Probably one of the most common questions those considering adopting a child have when it comes to adoption is when to tell the child he’s adopted. Easy. The answer is simply now. I think the more important question is, why would you choose not to tell your child he’s adopted?
There is no reason why adoptive parents shouldn’t tell a child he’s adopted; and by not sharing this vital information, adoptive parents are all but laying the groundwork for rocky roads ahead and some pretty unnecessary and complicated conversations.
When our children were much younger, occasionally at parties and outings people would ask us in semi-hushed voices (which used to drive me crazy as if my child standing two feet away couldn’t hear them), “Do they know they’re adopted?” I mean, really? As if we were some sort of mystery novel roaming the streets just waiting for strangers to solve our case. There should be mystery—in my opinion—when it comes to family, which is why we were very open with the girls from the start and brought the adoption conversation in right away. As it often went, if the kids overheard these types of conversations, and I could see their questioning eyes trying to make sense of the words, I would immediately pull them in for an everyday kind of hug and make sure they knew as I answered in a normal voice that, why yes, they do, and who wants a cookie?
Listen, adoption for adoptees is part of their life story just as much as any other of the many characteristics that make any person the unique individual that he or she is. Being adopted is not and should not be treated as something to hide, something negative, or something that makes an adoptee less than or your bond as a family less than. By withholding this sort of information, adoptive parents are unintentionally communicating that their child’s adoption is bad in some way, and this is not good for a child at any age.
Does Age Matter?
As with the sharing of any information, it’s important to know your audience. Obviously, you don’t need to share every detail of an adoption with an infant, toddler, or young child; however, you should make sure to talk to your child even during these tender years in a way that is age-appropriate.
“The goal is to never have a moment of telling your child,” says Maryanne Ludwig, a licensed social worker and director of family services at Wide Horizons for Children Ludwig in the INSIDER article, How To Tell Your Child That They Are Adopted. Ludwig, an adoptee herself, says that she feels the goal is to tell children in simple, age-appropriate ways starting from the moment they are adopted, even as babies.
Having adopted our girls at ages 5 months and 18 months, the situations were slightly different in that our oldest daughter grew up, really, knowing or remembering only us, whereas her younger sister had already developed relationships and bonds with her caregivers and had made friends and even established her own personality and expectations before coming into our family. We made talking about adoption as natural as possible, using the word like any other word with love and tenderness—letting them know that even if they didn’t understand what it meant at such a young age, we loved them and were thankful that adoption had brought us together as a family. We did not gloss over where they’d come from as something from the past but made sure they understood their past was part of who they were and who they will someday become using photos and sharing stories of our adoption process like any family sharing how they have come to be.
The Adoption.com article, “How To Tell Your Kids They’re Adopted and How Not To“ explains to “Start early, be honest, and keep it simple.” The author talks about sharing early—even as babies—but not sharing too much too early. Of her now grown sons, she sums it up this way: “Kids don’t need more information than they are ready for. Listen to them and listen to your heart, then you’ll know how much to tell and when.”
What Should You Say?
The great part (for an adoptive parent) about starting early is that there is less guesswork in knowing what to say. It’s much easier to introduce adoption from the start than it would be waiting for some magic moment during a child’s formative years. I can’t imagine holding off until a child is entering the tween/teen period and expecting him to take such information easy when, at that age, it’s difficult enough to talk to a child about remembering to do homework or wear a hat and jacket to school when it’s snowing outside.
Again, if you decide to start from the beginning, you have the opportunity to introduce adoption in a way that suits your family. Some families even go so far as to create “life books” that sort of document their adoption journey from the start. Others find help with the many books that are available for all age groups that help to present and explain adoption.
No matter what words you use to tell your child that he’s adopted, make sure to tell the truth and make sure he understands that adoption is not a difference or a divide between you, but rather the action that brought you together as a family through love.
What Happens If I Wait?
Parents risk breaking their child’s trust should they choose to hold onto such an important piece of information. They also risk raising a child who will grow into an adult with trust issues, which is the last thing any parent would want for a child. No matter how well-intentioned a parent may be in wanting to hold off sharing such vital information, the truth is by not sharing it, you may leave your child feeling as though he’s living a lie.
I’m not quite sure how a parent would even go about planning for a conversation to share about an issue as important and personal as adoption down the road. Do you have a sit down after school and before soccer? Spring it on him at dinner one evening—maybe just after serving his favorite dessert—or in between talking about how work went and what movie to go see? Do you shout it out to him as he’s driving away to leave for freshman year at college?
As awkward as a parent may feel when talking about adoption early on, I’m here to tell you that it isn’t gonna get any easier. There is never going to be a “right” time. And in truth, you are withholding important information from a person whom you are at the same time saying that you love more than life itself. There is nothing to be gained by deceiving a child.
Why Might a Parent Not Want to Tell a Child?
Some parents may feel as though they are somehow protecting their child from being hurt by not telling a child he’s adopted. It’s true.
The fact is, some children, especially children who are adopted even as infants through the foster care system, may have already been witness to or experienced abuse and trauma in ways most of us will never know or understand. Adoptive parents, then, may think they are doing the child a favor by not talking about adoption or holding off until he is ready.
Parents should realize, though, that adoption was not the cause of the abuse or trauma but their desire to love a child and heal his heart through adoption.
Further, we now know that children begin feeling and learning in the womb, chaos outside of the womb affects children in utero, and trauma can be an inherited condition as explained in the article “3 Facts You Need to Know About Fetal Trauma in Adoption.” And while the act of adoption itself is not the cause of the above issues, “it compounds the issues faced by adoptive children,” according to author Addie Mietus.
While adoptive parents can not undo what has been done or protect an adopted child from feeling lost or hurt by his past, by being upfront and honest from the start, you are acknowledging his situation and sending the message that you are in this together—as his parent, as his support system for the long haul. This also gives you an opportunity to watch for any signs of struggle that he may go through due to or because of his adoption and/or due to biological, psychological, or mental/emotional issues he may have inherited.
Although most everyone in the adoption community will agree that there’s no time like the present to tell your child he’s adopted, there is no “right” way. Every adopted child is unique as is their adoption story as is their adoptive family. So long as you keep it simple and truthful, that’s all you can really do as an adoptive parent.
Obviously, for infants and toddlers, the conversation will be more about adoption itself than details. Sharing your child’s adoption story with him is a good beginning to introducing the concept of adoption and allowing him the opportunity to understand that adoption is okay; therefore, he is okay. One of the main goals of telling your child he’s adopted, after all, is to help him to be comfortable in his own skin—not you in yours.
You may need to get over your own insecurity about talking about adoption before you’re able to talk about it with your young child. If you’re unsure what to say or how to say it, consider turning to one of the many children’s books geared to helping parents introduce young children to what adoption means. The Adoption.com article “Must Read Adoption Books for Every Age“ provides some great options for children 0 to 17 to “teach positive adoption language and can provide an opening to discuss your child’s own adoption story.”
The older a child gets, the more curious he will become and the more questions he may have. Be ready to talk to your child about adoption at any age (this is not a one-and-done conversation) by educating yourself about adoption, too. As author Natalie Brenner says in her article “13 Books Every Hopeful Adoptive Parent Should Read,” “Everyone’s story and lessons learned are different, so learn from as many people as possible.”
Elementary school-aged children are known for being sweet and open to talking about adoption with their parents. It’s at this age parents are still the center of their child’s universe. Peer pressure hasn’t quite kicked in, and children are more apt to listen to and open up to a parent.
By the time a child reaches his tween and teen years, you can expect some push back no matter the topic. Children assert their independence from day 1; however, the attitude of a child hitting double digits changes everything. It’s at this stage that children, due to hormones, peer pressure, and expanded life experiences convey the attitude that they “know everything.”
Part of the growing up process means that teenagers reach a point of trying to find their own identities separate from their parents, which means that you can expect the intimacy you shared only a year or two earlier to slip away a bit while they struggle to “find themselves” amidst their own insecurities, what society is telling them, and what you are telling them.
Transracial adoptees, especially, may have a more difficult time in putting the pieces together as they not only are coming to terms with the fact of being an adopted child and what that means, but it’s at this age that they are comparing the details of their life against those of their school peers, including family dynamics, not looking the same as a parent or sibling, accepting or pushing back against birth country culture, and so many other issues adoption and ethnicity related that you can imagine an awkward teen might deal with.
By talking about adoption from the start with your child, you can easily avoid a lot of, if not all, much more difficult conversations down the road and reduce the risk that your child will rebel against the news, resulting in a negative outcome.
Study after study also shows that discussing adoption early in a child’s life helps to increase his self-acceptance, acceptance of adoption, and improves self-esteem.
Use Your Words Wisely
As you talk to your child about adoption using books, movies, assistance from a professional, or taking a deep breath and sharing his story without having a plot or plan for what will come next, remember to put yourself in your child’s shoes.
Be kind, caring, and patient.
Be ready for uncertainty, questions, sadness, anger.
Reach out to family and friends to support you during this time—to reinforce that he is loved and how appreciative you are to have him in your life as your child.
Remember that this is his story and that you are just as much a part of his story as he is a part of yours.
Sue Kuligowski is a staff storyteller at Adoption.com. The mother of two girls through adoption, she is a proposal coordinator, freelance writer/editor, and an adoption advocate. When she’s not writing or editing, she can be found supervising sometimes successful glow-in-the-dark experiments, chasing down snails in the backyard, and attempting to make sure her girls are eating more vegetables than candy.