Tips for Telling Your Child They Are Adopted

Mother tells toddler she is adopted.

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Deciding when and how to tell your children they are adopted can be a major source of stress. What if they want to find their birth families? Or what if the truth about why they were placed for adoption scars them for life? What is the right age to have this conversation? What do you say?

It's not a question of whether or not to disclose this, however. "It needs to be clear to adoptive parents that they need to tell their children they are adopted. It isn't a decision for adoptive parents to make or to take into consideration. Adoptees need to be told," says Jessenia Parmer, an adoptee mental health advocate and consultant.

While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer, there are some general guidelines you may want to consider when telling your child that they’re adopted.

Various Adoption Arrangements

The type of adoption arrangement you have will be a key factor in determining how much information your child needs.

Family adoption situations are often the easiest for kids to understand. A child who is adopted by a relative, like a grandparent or an aunt and uncle, may know from a young age that their birth parents aren’t the people who are raising them. They might have already accepted that their birth parents aren’t able to care for them but that another relative has the resources to do so.

Open adoption situations with non-relatives may be similar. A child who has ongoing contact with their birth parents would know that there is a mother who gave birth to them and a different mother who raises them. They may send letters, exchange pictures, or have visits with one or both birth parents.

Children who were placed in foster care prior to being adopted at an older age might remember their birth families. And they may have a better understanding of why they don’t live with them and how adoption works. Even if they don’t remember their birth families, they will likely remember being in foster care and will want details surrounding their adoptions.

Children who were adopted at birth and whose adoptions are closed probably won’t know they’re adopted for quite some time—unless someone tells them. In these cases, parents can decide when it’s best to bring up the subject and what they want to reveal.

Why You Need to Talk About Adoption

Some adoptive parents don’t want to tell their children that they are adopted. But most experts think it’s important for children to know the truth and that the information should come from you. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Your kids may find out from another source. You don’t want your kids to learn from other family members or people in your community that they were adopted. Learning this information through a random conversation or by discovering paperwork at an older age could be quite upsetting. They may be very upset with you for not telling them the truth.
  • It helps them understand their genetics. Even if you don’t know anything about your child’s birth family, letting them know they are adopted could be helpful. They may be able to undergo genetic testing to learn if they are at risk for certain medical conditions.
  • It empowers them to make choices. Kids can make their own choices when they have information. They can decide if they want to learn about their birth family’s history or if they want to try and locate their birth relatives. If you don’t tell them they’re adopted, you make that choice for them. And they may resent you for it if they find out they’re adopted later in life.

Start Early or Wait Until They Understand?

Sometimes parents wonder if they should start conversations about adoption when kids are young or wait to sit them down and explain it once they’re old enough to really understand.

Researchers say you should start talking to kids about adoption at a young age. In fact, one study says you should tell them by the age of three. Otherwise, you risk causing them emotional harm.

Researchers surveyed 254 adult adoptees. They discovered that the individuals who learned of their adoptions after the age of three reported more distress and lower life satisfaction. Most of them reported that they found some comfort in seeking contact with birth relatives and other adoptees.

This research was in line with other studies that have found that late discovery of adoption is linked to psychological distress and feelings of anger, betrayal, depression, and anxiety.

Rather than sit down with them when they’re teenagers and reveal it all at once, begin giving your child simple explanations when they are toddlers. While they are too young to understand reproduction and genetics, they can understand simple statements, like "You have two moms who love you."

Read books about adoption. Talk with other adoptive parents to get advice and support. And start giving your children simple explanations about how you became a family when they are very young.

Consider talking to adult adoptees for advice and support. Parmer also suggests seeking out stories from other adoptive families who have been through the process so you can hear more about how they became a family, including how they overcame their struggles.

How to Address Difficult Circumstances

Some adoption stories are easier to explain than others. A child might understand that their birth mother was too young to give them a good home, for example.

But in other cases, the situation is much more complicated. If their birth parents took drugs or were incarcerated, it is tougher to know what to say. The story could be even more complicated if a child resulted from rape or incest. It is still important to be honest with a child, however.

If you don’t tell your child the truth, they may develop a fantasy about their birth parents. They might imagine that their birth parents would be happy to meet them someday or fantasize that they will come to pick them up (especially whenever they’re upset at you). Telling them the truth now can spare them from learning about the painful circumstances later.

A Word From Verywell

No matter what you decide about when and how to tell your child they are adopted, make it clear that you wanted them. Talk about the steps you took to make them part of your family, and emphasize how much you love them.

If you haven’t told your child they’re adopted yet, and you aren’t sure how to do it or what to say, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. Talk to a therapist or mental health professional. They can help you find the best way to address your specific circumstances and your child’s unique needs.

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  1. Baden AL, Shadel D, Morgan R, et al. Delaying adoption disclosure: A survey of late discovery adopteesJ Fam Issues. 2019;40(9):1154-1180. doi:10.1177/0192513x19829503