Let’s talk about an important topic: when to tell your child they are adopted.
Adoption today isn’t what it used to be. Adoption has evolved, shaped and changed over the years.
Now, most adoptions are open adoptions. Closed adoption situations are very, very rare.
Now, adoption is something that is talked about. Shared about. A heartbreaking journey but one that doesn’t hide the way it once did.
It’s wonderful that our society has become much more understanding of adoption as a whole, much more supportive of birth mothers who make the unselfish choice of adoption for their children, and much more supportive of those adoptive families who seek to grow their family through adoption.
One of the big things to shift and change regarding adoption is the sharing of an adoptee’s adoption story.
As an adoptive mother THE most frequently asked question I’ve heard from others is “how and when will you tell your son he’s adopted?” So I thought I’d take this opportunity to not only answer that question, but also discuss when to tell a child they are adopted in general.
When to Tell Your Child They are Adopted
My answer to the question “When will your son know he’s adopted?” has always been “he’ll always know.”
Our adoption journey included our entire family. Our extended families. Our friends. Our online community.
I love that our son’s journey included so many. Prayers that were felt by us all, support that was appreciated through the hardest points.
I love that his story has, and will, help others. To help others consider adoption as an option when adding to their own families. To help others be supportive of people they know who adopt. To help others offer support birth families who may be hurting and to respect birth mothers for choosing the adoption path for the child they love so much.
We have three biological children who also walked this path alongside us.
So, yes, our son will always know he was adopted because everyone knows! It’s never been a secret or some big announcement to make someday. No: “SURPRISE YOU’RE ADOPTED!” coming from us!
The Importance of Children Knowing their Birth Story
When people think about adoption I think the assumptions are that birth mothers are all teenagers in an unwanted pregnancy (think “Juno”) and that all adoptive families keep the adoption a secret to someday tell the child.
We’ve seen it used so often in story lines. PLOT TWIST! You’re adopted!
I’m so thankful that it is not the common way adoption stories are shared with children.
It is important for children to always know they can trust their parents. Finding out you’re adopted isn’t like learning about Santa.
Learning that the parents you’ve always had didn’t birth you? That has to rock a child’s WORLD in a HUGE way and can cause all sorts of damage for the parent – child relationship.
It’s also so important for a child to learn their adoption history from their parents rather than from someone else.
Not only is it important for the child to know their birth origins, but it’s also important for the adoptive parents as well as the birth parents too.
If adoption is kept a secret then it takes away so much from the huge sacrifice the birth parents made. It takes away the ability to honor them, respect them, and cherish them.
I also personally feel that keeping adoption a secret takes away from glorifying God in that journey. Adoption stems from brokenness and through that heartbreaking brokenness God is there to lead the way to help write a beautiful story for the families and child involved.
Sharing the journey is a way to help glorify God and His works. It helps to spread His love to others and encourage others along their own spiritual paths as well.
By sharing a child’s birth story with them, it’s allowing them to also see first hand how God brought them exactly where He knew they needed to be. Our family wasn’t complete without our last son.
He is a gift from the Lord in our lives and his story is one filled with blessings and I never want to rob him of knowing that as I believe it will also help strengthen his bond with the Lord as he grows up.
When to Tell a Child They Are Adopted: What Age?
It’s easy to say “oh he’ll always know he was adopted” but that also doesn’t really make practical sense.
A new baby isn’t going to understand or comprehend what adoption means.
I believe it’s important to tell a child they were adopted at as young of an age as possible, but old enough where they can have somewhat of an understanding.
For me personally a lot of it comes down to being able to communicate with my child.
My son has had a speech delay so his language development has taken awhile to catch up and once he started really repeating a lot of what we say I felt like it was time to start talking to him about his birth story.
His ability to repeat what I told him helped me to know that it was sinking in on some level, even though at two he’s clearly not old enough to “get it” yet!
As soon as he was able to talk I wanted him to know his birth mother’s name. I wanted him to know the names of his biological siblings.
I wanted to make sure he knew who gave him life and how he entered our family unit.
Obviously at age two there isn’t a whole lot to explain or discuss yet beyond the basics, but by starting this conversation now it’ll be smoother to build upon it as he gets older.
I would recommend talking to your child about their birth story at as young of an age as possible, especially before age four.
Our youngest daughter was three when we were in the process of adopting our son and she had a pretty solid understanding of the process even at that age!
She understood that “Mama E” had a baby in her belly and that baby would be her baby brother when he was born.
By sharing the simple facts prior to an age where a it’s even fully possible for a child to understand it helps make the conversation easier for everyone involved.
The Advantages of Telling Kids Young that They were Adopted
Kids are like little sponges and quick to absorb things.
What we present to them, they will accept and accept it with ease.
