New Study Emphasizes Damage of Waiting to Tell Children They’re Adopted

Little girl feeling protected in her mother's embrace outdoors.

Openness in adoption is a relatively recent trend. For decades, the pervading school of thought was one of secrecy. It was generally believed that if a child was adopted as an infant, he or she would never know the difference, and telling that child would only serve to upset him or her. Furthermore, the attitude of secrecy was supposed to protect the identity of birth parents in an era when unplanned pregnancy and single parenthood was viewed as something to be ashamed of.

But a recent study has confirmed what adoption professionals have known for years: Secrecy in adoption causes long-term pain to adoptees.

Amanda Baden, a Montclair State University professor who has been studying adoption for 25 years, found that disclosing a child’s adoptee status after the age of 3 has been linked to negative life satisfaction and mental health in the future.

The theory of waiting to tell a child about his or her adoption at an age when he or she is “old enough to understand,” has been phasing out for years, but has now officially been debunked.

What Does this Mean for Hopeful Adoptive Parents?

Baden’s research found that “those in the earliest age group of adoption discovery, birth to 2 years of age, reported both the least distress and the highest level of life satisfaction,” and that adult adoptees “who consciously recalled the revelation and their age at discovery (aged 3 and older) reported comparatively higher levels of distress that increased with later ages of discovery.”

So if you’re thinking about adopting an infant, you should be ready to start telling your child his or her adoption story from day one. It may feel silly to talk to a newborn about his or her birth parents and how your child came to be a part of your family, but by making a habit of speaking about adoption, your child’s adoption story will always be a normalized part of his or her life. By openly talking about adoption together, your child will hopefully feel more comfortable asking questions and talking about their own feelings regarding adoption one day.

If your child’s adoption story has painful details in it, like abuse, substance-usage, rape, or neglect, consider asking an adoption professional for advice on addressing these topics using age-appropriate language as your child grows. A person deserves to know their personal history, even the difficult parts of the story, no matter how much you’d like to protect your child.

What Does this Mean for Late-Discovery Adoptees?

This study reminds us of that there are many adult adoptees that, unfortunately, didn’t learn about their adoption until later in life. This kind of sudden revelation is often shocking, painful, and leaves people feeling lied to, hurt and betrayed.

These difficult emotions can hurt the relationships that are most important to you and damage your own sense of identity. It often takes the help of an experienced professional to work through this. An adoption-competent therapist can be helpful, and sometimes talking with other adoptees going through similar experiences can be comforting, too.

If you are struggling with complex emotions following a recent discovery of your adoptee status, remember that you’re not alone, and that it’s ok to ask for help as you process this.

What’s the Takeaway?

The research recommends telling children about their adoption earlier than age 3. It also concluded that adoptees want more “communicative openness” and desire “contact with birth relatives and other adoptees.”

So the trend of increased openness in adoptions is a step in the right direction. Adoptees (even young children) are happiest in the long-term when they understand their adoption story, when they’re able to keep in touch with birth family members whenever possible and when they know other adoptees.

Unsure of how to tell your child about his or her adoption? Reach out to an adoption professional for guidance, and initiate the conversation as soon as possible.

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