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When — and How — To Tell Your Child They are Adopted

A Guide to Talking About 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.

As parents prepare to raise adopted children, they often have a few recurring questions:

  • When should you tell your child they are adopted?
  • What is the best age to tell a child they are adopted?
  • How do you tell your child they are adopted?

We know telling your child they are adopted is a new experience for many adoptive parents. But, it’s really not as big of a deal as you might think!

In the article below, we’ve answered every one of these questions — and more — to help you prepare for these important conversations. Remember, if you’re struggling, you can always reach out to your American Adoptions’ specialist for personalized advice and guidance.

When Do You Tell Your Child They are Adopted?

Decades of inaccurate pop culture and media have taught that adoption is something hidden from a child — that after years of not telling a child they are adopted, the truth comes out in a tearful confession that rocks the adoptee’s world.

While this makes for good television, it’s not at all the way that modern adoption works.

Today, there’s really only one answer to the question, “When should you tell a child they are adopted?” The right age to tell a child they are adopted is at birth — from the moment you bring them home from the hospital.

There should be no moment when your child “learns” they are adopted; you should tell your child they are adopted from before they can remember, and adoption should just be a natural part of their personal story.

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 a child about adoption. The simple answer? Your child’s 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. However, don’t use this as an excuse: As a responsible adoptive parent, you do have to tell a child they are adopted — and you do have to celebrate their adoption story openly and honestly.

How to Tell Your Child They are Adopted

Experts agree that you should tell a child they are adopted from the moment you bring them home, but there are many different ways you can share your child’s adoption story. The steps you take will likely depend on your child’s individual adoption story and open adoption relationship.

However, there are a few helpful steps when it comes to how to tell a child they are adopted:

Step 1: Start using adoption terms immediately.

It can’t be reiterated enough: The best time to tell a child they are adopted is the moment you first bring them home.

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.

For example, put a picture of your child’s birth parents next to their crib. As they’re falling asleep, tell the story of how you received the adoption call, got to know their birth parents, and brought them home.

Don’t worry — adoption is a lifelong conversation, so you’ll get a better hang of it as the years go by.

Step 2: Read them books about their adoption.

As your child begins to understand and develop language, incorporate adoption-themed books into story time. Some great examples include:

When reading these stories, take the opportunity to intersperse personal details from your child’s adoption story. This is a wonderful manner for how to tell your child about adoption, and these books will inspire great questions and natural conversation.

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.

Step 3: Keep channels of communication open.

An adoptee’s journey is a long one. There will be times where they are extremely interested in their adoption story and what it means for their personal identity — and times they couldn’t seem to care less. That doesn’t mean the conversation is over, though.

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.

At the same time, cultivate your open adoption relationship with your child’s birth parents. Sometimes, your child will want to get answers to their questions directly from the source — and having a positive, open relationship with their birth parents will make this much easier.

Step 4: Don’t lie — but be age-appropriate.

If your child’s adoption story has some complicated aspects, it’s normal to wonder how to tell your adopted child the truth without hurting them.

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.

Older 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.

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 remaining 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.

Step 5: Stay in touch with your adoption specialist.

Remember that adoption is a lifelong journey — and how to tell your child they are adopted will evolve over time with their comprehension of the adoption process. There may be difficult spots along the way — but American Adoptions will always be there to help.

When you work with our agency, you will receive our support and guidance for years after placement. You can always call or email your specialist with any questions you have; they will be happy to hear from you and provide any advice or resources you may need!

Other Things to Remember

Adoption should always be a recurring topic of conversation throughout your child’s life. Telling the truth to your adopted child can seem overwhelming before placement but, after that little one is placed in your arms, it will be much easier to find the words for the love and beauty surrounding their adoption story.

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:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 their adoption as something to be celebrated!

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