When and How to Tell a Child about their Adoption

Dear Sharon,

We have a 5-year-old daughter who is adopted. We haven’t told her and we have mixed feelings about when and if we should. Do you have any advice for us?

Dear parents,

As I believe it is important to create a foundation of trust between a parent and child it is usually a good idea to let children know they are adopted relatively early in their childhood. As children grow older questions invariably arise about physical appearance, genetic health risks, and life story details that are important for all children to know. As adoption is more common and public then it was years ago it can be easier for parents to find the relaxed and confident tone that is helpful to children as they share the information about their birth and “arrival home” to their parents.

There are plenty of opportunities to explain details and answer questions as a child grows but here are a few things to keep in mind as you begin.

There is not an exact way to tell a child their story in part because every parent is different and therefore frames important discussions in unique ways.

Many 5 years olds are interested in babies and how they come into the world. This can be a good starting place to explain that babies grow in a woman’s “stomach” and that sometimes a “birth” mother does that part of the process. Depending on the circumstances parents I know have also explained how the birth mother was happy to make the baby but couldn’t take care of it after it was born and found people who wanted to be and were able to be parents when the baby needed a home forever.

Talking to a child about how much they were wanted and how happy you are to have them is invariably helpful. Parents I know have described how much time they took to decide to have a baby, how much they wanted to be parents and how excited they were about meeting their very special little one. Talks such as these are reassuring to all children but especially to someone who has been adopted.

It is important to remember to find a quiet time and place to have the conversation so it is not interrupted. It is also important to be patient and to go over one piece of information at a time, giving plenty of space for children to ask questions and respond. A child’s reactions and questions are the best way to limit the confusion and overwhelm that can surface when children try to sort through complicated topics such as adoption.

It is also important to make this talk age appropriate. A five year old will have different thoughts and need different specifics than a 10 year old. Finding children’s books about adoption can help explain things in an age appropriate way.

Many parents I know have made their own books to explain their adoption story. Children have often helped, adding pictures and text that they are interested in including. Such activities can help a child understand, review and participate in their own story.

As a birth, step and adoptive Mom I can personally say that there are wonderfully unique things about each form of being a parent. The love and commitment in each case is no different and in each case the life story of the child has been important to share and discuss.