At BPAR, we find that many adoptive parents reach out to us because they are struggling with how to talk to their children about their birth families in a way that is developmentally appropriate but also contains accurate information. They want to protect their children, and they are not sure if telling them about their birth family will be helpful. This blog will provide adoptive parents with guidance for these conversations from the perspective of adoption-competent therapy. We also share related resources below.
Adoptive parents often question which information they should share with their child. BPAR has seen many parents struggle with how to talk to their children about the difficult circumstances around their adoption in a way that is developmentally appropriate. Your instinct as a parent is to do what’s best for your child, yet it’s normal to feel uncertainty about whether it’s really helpful to share information when it may seem hurtful to break the news. It has long been the misconception of society at large that it is in the best interest of adopted children to be “protected” from their own stories. The fact is, whether they can remember it or not, the adoptee was there when these events took place. Omitting the truth and the history that children lived actually removes the opportunity for them to process their experience with your support. Children’s brains center themselves in their understanding of the world. Whatever holes in the story are left by adoptive parents will be filled by the child’s imagination, which will most likely lead them to assume it is their fault. The truth may be hard to hear, but children can imagine and assume worse.
the Whole Truth. . .
It may feel intuitive to leave out certain details when telling your children their story. As a parent you will have the best estimate of what your child can understand; however, in general all children should be able to handle the circumstances of their birth and adoption by adolescence, including those details which may seem scary, ugly, or horrible to adults.
In adolescence, identity is under development, a process which is hindered for children with incomplete or inaccurate information about their origins. Teens can’t integrate stories into their identity if those stories are incomplete or incongruent with their lived experience. Without this information, teens will struggle to understand who they are. They may try on many identities, including the identities they imagine their birth parents may have (which could be worse than the reality when adoptive parents withhold details).
and Nothing but the Truth
A lack of information, or especially “negative” details in a child’s story may seem to call for some artistic license in the version you share with your child. It may seem harmless to embellish or lighten up certain facts, but especially today, the chances of a secret being exposed are great. Today, many adoptees are achieving reunion through social media, even without a formal search. It is likely that a birth relative could contact the adoptee directly and share, intentionally or accidentally, a truth that you weren’t honest about. Access to DNA matching also increases the chance of successful reunion, and even extended relatives may be found who have information you felt the adoptee should be protected from. There is also always the chance that a child will come across documentation with the accurate information, possibly when you are no longer able to explain.
Discovering parents’ dishonesty can be catastrophic to the adoptee and their connection to the adoptive family. Adoptive parents have made a commitment to keep the adopted child safe and supported for life, so the realization that these adults have been dishonest about their own background can be devastating to the adoptee. They may wonder what other details you have been dishonest about, and why you don’t think they can handle these facts. Children may receive the message that these details should be hidden and are therefore shameful, or mean something negative about who they are.
Remember—three things will always come to light: the moon, the sun, and the truth.
Omitting the truth and the history that children lived actually removes the opportunity for them to process their experience with your support.
How to Tell the Truth
THE DON'T LIST
1. Don’t assume your child will only ever know what you choose to tell them.
Information that you believe will remain secret may be shared with the adoptee by anyone who holds the information. Someone may accidentally tell your child, or they may feel the adoptee should know. Children may not reveal to the adopted parents that they learned this information for many reasons. This leaves your child to process these facts without your support. It also opens the door for the adoptee to hold misinterpretations or inaccurate information without your knowledge. In order to ensure your child has your support, you must be the person to share the information with them.
2. Don’t lie to your child (about the past/birth family).
The realization of a longstanding lie from an adult who is supposed to keep them safe creates a serious breach of trust between a child and their parents. This divide may be difficult to repair with an explanation or apology. Even the best-kept secrets could be discovered by the child at any point in a search, a slip from you or others, or a discovery of documents. This realization can be detrimental to the trust between the child and their parents and will distance the child from the adoptive family. Lying may seem to be the best way to keep the child close, but once the truth is exposed, it will feel like a betrayal.
3. Don’t omit details after age 12.
It is important for adoptive parents to tell the truth to their children, but it is also important to tell them a story that is developmentally appropriate. There are no hard and fast rules about the right age for specific details, but barring developmental delays, all teens are capable of knowing all details of their story. By age 12, the consensus is adoptive parents should share any details that had been previously omitted. In adolescence, it is natural for teens not to believe authority as part of their drive for autonomy, therefore it is important to tell your child the full story before they reach this stage of development. Adolescence is a time when the child begins to assess who they are and prepares to leave the family. Receiving difficult and possibly upsetting information in the midst of this stage of development can be destabilizing, making it a risky time to share such details. Children ages 8–10 actually process negative information more easily; sharing information earlier gives them more time to process and reprocess, with the support of the adoptive parents, before they separate from the family.
