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Common Post-Adoption Issues: Telling Children about their Adoption

Kathryn Patricelli, MA

Parents often have a harder time figuring out how to let their child know about the adoption than they do telling their relatives and friends. They become anxious deciding how much to tell their child, and how to get the timing right so as not to disclose too much at once and risk upsetting the child. Many of these fears are probably unnecessary. Although there is no single "right way" for parents to talk to their child about adoption, adoption agencies and professionals encourage families to be open and honest with the child from the beginning about the fact that they are adopted and not make it a family secret or "big deal."

Very young children should be told about their adoption in simple terms that convey how much they were loved by their birth parents and by their adoptive parents. Many age-appropriate books can be used to help the child understand. As the child matures, the story will need to have details added to answer additional questions that the child may have concerning the circumstances of the adoption as his or her understanding grows. Parents should not mistake a child's failure to ask detailed questions about the adoption for lack of interest or concern regarding the topic. While the child may not have any issues about adoption, the child's silence may be a means of coping with feelings of abandonment or resentment. Such feelings can cause problems for the child in later relationships and should be identified, addressed, and defused as best as possible during childhood. Parents may need to jumpstart discussions on the topic of adoption to get the older child talking.

Very young children might be told:

"Your birth parents loved you very much. They weren't able to take care of you properly. Now we take care of you, and we love you very much. We chose to adopt you out of all the other children in the world."

Older children may wonder why their birth parents couldn't take care of them, and may believe, in their egocentric, childish way, that they were rejected because they were bad. A more sophisticated explanation for an older child should address and defuse this fear:

"Your birth parents loved you very much. They wanted to care for you but could not (because of problems/issues that they had, not because of anything that you did), so they did the next best thing, which was to find new loving parents to take care of you. They found us, and we adopted you. Now we take care of you, and we love you very much. We chose to adopt you out of all the other children in the world."

What to tell the child also depends on the type of adoption that has occurred. If the adoption is a completely open one, then the child will obviously need to be told that the person who is visiting or sending cards and letters is his or her birth parent When the adoption is completely closed, the birth parents will not be in the child's life at all, which may lead to additional issues.

Regardless of the type of adoption or the manner in which parents communicate about it, many adopted children will, at some point, feel rejection or pain about being "given away" by their birth parents. The most important thing a parent can do to help their child work through such hurt feelings is to remain calm and be a good listener. If their child chooses to share these feelings with them, parents can listen attentively, offer emotional and moral support, and correct any incorrect beliefs that the child may be harboring that make the feelings feel worse.

It is important to realize that some children may feel unsafe at the prospect of discussing birth parent issues for fear of upsetting their adoptive parents. They may not wish to acknowledge that they sometimes think about their birth parents. Parents who suspect that their child may be hesitant to speak to them for these reasons might defuse their child's fear by letting their child know that it is normal for adoptive children to think about birth parents and that it is not a betrayal of the adoptive parents to do so.

Adoptive parents can help their child work thorough feelings of rejection by their birth parents by helping them to see that there are many reasons why some people are not able to be good parents when a child is born and that these reasons don't have anything to do with the child, but rather with the birth parents. By helping to find a new family for their child, the birth parents were really showing their love for the child. Birth parents who did not love their child would not have gone to such lengths to provide for that child. Adoptive parents can follow this line of reasoning by sharing how happy they were when the child joined their family.

For those children whose birth parents are still involved in the child's life in some way, letters or talks between the birth parents and the child may help to provide some answers to questions in a way that is not possible with a more closed adoption.