Telling the adoption story


There are two schools of thought about telling children they were adopted: ‘Ignorance is bliss’ and ‘Truth sets you free’.

In the past, blissful ignorance was the usual practice. It was believed that children did not need to know that they were adopted. Adoptions were ‘matched’ (children looked like their parents) so many people never knew they were adopted or only found out by accident well into adulthood.

However, the ‘secret’ often had a way of coming out either unintentionally (for example, a relative letting the cat out the bag by mistake) or intentionally (for example, a family ‘friend’ using the information to hurt the adoptee). The reaction of many adoptees to finding out their ‘secret’ was a breakdown of the relationship with their parents. ‘How could they have lied to me my whole life? How can I trust anything they told me?’

The prevailing wisdom now is that children have the right to know where they come from and to know the truth about their adoption. Believing that the truth will set children free raises many questions: Who should tell? When do you tell? What do you tell? How do you tell?

Who should tell?

The experts all agree the adoptive parents should do the telling. When parents tell their child about their adoption they do so with love. This open, loving telling by parents means that adoption is not seen as a dirty secret to be ashamed of.

When do you tell?

Opinions differ but most experts say that with telling, the younger the better and definitely by age 8. Telling children from day 1 means they grow up knowing they are adopted and it’s no big deal. It’s just the way their family was formed. It is important that a child knows he or she was adopted before they reach puberty. Puberty brings about many changes and raises issues about identity. Learning that they were adopted at this stage can be one huge change too many for children to deal with.

What do you tell?

A building-block approach where information is introduced little by little is often recommended. This allows the child to absorb the information gradually over the years. What you tell a 3-year old will be very different from what you tell a 10-year old, so the information should be given in age-appropriate terms.

How do you tell?
Telling a child they were adopted is not a once-off ‘serious talk’. It is an ongoing process that changes as the child develops and matures in their understanding. Many parents use stories in telling – both their child’s own story and other adoption stories. The early days of telling an infant their story is more for the parent to get comfortable with talking positively about adoption. Adoption storybooks can be used as springboards for discussions or simply to show that there are other children who were adopted too. The most important thing about telling a child is being open and honest. One adoptee whose parents were not open about discussing her adoption said, ‘I convinced myself that since no one talked about it – or if they did it was in hushed tones – it must be a bad thing.’

The child needs to be able to trust their parents to answer questions at any time. The parents need to answer these questions as simply and truthfully as they can. Children have vivid imaginations and if their questions go unanswered they may dream up answers far worse than the actual situation. Being honest with children helps them to paint a real picture of their adoption rather than create a fantasy.

Telling a child that they were adopted should be a story of love between parents and children. Openness and honesty between parents and their children builds trust and a feeling of security. That is true for every family but especially for families formed through adoption.

This is a synthesis of what psychologists, social workers, adoption specialists and adoptive parents say from their experience and research. There is one book that is particularly excellent for anyone who wants to know how to tell their child about their adoption: Adoption Conversations by Renee Wolfs. 

Should children be told they’re adopted? At what age?

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