The process of explaining adoption to your child can be emotional. Feelings can range from fearful to joyful as you think of how to explain adoption to your child in ways that they can understand. While navigating this process, it is important to use age appropriate language in order to convey concepts that may be difficult for your child to understand. Here are some helpful tips to make this process just a little easier at any developmental level.
Talking to Infants about Adoption
Most experts suggest that parents talk openly about their child’s adoption, even during infancy, to set a good tone for later on, when their children are older and will want to explore their feelings on these issues more deeply.
One parent describes telling his one year old daughter she was adopted through a story he created about a squirrel. He told his daughter that the squirrel’s parents didn’t have enough nuts to give her, but found another mother and father who did have enough. Although his daughter could not yet grasp the fact that she was adopted, the story was a good way to introduce the concept.
Experts believe that it is important to begin using the word “adoption” early on and regularly. Although the word shouldn’t be the primary focus of the conversation, it is important to incorporate the word so that it feels natural to use and does not become taboo.
Talking to Children Ages 1-5 about Adoption
At this age, your child may be starting to understand the basic concept of reproduction. They may begin to ask questions about where babies come from and may wonder whether or not they were “in mommy’s tummy”. If your child is asking this question, you can say something such as “You grew inside your birth mother’s tummy, and then you came to live with us.”
It is important to take cues from your child. If they do not seem that into their adoption story, don’t dwell on the subject. It is also important to be patient. Even if your child acknowledges that they were adopted, they may not fully understand the concept until they develop a deeper understanding of conception and pregnancy.
At this age, children generally have positive emotions towards their adoption, and it is perfectly natural for them to be inquisitive about the story of their birth. So don’t become frustrated if your child does not seem to get it or continues to ask questions, even if they are the same questions over and over.
Talking to Children Ages 6-12 about Adoption
Don’t be surprised if your child, who was so excited to talk about their adoption story during ages 1-5, no longer seems to want to talk about their adoption during ages 6-12. Just because they are no longer talking about it doesn’t mean that they are no longer thinking about it. At this age, children often begin to have a better grasp on the concept of adoption and are now beginning to realize the relinquishment aspect of adoption. A child’s normal response to understanding relinquishment is sadness, grief over the loss of their birthparents, and feelings of rejection along with the desire to understand why their birthparents would decide not to parent.
School-aged children are also seeking approval and acceptance from their classmates at this age. They want to fit in and be like their friends, not stand out. Adopted children may feel as though they stand out simply because they are adopted. Your child may be faced with the attitudes of other children towards their adoption and questions from classmates that may not be as accepting as ones that they are used to. School assignments, such as creating a family tree, may create additional anxiety for your child. It is important to work with your child, as they enter school, to create a plan on how to respond to questions, comments, and assignments that may be difficult to handle.
Watching your child grieve can be difficult, but it is important to understand that your child’s feelings are not about you. Feelings of loss and sadness are not a sign of rejection for their adoptive family.
If the adoption is open, having your child write letters to their birth family can be a helpful way to have their questions about relinquishment answered, or to simply give them the opportunity to speak with them. In such cases, it is also important to work with the birth family to prepare them to discuss some topics that may be difficult or painful to talk about. You will also want to talk about how to best support your child’s needs for security and reassurance.
Remember not to force your child to talk about their adoption if they don’t want to, but to keep the lines of communication open and positive. You should send signals affirming to your child that it’s okay to talk about it. For instance, you could say, “You did great at your basketball game today. You’re a very good athlete. I wonder if your birthmother was also good at sports.”
Talking to Children Ages 12-21 about Adoption
The primary focus of most adolescents is developing their sense of self identity and thinking of who they would like to become. Adopted teens are no different, but their experiences may be more difficult because of their emotions towards their adoption.
You child may associate their relinquishment with a loss of a part of their identity, which they are trying to develop and express. Feelings of anger and frustration may surface as they are trying to reprocess the impact of their relinquishment on their self worth and belonging. This may cause them to struggle with their desire for greater independence with anxiety about separation from their adoptive parents and fear about whether or not they can succeed on their own.
- Keep Communication open – Your children need to know that they are able to discuss these subjects when they are ready, not necessarily when you think it’s a good time. Be available and willing to listen.
- Consult books and online resources- Know that you are not alone. There are a number of resources and families out there that are affected by adoption. Many of them have, or have had, the same questions as you. Books and resources can answer these questions and provide helpful advice.
- Join a support group – it can be helpful to join a support group to talk to other adoptive parents about their experiences. Talking with other families about their adoption processes and understanding that you are not alone can help provide encouragement during difficult times.
- Remember that your child is an individual- Accept your child for who they are. Don’t pressure your child to respond in a particular way. Give your child permission to be themselves, especially when it comes to interest, goals, and feelings.
Remember to reassure your child that you love them, are committed to them, and that they hold an important place in your family.