Need to give your kid an education in how a friend's family was formed? Here's how to do it right.

By Lisa Milbrand
November 28, 2016
four children laughing and hugging outside
Credit: Shutterstock

Odds are, at least one of your child's friends comes from an adoptive family—after all, there are more than 135,000 adoptions in the U.S. each year. While some parents choose to keep that info private, others don't have that luxury, if they're of one race and their child is another. And that can lead to plenty of questions from your kids—ones that may make you feel a little awkward answering.

But don't worry about saying the wrong thing—here's a little guidance to help you and your child understand adoption.

Explain it simply. Don't get too hung up on whether to call the child's biological family the birth/bio/first family or going through the myriad reasons a child may be adopted. You're basically trying to get three main points across: 1. This is just one way to form a family. 2. The child did nothing wrong. There were grownup problems that made it so her biological family couldn't take care of her. 3. The adoptive family is a real family, just like yours.

Want a script to use? Transracial adoption expert Amanda Baden, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and associate professor of counselor education at Montclair State University in New Jersey, suggests this:

"Families are formed in lots of different ways. In some families, children are born and raised by the same family, but sometimes not-so-good things happen and families can't stay together, because of something the kids can't control. And so adoption makes sure that the kids have families. The new family that they get adopted by is just as real as the family that they were born into."

Make sure you address potential fears. Most often, kids are confused about why children aren't able to stay with their birth family—and worry that the same thing might happen to them someday. Many kids even make the leap to believe that it only happens to "bad kids," and that their behavior could lead you to want to give them away. And obviously, nothing can be further from the truth. "To counteract the idea that a parent could just 'give away a child,' explain that adoption is always because the birth mother and birth father could not take care of the child and wanted the child to have a good, safe home and forever family," says Joni Mantell, LCSW, a psychotherapist and director of Infertility & Adoption Counseling Center in Pennington, New Jersey. "Such a comment makes a 'preemptive strike' against the fear that 'if a child is bad they could be placed' and the more insidious need to see the adopted child as different based on the illogical idea 'that kid was adopted because something was wrong with him.'"

Help your child develop empathy. It can be fascinating for kids to encounter someone with a different background—especially when it's a transracial family, where the parents and the kids don't look alike. But encourage your child to think before he poses a question about those differences—queries like "Where are your real parents?" and "Why didn't your mom want you?" could hurt their classmate. "Have your child think about how it would feel to be asked those questions," Baden says. "Even though your child might be curious, her friend may not be comfortable talking about it."

Don't be afraid to seek help. "Adoption sensitivity is typically not something non-adoptive families think about, so some conscious raising about this may help," Mantell says. "Adopted kids entered their families in a different way, but they are forever families, too." Seek out books on the topicA Mother for Choco or We Belong Together: A Book About Adoption and Families are two great ones to get the conversation started. Generally, adoptive families have to go through a fair amount of education before they're approved to adopt, so consider reaching out to the families you know if you're stuck. (Just keep in mind that empathy thing—and don't start with your own queries about how much it cost or why the child couldn't stay with their bio family.)