Recently, an adoptive family we’ve worked with asked us: When is it a good time to tell your adopted child that they are adopted? We want to tell him as soon as we think he can understand, but is that the good thing to do? Also what is a good way to start the conversation?
Research consistently shows that it’s best to tell children about their adoption from the very beginning, even though he or she will not be able to understand the true meaning of adoption for years. Start by familiarizing your child with adoption vocabulary through books and conversation to help to introduce the idea and open up discussion about your family’s story. Remember that adoption isn’t something you’ll discuss once, and it shouldn’t be treated that way. You’ll continue talking about it throughout your child’s life.
As a parent, it’s important not to wait to discuss adoption until your child initiates the topic because he or she may be scared and never bring it up. Your child needs to know adoption is ok to talk about. The best way to show him or her is for you to openly initiate the conversation. This will help create a safe environment for your child to speak up and ask questions.
One adoption professional we’ve spoken with likens it to educating your child to look both ways before crossing the street. We don’t wait until a child asks why it’s important to look both ways. By then, it may be too late. Children hear about adoption in the media and at school. It’s better that you create positive images of adoption at home before your child is exposed to other’s views about it.
It’s very important to be honest and upfront with your child when they ask questions and then to answer in an age-appropriate way. Don’t just share politically correct information. Misleading your child or hiding things can have a negative effect later in life when he or she learns more about their adoption. It is also detrimental to speak negatively about your child’s birth parents in any way; this can cause confusion and negative self-esteem.
It will be important for your child to have his or her own birth/adoption story of how they became part of the family. You can express that their birth story may be different from their peers’ or siblings’ stories, but none are more or less special. You will need to create special moments and memories for your child(ren), even if you have varying amounts of information. And while your child should know his or her birth/adoption story, it’s important that it does not define who he or she is.
Take cues from your child. For example, one 5-year-old may become very curious about adoption and ask lots of questions or enjoy reading adoption books. Another 5-year-old may not ask any questions and prefer to read books about trucks. This is ok! It can be helpful to educate yourself about developmental stages, so you understand where a child is cognitively and emotionally and continue to communicate in developmentally appropriate ways.
Truly listen to your child. You know your audience– your child– better than anyone. He or she will tell you what they need and are feeling through words or behavior if you lay the groundwork. It is most important to make sure that your child knows they are adopted and that it is portrayed positively in your family, so your child feels secure. One adoptee describes it perfectly:
“I’m happy to report that being adopted does not come with a life sentence of being “different” from everyone around you. As I think back to my adoption story, I realize my adoptive parents had a lot to do with my present view of what it means to be adopted and how this word is a piece of who I am, but does not define who I am.
I grew up always knowing that I was adopted. There was never a moment where my parents sat me down to say, “We have something to tell you.” Although they would not have had to. Being bright and observant (as most children), I would have noticed the physical differences on my own and started asking questions. It never felt like a dirty little secret. My parents would go on and on about how I was special, that they chose me and that my birth mother made the ultimate sacrifice so that my parents could have a child of their own. My mom likes to tell the story of how I would walk around at age 5, telling strangers that I was special because I was adopted. Now, I can’t say at this young age that I fully understood what the word “adoption” meant, but as I grew older, having these seeds already planted allowed me to take pride in being an adoptee. I always felt lucky because I had so many people who loved me.
I don’t know that I would feel this way if my adoption had been suddenly sprung on me later in life. Telling me from the start helped my self-esteem in the long-run and encouraged feels of respect for my birth mother. It never made me question who my parents were or changed how much I loved them.
I know that many of you face the difficult decision of how or when to tell your child about adoption. Some may not want to cross this bridge at all. I only know that as an adoptee, being aware from the beginning helped me realize that I’m here for a reason and that I was wanted.”
Adoption is a lifelong journey, and the answers cannot be figured out all at once. Every adopted individual gets to have their own adoption story and will decide when and how they want to share it with others. Give your child the knowledge and security they need, and support him or her in whatever feelings they have and decisions they make.