Talking to Children about Adoption

By Joni S. Mantell, LCSW, Director Infertility and Adoption Counseling Center

Why Talking About Adoption is Important

Many adult adoptees report that adoption was on their minds much more than it was discussed at home. The single most common factor in their not discussing adoption with their parents was that they picked up on their parents’ discomfort with the topic. Some felt disloyal, especially talking about birth parents. Others, especially when they were younger, did not know how to put their questions or complex feelings into words. So, they need their parents help with this. And most wished their parent had initiated conversations about adoption.

As an adoptive parent you will want to get comfortable talking about adoption; and learn how to talk with your child, tween and teen in age-appropriate ways.

Sometimes this is difficult for parents, as talking about may remind them of their own losses and sometimes shame about infertility. Or cause their child to feel pain, or feel differently about them as parents. None of this could be farther from the truth. Talking about adoption gives your child a chance to metabolize feelings about adoption incrementally (rather than choking on it all alone as an adult), and increases parent-child intimacy.

Taking an open approach to talking about adoption will:

  • Help your child understand their nature and nurture. While both are important, and nurture influences nature, adopted individuals want to know about their genetics in relation to physical, medical and mental health, personality traits, interests and tendencies. They need this information to understand their identity as they grow up.
  • Helps them try to make sense of their adoption story. While the term “placed for adoption” is considered to be Positive Adoption Language, in the psyche at some point an adopted person may question why he or she was “given up” and benefit from processing this as new questions and understanding surface.
  • Provides a safe home environment in which to explore how it feels to be adopted. Adopted persons have a normative set (and a range) of feelings and thoughts about having been adopted. They benefit from giving voice to these feelings and receiving the support and validation of their parents.
  • Builds healthy parent-child relationships. Giving children truthful information about their background promotes close and trusting relationships, and opens the door to being the go-to person/people for children to explore their curiosity.

Basic Facts

  • Talking to children about their adoption is a process not a one-time event
  • Early telling is easiest for parents and children.
    • Gives parents a chance to practice telling the story and dealing with their own emotions about the adoption (Many parents report getting teary as they practice); while the baby is not really understanding the words, or associating the parents’ tears to the content, and is simply enjoying the parent-child interaction.
    • Lays the foundation for future conversations.
    • Telling early allows children to accept their story without shock or distress; to learn about aspects of their history, and more organically integrate this knowledge as they grow up and develop their sense of identity.
    • Essentially they will ‘always know’ rather than having their understanding of who they are rocked at a later age.
  • Parents need to initiate conversations with children about their adoption, and not wait for them to bring it up because children do not know how to broach the subject.
    • Parent’s will want to check in with them at various times over the course of their development. As they grow, they may have additional questions, and parents can add to the story with developmentally appropriate material.
    • Just because a child “seems fine” does not mean they don’t have questions and feelings about being adopted. Many parents want to assume that if the child does not talk about it or ask questions that the child is not thinking about it. This might be true, but it might be that the child senses that the topic is uncomfortable for the parent, so they keep their thoughts and questions to themselves.
    • Children often do not know how to put all of their feelings and questions into words.
    • Your child is likely to be curious about birth parents.
    • It is the parent’s job to raise the subject and ask for questions.

Day to day, intimate relationships create deep emotional bonds between you and your child. Talking about complex topics (with adoption just being one such topic) builds intimacy in parent-child relationships; and your child’s self-esteem.

Children are looking to understand themselves; they are not searching for other parents.

