Few things can strike fear in the heart of a newly adoptive parent like the thought of talking with their child about their adoption story. We know that it’s so very important and we don’t want to get it wrong! So how exactly do you tell your child that they are adopted? After walking with many adoptive parents as an Adoption Consultant, studying informative adoption research, listening to the voices of adult adoptees and adoption social workers, and caring for my own children that were adopted, I’ve seen 9 important components that are essential to telling your child their adoption story.
How To Tell Your Child That They Were Adopted: 9 Essentials
1) Talk about it from the very beginning
One of the best pieces of advice we ever received during our home study process was this: start talking to your child about their adoption from Day One. I remember thinking,”Wait. You want me to talk to my teeny infant about their adoption? They can’t even speak yet!” But yes-that’s exactly what adoption professionals encourage parents to do! Talking about adoption from the very beginning gives your child the foundation of knowing their adoption story. It also gives you the chance to gain confidence in learning how to share your child’s story with them. Of course, your little baby won’t understand it initially, but as time goes on, you’ll find that even young children can comprehend much more than we give them credit for. When you talk about adoption from the very beginning, your child will never have a life altering “moment” of discovering they are adopted. Instead, they will grow up knowing the truth about their story. By talking about adoption right away, you are giving them a strong foundation to build upon as they form their identity.
2) Use pictures
If you have pictures of your child’s birth family, hang some in their room or make a book with the pictures. Some families have found that creating a “birth book” or “life book” that tells the child’s adoption story with pictures can be a great resource to use as they talk with their young child about adoption. Even if you don’t have pictures with your child’s birth family, show them pictures that you do have of your child when you first met them. Use those photos as a springboard to share with them about the first moment you saw them, about what they looked like, about the time you spent with their birth family (if that pertains to you) and use words like “birth mom” and “adopted” to begin familiarizing your child with adoption terms.
3) Read books with adoption themes
There are some wonderful books for children about adoption. (There are also some pretty confusing and unhelpful ones so make sure to read through any book first to make sure it’s a good fit for your particular child!) Books that use accurate and positive adoption language, convey both the beauty and brokenness of adoption, and highlight how loved the child is by their birth and adoptive families are particularly helpful.
4) Speak positively about your child’s birth family
Speak words about your child’s birth family that are positive and kind. Weave these thoughts into every day conversation. Does your child share some physical features with their birth family? “I love your beautiful brown eyes. They look just like your birth mom’s beautiful brown eyes.” Are there things you know about your child’s birth family that your child has in common with them that you could share? Maybe you don’t know much at all about your child’s birth family, but you do know they loved their child so much that they gave them life. In some extreme situations involving neglect or abuse, finding something positive to say is not easy. Don’t make something up! However, no matter what type of situation your child is coming from, there is typically something good that you can share with them about their birth family-people made in God’s image..
5) Share honestly with age appropriateness
Adoption is filled with brokenness and loss. While adoption might be one of the greatest blessings in your life as adoptive parents, it has come at an enormous cost for your child and for their birth family. Don’t sugarcoat your child’s story; be honest. Depending on their age, the details you share with them will be different. As your child grows, so will the amount of details you tell them, but make sure that you’re always telling the truth. As an adoptive parent, this point can be particularly scary because we want to protect our children from pain. Yet, by not telling them the truth about their story, we’re actually causing them more pain and giving them reasons to question our trustworthiness and potentially tempt them to imagine worst case scenarios. So start with the general foundation of their story and build upon it with age appropriateness, sharing more details as they grow.
6) Be your child’s safe support
As you talk about adoption, acknowledge your child’s feelings and let them know it’s ok to feel however they do. Hold them, sit with them, remind them of how loved they are, let them know that you will always be there for them. Listen without interrupting and remind them that they can tell you anything. Remember that this isn’t about you. When they ask questions or share their thoughts, ask follow up questions to understand more where they are coming from instead of assuming. Remember, even if they say things that are hard for you to hear, your child needs your support. Sit with them in their grief or anger or whatever they feel at the moment; don’t dismiss or make them feel as if they shouldn’t be feeling the way that they do. Let them know that whatever they are feeling or thinking about adoption, their feelings will not take away your love.
7) Keep talking about it
Talking with your child about their adoption isn’t a “one and done” deal. You need to keep talking about it with them throughout their lifetime. Your child should not need to be the one to bring up adoption. It’s your job as the parent to keep the conversation going. Let me assure you-just because your child doesn’t bring up adoption doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking about it. If you don’t continue to bring up adoption with your children, they may feel like it’s an “off-limits” topic and never bring their thoughts and questions to you. Adult adoptees often share that they were afraid to voice questions about their story because they didn’t ever want their parents to feel hurt or to perceive those questions as a lack of love for them. Invite your children’s questions and even if they don’t share any, continue talking about adoption. Help them feel secure and free to talk with you about their adoption by being the one to bring it up regularly.
8) Seek professional help
If at any point you find you need additional support in talking with your child about their adoption, please don’t hesitate to seek it out. There is no shame in needing professional help. These are complex things that are sometimes difficult to work through, both for you and for your child. Loving your child means giving them tools to help them process their story and a licensed professional counselor familiar with adoption and trauma can be an invaluable tool to help your child.
9) Trust your perfect Heavenly Father
Seek God’s face as you have these conversations with your child. We often simply don’t know what to say as we share about adoption with our kids, but we do know that God promises to give us wisdom as we ask. We can confidently go to Him in prayer with that request for wisdom and help. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” James 1:5 There are no perfect words that will magically take away the hard aspects of your child’s adoption. You don’t have the perfect words to share with your child about their adoption story but you do have a perfect Heavenly Father. God is able to help our children find comfort and peace in their hearts as they navigate the details of their adoption story. We can trust His care. Ultimately, He is the one who will carry your child through the ups and downs of processing adoption throughout their lifetime.
(Note: I highly recommend the following resource: Positive Adoption Conversations (An Adoptive Families Guide) for more detailed information about what to share at what age, specific helpful children’s books related to adoption, how to speak to “tough topics,” etc.)