Should You Tell Your Adopted Child He Was Conceived by Rape, His Mother an Addict, Etc?

Dawn Davenport


Adoptive Parenting- Telling hard parts of adoption story to adopted child

The unfortunately truth is that sometimes our adopted kids have sad, complicated, and often disturbing parts of their history or birth parent’s history. Should adoptive parents tell their kids the “hard” part of their story? Should you tell your precious child that he was conceived through rape, that her birth father beat her birth mother, that his birth mother abuse drugs and alcohol while pregnant with him, or that her birth mother is in jail?

Why Pollute Their Minds

Adoptive parents often wonder why they would possibly tell their child information such as this. What possible good can come of it? Why rob this beautiful child of her innocence, why pollute his mind with such information?

The simple answer is yes, you should tell your child. As adoption therapist Angela Magnuson said:

Adopted people have the right to all of their story. We as parents don’t get to pick and choose what they need to know; it is information that belongs to them.

You Lied to Me!!

In addition to being information that the child has a right to know, the reality, especially in this day and age, is that they will likely find out anyway. It is simply wishful thinking that you will be able to protect or prevent your child from researching their history as soon as they get alone on a computer, which will happen as soon as they get a phone or even sooner.

Not only will kids find out via the Wonderful Worldwide Web, family secrets have a way of leaking out. If you’ve told one other person, the odds are that they’ve told one person, who has told one person…. you get the picture. No matter how much you’ve sworn someone to secrecy, people talk. Secrets spread as fast as the common cold through a kindergarten class, especially secrets involving sex, drugs, and other less than savory details.

If your child is going to find out, don’t you want to be the one who tells her? Do you want her to feel like you lied to her by keeping this important information from her? It is your job as a parent to calmly and with compassion help your child understand these things that happened to him or to his birth parents.

From the Child’s Point of View

Beth O’Malley, author of many books about preparing lifebooks for adopted and foster children, including Lifebooks: Creating a Treasure for the Adopted Child, was also adopted as a child. Her perspective is that what adoptive parents perceive as shocking and sad, might very well be perceived by the child as a good explanation as to why their first parents are not parenting them. It is the missing piece. If children don’t have the truth, they will fill in the missing pieces of their story with their imagination, and often the truth is less shocking than their imagination.

When to Tell Your Child

You should lay the framework for the full story when you first start talking to your children about their adoption when they are toddlers and pre-schoolers, gradually adding more details with each telling. Your goal is for your child to know her full story, the good, the bad, and the ugly, by the time she is cognitively around 8 to 10 years old. I have heard other experts say that they should know their full story by the time they are 12.

I realize that telling this information at such a young age is a hard concept for most adoptive parents to come to accept. The thinking behind this advice is that you want the child to have this information from his parents before adolescence and before he will find out on his own or from someone else. By laying the groundwork young, the child will be slowly prepared by those he loves most.

We talked about the whys and hows of telling children the more difficult parts of their history on this Creating a Family show. Our guests gave specific language to use and suggestions for how to approach different situations, including rape, incest, drugs/alcohol, and imprisonment. It is really a great show.


Do you plan on sharing with your child her full adoption story?

21/06/2017 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 23 Comments

23 Responses to Should You Tell Your Adopted Child He Was Conceived by Rape, His Mother an Addict, Etc?

  1. Pingback: Telling a Child About their Adoption: The Truth - The Thoughts of an Adoptee

  2. Avatar Someone says:

    My friend just knew that she was born before her parents got married and now, she felt weird and keep saying that she is disgusting and so on…. I don’t know what to do

    • Tracy Whitney Tracy Whitney says:

      It sounds as if your friend could use some encouragement to talk with a counselor or therapist about some of these issues that she’s feeling. She should find someone with whom she feels safe to help her process and work through the conversations.

