When and How to Tell Children That They're Adopted

Tackling the 'A' Word

AdoptionAccording to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2000, 1.6 million, or 2.5 percent of all children under the age of 18, were adopted. With the number of adopted children rising, especially in international adoptions, many parents are in more need than ever for guidance on when and how to tell their children that they are adopted.

Adoption experts offer the following advice for parents in any stage of the adoption process.

  • When to tell children they're adopted: "Immediately," advises Elizabeth Wheeler, M.D., a child psychiatrist with Bradley Hospital and Brown Medical School in Providence, R.I. "Obviously, a 1- or 2-year-old is not going to comprehend the complicated facts of adoption, but he or she can start becoming partially aware of their special identity," Wheeler says.  

  • How to let a child know he or she is adopted: Wheeler advises parents to be authentic with their children from the very beginning because this breeds trust. From the moment that they are capable of understanding, parents should begin telling their children what they can developmentally comprehend.

One way to approach a young child is to explain how babies come into the world, and how an adopted child's situation is different. For example, using whatever language comes naturally, a parent can explain that babies grow in a woman's pelvis, pointing out familiar adults who are pregnant as examples.

Parents shouldn't fear saying the "right thing" either. There is no correct language or method to use when telling a child she is adopted. "You know your child best," Wheeler says, "so approach the discussion in the way that you feel is most appropriate."

You might consider using something like the following explanation: "You didn't grow in Mommy's tummy. You have a 'birth mother' and you grew inside her. She loved you very much. She couldn't take care of you herself, but she wanted someone to take good care of you. Now, you are my child and I am so lucky to be your mommy."

Children may only understand a very small fraction of what has been explained, but, as they age and are able to understand more detail, parents will be able to build on an existing foundation.

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