This is the first of a 4 part series on Talking with Children About Adoption. If you have adopted, please share your wisdom of your experience and especially your favorite books and resources in the comment section. Also, how would you have answered the typical questions I list below?
Talking with Infants about Adoption
Infancy and early toddlerhood is a gift to adoptive parents –a gift of time to practice talking about adoption. Most adoptive parents think they shouldn’t feel awkward talking about adoption, but the reality is that most of us do, and it helps to practice before your child has a clue what you are saying.
Start talking about adoption and birth parents from the very beginning as you change diapers, kiss his pretty toes, and rock him to sleep. Buy a couple of adoption books for young children (we have a list at our Best of the Best Adoption Books for Kids) and incorporate them as part of your nighttime reading routine.
Your baby won’t understand what you are saying, but you will get used to telling the story. Many of the books we list also have a section for parents, which is an added bonus.
Talking with Toddlers and Preschoolers about Adoption
Toddlers and preschoolers are curious and observant little beings. They notice differences, including skin color, and they are beginning to put the pieces of their world together. They have figured out that babies grow in mommy’s tummy (or uterus). They need their parents to help them begin to make sense of how of this relates to them.
Their attention spans are short, so they don’t need “The Talk”; rather they need for their parents to be open for many small seemingly inconsequential talks that gradually adds to their understanding.
When in doubt, answer the question asked in the simplest way possible, without a lot of added information.
Adoption is Cool Stage
Toddlers and preschoolers are generally accepting of what their parents say and the attitude in which they say it. If their parents have been open and matter of fact about adoption, most preschoolers are proud of being adopted. They love to hear about their adoption and often readily share their story with anyone and every one.
Parents must be careful to talk respectfully about their birth parents and pre-adoption life. I was speaking at an adoption conference once and a 4 year old struck up a conversation with me. As we chatted I learned that she was adopted from China, then clearly repeating what she had been told, she blithely said: “I was left by a pile of garbage, kind of dumped by the dump.” At her developmental stage, this information didn’t mean much to her other than to feel happy that her parents “rescued” her, but I wondered how she would process this information as she matured.
5 Most Common Questions Young Children Ask about Adoption (and Answers)
Why didn’t I grow in your tummy? (I want to have grown in your tummy.)
“You grew in Suzy’s (or your birth moms’s) tummy. I wish you could have grown in my tummy too, but I’m glad you grew in Suzy’s tummy because I like you exactly the way you are.”
Why don’t I look like you? (Why is my skin brown?)
Children usually look kind of like their birth parents. You have brown skin like Suzy because she is your birth mom. I have white skin like Nana because she was my birth mom.
Why did you adopt me? (Adapt to your situation)
I wasn’t able to grow a baby in my tummy, but Daddy and I really wanted a baby (or child) to love and take care of. We were so so happy to have you.
Why didn’t my first mommy keep me?
Depending on what you know you can answer in the following way.
Suzy and Johnny were not ready to be the parent to any baby when you were born.
We don’t know for sure, but we think your birth mommy and daddy were very poor and didn’t have enough food and money to take good care of you.
What does my birth mother look like?
If possible, get a picture of her birth mother for her to keep and look at whenever she is curious. If not possible, answer something like this.
I’m not sure exactly, but I think she must be very pretty since you are so pretty (or handsome). I bet she has light brown skin just like you and dark brown hair and brown eyes with a little bit of yellow, just like you. Why don’t you and I draw a picture of what we think she looks like.
What to do If Your Child Doesn’t Ask about Adoption
Some kids ask lots of questions about adoption, but some never say a thing. Regardless whether your child asks, you still need to make sure that he understands the Six Crucial Things Toddlers and Preschoolers Need to Know About Adoption . Quite frankly, it’s easier if the child asks question. Adoptive parents have to be more creative if they have a silent type.
Make sure that you read adoption books and books about the different ways that families can be formed on a regular basis. Ask her questions while reading. Respect her desire to answer or not, but continue periodically to look for opportunities to talk about adoption.
Don’t Confuse Healthy Independence with Attachment Problems
Two and three-year-olds are known for their “independence” otherwise known as resisting their parents by frequently saying “NO”. This is the stage that children start differentiating from their parents and experimenting with trying to control some aspects of their world. This is often a messy process for both kids and parents.
It’s tempting to confuse this normal developmental stage with attachment issues, particularly if parents are feeling a little insecure. If you are not sure of the difference, consult with an adoption therapist.
Resources for Talking with Young Children about Adoption
Creating a Family has a list of the best of the best adoption books and other resources to help you talk with your toddler and preschoolers about adoption.
What were your favorite resources for talking with your young child about adoption. How early did you begin?
