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?