he or she was adopted — that his or her birth parents acted out of love when they chose you to be his or her parents, and that he or she was meant to be placed with your family.
Resources for adoptive families
For more information about talking to your children about adoption or for general support and information about parenting adopted children, visit:
- Child Welfare Information Gateway
- Adoptive Family Support Network
- North American Council on Adoptable Children
- National Foster Care and Adoption Directory
- Adoption Learning Partners
Books can be a great way to help introduce the topic of adoption to your child. Adoption-themed children’s books include:
- God Found Us You by Lisa Tawn Bergren
- How I Was Adopted by Joanna Cole
- Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born by Jamie Lee Curtis
- A Blessing From Above by Patti Henderson
- A Mother for Choco by Keiko Kasza
- A Sister for Matthew by Pamela Kennedy
- We Belong Together: A Book About Adoption and Families by Todd Parr
- I Wished for You: An Adoption Story by Marianne Richmond
- The Best for You by Kelsey Stewart
Movies are another great way to make adoption a normal part of everyday conversation. Here are some of the top adoption and foster care-related movies to watch with your family: