Adoption is part of the identity of many children. Some kids know they are adopted from day one. Their appearance differs from their parents in such a way that their parents have always told them about how they entered the family. Maybe the children were adopted at an older age and actually remember their first families. Suffice it to say, the kids know. What about kids who know their adoption status, but not about their adoption history, though? When is it appropriate to tell? Should parents tell? Many parents struggle with these questions. Adoption often carries with it stories of trauma, pain, loss, substance abuse, mental illness, and other difficult topics, and parents often do not want to rehash these histories. There are no right or wrong answers about when and how to talk to children about their birth families and the circumstances of their adoption, but a few principles apply:
Always, always be honest. Adopted children often struggle with trust. At least two of their most nurturing adult relationships in life have been cut short. To trust again takes courage, courage parents dare not break. So if kids ask a direct question, don’t make up a story. If the time is not right, delay the conversation. Say you cannot say. Just don’t lie (Fetters, 2019). Truth telling promotes trust and open communication. These are necessary for healthy relationships.
Be positive (or at least neutral) about the birth families. Difficult circumstances often lead to severance of parental rights. While parents have the right to deem some behaviors or activities as wrong, they need to think about how the adopted child will perceive this judgment. Will speaking ill of the birth parent cause the child to have poor self-concept? Even children who experienced abuse in their birth families can feel affection for them. Positivity, or at least neutrality, is best (Spence, 2019). Examples of this include, “Your parents chose to make an adoption plan because they believed that was best for you (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2020). “Your mom did not have all the resources she needed to take care of you.” “Your dad loved you, and was really struggling at the same time.” All humanize the birth parent, which humanizes the child.
Consider scaffolding. Kids do not need to know everything all at once. Do kids need to know they are adopted? In most cases, yes. This does not mean dumping information on them, but rather introducing the idea of adoption starting at a young age (Fetters, 2019). This helps the child build his or her understanding of adoption and the way that they became a beloved part of the family. Parents can start by making adoption a positive word (Bliss, 2017). To do this, parents might consider having children’s books about adoption that they read with the child. Photo albums, if parents have photos, can also help a child make sense of having two families. The hard stuff about birth families does not necessarily have to go in these. Parents might also make a life book with the help of a therapist to show the child at intermittent stages when it is time to share other information (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2020). Kids will not and cannot understand everything about their adoption at an early age. When parents introduce the concept of adoption early, however, they can, as one adoptive mother writes, spend the rest of life making “sense” of it (Traster, 2014). Children usually ask about their adoptive families because they are trying to make meaning of their existence.
Consider, too, what children need to know. Do they need to know details about the circumstances of the adoption? Or will general information suffice? Do kids need to know now, or can they know later? Did kids ask to know more? Some children want to know more about their birth families, while others would rather let that information lie. Honoring the children’s needs and requests honors them and their story.
There are no easy answers about when and how to tell children their adoption stories. Needs vary situation by situation, child by child. All children can benefit from honesty, positivity, and scaffolding, however. Adoptive parents might even benefit from a scaffolding of support via friends, family, and professionals to help make sense of their family makeup. No family should have to do it alone. No child should have to make it alone. That is the beauty of adoption, and further reasons to tell kids about their birth families with care, consideration, and love.
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2020, November 18). Let’s talk about adoption. HealthyChildren.org. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/family-dynamics/adoption-and-foster-care/Pages/Respectful-Ways-to-Talk-about-Adoption-A-List-of-Dos-Donts.aspx
American Adoptions. (2021). Talking to your child about their birth family: How to tell an adopted child about their birth parents. https://www.americanadoptions.com/adoption/talking_about_your_childs_birth_parents
Bliss, J. (2017, March 31). How and when to discuss adoption with your child. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/navigating-the-adoption-journey/201703/how-and-when-discuss-adoption-your-child
Fetters, A. (2019, July 22). What happens when parents wait to tell a child he’s adopted. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2019/07/adoption-disclosure-study/594496/
Spence, V. (2019, April 27). Talking with children about their birth families. Adoption.com. https://adoption.com/talking-with-children-about-their-birth-families/
Traster, T. (2014) Rescuing Julia twice: A mother’s tale of Russian adoption and overcoming Reactive Attachment Disorder. Chicago Review Press. Libby.