Throughout childhood, and especially during adolescence, each of us begins forming a sense of who we are as individuals and as members of society. This is called identity development, and it is shaped by a variety of factors, from race and gender to hobbies and religious beliefs.

Two of the components that play a role in identity formation are genetics and family dynamics — which may complicate the process for adopted children. According to Child Welfare Information Gateway, identity development may be more difficult for an adopted person with questions “such as why he or she was placed for adoption, what became of the birth parents, does he or she have siblings, and whether he or she resembles the birth parents in looks or in other characteristics.” If these questions go unanswered, it could lead to a less complete sense of self, which in turn can lead to lower self-esteem and other emotional issues.

While you may not be able to answer all of your child’s questions as adoptive parents if your adoption is less open, there are some things you can do to help them develop a positive self-identity. Here are five ways you can encourage your child through the identity development process:

  1. Give them options. As an adoptive family, your child may not always share your tastes and hobbies. When reasonable, allow your child to make choices about the foods they like to eat, the clothes they like to wear, and the things they like to do. Expose your child to a variety of opportunities and encourage them to pursue their individual interests. Ask them to teach you something new, and get involved in the activities they choose — by supporting the things that matter to them, you are encouraging them to be confident in their emerging identity.
  2. Recognize their strengths. Compliment your child’s natural abilities and celebrate their achievements, whether they are academic, artistic, athletic or otherwise. Suggest opportunities for your child to further explore his or her talents, even if they differ from your own.
  3. Seek out diversity. Surround your child with positive people from a variety of backgrounds. Develop relationships with racially and culturally diverse children and adults, as well as nontraditional families — and especially seek out other adoptive families. This inclusivity will give your child a sense of belonging while also illustrating that all people have value and that differences should be celebrated.
  4. Respect their birth parents. Remember that your child’s birth parents have contributed significantly to who your child is as a person. Experts agree that it is overwhelmingly beneficial to maintain a relationship with your child’s birth parents, but even in situations when this is not possible, you should always make your child’s birth parents an important part of your family’s conversations about adoption. Reinforce that adoption was a positive choice that your child’s birth mother made out of love, and tell your child how much you respect and admire her strength for choosing adoption.
  5. Talk and listen to your child. Talk positively and openly about adoption, as well as any other issues that may impact your child’s sense of identity. Give your child plenty of opportunities to ask questions and to express their own thoughts and feelings without making judgments. Constructive conversations like these will help your child develop a healthy self-esteem, as well as a positive view of adoption.

Ultimately, each person develops his or her sense of identity by discovering their interests, talents, passions and beliefs on their own — and your child is no exception. The best thing you can do for your child through this process is to be there for them; they will be more secure in their identity simply knowing that you love them and support them exactly as they are.