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When to Tell Your Child About Adoption

For some parents, telling their child that he is adopted is a formidable, anxiety-provoking task, and thus they put it off or avoid it. However, at some point adopted youngsters need to be told about their origins, ideally even before middle childhood.

Introducing the Information During Preschool Years

During their preschool years, children begin asking ques­tions like "Where do babies come from?" That is a good time to begin introducing information about their special backgrounds.

What Should You Say?

  • Make your explanation simple, direct, and honest.
  • Ex­plain that he was not born to you.
  • Tell him that he was born to other parents who could not take care of him. Then describe why you chose to adopt a child.
  • Talk about how much you and your spouse wanted him, and briefly explain the process you went through to get him.

Allow Your Child to Ask Questions

For example, he might want to know "What happened to my first mommy and daddy? Where are they?" You can share a little bit of that information with him, but there is no need to go into too much detail. Your comments should answer his questions in ways appro­priate for his maturity level.

Ideas for the Future

At the time of the adoption you should have been given some basic information about your child's biological parents—from medical issues (a family history of heart disease, for example) to personal characteristics. (Was the father tall and athletic? Was the mother artistic?) Someday you will want to pass along all of this information to your youngster. One useful way to address all kinds of adoption questions is with a "life-book," a scrapbook of all of the information you have about his past. This can be very helpful to a child with a complicated past of multiple moves. This book can be "read" in more detail to the child as he matures. 

If Your Child Is Already School Age...

If your child is already of school age and has not been told that he is adopted, you need to talk with him about it, as early during this time of life as possible.

Adoption should not be a secret. Every youngster needs to have an honest understanding of his origin. Adopted children who have not been told seem to sense that somehow they are different; this nagging intuition can in­fluence their self-image. The longer you wait, the harder it will be to discuss it with your child.

Also, he is liable to find out from someone else—perhaps by overhearing the conversations of relatives, or from teasing by neighborhood children who have learned from their own parents that he is adopted.

Your Child's Emotions

If you have waited until the middle years of childhood to tell your youngster that he is adopted, he may be upset, but that is a natural reaction. Allow him to express his feelings. Talk about why he is sad or angry, and let him know that you acknowledge and understand those feelings. Remind him that you and your spouse love him, that this is his family and always will be.

Your Own Emotions

Often parents who are reluctant to tell their youngster about the adoption may have difficulties of their own in accepting that their son or daughter is not their biological child. Sometimes they might feel ashamed or inadequate be­cause they could not have children of their own, and they avoid explaining the adoption to their youngster so that they will not have to revisit that issue.

Sometimes parents are hesitant to talk about the adoption because they are trying to be protective of their child's feelings, sensing that he might be hurt at finding out he was adopted. They might also be afraid of being rejected by their adopted youngster. They might think, "What if my son says, 'I don't want to live with you anymore; I want to go live with my real mommy'?" That, how­ever, is an uncommon reaction, and not one that children are really serious about pursuing.

Keep in mind that it is important for the child to know about his adoption by the time he enters school. Your honest communication about this impor­tant issue early on can strengthen the relationship you have with him, build­ing a strong bond of trust. So if you have any apprehensions about telling your child, try getting beyond them.

More Questions

After you've told your child, he will have more questions about it in the days, weeks, and years ahead. His questions are normal and do not reflect a lack of affection toward you. The more your child talks about it with you, the more comfortable he will feel with the idea, and the stronger his relationship will become with you.

Your answers to these questions should be direct but still sensitive to the emotional maturity level of your youngster, and what he has already learned and understands about the adoption. Do not dismiss these questions and con­cerns, but do not overreact to them either. Acknowledge the fact that his fam­ily situation is different from that of many or most of his friends. At the same time, do not magnify the significance of his special circumstances, nor dwell upon them. Your child's basic needs are the same, regardless of whether he is living with biological or adoptive parents, and most aspects of his life will be the same as those of his peers.

Normal Stages Adopted Children Pass Through

There are some normal stages through which your adopted child is likely to pass:

  • During the ages of five to seven years, for example, he may understand that he has "two mothers" and "two fathers," but the social customs and the full meaning of adoption are probably still a bit unclear. He is likely to ask questions about why his birth mother did not keep him. And he may have anxiety-generating thoughts like "Since my first mother left me, maybe my second one might too."
  • When your adopted child is a little older—between the ages of seven to nine years old—he will develop a better understanding of being adopted. You can expect to be asked specific questions about his biological parents. In a sense, he will be trying to construct a more accurate "memory" of his original family, which of course is really just a fantasy about his first mother and father and how he came to be adopted.
  • Later in the middle years—during ages nine through twelve—all children, in­cluding those who are adopted, become increasingly concerned with their ap­pearance and fitting in. Your adopted youngster may become more curious about and sensitive to differences in his own hair color or eye color if it differs from your own. He will also become even more interested in his biological par­ents, and what his original cultural origins may have been. Expect many more questions about both his biological and adoptive relatives, and his family tree.
Last Updated
Caring for Your School-Age Child: Ages 5 to 12 (Copyright © 2004 American Academy of Pediatrics)
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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