What we may build up in our heads as a HUGE DEAL to us is a quick shrug of the shoulders to them.
By telling a child at a young age that they joined your family via adoption it helps keep it a casual, simple conversation.
The longer you wait to have the conversation, the more difficult it will be to discuss.
By talking about adoption openly from a young age it takes the pressure off from saying “the perfect thing” and allows your child’s birth heritage to be part of their lives without defining them either.
As your child gets older they are able to add to the conversation. Ask questions when they arise and it’s easier as the parent not to have to wonder or worry at what point is the right time to share.
By being open about your family’s adoption journey is also takes pressure off of others to “keep a secret.”
When to Tell a Child They Are Adopted: How to Share an Adoption Story with a Child
By sharing openly with your child about their adoption origin it makes it a little easier to prepare for that conversation.
Also by starting to talk about it while they are young, there aren’t too many elements to consider when having the talk!
It is still wise, however, to be prepared – regardless of what age you decide is best to begin talking to your child about their birth family.
Being Prepared for the Adoption Conversation
During our entire adoption journey, I was very mindful of the fact that one day I’d be sharing it with our child.
I am thankful for his incredible birth mother and the close bond she and I shared instantly. I have SO many photos of us together. Of all of our children together playing. Of her holding him at the hospital after his birth. And even of him with ALL of his siblings when we got to visit with them when he was around 6 months old.
I was mindful to put together a baby book as well as an adoptive journey book for him throughout the process.
I’ve bought books geared towards adoption to read together with him too.
It’s important to be as prepared as possible, even when just talking to a toddler 😉
If you have a very open relationship with your child’s birth mother, you may want to even include her in this conversation and discuss how to best navigate the topic together.
For me personally, I have not heard from my son’s birth mother in quite a while.
We did include her in everything we could throughout the adoption process – we asked her opinion on baby names and let her lead the way in all of his medical decisions during the hospital stay following his birth up until parental rights were signed.
Your adoption lawyer, adoption agency, adoption consultant or another adoption professional may also have helpful tips, advice, and strategies for this conversation.
I think it’s also important to note that foster care adoption situations have their own considerations to navigate with what families share and when they share it with a foster child or an adopted child from foster care.
It may be wise to discuss things with your social worker as well as with other foster families who may have more wisdom and insight into these delicate discussions.
Here are some of the things I’ve found helpful in our adoption journey:
When to Tell a Child They Were Adopted: Be Mindful of Timing
We have four kids and our lives, like everyone else’s, are BUSY.
With deciding when to tell a child they were adopted, it is important to set aside time to share your child’s birth story with them when you can devote your full attention to the conversation.
I didn’t want the older siblings present as I felt it was important for my son to hear for the first time when it was just he and I.
If I had thought through it more I would have included my husband as well but since our son is so young I just randomly decided to tell him and didn’t really think through having Daddy in the room with us!
I decided to tell our son while tucking him in for bed as it’s a time when he is very calm (a rare moment for our wild one) and sweet and snuggly and I knew he’d be more receptive in that moment than any other.
I prefer bedtime as a time to talk to ALL of my kids about anything and everything. It’s a wonderful time in the day when attention is just on them and it’s a comfortable environment for them to open their hearts.
How to Tell Child They Were Adopted
I sat my son in my lap and rather than read his regular bedtime story book I pulled out the adoption baby book I’d put together.
I looked through the book with him and pointed out his birth mother and siblings.
My son is VERY into repeating words and phrases right now so I pointed to his birth mother and said “that is Ms… can you say Ms….?” Then I did the same with each of his birth siblings.
I love that we have photos of ALL of the kids together too as I was able to have him go through repeating all of their names.
I showed him photos of me with his birth mother and pointed to her belly and said “You are in there! She is your tummy mommy. Can you say tummy mommy?”
When Telling a Child They Were Adopted, Be Prepared for Emotions
I was NOT prepared for how that conversation would affect me emotionally. But it did.
And even though my son is only two years old, and our talk was VERY basic, it still was hard for me.
Pointing to his birth mother’s picture and saying “you are in her tummy” was really hard.
Just as much as she’s his mom, so am I. And telling my son that I didn’t birth him was an emotional moment for me.
It made me SO THANKFUL that I went ahead and started having these conversations at such a young age.
I have always worried about HIS feelings and have never considered how it might affect ME to share his story with him.
It was a big moment of clarity for me on the importance of discussing his birth origins on a regular basis and how it needs to be part of normal conversation – not just for my son, but for ME too!
The more you talk about something, the less of the shock factor is there so the more we talk openly about his birth family and his tummy mommy the less it will affect my emotions too.
