Age-appropriate Ways to Talk to Your Child about Adoption
It is now generally accepted that we should talk to our children openly about being adopted – and start at as early an age as possible. Sometimes though, Indian families may feel they should hide this from the child, believing that they are protecting their child from stigma or from feeling different. However, if a child discovers this important part of their life story at a later date, it could lead to a total loss of trust and breakdown in relationship.
It is hard for adoptive parents to accept that no matter how good a life they provide their child, they may not be able to prevent the child from feeling pain and anguish about being given up for adoption. The key is to not take it personally. The child’s bonding and attachment to the adoptive family is separate from their grief about their birth parents. The only thing to do is to be there with the child in their pain and show them they are not alone.
Here’s some suggestions on age-appropriate ways to discuss adoption:
At this age, toddlers don’t need a lot of details. This is a good time to introduce the language of adoption you want to use going forward.
Get comfortable telling your child her “baby story.” Some examples:
“Daddy and I wanted a little baby girl of our own. We saw your picture and fell in love with you. We came to Delhi and brought you home to be a family.”
“We came to see you in Pune. The first time you saw us you smiled and jumped into our arms. You chose us to be your Amma and Appa. Your brother held you and you fell asleep in his arms.”
Answer questions simply:
“Did I grow in your tummy?”
“No, you grew in a different Mommy’s tummy. After you were born, you became our little girl.”
Read books about families that are made by adoption. See Book Recommendations from AFEC families for ideas.
Establish traditions such as “Family Day,” the day she joined your family and celebrate it in addition to her birthday. Look through pictures of the day she came home and tell the story of how you became a family.
At this age, children become more aware that they are adopted and that being adopted is different from being born to their mother. It is useful to have a way to refer to the birth mother and father, either by name (if known) or by a generic title, for example Ai and Baba (which means mother and father in Marathi).
Expand the “baby story.”
“There are many different ways a family is made. Some babies are born and some babies are adopted. Adopted means we chose you to be our baby and we love you so much.”
“You grew in Ai’s tummy, but Ai and Baba were not able to take care of you properly. So they made sure you could be with a family that loves you and can take care of you.”
In addition to birthdays, celebrate the day your child came into your family. Give the day a special name – “Gotcha Day,” “R day (based on your child’s name).” Make this an annual celebration that your child looks forward to.
Children can start noticing on other holidays, such as Mother’s Day, that there is another person they should be acknowledging. Help them find the language to talk about it. Have them make cards to both Mom and Ai.
At this age, children can feel sad without knowing quite why. However, answering questions simply and then distracting them will often work, even though it might not work with older children.
Children start to question why they were given up for adoption. Answer questions and accept that they might feel sad, even if you are giving them an amazing life
“Why did Ai give me up? Didn’t she love me?”
“She was not able to take care of you properly. And she loved you so much that she wanted you to have the best life possible. She wanted you to be with a family that loves you just as much as she loves you.”
“Did she have other children? Why did she keep them and not keep me?”
“We don’t know if she had other children, but she might have. When she had you, she wasn’t able to take care of you. But I am sure she loves you and thinks of you all the time and wants you to be happy.”
Also be prepared to for tweens and teenagers to test their limits by using their adoption against you and choosing the exact words that are most likely to hurt you.
“You are not my real mother (or father)! I don’t have to listen to you!”
You should be confident that you are indeed you child’s parent. Respond appropriately.
“I am absolutely your real mother (or father). I have your very best interests at heart and that is why I am going to insist you put away your phone at 9pm.”
If the adoption is a closed one, children can build elaborate fantasies about their birth parents and say they want to find them. Many international adoptions are closed and it is hard to trace birth parents. But at this age, you should simply acknowledge that they want to meet their birth parents and tell them that you will help them with the search after they turn 18.
Teenagers may ask to see their adoption papers. Some of the language in the papers may be harsh, including forms with titles such as “Certificate of Relinquishment and Abandonment.” You will need to prepare them by saying it is bureaucratic language and not a reflection of the birth parents intentions.
Some, in fact many, babies are indeed abandoned in public places, rather than being relinquished to an orphanage. Adoptive parents need to be able to use compassionate language in talking about the birth parents regardless of the circumstances.
“Your birth mother must have been desperate – alone and unable to take care of you. She did the best she could to make sure you have a good life.”
At any or all of these stages, some children may not express any desire to talk about being adopted. Generally follow the child’s lead in talking as much or as little as they want. However, if the child is acting out in other ways or showing signs of harming themselves, it might be wise to seek professional help to understand the impact of adoption on the child’s emotional well-being.
- “Talking with 0-5 year olds” (creatingafamily.org)
- “Talking with 6-12 year olds” (creatingafamily.org)
- “Talking with teens and tweens” (creatingafamily.org)
- “Sharing difficult information” (adoptionsupport.org)