What your kids want to know about their adoption, and how to talk about it.

Parents talking to son
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Feelings about being adopted influence a child's sense of self-worth and esteem. Adoptive parents are caught in the paradox of helping their child understand what it means to be adopted while knowing that in the process, the child may feel rejected, sad, and hurt. Parents worry about how best to talk about adoption.

A child's curiosity can be a signal for a parent. Answering the question "Where do I come from?" involves discussions about birth, reproduction, and adoption. If your child doesn't ask, you can raise the topic yourself; find out what your child thinks and what he wants to know. It is better to respond to questions than to inundate a child with information.

Toddlers and Preschoolers (1- to 4-year-olds)

Preschoolers are beginner thinkers, and their thinking is very literal. They do not have the mental capacity for logical reasoning. Egocentric, they truly believe the world revolves around them and their needs. This is the time to start the adoption story. Kids usually love their adoption story, as they are the center of attention, and it tells how they came into your family. The meaning of adoption does not really sink in at this age.

The basic adoption story should tell your child the following:

  • He was born the same way as everybody else in the world.
  • He grew inside another woman, but that woman wasn't ready or able to be a mother to any baby at that time.
  • You wanted to be a parent very much.
  • You adopted him and he will be your child forever.

Don't forget to include that the moment of his birth, just as the moment of his adoption, was an awesome event. In that, he will hear your joy and excitement over welcoming him into the world and your family.

The core task in the life of the adoptive family is the telling and retelling of the adoption story. Kids need repetition to understand new and complicated concepts. Studies show that parents overestimate their children's understanding of what they've been told about adoption and underestimate the need for ongoing dialogue. Don't expect your child to "get it" after one or two discussions. Talking about adoption is a lifelong process.

Middle Childhood (5- to 11-year-olds)

By age 6 or 7, an adoptee is able to differentiate between alternative ways of forming a family. He now understands that most children join their family by being born into it, while others become family members after birth, and this is what adoption means. The concept of having two separate sets of parents—those who conceived and gave birth to the child, and those who are raising him—becomes clear at this age.

According to David Brodzinsky's research, kids ages 6 to 8 believe that adopted children are more likely than nonadopted children to be bright, happy, popular, and self-confident. However, by the time they reach 10 to 12 years old, children begin to recognize some of the more difficult and confusing aspects of adoption, including feelings of loss and of being different. Although maintaining a positive view of adoption, kids in this age group are more likely to experience occasional bouts of anger and sadness as well as increased uncertainty about themselves.

During the middle years, adopted children first struggle to understand the circumstances surrounding their birth, and think of the unchosen options that had been available to their birth mother. Their overriding question is, "Why?"

  • If she didn't have enough money, why didn't she just get a job?
  • If she didn't think a child should be raised by a single parent, why didn't she get married?
  • If she didn't know how to be a mommy, why didn't she get someone to teach her?

These concrete solutions to the complex problems that a birth parent may have faced represent the child's efforts to understand the birth mother's decision. The school-age child may feel grief for the parents and family he never knew, just as adoptive parents may have grieved for the biological child they will never know. As the parent, you need to help your child understand that this sadness is just as much a part of his adoption story as the joy, and it is okay to feel both.

Children cope with these feelings in a variety of ways:

  • Some are open and talk about their feelings.
  • Some are defensive and use denial to cope.
  • Some are angry and disruptive.
  • Some think that adoption is no big deal.

It is important to keep an open dialogue with your child, both so you can understand how he has put this complicated picture together, and to offer alternative views that address his misconceptions. Just as the experience of adoption changes over time, talking with kids about it must also change according to their stage of development and physical, emotional, and intellectual maturity.

Preadolescence & Adolescence (12- to 18-year-olds)

These are the years when children assert their independence and distance themselves from parents in an effort to form their own identity—whether adopted or not. If information is lacking, the task of identity formation becomes more complicated. Parents can assist their adolescents through this process by understanding their need for information, helping them get it, and giving them the freedom to explore. While a natural part of the individuation process, this exploration is usually where conflict arises in families. The most important thing is to keep the lines of communication open.

There is no right way to talk about adoption. What is important is to hear what your child is saying, allow him his feelings, and be available to help him with the struggle.

Ronny Diamond, CSW, is the director of Spence-Chapin Adoption Resource Center.

American Baby