Talking to Children About Adoption

Instructor: Duane Cloud

Duane has taught teacher education courses and has a Doctorate in curriculum and instruction. His doctoral dissertation is on ''The Wizard of Oz''.

How do you talk to children who are adopted about their origins? For parents of adopted children, the fear of a misstep in this matter can be a great concern. This lesson discusses these issues and gives some tips on how to approach the discussion.


'You're adopted!' It's an old insult that is often played for laughs in golden age television sitcoms. One or another young character is told that he or she is adopted as an insult. Usually it's played for laughs, as often it's the character's sibling - who knows good and well the character isn't adopted - who is the instigator. This can lead to an episode of the TV show wherein the child imagines what his or her real parents are like. Typically, this goes on until mom or dad sits down with the child and discusses the circumstances of their birth. This is usually supposed to be a comedic situation, but for people whose children actually are adopted, this sudden reveal could be hurtful. In a real-life context where everything is not resolved in a half hour block of time Monday through Friday, how should this information be delivered to adopted children?

The Basics: Truth and Understanding

We'll discuss some specific examples and techniques in a moment, but first, let's go over some basics. First, there's no reason to lie to a child about that child's origin. One shouldn't embellish unnecessarily, either. Suddenly telling a child they were adopted without any warning isn't a way to engender trust. Telling one's child that their birth parents aren't available when that is untrue is merely putting off the inevitable. Ultimately, kids are smart and persistent and eventually the truth will come to light. There is rarely any need for this dishonesty.

A second basic issue that goes with honesty is that of age-appropriateness. While one should tell the truth, sometimes one's child isn't ready to understand that truth. Age-appropriate material implies that adoptive parents understand what the child is ready for and what they won't yet be able to understand. A two year old isn't likely ready to understand the idea that their birth mother lives in a country where it is taboo to conceive a child out of wedlock. Again, you shouldn't lie, but you shouldn't give the child information that may feed misconceptions either. Saying that the child's mother and father loved each other very much when they were relative strangers who engaged in a one night stand won't help the child to understand the circumstances of his or her origins. The focus should be on answering the adopted child's questions in a way that is both true and comprehensible to the youngster at that time in his or her life.

Having 'the Talk'

With the two basics in mind, when should one speak to one's children about adoption? There is no one answer, as children are often quite different from one another. However, experts agree that waiting too long can be problematic. Further, neither parents nor children should be the only ones determining when the discussion happens. Parents who sit their children down and dump too much information at once often end up with confused children. The child may feel stigmatized by the adopted label. However, if one waits for a moment of crisis when the child demands answers, there may be too much to discuss for the child to make sense of the information. In addition, parents should go through the effort of researching information relevant to potential questions. One can't always know everything, but should take the time to do one's research.

A happy medium in the matter of when to have this conversation involves giving the child the opportunity to have a discussion about his or her origins. For instance, an offhand remark within earshot of the child about how much they resemble their birth mother can invite the child to comment. Perhaps one can discuss the idea of adoption in the abstract by asking the child's opinion about whether adopted children can be as much part of the family as biological children. Some sources recommend starting a scrapbook and telling the child their own story with the book as a visual aid as soon as the child is ready. Since children enjoy hearing about themselves, this can ensure that the process of revealing information about the child's past isn't a surprise and doesn't confuse the child.

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