How To Talk With Children, Tweens And Teens About Their Adoption

  • What follows is a beginning schema of issues to think about when planning a discussion with children at different ages and stages of a child’s development. More in-depth information about the developmental stages can be found in books and articles.
  • The original narrative will be simple yet true, so that it never changes; and parents can add to it in bits and pieces in age-appropriate ways as children grow and develop cognitively and emotionally.
  • Infancy to age 2 – This is a time for parents to practice and get comfortable telling the family story. Some parents find they get emotional and appreciate working this through before their child picks up on this.
  • Ages 2 to 5 – Even the youngest children can be told the basic adoption story. While they will not really understand the content, they will ‘always know’ and pick up their parents’ openness and love.
    • You can tell a very simple version of their own story or use children’s books such as Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born, Jamie Lee Curtis or Over the Moon, An Adoption tale, Karen Katz.
    • Over the Moon states quite beautifully “You grew like a flower in another lady’s tummy until you were born. But the lady wasn’t able to take care of you, so Mommy and Daddy came to adopt you and bring you home.”
    • In addition, Books like The Family Book by Todd Parr can introduce the youngest children to the concept that there are all kinds of families who are alike and different in a variety of ways, but the important thing is all families share affection and take care of each other.
  • Around age 4 children notice differences, will notice pregnant women, and ask their mother if they grew inside of her. Keep in mind that all children – nonadopted and adopted – ask this question, and fantasize this magical closeness with the mother they know and love. You will want to answer truthfully, and leave space for your child to react, possibly with sadness or longing to have grown inside of you. This is okay and part of learning about their own story. And after listening to your child’s feelings, you can reassure your child that you love them as much as if they grew inside of you.
  • Ages 4 to 6 – Sometime between 4 to 6 there are some questions about where babies come from and with this they will learn essentially that it takes a man and a woman to make a baby, and the baby grows inside of the woman until it is born.
    • This age range may be a good time to start to fill in some of the details about your child’s birth. Many ‘adoption stories’ are the adoptive parents’ stories (EG. We flew to Texas and met you at the hospital. Or We called an adoption agency because we wanted to be parents…). Your child needs to know that like all babies, he was born. And that he was created by a woman and a man.
  • Ages 7 to 13 – At these ages your child will have a greater understanding and with this a deepening of feelings about having been adopted. Parents can support children these ages by listening and validating the more difficult feelings, which provides both emotional support and demonstrates that difficult feelings about adoption are real and can be tolerated. Four Issues typical during this time are:
    • Sadness about their adoption – Realizing at this stage that the birth parents are real people out there in the real world, even those adopted as newborns may feel sadness about the losses of adoption, often experience a grieving response as the realization that someone made a decision to give them up for adoption connects for them at a deeper level. With this they often feel more curious about birth parents.
    • Feeling Different – Children this age are concerned with fitting in with peers. Adoption means they are different from most of their friends. Your child is also different from you in some ways because his nature comes from this birth parents. This is a good time to help your child process and understand more about what might be genetic.
    • With the increased awareness of birth parents, they experience more intensified feelings feelings about ‘Why’ they were adopted. While positive adoption language uses the phrase ‘placed for adoption’, in the psyche, adoptees often describe ‘feeling given up’, a very painful emotion. Talking about this is important as most adoptees report thinking they were ‘given up’ because something was wrong with them. Parents will want to share what they know about the reasons for the adoption (there were grown up problems NOT something wrong with the child), and at the same time, respect for the birth parents, as the child will come to identify with them, and most likely meet them if they want to.
    • Insecurity and Questioning Permanence – is often experienced by the child as the reality of being adopted kicks in. It is very hard for children to understand that a woman who is a mother would give up her baby. It is frightening when they register this. And many fear their adoptive parents might also ‘give them up.’ Some act out to test their adoptive parents and others are overly compliant out of fear of rejection.
    • Opening an adoption at this stage may be very helpful to your child – if your child expresses interest, or if you sense this would be helpful and want to explore this. The opportunity for your child to learn about ‘nature’ issues, and why the adoption occurred from the birth parents’ perspective can often be helpful. And for adoptive parents it can be easier to open the adoption ‘before your child’s hormones kick in’ and they are experiencing adolescent angst, or beginning the separation process.
  • Ages 14 to 18 – Identity and Separation-Individuation
      • Adolescents struggle with identity and this can be more difficult for adopted teens, as they have 2 additional parents to identify with, and often don’t know them – the birth parents.
      • Separation-Individuation requires confidence, and given the history of loss, this may be harder for some adopted teens.
      • Thee may be extra anxiety around “launching”. Remind your child that you are supporting their emotional needs, and if they need more time to live at home than their peers, you are not only open to that but happy to be able to support them.
      • Opening an adoption at this stage can be positive or tricky depending on the teen. If parents are concerned (and have done the work of talking openly about adoption all along), they can be honest with their teen, and assure them that they will help and support them in the future when they think they are in a better place to handle it.
      • Some adopted persons are curious and others are not. Some become curious when there is a relevant life event such as the birth of their own child, or a health concern.

