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.

"This way, a child's adoption is never a shock or a surprise," Wheeler says. "Instead, it is a part of his identity and a natural part of his life."

  • What not to do: Wheeler warns against approaching discussions with children about adoption like it is a "big deal." Children are very astute and know when their parents are tense or upset. They react to adults' emotions and may feel that the topic is something that they should feel upset or ashamed about.
  • Celebrate their differences: When raising any child, differences and similarities should always be celebrated. Wheeler says, "The individuality of any child, adopted or not, should be embraced. It is important for children to know what makes them different and unique, as well as how they are similar to the family and what their role is within the family. Even though your child is not biologically connected to you, it is OK to talk about how he or she is similar to you - how they behave like you, have the same interests, etc., as well as how they are different."

If your child is of a different race or culture, celebrate those differences as well, Wheeler advises. "Encourage the exploration and celebration of the art, language and culture of your child's country or ethnic background. If possible, introduce your child to people of the same background. By not embracing the cultural differences of your child, you send the message that you are not accepting of them."

Wheeler urges parents to talk about connections - how, like the bonds of love and family, they are not dictated by biological factors or bloodlines. For older children, offer an example to which they can relate. Maybe they have a friend that they love very much and explain how that love is not predicated on factors like biology.

  • Dealing with transitions: Throughout the adoption process, families typically undergo many transitions. Addressing change can help the child to better adjust. Particularly in international adoptions, it's important for parents to not only celebrate and learn about a child's cultural and ethnic differences, but also to help the child adjust to his or her new culture, notes Boris Skurkovich, M.D., director of the International Adoption Clinic at Hasbro Children's Hospital in Rhode Island. This is especially important with older adopted children who have a keen understanding of their native cultures, he says.

"It's essential that an adopted child receive specialized care to address the emotional needs that arise in their unique situation," Skurkovich says. "For example, when a 10-year-old child from Russia has lived in an orphanage for her entire life, she may have difficulty understanding not only the American culture, but the culture of a family and a home."

Along with the emotional concerns, parents need to be aware of the various medical issues that arise in children from other countries.

"From getting the proper vaccinations to identifying medical risk factors or developmental delays, adoptive children often need special medical attention to adjust and live healthy lives in their new homes," says Skurkovich, a pediatrician and pediatric infectious disease specialist who provides pre-adoption medical advice to families who are contemplating international adoption. "A child who is born in another country may be prone to certain infectious diseases that are prevalent in her country, or she may have a learning disability or developmental delay. All of these factors need to be addressed individually, with special consideration knowing that the child was adopted from another country."