Here’s a handy guide for how to tell your child they were adopted. We’ll break it out in sections, dear Adoptive Parent, so you can choose the best approach based on your situation.
Honesty is the Best Policy
To ensure the optimal results in telling your child they were adopted, start from Day One. Whether you adopt a newborn or a toddler or an older child, that means from the very first day, you begin telling them their own adoption story from that day onwards. (And yes, we mean it: start the day you take placement, so it become a habit.) Make this a loving family story you tell in private, over and over. How you tell it is up to you, of course, but make it simple, loving and truthful.
Here’s one simple script to build from, if you’re wondering how to tell your child they were adopted:
“Once upon a time, Daddy and Mommy dreamed of becoming parents of a very special boy/girl. We went to a friendly little adoption agency in Texas called Abrazo. They introduced us to a very special birthparent named (insert birthmom’s name, and insert birthdad’s name if he was also involved). She/they wanted a better life for her/their baby/child… and that was you! She/they knew she/they didn’t have all she/they needed to raise a/nother child at that time, though. She/they wanted you to grow up in a safe home, with a mom and a dad. So (insert birthmom’s name, and birthdad’s name if he was involved) chose us to be your mom and dad forever. We adopted/are adopting you, so you will always be part of our family. And she’ll/they’ll be part of your forever family, too. We all love you and we’re so glad you’re here.”
It is important to use the actual name of the birthparent/s, right from the beginning. Emphasize that the decision for adoption was based on the birthparents’ circumstances, not the adoptee’s issues. And remember that adopted kids delight in detail about their characteristics (ex: “you were the cutest baby in the whole hospital nursery, and you cried the loudest when you were hungry, too.”) Many adoptees need assurance that they were born just like every other kid, even if their birth story had a bigger cast of characters in it.
Growing Your Child’s Truth
Repeat the adoption story over and over, accompanied with cuddles and hugs. (Whether you tell this story at bedtime or not depends on your child’s reaction to it, which may change over time.) Keep framed photos of the birthparents in your child’s room and around the house, so they never remember a time they didn’t know what they look like. Tell your child when you’re on the phone with or writing to their birthfamily. Visit as often as you can (at least once a year.)
Add pertinent details to the story (about birthsiblings, or how the birthparents met, or how they interacted with the baby in the hospital) as they age, both to increase their understanding of their own history and to keep the story interesting. More difficult details (ie., birthparent lifestyle choices or facts relating to the conception) can also be introduced on an age-appropriate basis, but always in a loving way (ex: “your birthparent sometimes had a hard time making good choices, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t a good person. It was just part of the reason they weren’t ready to be a good parent.”)
If told early and often enough, this will become a narrative your adopted child will never remember having not known. (And they will likewise always remember their parents having been honest with them, right from the start.) For some kids, this becomes a treasured tale they like to hear, over and over again. For others, it may become a boring or embarrassing recitation. Yet either response is evidence of the adoptive parents having done a good job of equipping their child/ren to know their own truth, all their lives long.
The Alternative Approach
Let’s say, for whatever reason, that you didn’t take the above path– or don’t want to. Whether you didn’t feel ready to “have that talk” or didn’t want them to know they were adopted or you didn’t know how to tell your child they were adopted, it’s time. If you haven’t yet told your adopted child the truth of their origins, it’s imperative to right that wrong, now. Please don’t wait. (It won’t get better later. Trust us!)
If your child is already in school, you’ll need to anticipate that they will find this revelation confusing, when you do decide how to tell your child they were adopted. Do it, anyway. (If your child’s birthparent is someone they already know, it will be that much more confusing, so be sure to inform– not ask, but inform– the birthparent that you are finally telling the truth to your child.) It’s a good idea to consult an adoption therapist, as well, so you and your child have professional support if it’s needed.
Please be honest with your child that your reason for not telling the truth sooner was about you, not them. Use “I statements” (ex: “I should have told you this sooner, but I felt scared that you might be angry with me… I’m sorry.”) This is very important, so your adopted child doesn’t mistakenly think you kept the adoption secret because something about them or their history is shameful to you. And now is also the time to share any other info you have, like letters or pictures or gifts the birthparent/s may have sent for your child, over the years.
Give Your Kid/s a Speaking Part
Adoptees need to have a say, too, in the telling of their own story. Always allow the adoptee to express their own true feelings, without requiring them to affirm you. (This is very difficult, especially for those who have waited to reveal adoption truths to their adopted child/ren.) Find a way to relate to their feelings, whether positive or negative, by using reflective listening skills (ex: “I hear you saying you feel cheated that you couldn’t grow up with your birthfamily. I think I might feel that way, too, if I were in your shoes.”)
Remember: you don’t have to have all the answers. But you do need to support your adopted child/ren as they work through their own questions, and their feelings about those questions.
Every adoptee needs to be able to grieve the loss of what (or who) they didn’t know, and this may entail great sadness or anger or even denial. (All are stages of grief, of course.) Parents may see some regressive behaviors, or adoptees may overcompensate in other ways. (Remember that adoption therapist we recommended? That professional may become invaluable to you as you deal with any fallout.) But remember: how you deal with it may direct impact your adopted child’s well-being, so please: empower your adopted child to process their emotions, however hard it may be for you both.
None of this is easy, but all of it matters.Knowing know how to tell your child they were adopted is one of the first, most important steps in teaching your child how to embrace life’s truths; this is an essential task for you both.