Talking to your children about adoption
As children grow up, they gradually develop a sense of self-concept (how they see themselves) and self-esteem. This healthy process helps children become comfortable with themselves.
When a child is adopted, the normal issues of forming attachments and self-image can be more complex because adopted children have the added stress of grieving the loss of their biological family, their heritage and their culture.
As an adoptive parent, there are many things you can do to help your child with these issues. Your child’s age will play an important part in how she sees her adoption and how you can talk about it together:
- During infancy and early childhood, children are still too young to understand the process of having a baby. But talking with your child about his adoption at this age will help you become more comfortable with telling his birth story. It also helps to create an environment where your child feels comfortable talking to you.
- By school age, children begin to understand the idea of cause and effect. Your child may start to see herself as different from other children who live with at least one biological parent. She may feel sad, abandoned or angry. This is perfectly normal. If she asks why she was placed for adoption, a simple answer could be: “Your birth parents couldn’t take care of a child when you were born. They loved you and made the best choice for your future at the time.” You may have to talk about this over and over.
- During adolescence, your teen is working hard to become independent. Being adopted can affect your teen’s self-esteem, especially if he feels different from his friends. Adopted teens want to make sense of having two sets of parents, which could cause conflict and confusion. Your teen will want to learn specific details about his genetic history and birth family and may not always feel comfortable talking to you about these feelings.
As an adoptive parent, you can make this natural process easier by:
- Being caring, supportive and willing to talk about the story of your child’s adoption. Show that you are open and comfortable with your child’s adoption by using phrases such as “when you joined our family” instead of “when you were born.” This will help your child feel more comfortable talking about it.
- Answering your child’s questions as honestly as you can. Remember, young children need only short and simple answers. They can always get more detailed explanations when they are older.
- When your child asks questions, think about what she really wants to know. For example, if she asks, “Did I grow in your tummy, mommy?” she probably wants to know whether she came from a woman’s womb, just like other children.
- If your child is not asking questions, it may be because he doesn’t want to upset you or hurt your feelings. It’s normal for him to be curious about where he came from and to search for answers on his own. It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t love you.
- Get help from a trusted professional if your child seems to be struggling on a day-to-day basis. Your paediatrician or family doctor will be able to answer your questions about what is normal and what isn’t.
- Making Sense of Adoption: A Parent’s Guide by Lois Melina. New York: HarperCollins, 1989.
- The Family of Adoption by Joyce Maguire Pavao. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.
- “Talking to children about being adopted: When to start, what to say, what to expect” by Lois Melina. Adopted Child 2000;19:1-4.
- Why? Children’s Questions What They Mean and How to Answer Them by R Formanek and A Gurian. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980.
More information from the CPS:
Reviewed by the following CPS committees:
- Community Paediatrics Committee
Last Updated: March 2012