    • Avatar A says:

      I Have a question I’m putting this in fearful of being attacked as I have been on some of the adoption chats…but here goes I have 5 kids all though adoption 14-2yrs of age the first 3 I have told that mommy’s tummy was broken so God put you in someone else’s just for me…we had this conversation maybe 4 yrs ago they haven’t brought it up once since and I struggled over telling them them.. They look just like me and are relation so I honestly never thought I’d say anything but I did. What I’m struggling with now is why do so many people insist on beating a dead horse they are my kids i raised, rocked and cared for them since there first breath i dont refer to them as my adopted kids just mine why keep bringing it up when they don’t wouldn’t it just make them fell like they’re different….They dont ask about it so I leave it alone even after adopting there 2 sisters

      • Tracy Whitney Tracy Whitney says:

        If I’m understanding you correctly, you are wondering what the big deal is about telling your children that they were put in someone else’s womb so that you could adopt them and parent them. Is that a good summary?

        If so, then I can only assume that folks might be objecting to that “story” because it’s an incomplete truth about who they are and from where they came. One thing that might be part of that objection is the belief that adopted children don’t just “start life” the day we adopt them. They have a history that is all theirs, uniquely theirs, that existed before we became their parents. To help THEM (the adopted children) process and form a healthy self-identity, we – speaking as a fellow adoptive momma – must find ways to talk wtih them about their stories. Even the hard parts of those stories. This link will take you an excellent radio show that can help you think more about what to say and how to say it to your kiddoes:

        Good luck.

      • Avatar Jay says:

        It’s fine to never use the word adopted kids or adoptive mom. But to deny a child of his history is sad and could be dangerous. I have a cousin who was adopted at age 3. She didn’t know until she was 25. This was extremely painful for her. She felt stupid since everyone else knew but her. She felt everyone lied about everything and had to go back and think of everything she had been told to reprocess and evaluate what was true and what wasn’t. This caused a lot more turmoil than it would have if she had grown up knowing. In a world of 23&me or it’s only a matter of time before someone finds them. And then you’re the bad guy for lying to them about everything. Be the good guy and use this as an opportunity to build their trust and confidence. My girls look like me but they know at ages 3&5 that they were in someone else’s belly but for a reason that I am unraveling slowly and at their pace their moms couldn’t keep them. They openly tall about her in a very healthy way.

  3. Avatar Momma2AKPrincess says:

    This is quite a few years old but we are trying to decide at what age we tell our daughter that she has a half sibling. Her half siblings father (birth mothers ex-husband) likely has no idea as they were separated, but not divorced when our daughter was conceived through a different relationship. It’s complicated and she can’t even get her records (she was born in Korea) until 18. She wants a sibling so badly, that we are concerned that at the age of 10 she will have issues knowing she has a half-sister she can’t even try to seek out for another 8 years and that likely has no clue she exists. Any help is greatly appreciated!!!

  4. Avatar Laurie says:

    This feed is a few years old, but I’m seeking some advice. i adopted my second cousin when she was a baby and born addicted to methadone. Her birth mother has been in and out of jail, currently in. My daughter is almost 8. She knows she ia adopted, but doesn’t know the family history, although she has met my aunt who I told her was her grandmother. I thought I had years before I needed to tell her her whole story, but due to some passive aggressive behavior toward me in particular, I’m realizing that maybe the time has come. I’m just not so sure how much I should tell now and what I should wait to tell. Any advice is welcome!

    • Dawn Davenport Dawn Davenport says:

      Laurie, Creating a Family has done several radio shows with experts on this issue. One you may want to listen to is “Talking With Your Kids About the Hard Issues In Adoption”.

      • Avatar Elle says:

        My husband is adopted and has no idea. Everyone in the family including close friends of the family (me being one) knows. It kills me inside that I know. I struggle with it, I feel it my responsibility that he finds out the truth. His family has worked very hard to keep the truth hidden. I need advice, please. I’m between a rock and a hard place.

