How to discuss adoption with your child

Oct 31, 2013 at 12:00 p.m. ET

When it comes to adoption, knowledge is power. Empower your child with the information he or she needs to develop confidently in your home by introducing adoption in an age-appropriate and engaging way.

Mom talking to daughter about adoption

Just like any important conversation with children, it's necessary for adoptive parents to put serious thought into how they discuss adoption with their kids. Discussions about adoption can either be healing or traumatic, depending on how the topic is managed by parents.

If you're looking for information about how to discuss adoption with your kids, consider the following pointers provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families (ACF).

Introducing the concept

Although opinions vary slightly, ACF reports that most child welfare experts advocate for parents to introduce the concept of adoption during a child's earliest years. Even if an infant or toddler can't yet grasp their adoption, simply using the word early and often will likely make your child more comfortable with the concept when it does arise later in his or her life.

Whether or not you've spoken with your child about adoption from birth, it's quite likely that he or she will begin to grasp a basic understanding of adoption between the ages of 2 and 4. Therefore, parents need to put some thought into how they want to introduce adoption during this age range. Your child won't need to know everything about adoption, but she will need to know that she is safe, loved, unique and unforgettable. Answer the following questions with your partner to determine how you want to introduce adoption to your little one:

  • How are we going to make the revelation of our child's adoption an exciting and joyful one?
  • How much do we want to disclose, and how much do we want to keep private until he or she is older?
  • Are we prepared for the emotional response of our child to this information?

Understanding developmental stages

Regardless of when you introduced adoption to your child, ACF indicates that it's important to understand your child's developmental age during your conversations.

  • Infancy and toddlerhood: Parents can talk about adoption with their infant or toddler, but it's unlikely that babies will be able to form any concept of adoption until they're older. The most important thing for adoptive parents to do during this stage is support a healthy attachment to a primary caregiver.
  • Young childhood: Children between the ages of 2 and 6 are full of questions, and they can begin to form an understanding of their adoption. It's important to answer questions honestly and compassionately, but try to avoid information that may be troubling or confusing. Remember that you can be fully honest while mitigating the damage of troubling information until your child is older.
  • School-aged children: Children in elementary school are likely to develop well-rounded emotions about their adoption. They may still feel unique and important in the home, while also acknowledging grief and loss about their birth parents. When parents discuss adoption during this age range, they need to acknowledge the wealth of emotions their child may experience.
  • Teenagers: Regardless of a child's family history, adolescence is rife with questions of identity and self-worth. Understand that your teenager is experimenting with his identity and may have many more questions (and demand answers) about his origins. Answer these questions factually and calmly, and continue to support your child's sense of self-worth during these discussions.

Finding additional help

Discussing adoption with your child isn't an easy task. It requires emotional presence and tough questions. If you need additional assistance with your conversations, consider the following supports:

  • Adoptive families: Find a support group comprised of other adoptive families. They can share insight into how they discussed adoption with their children, and they can also help your own child feel like his or her story is normal.
  • Friends for your child: If possible, try to find a playmate for your child who has also been adopted. A playmate can help your child share feelings and process emotions in a way that isn't always possible with adults.
  • Helpful books: Many children's books approach the topic of adoption and can help parents introduce and normalize the adoptive experience. Top choices for kids include A Mother for Chocoand Tell Me Again About the Night I was Born.

More about adoption

The reality of post-adoption depression
Helping your adopted child bond to you
The realities of adopting from foster care