How to Talk to Your Kids About Adoption

My 4-year-old son and I have similar features. We both have dark eyebrows, brown eyes and thick dark-brown hair, though mine is salted with some gray. We also have similar personalities. We’re both very physical, like to fix things and love listening to Dave Mathews and the Counting Crows. But it’s purely coincidence. My son is adopted.

Dad & Son Our situation is hardly unique. Some estimates put the number of children under 18 living with adoptive parents in the United States at 700,000. That includes domestic adoptions like ours, which are private and hard to track, and foreign adoptions and foster-care adoptions, which are recorded by the government. In fact, some 2 million Americans stem from adoptive families.

Despite the growing number of adoptions in this country and, as a result, its social acceptance, I still froze the first time my son asked me, “Dad, do I have your eyes?” After a long pause, I said, “Yes, you have eyes like mine.” Then I explained to him, as my wife has several times before, that he grew in “another lady’s tummy.”

Unsure of the effectiveness of my answer, I couldn’t help but wonder if I said the right thing. Should I bring up the subject again soon, I asked myself, and, if so, how often? How prepared was I for tougher questions? How much do I tell other people about his history? These questions, I quickly learned, were common among adoptive parents. And while the answers are as different and unique as the children themselves, experts increasingly encourage parents to start talking about adoption early, keep the conversations positive and ongoing, and be receptive to their children’s questions and reactions.

Here are some strategies for talking to your kids about adoption:

Introduce the subject at age 3 or sooner.
Just 20 or 30 years ago, adoption was more of a mystery, one that many parents didn’t reveal until the child was 9 or older, says MaryAnn Curran, director of social services for the World Association for Children & Parents, one of the nation’s largest international nonprofit adoption agencies. Today, very few parents wait that long because research has shown that a more gradual introduction of the subject keeps better pace with the child’s own growth and psychological abilities.

Discuss adoption throughout your child’s life.
“Dumping this information on kids all in one fell swoop isn’t right. It doesn’t allow them to process it well,” warns Susan Caughman, publisher of Adoptive Parents magazine. Instead, experts suggest adjusting the subject of adoption to each stage of the child’s cognitive development, starting at age 3. In other words, talk about adoption early and often so that it’s normal for both you and your child.

Always speak positively about your child’s birth parents.
Attribute some of your child’s skills, talents or features to her birth parents, especially during the middle years. Avoid being negative about her biological parents because most adoptees will internalize that as a reflection on them. Emphasize that the birth parents did everything they could to make sure their child got to a safe place where someone would care for them. Also, promote the notion that a child can love two sets of parents.

Use children’s books to explain the concept of adoption.
Follow with a true, but simple, story about your child’s adoption. Add information as the child gets older and is able to process new concepts, emotions and information.

Don’t be discouraged by unexpected emotional reactions.
Remember, fear, grief and anger are normal parts of the child’s processing. Also, kids will react differently depending on their age. Stay positive and encourage them to ask questions. Give them the tools to answer tough questions from other kids and people outside the family circle, reminding them often that families come in many shapes, sizes and colors. You might say, “You grew in another lady’s tummy, but she couldn’t take care of you. She wanted you to have a family that would love you very much, and we do. We are your ‘forever family’ because we’re going to be together and love you forever.”

Don’t assume that your child has adjusted and isn’t thinking about her adoption.
A common mistake, especially among parents with kids 9 and older, is to let the subject peter out. Though they may seem comfortable with the idea, older kids still think about their adoption, and many of them are just beginning to understand it fully. Encourage your child to express her worries and opinions. If she is reluctant to speak with you directly, have her write you a letter or keep a diary. Eventually, she'll feel more comfortable conversing with you.

Educate family, friends and neighbors about your child’s adoption.
You needn’t reveal too much, but it’s important that those around you are aware of and sensitive to your child’s situation and needs. Society as a whole remains ill-informed about the subject, according to recent polls. Do your part to shed some light on the subject—and, in turn, protect your child from potentially insensitive or damaging questions and comments.

For more information on adoption—from starting the process to introducing your adopted child to his birth culture—check out these resources.

Different Ages, Different Reactions: How Kids Understand Adoption