        • Dawn Davenport Dawn Davenport says:

          Oh my! What an incredibly tough position to be in. I am not a therapist, but I would not keep this information from my husband. I would treat him as I would want to be treated, and I would want my spouse to tell me. Keep in mind that it is not the fact that he is adopted that is the big deal here, it is the fact that his family (and you) perpetuated a lie all these years. For many “late discovery” adoptees, it is an overwhelming feeling of betrayal. It makes them question what other lies they have been told. Have you or your husband seen a therapist in the past that can help you and your husband? Or do you have a minister or someone that you are close to who can help him process this information. There are also groups online of late discovery adoptees. You could find these groups and give him the contact information if he wants to process this around others who truly get it. I’m truly sorry that you are in such a difficult position! His family may have meant well, but they made a huge mistake.

  5. Avatar Big sister says:

    Yes. We adopted my beautiful and wonderful baby sister the day she was born. Her mom was addicted to meth and her father didn’t want a baby. She grew up in a loving home and since the day she was born we told her she was adopted. Mom and dad were stuck with us but they got to choose her! She knew she was loved. When she turned 18, we found out she could have been a product of rape… And didn’t know who her father was. If we could have somehow weened her onto the idea that we didn’t know who her dad was and it could be a tragic story, it would have made the adoption and meeting less traumatic. It was so stressful she began having stress induced seizures. Please give your child the whole story from day one, and prepare them for the idea that meeting them could be traumatic. Do not put the birth parents on a pedistool, and remember it’s all about how you word things. Make sure they understand they’re loved!

  6. Avatar Greg says:

    I think those who have said to keep things age appropriate are correct. A child should know but they are only going to understand so much at a young age. It’s like anything when raising a child and keeping things age appropriate. Though it’s more emotionally charged the approach parishes take should be exactly the same.

    Also, as others have said they should just say what they know and not lie about things they don’t know. Admitting they don’t know everything is more valuable than lying and telling a child what you think they want to hear.

  7. Avatar Erin says:

    When I finally managed to contact my bio mother she informed me she had been raped. Actually that is not strictly true she told my husband and he passed on her words. I was not to call her under any circumstances and was to leave her into live out the rest of her days in peace. My journey was a long one and a convoluted one but I would not change it now, even if I was rejected. Why? Because it has made me a stronger and more compassionate person. What an adoptee needs most is truth, no matter how ugly it might be. It completes us and learning to accept who we are and love who we are begins with truth.

  8. Avatar marilynn says:

    First of all Dawn I agree with your post.
    And Anon AP
    Here is a good rule of thumb, information is yours to keep private so long as it relates to nobody but yourself. The world of adoption tends to forget and works at odds with the rules of life the rest of the world play by where relatives simply know one another and their back story and nothing about it is private because having a sibling, makes me a sibling that impacts who I am in relation to other people so their existence is very much my business. That’s why people can obtain copies of their siblings birth records or their parents birth records, grand parents, aunts uncles etc. Marriage and Death certificates too. What our family does impacts us because it changes who we are in relation to other people and that’s critical information that belongs to the whole family and is not the purview of any single member to keep private or secret. Adoption forgets that. Sometimes outside adoption people forget that as well and they lie on birth records or they withhold names on birth records. That’s wrong its not the way its supposed to work and it messes things up for everyone when people don’t at least have access to the right information. Whether people tell them or not is another story but you can see where making a habit of falsifying records so people can hide the truth is kind of like a cancer it spreads to the brain and people start thinking that they should verbally withhold information or that its a sibling’s story to tell. Well with the records all messed up if someone does not tell the kid then the kid won’t know.

    Under normal circumstances had this child not been separated from her family would she be aware of her siblings birth and the circumstances surrounding it? Unless a parent was doing the wrong thing and hiding the kid and their relationship to the kid siblings are going to know about each other even if they don’t live together. Its only when a parent does something bad like abandon and try to hide their relationship with one of their kids do siblings get left in the dark and of course that is wrong and tragic.

    Just let the rest of the worlds reality be a guide to fairness and think about what the kid would be privy to under normal circumstances. People think the have all this extra right to privacy in adoption and they really don’t. Nobody else gets to stop their relatives from knowing they exist or the circumstances of it – it’s not information that we can even control. If it’s important to know and you know it and you don’t tell then you are hiding something and then blaming her sibling for not telling her. How fair will that be? Oh be mad at your sibling for not telling you we would have told you if it were our information to tell. Well it’s clearly yours to know about, someone told you so now it’s in your lap.

