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“What does adoption mean to a child?”

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When to Tell Your Child About His or Her Adoption

After months or even years of waiting, many adoptive families see adoption placement and finalization as the long-awaited finish line in their adoption journey. However, the adoption process is actually far from over for adoptive families. Adoption continues to shape the lives of adopted children and their parents well past placement, and it is important to embrace adoption as part of your parenting strategy.

Experts agree that talking with your children openly and honestly about adoption is one of the best ways to promote a healthy view of adoption. Incorporating adoption into everyday conversation from the beginning helps ensure children feel confident in their identity and proud of their story.

While talking about adoption may sound simple in theory, many parents struggle with when and how to tell their children about adoption. The simple answer is that their adoption story should be introduced as early as possible to build trust, boost self-esteem and create a positive view of adoption.

Every child develops and matures at his or her own rate, and it is important to gauge your child’s understanding, maturity and interest level when talking about adoption. Below are some general guidelines for talking with your child about adoption through each stage of development.

  • Start using adoption terms immediately – Practice talking about adoption while your child is still an infant. Introduce adoption language into your day-to-day life, even if your child can’t yet understand what you’re saying. This will help make adoption a natural and comfortable topic for you as parents and will help your child develop positive associations with the vocabulary you use.

  • Incorporate adoption themes into stories and play – As your child begins to understand and develop language, incorporate adoption-themed books into story time. As your child reaches preschool age, he or she may start asking questions about their birth story. Children love hearing stories about themselves, so use this as an opportunity to tell their adoption story. Lifebooks can be a great tool to help you talk about adoption at this stage of development.

  • Model a positive attitude toward adoption – Young children look to their parents to learn attitudes, behaviors and language. Always treat adoption as something positive and special. This will encourage your child to feel confident and secure in his or her identity. As your child gets older and begins to encounter negative or insensitive comments about adoption, continue to model a positive attitude and teach them how to respond constructively to these situations.

  • Answer tough questions – Older children tend to think more complexly and begin to focus more on details. School-aged children may become aware of some of the more difficult aspects of adoption and may begin to question the positive image of adoption that you’ve created. They may experience feelings of grief and loss for their birth family, or feel a sense of rejection when they realize that their birth mom made the choice to place them. They may ask difficult questions, such as why they were “given away” for adoption. Always be honest when you answer their questions, and reinforce positive and appropriate adoption language. This is often when children are the most resilient and may be a good time to begin sharing more details about their adoption story, depending on their maturity and understanding.

  • Keep channels of communication open – At some point, your child may stop asking questions or talking about adoption altogether. Without forcing the subject, let your child know that you will always be available and willing to talk. Mention adoption occasionally in day-to-day conversation and give your child plenty of opportunities to bring up the topic on their own.

  • Share difficult details and documents of the adoption – As children reach adolescence, they tend to become more self-aware and focused on discovering their true identities. Adopted teenagers often wonder how their adoption story has shaped them. At this point, share any information and documents you have on their adoption, if you have not done so already. Be as honest as you can to help build trust and strengthen your relationship with your child.

Things to Remember When Parenting an Adopted Child

Adoption should be a recurring topic of conversation throughout your child’s life. While you should tailor your discussions to fit their stage of development, there are some underlying principles to always keep in mind, regardless of your child’s age:

  • Never lie – While it may be necessary to omit certain adoption details when your child is young, be careful to never falsify his or her adoption story. Always be as open and truthful as you feel is appropriate, and begin explaining details as your child gets older.

  • Always be supportive – Be positive and supportive of adoption, your child, and his or her birth family. These are important factors in your child’s life and identity, and you should never speak negatively about them. Remind your child that adoption is a choice that birth parents make out of unconditional love and that he or she was meant to be a part of your family.

  • Let them own their story – Avoid sharing the details of your child’s adoption with extended family members and friends before your child knows the full story. Allow him or her to decide when, how and with whom they want to share their adoption story.

  • Consider professional support – If you need additional suggestions or support as you talk with your child, or if you or your child needs help coping with difficult information or feelings, consider speaking with an experienced adoption counselor or therapist.

Initially, it may seem intimidating to introduce the topic of adoption into your family’s daily dialogue. However, taking an open and honest approach to discussing adoption from the beginning will ensure your child views adoption as something to be celebrated.

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