Talking with School Aged Kids about Adoption

School aged children are beginning to understand adoption on a deeper level. We have heard the following from parents in our online support group.

  • “Mommy, how do people like you and Daddy get babies like me from people like Bethany?” Asked by a 6 year old while her mom was busy making dinner.
  • “I wished I grew in your tummy, like everyone else did.” Said by an 8 years old referring to her friends that were born into their families.
  • “Why did my real mother give me away?” Asked by a 9 year old in a family that had always used the phrases “birth mother” and “made an adoption plan”.
  • “I guess that means she really didn’t want me.” Said by a 10 year old when he realized that his birth mother did not give him a name.

Even if you have talked with your child about adoption from a very young age, they don’t really “get it” until sometime in early elementary school—usually  around age 6 to 8. At that age they are beginning to understand that in order to be in your family, they had to not be in the family that they were born into.

Along with the sunshine of adoption, come some clouds. For many adopted children this is sad, sometimes very sad.

Parents need to understand how their 6 to 12 year olds view of adoption is changing, and what they can do to help.

Wanting to Fit In

Elementary school aged kids want to fit in and be a part of a group. As they get older, especially around age 10-12, some feel that adoption makes them different, and they may stop talking about adoption and asking questions the way they did when they were younger.

Keep in mind that not talking about adoption does not mean they aren’t thinking about it.

What can parents do?

There is a fine line between forcing your child to discuss adoption, and sending the message that this is a topic that you are open to talk about. We don’t want to force, but we do want to let them know that this subject is not off limits.

It’s easy as a parent to get out of the habit of talking about adoption if your child does not actively want this discussion. It is the parent’s job to keep the lines of communication open by periodically bringing up birth parents and adoption.

Understanding Relinquishment

Most children before around age 7 or 8 focus on the happy part of adoption—being desperately wanted and anticipated by their adoptive parents. Somewhere in second or third grade most children begin to understand that in order to be received by their parents, they had to be relinquished by their birth parents.

Some kids take this in stride as a part of adoption, while others experience intense sadness and feel rejected.

What can parents do?

First, it is important for adoptive parents to not take their child’s sadness personally—it’s not about you. Second, get your child as much information as possible on the why’s of their adoption.

If you are in an open adoption, set up a time for your child to ask questions to their birth parents. Make sure to prepare the birth parents ahead of time and share with them that this is a normal developmental stage for adopted kids.

If you are not in an open adoption, get as much information about your child’s birth family and history as possible from the adoption agency. If possible, ask the agency to contact the birth parents or grandparents to get more information.

If your child seems particularly overwhelmed, seek help with a therapist, preferably with training in adoption.

Fantasy Family

It is not unusual for children in middle childhood (age 6-12) to create a fantasy family or ideal family, regardless whether they are born or adopted into a family. They fantasize about:

  • A mother who would let them eat as much cookie dough as they want.
  • A family that has a big brother, two dogs, and lives on a farm.
  • A dad who is a pro football player.

This is a normal part of developing an understanding of their parents as real people with strengths and weaknesses. Fantasy is useful for children, but it gets complicated in adoption when another family really exists. A child may idealize her fantasy birth family or go to the opposite extreme and make them the enemy.

What can parents do?

Don’t take your child’s ideal family as a personal insult. Also, don’t celebrate if they fantasize a “bad” birth family. While fantasy is normal, adopted children need information on their birth families to help distinguish fact from fiction.

“Real Parents”

Even when their parents have never referred to their birth parents as their “real parents”, it is not unusual for children to sometimes use that term. Children often say whatever word pops into their head when talking, and other children will have likely asked them about their “real mother” or “real parents”.

What can parents do?

Don’t become defensive and give these words more power than they deserve. Answer the child’s question while modeling preferred language.

Child: Why didn’t my real mother keep me?

Mom: Well silly, I feel pretty real, but I know you’re talking about your birth mom. Let’s write her a letter and ask. (Or, I don’t know for sure, but I know that she was struggling in her life when you were born and wasn’t ready to be a mother to any baby then. Maybe we could write the agency and see if they can get more information.)

It’s Their Information

The information you have about your child and their birth family is not really your information—it belongs to your child. You are the keeper of the info until your child is ready. Your goal should be to share all the information you have about his history and birth family with him by the time he is around age 12.

One of the main developmental tasks of the teen years is identity development. It is important for teens to know all they can about their history as they begin to define who they are. It is crucial to share what you know before they reach this stage, and that includes the good, the bad, and the ugly.

What can parents do?

Parents naturally worry about sharing difficult information about the child’s birth family such as drug use, abuse, incarceration, conception by rape, etc. Creating a Family, the national adoption & infertility education and support nonprofit, has many resources to help parents talk about the hard parts of their children’s history, including:

Choose Your Words Carefully

If you’ve been talking with your child about adoption from the beginning, you will have developed a sense of ease with the language of adoption. If you are just beginning now, expect to feel awkward for a while.

Without distorting the conversation, when possible, use these preferred terms:

  • Birth mother or father not real mother or father
  • I couldn’t get pregnant rather than we couldn’t have a child of our own.
  • Your birth parents could not take care of any child or another child at that time, rather than they couldn’t take care of you.
  • Your birth mom and dad made a plan for you to be adopted, rather than they gave you up for adoption.

What can parents do?

Immediately start reading books to your child about adoption. There are fewer books aimed for school aged children, but some do exist. Also, read some written for children at a younger age. Creating a Family lists the Best of the Best Adoption Books for Kids, broken out by age and type of adoption.

Force yourself to periodically talk about adoption and birth parents even if your child does not bring it up. You want to send the message that this is not a taboo subject.

Prepare Them to Answer Questions On Their Own

When children enter school, parents can’t control the conversation or even know about the conversations their children are having. We can no longer run interference for our kids, so we have to prepare them to handle the issues when they arise.

What can parents do?

  • Periodically check in with your child and ask. Don’t assume that if your child does not tell you that children are asking about her adoption that these questions aren’t happening.
  • Brainstorm with your child how to answer questions in a way that feels comfortable for them.
  • Read the W.I.S.E. Up Powerbook together. This is a great resource for helping older kids handle personal questions about adoption.

Be Proactive with School Assignments

While we don’t need to overreact to school assignments that may be problematic to our adopted kids, it is good to know about them in advance.

What can parents do?

At the beginning of the school year, meet with your child’s teacher and ask if there will be any lessons that may cause an adopted child to feel uncomfortable, such as creating family trees or requests for baby pictures. Work with the teacher and your child to come up with an acceptable solution. Creating a Family has many resources to help, including a Letter to My Adopted Child’s Teacher at the Beginning of School.

Part of our job as parents is to help our children develop into healthy happy adults, and this includes helping process their adoption story. It is not as hard or scary as it sounds, and Creating a Family is here to help you along the way.

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Image credit: Steve Slater