For the parents of adopted children, talking about adoption can prompt a flood of emotions. The circumstances that brought about the adoption, along with the joy of bringing your child home, can be powerful memories. But most experts agree that talking with your child about adoption early on will help your child become well-adjusted later.
When to talk with your child
- Start the conversation early. Talking with your baby or toddler will help you get used to the idea of talking about adoption and making the conversation a part of your routine. Your baby will become familiar with adoption words and the adoption story before he or she fully understands the meaning.
- Keep talking about the adoption. As your child gets older, the conversation will change. Your child may have difficult questions. But if you talk openly about adoption and answer the questions in a positive way, the adoption story will become a natural part of his or her life. Several excellent children's books are available, which can help you explain adoption to your child.
- Children adopted when they are older may need additional support. Older children may remember many of the details of the adoption, their birth parents, their experiences with foster care or the orphanage. You'll want to be sure your older child has the support he or she needs if those memories are difficult. Non-medical counseling services may be available through your installation's military and family support center and through Military OneSource.
How to talk with your child
- Talk with your children in an age-appropriate way. Children will come to understand the issues of adoption differently as they mature. What you would say to a 6-year-old, for example, is much different than what you would say to a twelve-year-old.
- Babies and toddlers learn about adoption when you use simple, age-appropriate language. You may also want to read books about adoption and use photo albums to help tell the story.
- Older children will begin to understand what it means to be adopted. Older children may struggle with being different from their friends, or they may fantasize about their biological parents. At this age they may also grieve the loss of their biological parents. It's important to continue talking with your child and to provide relevant information as he or she matures.
- Adolescents or teenagers are already struggling with their identity, so this can be a difficult time for adopted children. Your child may have detailed questions about the birth parents. This curiosity is normal, and not a reflection on you as a parent. You can help by letting your child know it's OK to ask questions and that you will provide what information you can.
- Be honest. The story of your child's adoption may be unclear or painful. In many international adoptions, for example, you may not know why a child was available for adoption. In other cases, the adoption story can be upsetting. Whatever the case it's best to be honest with your child in an age-appropriate way. Shielding your child from hurtful information can lead to a sense of betrayal later on.
- Tell your child what you do know. You may not have all the details of the adoption, but you probably know more than you think. Even if you don't have information about the birth parents, you do know the story of how you came to adopt your child.
- Let your child know that he or she didn't do anything wrong. Sometimes children feel they did something to cause their biological parents to give them up for adoption. Emphasize that the biological parents did what they could to make sure your child went to a safe place where he or she would be well-loved and cared for.
- If you have an open adoption, be sure the birth parents are a part of the conversation. You may want to talk with the biological family about how you will communicate the adoption story. If they haven't done so already, you can ask the birthmother or other family members to write a letter to your child.
- Be available to talk when your child is ready. Talking about adoption will be an ongoing conversation. As your child gets older he or she may have different questions and concerns. It's important that your child feels comfortable talking with you.
- Help your child write or illustrate the adoption story. There are "life books" and other materials available commercially for this purpose, or you can make your own. Creating an adoption book can also help spark a healthy, open conversation.
- Read to your child. There are many helpful books available for younger children, as well as adolescents. Choose books that are age-appropriate and suitable for your child's adoption story (e.g., there are books that are more focused on international adoption and others that tell a story from a domestic adoption perspective).
- Always speak positively about your child's birth parents. Your child may come to attach some of his or her identity to the biological parents. Showing respect and understanding for the biological parents will help your child feel more confident.
- Don't wait until your child asks. As your child gets older you may need to initiate the conversation. It can sometimes take a lot of courage for your child to ask you a difficult question about the adoption. Try to create opportunities for your child to talk.
Helping your child talk with others about adoption
- Be a good role model when talking with others about adoption. When talking with friends or relatives, be sure you speak positively about the adoption and the biological parents. Know how to respond to strangers when they ask questions. You may choose not to reveal personal information, but remain polite.
- Help your child learn how to respond to questions others may ask. Your child may be asked questions about adoption from friends, classmates or total strangers, particularly if your child looks different than you and your spouse. Help your child find ways to answer questions in a way that is comfortable. You can help your child come up with responses ahead of time by role-playing and offering suggestions for different ways to answer questions.
- Teach your child that the adoption story is his or hers to share - or not. Children should not feel obligated to answer questions about adoption if they are uncomfortable. Your child's adoption story belongs to him or her. This may be something for you to keep in mind when deciding how much information to share with other people.
- Talk with your child's classroom. Younger children often have questions about adoption or why a child looks different than his or her parents. If your child is comfortable with it, talking with the class may help clear up confusion and open the conversation. Bring pictures and other items that help explain your child's adoption and culture.