Talking to your child about adoption
As children grow up, they gradually develop a sense of self (how they see themselves) and self-esteem. This healthy process helps children become comfortable with who they are.
When a child is adopted, the normal issues of forming attachments and self-image can be more complicated because of a normal process of sadness surrounding the loss of their biological family, and possibly their heritage and culture.
As an adoptive parent, there are many things you can do to help support your child:
Your child’s age will play an important part in how she sees her adoption and how you can talk about it together.
- Preschoolers (3 to 4 years old) are often still too young to understand the process of having a baby but may start asking “where babies come from”. Talking with your child about his adoption at this age will help you become more comfortable with telling his birth story. It can also help to create an environment where your child feels comfortable talking to you.
- School age (6 to 11 years old) 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 show a variety of emotions including sadness, abandonment or anger. 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.
- Pre-teens and teenagers (12-18 years old) are becoming more independent and begin to create a clear sense of self. Being adopted can affect your teen’s self-esteem, especially if he feels different from his peers. Adopted teens often want to make sense of their adoption, which can cause a sense of internal conflict and confusion. Your teen may want to learn specific details about his genetic history (origin) and birth family, and may not always feel comfortable talking to you about these feelings. Some teens may want to try to find their birth parent(s). Remember to be supportive. They are not doing this to reject you.
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. Adoption should not be a secret. 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. Talking about the adoption as early on as possible can strengthen the relationship you have with your child by building trust and open communication.
- Young children only need 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.
- Get help from a trusted professional if your child seems to be struggling or if you would like further support on approaches to discussing adoption. Your paediatrician or family doctor will be able to support you through this process.
Although older, these additional resources can still be very helpful:
- Making Sense of Adoption: A Parent’s Guide (Lois Melina, New York, HarperCollins, 1989)
- The Family of Adoption (Joyce Maguire Pavao, Boston, Beacon Press, 1998)
- Talking to children about being adopted: When to start, what to say, what to expect (Lois Melina, adopted child, 2000;19:1-4)
More information from the CPS:
Reviewed by the following CPS committees:
- Community Paediatrics Committee
Last Updated: October 2017