How and When to Discuss Adoption With Your Child
Children’s curiosity about their adoption story is a normal part of growing up. Open and informative discussions are crucial for the development of your child’s sense of self.
Infancy to Two Years Old
The first couple of years are about building positive feelings connected with the word adoption. Make it a household word from the beginning. Your child should hear the word “adoption” even before they know what it means. We never want them to have a memory of "the day they were told they were adopted." Parents don't wait until children understand the words "I love you" to start telling them, and the same goes for their child's adoption story.
Start practicing how you talk about their adoption and the story of how you became a family, so when they are old enough to have a conversation with you about it, they sense your comfort in discussing it and the pride you have in their story.
When those questions arise (and they will), if you are uncomfortable or avoid answering them, you send the message that the subject of adoption is taboo and not a welcome topic of conversation. We never want children to misinterpret your discomfort, wondering if there is something wrong or bad with being adopted.
As we know, children love to hear stories about themselves, and that includes the one about “The Way We Became A Family.” Create a personalized storybook using pictures from your match and placement experience (Mixbook and Shutterfly have very user friendly programs) and place the storybook on their shelf next to their other books, so your child can easily let you know when they want to hear their story by choosing that one from their collection.
Many adoptive parents frame a picture of themselves with the birthmother before the birth, or one of the birthmother with everyone together at the hospital. Even before your child is speaking, you can refer to the picture and tell them about their birthmother, a special woman who grew them in her belly and chose you to be their forever family.
Two to Four Year Olds
Think about how you would answer the question, “Did I grow in your belly?” Children need to understand that they came into the world the same way as everyone else (otherwise children might develop fears about being aliens). However, there are different ways families are created.
It is important to say that you love your child just as much as if they had grown in your belly. During preschool years, the goal is to build a foundation of positive self-esteem as it relates to adoption.
Young children need concrete information, and if they cannot see and touch it, it may not be real to them. Direct contact with their birthmother makes adoption concrete and real. You can always tell a child that their birthmother made this decision out of love, but eventually, they will wonder, "If she loves me so much, how come she doesn't want to know me?"
If you think opening up communication with your child's birthmother would be helpful but you don't have an established plan for direct contact, reach out to an adoption counselor for guidance. Relationships between birth families and adoptive families can be beautiful and rewarding, but they are also delicate, and an adoption counselor can help you create a foundation based on mutual respect and understanding.
Remember, always be confidant and proud when you talk about their story and about their birthparents. They know that they came from this person, and if they think that their birthparents are bad people, they will wonder what "bad" they could have inherited.
Five to Nine Year Olds
Your child may start to ask questions that you are unsure how to answer. As much as you can prepare yourself, inevitably, your child will come up with a question you had never thought of. Additionally, children tend to have impeccable timing, and they will probably ask you this question while you are at the checkout stand in the middle of paying for your groceries.
If you are not sure how to answer their question, it is ok to say, "Max, that is such a good question, let me think about that one so I can give you the right answer" - and then call an adoption counselor for advice. We can help you craft your answer in a way that is both honest and age appropriate. However, it is crucial that you do circle back with your child within the next few days to answer their question. Otherwise, you risk them concluding that you are not comfortable talking about their adoption, and that it is a taboo subject.
Be prepared to answer the question, “Why Didn’t My Birthmother Keep Me?”
Talk about the circumstances surrounding their birthmother’s decision. Ask their birthmother what she is comfortable sharing as her reasons and work together to ensure that your messages are in sync.
Don’t over use the example of financial problems. Most families have financial concerns at some point, so when you talk about not being able to afford something, you don’t want your child to worry about being placed for adoption with a different family. It is okay to talk about lack of financial stability as a factor, but also focus on other circumstances that led to their birthmother choosing adoption.
"What if she decides that she's ready to take care of me now?” Explain that their birthmother picked you to be their forever parent(s), that she knew she was growing a baby for a very special family, she just had to find them. Some families include in this theme in their personalized storybook, "She searched and searched for the perfect family, and the day she met us she knew, this was the family you were meant to be in." Stress the permanency of your family. Adoption is forever.
If there is no direct contact with their birthmother, they may wonder if she regrets her choice. Reassure them that she cannot change her mind and "get them back." If your child is struggling with these fears, and inviting the birthmother to visit is an option, you may want to consider it. This will give your child an opportunity to see their birthmother's comfort in her decision and witness her defer to you as their parent(s). Finally, they will see her come and leave, while they remain with you. The visit will also reinforce the concrete relationship the birthmother has in relation to your family, and the difference between the role of a birthmother compared to their parent(s).
At this stage, they are also becoming aware of loss and realize that they are not biologically related to you. For some children, this might make them sad. Allow them to have these feelings, it is not a reflection of their lack of love for you, or a secret desire to live with their birthparent. They are grieving the fact that they are not biologically related to you, and that is okay. Allow your home to be a place where they feel safe having a range of feelings about their adoption over the years. Reinforce the fact that you could not love them anymore than you already do. Even if they had grown inside you, the love is the same.
Ten and Up
As children’s ability to understand their circumstances increase, they will require more details surrounding their adoption. Withholding information will threaten your ability to build a trusting relationship during these formative years. Again, if you encounter a question you are not sure how to answer, it is ok to call an adoption professional for advice before diving into the conversation.
Let your child know that they only need to share information they are comfortable with. Delicate and personal details do not have to be shared with schoolmates if it makes them uncomfortable. Encourage your child to think about what and how much they would like to share with others. If your child would rather not share sensitive information, help them to create a version of his or her story with the level of detail that feels right. Remember to explain that telling people a sheltered version their adoption story is not dishonest, there is a difference between secrecy and privacy. This is their personal story and they have the right to disclose however much they are comfortable with.
Some children take great pride in sharing their adoption story, writing in-depth papers, or making class presentations. However, your child should feel free to say, "I don't know about that" when asked questions unrelated to their experience. They do not have to be an “Ambassador for Adoption" unless they are individually motivated to do so.
Ultimately, it is important to show children that you enjoy talking about how you became a family so they will have pride in their adoption story and feel confident that they are being raised in the family they are meant to be with. Depending on your child’s individual personality, this may mean creating situations that prompt their curiosity so they start to ask questions.
Throughout their childhood, your child will take cues from you as they form their feelings about the world around them, that includes how they will feel about their adoption. Their basic beliefs about adoption will be gleaned from their understanding of how you feel about the story of how you became a family.