    The parents’ goal is to create an open and accepting environment for the child to explore who they are – a gift to any child no matter how they came to be. And with this foundation you can expect the dialogues to continue – as needed.

Talking To OLDER Children, Teens Or Adults For The First Time About Their Adoption.

If Parents have delayed telling, please note that – it is never too late to tell according to adopted persons. If for some reason you did not start early, then ‘telling’ is possible at any age. It simply takes more preparation and is undertaken as an event rather than a process.
What to do if parents’ have waited until their child is older to tell?

  • If this is the case they will most likely want to get some guidance about handling this in a way that is specific to their own child’s age, personality, current issues, etc.
  • If parenting as a couple, it is best to tell when both parents are present (even in the case of divorce or separation) so the child views this as a safe topic to discuss with both parents.
  • Parents can explain why they did not tell previously, why they are telling now, and if they feel it is the right thing to do, apologize for not telling earlier.
  • When parents are ‘telling’ for the first time when the child is over seven or older, it is likely to start with a ‘sitting down and telling event’ rather than being a process over the course of several years; although parents can prepare the ground by talking about how all families are different and sometimes parents need some help create a family.
  • Children of eight or older have much greater understanding than those under this age.  How they receive the news about being adopted is likely to depend as much on how parents feel and go about telling them and the random other children they know that were adopted, as on their own personality and general way of dealing with things.
    • If they understand immediately – there may be an element of shock.
    • Sometimes, tweens and teens may be angry at not having been told this information earlier.
    • Some teens and young adults are ‘relieved’ as they worried about inheriting a medical or mental health condition from an adoptive parent.
    • Some children are sad for a while that they are not connected by genes and blood to much-loved parents.  This kind of sadness can also happen in middle childhood as part of the process of integration in children who have been told from a very young age.
    • For some it explains why they felt different, and while relieving this can also be experienced as hurt, betrayal and anger.
  • Adopted person’s report appreciating their parents’ acknowledgement of their pain, and the fact that they may feel differently than their parents about adoption.
  • These kinds of conversations can build a stronger parent-child relationship, even if there is an initial period of adjustment to the information

It is not uncommon for adoptive parents to feel anxious about talking with their child about the adoption. Parents love their children and want to do what is best for them. Adoption is complex, and something parents will want to try to understand from both their own and their growing child’s perspective.

When to seek counseling from a therapist specializing in Adoption

  • If your child is 5 years old (or older) and you have not told your child of their adoption
  • If you are having difficulty telling or talking with your child, tween or teen about adoption; or are unclear about what are age-appropriate topics and questions to raise with your child
  • If you would like to learn more about the stages described in this article – particularly as they apply to your child
  • If you and your partner are not on the same page about this
  • If your child has concerns that you would like help understanding or addressing.
  • If you are ‘talking about adoption’ but not talking about birth parents. Your comfort talking about birth parents should develop over time, it is a process, occurs at different rates for different people. Some parents get comfortable fairly quickly within a year, sometimes two, others take years, and some really struggle.
    • Try to be conscious of how this is for you and if you are not getting comfortable consider getting some counseling or joining an adoptive parents’ group.
    • Your goal is to be able to talk to your child and understand your child’s adoption experience without feeling anxious, insecure or even threatened.
  • Talk to adopted people if you are raising one. Learn from their experience to benefit your child

Based in Pennington, NJ