    Be delicate and age appropriate. I know quite a few adopted people whose mothers were victims of rape and some people who simply grew up without their fathers around. My old downstairs neighbor I found her father’s family for her. He raped her mother on the street went to prison and then was killed in prison. Can you believe they left his name off her birth record because he raped her mother? Thanks a lot I guess children of rapists don’t deserve child support or social security death benefits or inheritance of property when they die. Sheesh it’s her father and she should have had the right to have him named and be his legal kin. That is the stupidest law. Oh so the mother won’t be reminded and he won’t assert his rights….I’m so sure get a restraining order send him to jail don’t take away the kid’s rights. It’s not like they are not still really related to his relatives. Her aunts his sisters had been trying to find her and luckily they have a conscience and they gave her some inheritance saved for her. They are family and she’s happy to be part of his family. He was a creep it did not make them creeps. I also found her foster sister’s birth family and her mother’s sister for her. Nice girl. Tragic story that was a real story of not date rape but like violent street rape and her mother kept her. Happened in NYC

  9. Avatar Von says:

    Yes it’s hard but adoptees need to know. Often one of the problems is knowing what is ‘true’ as fabrication is alive and well in adoption. Anon AP sometimes the information may best come from a sibling as long as you are there to back them up and support them before, during and after the telling.

  10. Avatar Anon. says:

    At age 14, I gave birth to a biracial child. I was raped shortly before my 14th birthday. I chose an open adoption, although after 18 months, I chose to not receive any more updates. This child was born with Down syndrome, so he would likely have understood the concept of rape. I left all of the options of sharing the beginning of that life to the parents. Sadly, that child passed away at age 24 years. I WILL say this: I would NOT have wanted “My Story” to be shared with anyone. MY pain was not a part of the child’s story.

  11. Avatar cb says:

    “Beth O’Malley, author of many books about preparing lifebooks for adopted and foster children, including Lifebooks: Creating a Treasure for the Adopted Child, was also adopted as a child. Her perspective is that what adoptive parents perceive as shocking and sad, might very well be perceived by the child as a good explanation as to why their first parents are not parenting them. It is the missing piece. Most kids will fill in the missing pieces of their story with their imagination. It might as well be filled in with the truth. Oftentimes the truth is less shocking than their imagination.”

    Beth more or less says what I was going to say. I remember on a forum once, one mum said that she was going to tell her child factA but not tell her about fact B, yet to me fact B helped make sense of fact A.

    I think aparents should keep within the facts, i.e. say only what they actally know, and also not put their own spin on it. If one wants to talk about possible motives behind actions, then I think it should be an interactive conversation, eg if talking about Chinese adoptions, then one could sit down and have a discussion of how things are in China yet not invalidate any sad feelings that the child might have. I think also if one only knows something third hand then one should state that, eg “We were told by the agency” etc.

    We older adoptees often have “tamer” stories but in our day, aparents from that generation probably still thought it was a hard thing to tell their child. I grew up attending church and when I was in my very early teens, I did sort of think of sex before marriage as being a mortal sin and was worried about my bmother’s soul – even though I grew out of that, remembering that I had that perspective did help me to realise that others might have had that perspective and thus how hard it would have been for my bmother to tell people about the adoption. We sometimes forget in 2014 how different things were in 1964 and even 1974 when I had those thoughts.

    Btw I haven’t had a chance to listen to the broadcast – it is a bit late right now.

  12. Avatar Anon AP says:

    I can’t wait to listen!

    One thing that we are trying to get a better handle on is how to deal with some aspects of our daughter’s birthfamily’s story that are directly related to her birthsibling’s birth rather than hers, but those details certainly impact our daughter’s adoption story. In other words, telling the hard story provides context for our daughter, but would also be revealing information about her sibling’s story that isn’t ours to share. I don’t feel it’s fair to drop the weight of responsibility of deciding to share or not on her sibling, but I also don’t feel like it’s wise to leave it out. Very, very difficult stuff to navigate.

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