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Talking to Your Young Child About Adoption

You and your child each have a unique “life story.” The narratives of your lives weave together both the things that have actually happened to you as well as your internal experience of those events and create the subjective sense of life. According to the most current research in neurobiology, the ability to know and make sense of your story is essential for well-being, happiness and resilience. For an adoptive family like yours, each of you has a story that began before you came together as a family. Your child’s history, even if adopted at birth, is relevant. As a parent, you will have many opportunities to help your child better understand and make sense of his story. Embracing the beauty of your child’s natural curiosity and tendency for openness will set the tone and encourage on-going moments of knowing, understanding and healing. You can learn a great deal from “tuning in” to your child, and imagining the world from her point of view. As you talk to your child about adoption, imagine what thoughts and feelings she might be experiencing. Be curious. Attuning to your child is a gift that will continue to benefit your family. The following are some tips to consider when talking to young children about their adoption experience.

  •  Start telling your child his story early. Infancy is a great time to begin because you will have the opportunity to become comfortable with the details. The frequency and ease of these little talks will eliminate the need for “The Big Talk.”
  • Use age-appropriate but “real” language, being mindful that intellectually, adoption is a complex concept that will take a child some time to truly comprehend. Adoption is a lifelong process. Young children are very literal and although they have been told they are adopted there are few feelings attached. They may think everyone is adopted. Around age 7 or 8 children begin to develop more awareness and begin to wonder, “What does it mean to be adopted.” Remember, you are laying the groundwork for your child to begin understanding adoption, as well as creating a welcome space for your child’s feelings.
  • Adoption language can be tricky. Avoid words like “chosen” “special” and “lucky” as they are loaded. The phrase “She loved you so much she wanted you to have a better life” is near impossible for a child to understand. Instead, use language like, “Adoption was a decision the adults made.” “We love you and we are a family.” Emphasize that your child had nothing to do with the decision and more importantly, did nothing to create the situation. Your child may need help with specific language and “tools” to use when he is asked questions by friends and classmates to eliminate potential shame and embarrassment. Role-play possible scenarios to find answers that fit best for your family.
  • Children intuitively pick up on verbal and non-verbal cues from you – so allow yourself to get comfortable with the topic of adoption. Consider the option of therapy, to help process your own on-going feelings related to adoption. It’s important for adoptive parents to grieve their inability to conceive a biological child if this is why they chose to adopt. Adoption is not a substitute for having a biological child nor is it a way of “replacing” a child who dies. Adoption IS one of many ways to make a family.
  • Often, separations, transitions and change create anxiety for an adoptee. When possible give your child schedule details and let him know what to expect. Make sure he knows what time you will pick him up from school, return home from work, etc. Be intentional about following that schedule and keeping your word. If your child is experiencing something new, such as staying with a babysitter or going to preschool, act out what will happen with play or drawings, to provide further reassurance.
  • Include children’s adoption books in your collection of stories you read at bedtime. This is often a relaxed time when kids feel comfortable to open up and talk.
  • Likely, one of the first questions your child will ask you will relate to her birth or where she came from. “Mommy, did I grow in your tummy?” or “Where did I come from?” may already sound familiar. Again, young children are very literal so use facts and age-appropriate language. Your answer might sound something like, “You were born, just like all babies are born.” “You didn’t grow inside of mommy’s body, you grew inside of your birthmother Sara and Sara gave birth to you.” (If your child already knows about human anatomy you can use the word uterus and explain this is the place inside a woman’s body where a baby develops and grows.) The more clear and concrete you are the better. Use your child’s birthmother or first mother’s name conveying that she is a real and very important person. This might be all your child wants to know at this time. That’s ok, follow-up questions will come soon.
  • If your child was adopted after birth and spent time in foster care, it is important to include information about where she was before you became a family. It’s not unusual for adopted children to fabricate stories when they don’t have the truth. Consider creating a life book for your child and as she grows older, let her help in this process. Life books are created for your child from her perspective and illustrate her journey. Include pictures of her birth mom and birth family, foster family, the hospital where she was born, ticket stubs, travel memorabilia, etc. There are no rules! Many adopted children proudly share their life books with others. These books are true works of art that can help an adopted child organize her experience in a coherent way.
  • In adoption-related conversations, convey the permanence of your current familial situation, to really strengthen your child’s sense of safety and security.
  • Support groups are also a great way to gain knowledge and insight about the meaning of adoption. Groups for adoptive parents and adopted children can provide validation, guidance and a “feeling felt” experience. Start one in your community! Keep in mind, as your child gets older, his questions will evolve and become more complex. He needs you to be his best advocate. At the same time he is searching for answers and processing feelings, he’s also highly aware of your reactions. He is hoping you’ll respond with honesty, truthful information and the assurance that you’ll be present to help him navigate his experience as he continues to author his powerful individual story.
3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Irma #

    This information is so important and true.

    Adoptee
    Irma

    January 13, 2013
  2. Thank you very much for these wonderful tips and articles. We adopted our beautiful baby girl, exactly 13 months ago. I was present during her birth and her biological mom is a generous, beautiful 23 years old who already has an older daughter with a different dad. We keep in touch with her through email 2 or 3 times a year. We share pictures and I have the most admiration and gratitude for her loving spirit. I like to handwrite a 2-3 pages letter telling her about the baby’s development, which she thanks every time. While she is appreciative of the information, she was fully committed to this adoption from the day she choose us as adoptive parents. I will always love her for her immense soul!

    My husband and I have decided to raise our little one following the attachment parenting style. We are very affectionate with her and she still sleeps with us. We are Hispanic -Europeans and our culture is one loving physical contact and continuous demonstrations of affection. That’s how we have been raised. Baby is growing very happy and healthy and seems very attached with us.

    I am very aware that those questions will come some day when she starts speaking and I think I am prepared to tell her the truth at her requested pace. Yet, I wish she will be at peace with her reality. I completely feel her mommy yet I have this space of fear within me she might shy away from us while she longs for her biological mom…can you share some light on how to calm those internal concerns of mine so I am better prepared for being the best possible mom for her at all times?

    Thank you

    August 5, 2014
    • Thank you for your thoughtful email. I appreciate your honesty anticipating that issues may arise for you as your daughter grows and expresses curiosity about her birth parents and her biology. It is every individual’s birthright to know where he or she came from. Although it is your wish that your child be ok having been adopted, she will likely have a myriad of feelings throughout her life. Although you can’t shield her from her feelings, you can allow her the space and freedom to experience all of them. Sometimes she will want you by her side, and perhaps other times she will not. Adoptive parents cannot “fix” what happens when baby and mother are separated. It’s impossible. You can however help your daughter make sense of her story, which will include you taking the lead in talking about adoption, her birth/first parents and her siblings – now as opposed to later. Children don’t often bring up adoption if they sense their parents aren’t completely comfortable with the topic. In terms of your own support – does your community offer any groups for the adoption and foster care community? I’ve found the shared experiences offered by adoptive parents, adoptees and first parents in the groups I facilitate, are incredibly helpful and healing. If you don’t have such a group, perhaps you can start one in your community.

      August 7, 2014

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