How to Discuss Adoption as a Family
The concept and idea of “Gotcha Day” is very controversial among the adoption community, but we choose to celebrate the day our son’s adoption was finalized as a day to honor his birth family and talk about adoption.
Each year we talk about our adoption journey. It was a path we walked together as a family unit so it’s a great opportunity to revisit those memories and ask if ANY of the kids have ANY questions.
Just as our youngest son will have questions as he gets older, our older children have questions as they get older too.
It’s a day where we pull out the baby book and the adoption baby book and look through pictures and share what we remember most.
It’s a precious time as a family and I love the dedicated day to honor our son’s birth family as well.
Of course it’s not the ONLY time where adoption is talked about in our home, but it is important to me to make sure our son never feels singled out as “the adopted one.”
So yes, anytime any of the kids have a question – they can ask openly! But we don’t focus on our son’s birth origin all the time either.
Pray for Adopted Child’s Birth Family
A wonderful idea a friend shared with me is to pray with our son for his birth family by name.
I love this idea for many reasons.
It is a beautiful way to always honor his birth family. It is a beautiful way to be in prayer for his birth family. And it’s a beautiful way to keep his adoption story as a normal, natural part of our everyday conversations without having it be a huge emphasis or focus either.
I believe that adoption is a mission field and praying for all parties involved in the adoption process is so valuable.
Keep Adoption Conversation Positive
If you have ever read any of my adoption posts then you will always see a theme whenever I talk about adoption or our son’s birth family : I stay positive.
It is especially important to focus on the positive aspects and elements when it comes to talking to children about adoption.
Yes, adoption stems from loss and brokenness and pain. But there are also so many amazingly wonderful aspects to focus on.
I will ALWAYS speak of our sons birth mother with THE upmost respect and love. ALWAYS.
Something I focus on a lot with our children is the love. Our older children have even been envious that our youngest “got to be adopted” because he has TWO families that love him so much!
He’s so blessed to have so many people who love him and who have put so much thought and care into his future.
The choice to pursue a path of adoption is so selfless and filled with so much love for that child. I want to raise my children to always respect this decision and to honor the many birth mothers who choose it.
I know outside perspective on adoption it’s often easy to say how “lucky” the adopted child is but truly, the adoptive family is the lucky ones!
We always focus on that. On how blessed we are that his birth mother chose us.
How thankful we are that we get the privilege of raising her son. How he is a gift we are forever grateful for!
Be Considerate of Culture and Family Heritage
If your child entered your family through international adoption it is important to learn about their culture and incorporate cultural influences into your child’s life.
Even though our adoption was a domestic adoption and our son’s birth family is from a town just a couple hours away from ours, we still try to recognize and acknowledge parts of his family heritage when we can.
While his birth mom was pregnant she LOVED sour worms so that is a fun thing I love knowing and am able to share with him as he starts to try candies and enjoys sour flavors.
We know a bit about his biological siblings and are able to draw from some similarities he has with them and share those with him too.
Sharing what we can about his birth family helps him to be connected to them and to feel that personal bond even when they may not have an ongoing relationship.
I know someday the harder questions will come. Questions about details. Questions that may be tough to hear and even tougher to answer.
I know our son will need to know more. Want to know more. And we will share details with him when that time comes, as is appropriate.
And I’m thankful we know so many details too. Even though there are some tough talks to come, I believe knowledge is power and to allow our son to know those delicate details as appropriate will also help him to understand just how much his birth mother loves him in choosing this path for his life.
I hope it will help leave little room for confusion and help to minimize feelings of rejection.
I am not sure what is the right age or best age for those harder, more detailed talks.
I know those conversations will be ones we have alone with our son. We won’t be including his siblings in those conversations and we will also make sure that both my husband and I are together with him in those moments and are both prepared in advance for how we will handle the delicate topics.
When to Tell a Child They Are Adopted: Final Thoughts
We have no way of knowing how our son will come to feel about his adoption as he gets older, but my prayer is that by us being so open with him from the start that he will ALWAYS be comfortable asking us anything and sharing with us whatever he may feel in his heart.
I always want to be a place of comfort for my children and an unwavering support system for them through ALL walks in life.
I believe strongly in sharing my son’s adoption story with him in a positive, transparent, age-appropriate way.
I pray that this open communication will allow him to see all the blessings in his story and help him to have a healthy self image as well as an appreciation of the story of his life.
When to tell a child they were adopted and how to tell adopted children their birth stories is a very personal decision that has to be made with many factors in mind.
There is no at home guide to follow. No rule book. No perfect way to present this tender information to your child.
Of course, I can only write from my own personal perspective but I hope that my thoughts help other adoptive parents navigate these sensitive waters!
We all are doing our best as parents to show up for our children and your child knows that. They know they are loved and that’s what matters most.