“Where do babies come from?” This question can feel overwhelming for any parent to tackle, but when adoption is a part of your child’s story, this question can become more complicated. Understanding adoption as a part of one’s identity is a life-long process. As your child’s understanding of family, relationships, and society develops, so will her ideas about her own adoption. Talking to your child about her adoption requires empathy, validation, openness, and courage. Here are some tips you can use along the way.
DOs and DON’Ts for talking to young children about adoption
- DO begin talking about adoption with your child at an early age. Talking about adoption with your child early on can set the tone that adoption is a comfortable and safe topic to discuss, which can encourage children to ask questions and develop their adoption stories as they get older. See below for a list of activities you can do with your children when talking about adoption.
- DON’T use adoption as a descriptor for your child. Using terms, such as “our adopted child” can make children feel inferior to children who are raised by their birthparents. Instead, use adoption positive language, such as, “We are so happy we adopted you and that you are our son!”
- DO start at the beginning. When first telling young children about their adoption, start at the beginning of the story with their birthmother and birthfather. For toddlers, use simple explanations about why the birthparents made their decision (ex. “They loved their baby but couldn’t take care of her and wanted to find a mommy and daddy who could love and care for her”) and why adoptive parents wanted to adopt (ex. “We really wanted a baby girl to love and be a part of our family. We were so excited to meet you and are so happy you are our daughter!”) Be sure to emphasize that there was nothing “wrong” with your child, but rather that her birthparents could not raise a baby. Also, emphasize that adoption is permanent, as children may fear that they could be placed for adoption again. Note: Families have varying circumstances and reasons for adoption, and parents can include these unique details into the adoption story as they see fit (ex. Domestic adoption, international adoption, transracial adoption, foster parenting, adopting relatives, adopting infants/children/teenagers).
- DON’T minimize loss and grief. An adoption story begins with a loss for children-loss of the birthparents. As children reach preschool age, they may start to question why their birthparents made the decision to place them for adoption. They may have questions about their birthparents and feel sad when they do not have answers. They may also feel out of place among their peers when they realize that most of them live with their birthparents. Also, with comments, such as “You are such a lucky girl to have been adopted,” a child may think that she should feel grateful and not sad. As parents, normalizing your child’s feelings of loss and grief is vital. Children need a place where they can feel safe discussing these difficult feelings.
- DO pay attention to your own feelings. When your child makes statements, such as “You are not my real parent” or “I wish I could meet my birthparents,” you may understandably feel sad and confused. Having a space to discuss your own feelings as an adoptive parent is important. Children in general, both adopted and non-adopted, make comments, such as “I hate you” or “I wish you weren’t my parent,” but these statements may feel more loaded when they are made by a child you adopted. Attending to your own feelings can ensure that when your child makes these statements, instead of taking these comments personally, you can provide validation and empathy for your child’s feelings of loss, confusion, grief, and anger.
- DON’T lie to your child. While there are some parts of the story that children may not be ready to understand, you can add these details to the story as children get older.
- DO add more to the story as children become older. As children get older, they may have more questions and thoughts about their adoption. Adding more developmentally appropriate details to the story is important, so that children can process more information when able. Also, adding to the story can encourage children to continue to ask questions as they have them. Adoption experts suggest that children should know all of the history and facts about their adoption by their teenage years.
- DO initiate conversations. Initiating conversations about adoption is a great way to provide an open, safe space for children to talk about their adoption. Some children may not ask questions or talk about adoption on their own, but this does not necessarily mean they are not thinking about adoption. Opening the conversation as parents models to children that adoption is a comfortable, appropriate topic to discuss and can allow children to initiate conversations in the future.
- DO encourage questions. Children may need prompts from their parents to ask questions. They may think that it will hurt their parents’ feelings if they ask questions about their birthparents. When able, use concrete, simple language to answer questions. If children ask questions you do not know the answer to (ex. “Do you think my birthmother is looking for me?”), be honest and empathize with and validate your child’s question (ex. “I can understand why you want to know that, but I don’t know either. It must be hard to not know. Would you like to talk about it?”).
- DO reach out and educate yourself. Adoption is a life-long process, and more questions and issues may arise as children get older. Learning about potential conversations to expect as children get older, as well as strategies to provide validation and empathy for your child, can help with this process. One way to reach out and educate yourself is to join support groups. There are parent-child support groups, as well as separate groups for parents and children. These groups can provide a safe, understanding environment, as well as promote community and belonging. Here is a website that can help you search for support groups based on state, county, and family type (any, U.S., international, foster): http://www.adoptivefamilies.com/support_group.php