Image credit: Kevin Conor Keller
Add Your Comment
only when u are assured of your self that your adopted children would not be heart broken and they are matured enough to receive the news irrespective of the age the are in. finally U your self should be confident as to the fact U would not be heart broken finally and if all the other things are in order is it really necessary to reveal the fact when U are sure of facing tumultuous mental disturbance…
Children deserve the truth of their story — in age-appropriate and compassionate ways – from day 1. There are many ways to share their story in expanding ways, that layer the information in as they are capable of understanding it and processing it. Doing it with them, processing it with them as a safe place in which they can ask what they need to know and talk about what they learn. We love using children’s books to introduce the topics, to demonstrate safety, and to normalize the conversations. So that there is never a day that they didn’t know who they are and how they joined our families.
Waiting until *we* (the adults) are ready makes this process about us and waiting until we *think* they are ready to not be “heart broken” does them a disservice. We cannot shield them from ever being hurt by their story — we instead should walk through the story with them and give them tools to cope with it.
Our son is 6 and even though I don’t want to tell him he’s adopted we are going to very soon…He has been our baby as a foster child since 3 days old and then we adopted when he was 1year old …we also adopted our 4 other foster children but they were older and knew they were adopted…any suggestions on what to say or do? He already thinks he grew in my tummy..any advice is welcomed.
It’s a good decision to tell him his story — it’s his and he has the right to know everything you know about how he came to this point in his life. Share what you know, in age-appropriate ways, and answer the questions he will ask in ways that help him understand the process and the context. Use proper language, and talk about his first mom/birth mom as a real person, even if you don’t know much. If you don’t already have his files from the foster care worker, request them so you can have a full picture and maybe practice with a friend or your partner how you plan to talk about it. From that point forward, be sure to talk about it regularly and normally — normalizing the conversation for him will take some effort on your part since you haven’t done so yet but it’s a way to help him process and develop a narrative for himself.
This list of suggested books might help in the normalizing process: https://creatingafamily.org/adoption/adoptionsuggestedbooks/books-kids-talking-kids-birthparents/
It’s good to know that most toddlers will have the same attitude as the parents about adoption. My sister wants to find an adoption service for birth momos to discuss her options for her unplanned pregnancy. I’ll have to pass along this info so she can ask the right questions about the parents to an adoption agency soon.
Jamie Lee Curtis wrote a beautiful book called “Tell Me Again about the Night I was Born”. I read that book to my daughter about a zillion times.
Yes, she did! We have it listed in our book lists for talking with children about adoption – http://ow.ly/gznr30nXMWX My girls love it too.
We have a four year old boy that we are in the process of adopting. He was in an orphanage from birth until he came into our family at 14 months old. He understands adoption as any four year old can, however we are wondering when and how to tell him he actually has a twin brother that his birth family kept. Our son was put up for adoption because he has some medical conditions that the birth parents didn’t feel they could handle, however his twin brother was born healthy. Thank you!
Hi Cinzia. The one thing that all the experts we’ve talked with agree on is that you should share this info with your son. You start small with just the outline and then gradually add detail until he knows what you know. You should aim for him to know everything by around age 10-12–although some experts go as low as age 8. I would suggest start by creating a lifebook. Given that there is a brother involved I would be prepared for your son to ask about the possibility of meeting. That possibility is something you might want to explore. We have a lot of resources on sharing the hard part of the adoption story with your child.
Thanks for the advice, Dawn. My husband and I have been talking it over. We’ve kind of decided that until his parents decide he is mature enough to hear, understand, and treat privately some of the tough details about his/our family, he isn’t mature to know very much beyond a basic timeline and some photos about our daughter’s birthfamily. One of our friends suggested we go a slightly different route and take advantage of his fabulous brain and curiosity: ask him to tell me why he thinks a parent might be in a position to not care for their child. See if he can come up with reasons and then talk them through. Gives him permission to ask the question and discuss it but not too specific. We’ll also go through some pictures in her lifebook, building on your suggestion, to help root some of the discussion around real people making decisions rather than just an abstract conversation. That’s the plan anyway. We’ll see how long that lasts in the face of reality!
Yay!!!!! Thanks for this, Dawn!
Um…is there any chance sometime you could tackle how you talk to kids who aren’t your kid in these different age groups? My nephew (8) is really trying to figure out the “why” to our daughter’s adoption. Why would her parents place her for adoption? Generic answers just don’t cut it and cause him concern. He worries about her and why this obviously sad/bad thing happened to her. More specifics and we risk violating our daughter’s privacy. Anyway, not the topic of this post, but…looking forward to the next installments!
AnonAP, since he is family, why not explain to him as you would explain to your daughter perhaps without sharing any very personal detail. We have a good list of books to explain adoption which can be read to adopted kids as well as non-adopted kids. I would start with some that are geared to younger children since usually the ones with suggested ages of young school age assume some level of understanding about adoption.
You don’t say the age of your daughter, but another possibility is to read to him her lifebook. Depending on the age of your daughter and how she feels about her lifebook or how personal the lifebook is (and usually the very personal details are not included) you could share with him. (I wouldn’t do this with someone outside the family, but I would with a sibling or nephew.) I also wouldn’t do this with an older child without asking her permission, but usually kids, especially preschool aged kids are really proud of it and willingly share it.