Rebecca Rizzuti is a 40-something adoptee advocating for transparency and reform in adoption while supporting adoptees of all ages.
Should You Tell Your Child She's Adopted?
The simple and short answer to this question is: Yes, you should tell your child she's adopted.
Your adopted child deserves to know any facts pertaining to her that you're able to provide, beginning with the fact that she was adopted and the age at which she was adopted. Even if you are unable for legal reasons to tell her who her original (biological) parents are, she needs to know that she came to you through adoption.
This may be one of the first challenging questions you have to ask yourself as an adoptive parent: if, when, and how to tell your child she's adopted.
Making the right choice now will lay the foundation to open communication between your adopted child and you. A wrong decision may have devastating consequences for your family—and specifically for your child.
Why Some Parents Choose Not to Tell Their Child He's Adopted
In decades past, it was common for adoptive parents to keep the truth of their child's adoption a secret. There are many reasons this was the case, but most of those reasons centered on one thing: shame.
- Some parents worry their child would experience shame if he knew he was adopted. Adoptees commonly feel that they were unwanted and this is the reason they were given up for adoption. Many parents feel that telling their child he's adopted will make him feel that he wasn't wanted or that he was unloved by his first family.
- Other parents are concerned with the stigma associated with infertility and the reasons they chose to adopt their child.
- Still more believe that revealing the truth to their child will make the child less theirs and will result in their child throwing his adoption in their face.
The truth, however, is that your child's adoption is about him, and he needs to know these facts about himself.
Why Your Child Needs to Know He's Adopted
Whether you tell your child or not, at some point he's likely to find out he's adopted.
When you adopted, there were other people involved in the process. There are biological parents, caseworkers, adoption agencies, and your family.
Many late-discovery adoptees (those who found out they were adopted after the age of 12) find out they're adopted because a family member reveals it to them, sometimes in the heat of an argument, sometimes because they have fallen out with the adoptive parents, or sometimes because it slips their mind that the adoption is a secret.
In other cases, the adoptee stumbles upon their adoption paperwork when an adoptive parent passes away (often marring the memory of the parent for the adoptee).
Still more, in the 21st century, will discover they're adopted because they take a DNA test that reveals their parents aren't their genetic kin. This form of discovery may also lead the adoptee to unexpectedly uncover biological family they didn't know existed.
Eventually, your adopted child is going to find out he's adopted. You should want to control the way he find out about his adoption. While you should always tell the truth as objectively as possible, it's important you be aware of the circumstances under which your child learns it.
When Should You Tell Your Child She's Adopted?
You should tell your child she's adopted as early as possible.
If you have not yet told your child she's adopted, finish reading this article, then go tell her she's adopted. It's that important. Do not hesitate. Do not delay. This is not something that can wait.
Many parents worry their child is "too young to understand what adoption means." Adoptive parents frequently suggest their six- or seven-year-old doesn't understand the meaning of adoption, and they insist on keeping the revelation of their child's adoption "age-appropriate."
Adoptees, on the other hand, report having always known they were adopted and having understood what "adopted" meant from an early age. For many adoptees, they cannot remember not having known about their adoption. If you tell your child about her adoption at an appropriate age, she won't remember your reveal.
That's how it should be.
How Should You Tell Your Child He's Adopted?
How you tell your child he's adopted will depend on his age.
If you have chosen the "as early as possible" approach (meaning you're telling your child about adoption some time before his fourth birthday or so), this should be simple.
Use direct language and don't elaborate. "Mommy and Daddy adopted you when you were a baby. That means you have another mommy and daddy who chose for us to be your parents." (If your child came to you through foster care and involuntary relinquishment, you will need to change the language.)
At a young age, most children won't ask questions. As your child ages, however, he may have questions about what it means to be adopted. Be prepared to answer his questions simply (see below).
If you have waited to tell your child he's adopted until he is older (between the ages of four and 12), you should be prepared to tell your child more about his biological parents and the circumstances of his adoption.
You should be honest with your adopted child, but also impartial. If you cannot be impartial, you may wish to have an outside party reveal the circumstances to your child. Bias or interpretation of circumstances by adoptive parents may be harmful to the adoptee now or later in the adoptee's life.
Dos and Don'ts: What You Should and Should Not Do When Telling Your Child She's Adopted
When and how you tell your child she's adopted will impact the future of your relationship with your child and the relationship she may have with her original parents in the future. Her relationship to her adoption may affect her self-esteem (for better or for worse), and therefore it is important for parents to take care when telling their child she was adopted.
Take care with the way you choose your words, and you'll improve the chances of a continued positive relationship with your child. These Dos and Don'ts from an adoptee will help to ensure the smoothest introduction to the topic of adoption with your child.
When Telling Your Child She's Adopted, Please DO
- Be honest. Tell your child you adopted her, and what adoption means.
- Use simple, plain language. Explain to your child that adoption means a child was born to one mother, but is being raised by other parents. If age-appropriate, explain how the birth certificate was changed and how legally adoption means you raise your child "as if she had been born to you."
- Listen to your child. Depending on your child's age, she may have questions or want to share feelings about being adopted. Spend time listening to her.
- Validate her feelings. If your child expresses feelings about being adopted, validate these feelings. Do your best to ensure she feels heard and respected throughout the process.
When Telling Your Child She's Adopted, Please DON'T
- Use "cute" language. It may be tempting to use terms like "tummy mummy," but these can be confusing for your child. Instead, be direct, honest, and supportive of any feelings your adopted child may have.
- Offer platitudes (particularly religious platitudes). Many adoptive parents tell their children "God chose you for us." Language such as this drives many adoptees away from the churches in which they were raised.
- Use positive adoption language (PAL). Avoid couching your terminology in language you feel places adoption (and your family) in a positive light. This can be harmful to developing adoptees, as it controls a narrative that belongs to the adoptee (and not the adoptive parent).
Be Cautious With . . .
- Children's books about adoption. When choosing children's books about adoption for your child, be careful to choose books that were written by adoptees and that reflect an honest view of adoption. (An honest view is child-centered and not parent-centered, whether adoptive or biological.)
- Other adults speaking to your child about her adoption. It is up to you as the adoptive parent to understand the emotions and trauma your adopted child is likely to experience as a result of relinquishment and adoption. Other adults may not have the same background you do in adoption. The way they speak to your child might impact her in undesired ways. Be prepared to step in when other adults attempt to speak to your child about adoption.
The Ongoing Conversation About Adoption
As your child ages, he will likely have questions about his adoption. It is your responsibility as the adoptive parent to provide space for him to ask his questions safely and to receive honest and open answers.
Continue to practice the Dos and Don'ts listed above when communicating with your child about adoption, and consider seeking guidance and support from adult adoptees and adoptive parenting coaches who have experienced adoption first hand.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Rebecca Rizzuti
Lakshmi from Chennai on July 20, 2020:
Whatever it may be...definitely it would be a devastating fact for a child...