Different Ages, Different Reactions: How Kids Understand Adoption

While it’s impossible to gauge with any certainty how children will react to the news of their adoption, their understanding of the subject will evolve as they grow and mature. Here’s an age-by-age breakdown of how kids process adoption—and what you can do to ease the transition.   

Adopted KidsAges 3 to 6

It’s best to start talking about adoption with your child at around age 3, encourages the World Association for Children & Parents, one of the nation’s largest international nonprofit adoption agencies. Though young children will not fully understand the concept of adoption, these early conversation will make you more comfortable discussing this issue with your child in the future. Also, these conversations have proven a liberating experience for adoptive parents, who often feel guilty withholding such personal information.

Be prepared to answer some tough questions, such as “Why did I grow in another lady’s tummy?” and “How come I don’t look like you or Daddy?” Answer these questions with sensitivity, constantly reiterating to your child that you and your spouse love her very much and will be her “forever parents”. Be careful not to criticize your child’s birth parents.

Mention that they couldn’t take care of her but wanted to make sure she grew up in a loving family. Then divert her attention by pointing out the many people in your family who love and care for her. You might say, “Let’s count all the people who loves you lots.” Simple phrases like this will make your child feel loved and appreciated.

Ages 6 to 8

This is when children start to better understand adoption. Oftentimes, kids in this age group become angry and self-conscious because, as they view it, someone decided not to keep them. Most likely, they’ll go through many emotional stages—including internalizing their fears and becoming more reclusive; expressing their anger physically by slamming doors or punching stuffed animals; or asking questions that suggest they’re not wanted, such as

“Why did my first Mommy leave me?” and “Are you going to give me away some day?”

Kids, especially at this age, are anxious to belong. Hugs and kind words are the best medicine for a child experiencing feelings of self-doubt. Creating special activities for your child—perhaps he can choose what the family has for dinner on a given night—will help him feel loved and important.

Ages 8 to 12

When they reach this age, children tend to talk less about their adoption. But just because they’re not discussing it doesn’t mean they’ve fully accepted it.  Signal to them that it’s OK to continue talking about it. Let your child know that you’re not threatened or angered by her questions. Create a welcoming environment in which your child feel comfortable discussing matters—whether they relate to adoption or a different subject altogether. You could even designate a “Family Talk” night where everyone has a chance to voice their goals, fears, complaints and ideas.

Ages 13 to 19

An adopted child’s teenage years can be particularly challenging for reasons that have nothing to do with adoption but may, nonetheless, deepen emotions around the subject. All teenagers struggle with identity issues, a process that plays into adopted children’s questions about their origin. Your child may even challenge your legitimacy, making spiteful comments such as “Why should I listen to you? You’re not my real mother anyway.” She may even idealize her birth parents and say, “Things would be a lot better if I lived with my real parents.” Though these words are hurtful, remember that she’s a teenager trying to push your buttons and test her boundaries.

Your child may express a strong desire to meet her birth parents at this time. Experts warn, however, that most teenagers are not yet ready emotionally for such a sudden introduction, even when the adoptive parents set it up. So what should you do? Susan Caughman, publisher of Adoptive Families magazine, suggests “You don’t have to take the child literally. If the adoption hasn’t been this open since the early years, I would caution against an open adoption in the teen years. It’s fine to say ‘When you’re an adult, you can make that decision."

More about Adoption:

How to Talk to Kids About Adoption