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Let's Talk About Adoption

Respectful Ways to Talk about Adoption: A List of Do's & Dont's Respectful Ways to Talk about Adoption: A List of Do's & Dont's

​​​About 2.1 million children living in the United States were adopted into their families. Adopted children have unique needs and their life story may be much different than their friends. 

Read on to learn how you and others around adopted children can talk with them about adoption, help them overcome challenges, and develop a positive life story.

Adoption has changed

Stories about adoption told on TV and in movies do not always reflect how adoption is in real life. Some infants and parents are brought together through private adoption. A small number of international adoptions involve children born in another country and adopted by American parents.

Other children are adopted by relatives or non-relatives from foster care. Children enter foster care for many reasons. Most often, it is because of a difficult living situation for the child such as neglect, a parent struggling with substance use such as opioid addiction, physical abuse, or housing problems. About 81% of children adopted from the foster care system have special needs.

​No matter how the​y arrived in the family, an adopted child is a child of the parents who adopted them.​​

Use the right words, right away

Adoption, adopted, birth family, biological family, foster care, kinship care. Right from the start, adoptive parents should make these words part of everyday conversations. There is no reason to wait for the “right time" to start telling their child about their adoption story.

A child understands adoption gradually as they grow, just as with all other developmental tasks. Talking about the adoption regularly can help build trust between you and your child. It also gives your child a chance to think about and ask questions and share their feelings. Here are some ways to get started:

  • Begin with simple parts of your child's life story.

  • Build more detail into the story as you talk more.

  • Create a life book. Use a three-ring binder so you can add to the story over time.

  • Start talking about difficult details of the story like abuse, trauma, and substance use with school-age children.

  • Explain that being placed away from their birth parents was not their fault; they were not a bad baby or child. Talk with your teen about why their birth parents could not take care of them. This lets them know that the birth parents made the decision based on what they felt was in the best interest of the child.

  • Talk about their birth parents as people who chose “to make an adoption plan" or to “place them up for adoption," rather than being “put up" or “given up" for adoption. Most birth parents have thought long and hard about their decision to place a child for adoption. It is very important to a child's self-esteem to know that their birth parents loved them and worked hard to reach a decision that they felt to be in their best interest.

  • Note that describing a child as a birth child or an adopted child is not necessary. Explain that siblings who joined their family by birth and adoption are equal members.

  • Children cared for (in kinship care) then adopted by a member of their birth family may not know why they cannot live with their birth parents.

​All families are unique

Families also come in all shapes and sizes, this includes adoptive families. Some have a single adoptive parent or permanent legal guardian and no other legal parent. Others have same-sex parents. If a child's birth country, race, or genetic heritage is kn​​own, the intercultural and/or interracial family can include their child's culture and heritage in routines and traditions. This can give children from racial or ethnic minorities a strong, positive racial identity.

Open or closed adoptions

How and if a child relates to their birth family depends on if it was an open adoption or a closed adoption.

  • A closed adoption does not allow information about the birth parent, birth family or their birth to be shared with the adoptive parent.

  • An open adoption allows a range of contact between the birth family, adoptive parents, and adopted child. This contact could be as simple as the birth parent selecting the adoptive parents. Or it could include regular communications or meetings. In an open adoption, a child can stay connected to their culture and past. For example, an older child or teen can stay in contact with birth family members.

If their biological parents agree, teens may want to learn more about them by talking to them. Adopted children might search for their birth parents through social media or use DNA test kits, reunion registries, and family connections to locate biological families.

This can be an emotional time for biological parents and for the parents who adopted the child. Remember that this is a sign of emotional growth for the child. However, the child and parents should be ready for any kind of response, good or bad, from the biological family.


Each adopted child's life story is unique. The words used to tell their story give children strength and resilience.

​More information

Last Updated
American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Foster Care, Adoption, & Kinship Care (Copyright © 2020)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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