The director of an adoption agency in New York City was leading a workshop with adoptive parents and kids. The parents and kids were in separate rooms. He asked the adoptive parents to raise their hands if their kids ever mention their adoption. No one raised their hand. When the director asked the kids if they thought about their birth parents, every child raised their hand.
Just because kids remain silent about their adoption doesn’t mean they’re not thinking about it or trying to make sense of it. Which is why it’s an important discussion for parents and kids to have.
Of course, knowing how to talk about adoption with your child doesn’t exactly come easily or naturally. Plus, there are many misconceptions about when to bring it up and what to actually say—everything from you should have one big, serious conversation to don’t introduce the word “adoption” until your child is old enough to understand what it means.
We asked two therapists, who specialize in adoption issues, about how to talk to your child—and how not to. Below are their do’s and don’ts.
Do talk about adoption regularly—and well before your child understands it. Start talking to your child about their adoption right away—even if your child is a toddler. This way it won’t be a surprise to them, said Barbara Freedgood, LCSW, an adoptive parent and therapist who leads adoptive support groups.
“Keep it very simple, and keep it appropriate to the child’s age,” she said. For instance, “before the age of 5, all kids need to know is that they are adopted, and it’s a way to form a family.” Also, emphasize that you are a “forever family.”
After 5 years old, most kids are curious about where babies come from. When your child asks, you might say, “A different man and woman made you. You grew in that woman’s belly. And then I came and adopted you. That’s how we became a family.”
Therapist H.C. Fall Willeboordse, LCSW, who works with families and individually with children, adolescents and adults, underscored the importance of having ongoing conversations. It shouldn’t be a “challenging event that occurs once.” Because if you keep this information from your child until they’re older, it’ll be harder for them to believe their adoption was a positive thing, she said.
In fact, she talked about having an adoption story, and making it part of your daily routine—such as a nightly ritual. You might talk about how you learned about your child; the first time you saw them and held them; the place you were united; and what the weather was like, she said. “What was memorable for the parents will become memorable for the child.”
Making it a routine talk helps you become more comfortable discussing your child’s adoption, and lets them “hear how happy you were for her to come into your life,” Willeboordse said.
Don’t ignore or criticize the birth parents. Birth parents must be part of the adoption story. “By not mentioning them, adoptive parents send a message that they are uncomfortable talking about them or there was something wrong with them,” Willeboordse said.
But birth parents will always be part of your child’s life—whether it was an open, closed or foreign adoption with very little information, she said. Be sure not to say anything disparaging. Remember that “they are the reason you have your child.”
Don’t wait for your kids to ask questions. It’s very common for kids not to ask questions—particularly about their birth parents—because they don’t want to hurt their parents’ feelings. Or they assume you’re uncomfortable talking about their adoption. Freedgood stressed the importance of looking for opportunities to talk about adoption. For instance, if your child is a talented artist, you might say, “You’re such a great artist. I wonder if your birth mom was good at art.”
Even moments of anger are good opportunities, she said. During an argument, your child might yell “You’re not my real mother!” Understandably, this is very painful. But it’s also an opportunity to say, “Do you wonder about what your birth mother or father would’ve done?”
This shows your child that it’s safe to ponder and talk about these topics, Freedgood said.
Don’t talk about how lucky your child is to be adopted. Don’t let your friends and family talk about how lucky your child is either, Willeboordse said. “You are setting up a situation where she will feel obligated to be grateful.” Which also means that when your child starts questioning their adoption and identity, they won’t feel comfortable talking to you about it, she said. “You can think of yourselves as the lucky ones to have her now in your life.”
Don’t focus on how special your child is. That is, don’t tell your child that you adopted them because they are special. “Although this sounds harmless and loving, young children if told that too many times, believe they have to be special to maintain their parents’ love,” Willeboordse said.
In other words, your child might believe your love is contingent on their specialness. This can translate into your child working tirelessly to become the best athlete or to get straight As—all attempts at remaining special. Instead, “Allow your child to just be whoever she is,” Willeboordse said.
Do get good resources. Freedgood suggested browsing bookstores or websites for resources that speak to you and how you’d like to talk to your kids about adoption. Specifically, she recommended checking out TapestryBooks.com and Susan and Gordon Adopt a Baby (a Sesame Street book).
Do let your child have a range of reactions. There’s an expectation that adoptive kids should only feel happy and grateful. But your child might also grieve the loss of their biological family. Which is totally normal. Give them the space to grieve their loss and to have a range of emotions about their adoption, Freedgood said.
Do find support for yourself. Seek out other adoptive parents to swap stories with. This is a great way to get support and to talk through the unique challenges, difficulties and joys. Working with a therapist who specializes in adoption also is tremendously helpful.
Talking to your child about their adoption might feel really hard. But the more you talk about it, the more comfortable you’ll become—and the more comfortable your child will be in asking questions that are important to them. If you fumble, admit your mistake. This actually teaches your child to be gentle and forgiving with themselves, Willeboordse said. Plus, what truly matters is that you’re attuned to your child and their experiences, she said.