4. Don’t add judgments or value to the facts.
As adults, we may decide that some information is negative or hard to stomach when in fact it may be interpreted differently by a child. Without the weight of experiences and biases, your child may not find the information negative at all. The details of their story are just facts, and facts are neutral by nature, and equal in value. It is important that parents don’t add their biases to these facts. Children feel judgment about the facts of their story to be judgment of their birth parents, their origins, and themselves. It is important for the child to understand their origins without biases, as these beliefs will impact their self-esteem. Understanding without judgment is a skill adoptees must learn, and they learn through the adoptive parents’ modeling.
5. Don’t try to fix or remove the pain of adoption.
The only way for your child to process their emotions is by feeling them. Trying to keep your child from feeling the difficult emotions that may be associated with the details of their story only prevents them from processing those feelings. With any significant issue, cliché responses are never helpful, and the same applies here. Adoptive parents shouldn’t feel pressured to say the perfect thing, however, when their child expresses difficult feelings about their story or adoption. There is no perfect thing to say, but actively listening, sitting with your child in their grief, and showing them understanding are the most supportive ways to respond. When allowing your child to express their feelings, avoid attempts to interpret their birth parents’ behaviors or give them a positive spin, and don’t ignore or redirect them to more comfortable topics. It is important to validate their negative feelings and hold space for them to be openly expressed.
THE DO LIST
1. Do initiate adoption conversations.
Many adoptive parents believe the best practice is to wait for questions from the adoptee and then answer honestly. They may assume if their child is not asking about their adoption, they aren’t thinking about it, but this isn’t always the case. Often children do not talk about their adoption at home, but when given a safe space to talk about it, like support groups or therapy, they actually have quite a bit to say.
Children are often afraid to bring up the birth family in case it is hurtful or disloyal to the adoptive parents to have feelings and questions about their birth parents. Even without being told so directly, many children may make this assumption. The only way to really show your child that you are comfortable with talking about their birth family and adoption is to create conversations about them. Since children may be afraid to come forward with questions, adoptive parents need to ask them what questions they have. As children’s understanding and point of view on things will change many times throughout their lives, these conversations must be started throughout their childhood to show true comfortability.
To start the conversation, try the following:
- Watch a movie or show with depictions of adoptions with your child, and start a conversation by making comparisons or contrasts to your child’s experience of adoption.
- Ask questions on relevant days (birthdays, Mother’s day, anniversaries, holidays, etc.): “I always think about your birth parents at this time and wonder. . . . Do you ever think about them? How do you feel about your birth parents?”
- Comment on the child’s positive or physical traits and wonder if they are passed down to them, and ask if they think about what they have in common with their birth parents.
- Comment on the child’s accomplishments, and include the birth parents in their pride; “I’m sure your birth parents would be so proud of you too!”
2. Do model positive terms in relation to adoption.
When a child is adopted before they can speak, adoptive parents have the benefit of extra time to practice using positive language around adoption. Even before the child is old enough to understand the meaning behind certain terms and facts, adoptive parents should be teaching terms that avoid shame and stigmas. The connotation of terms used matters.
Instead of . . .
Use . . .
Real parents/natural parents
Birth parents/first parents
Gave/put up for adoption, gave away
Made an adoption plan/chose adoption
Adopted child/[ethnicity] child
Their own child/real child
Biological child/birth child
Keeping/kept (a child)
Chose parenting/to parent
3. Do allow the child to express anger at their birth family without joining in.
It is natural that adopted children often feel split between their adoptive and birth families. This conflict in the child is only increased and complicated when one family expresses negativity towards the other. Agreeing with the child’s anger, or expressing your own anger towards the birth parents can do more harm. Instead try responding in a validating but neutral way:
- “I’m glad you are safe now.”
- “I can understand why you are so angry.”
- “That must have been very difficult for you. Is there anything I can do to help you now?”
Avoid statements condemning the birth parents as bad people or expressing your own anger towards them. This can add to the pressure adopted children often feel to be loyal to the adoptive family, and can prevent the child from identifying their own feelings towards the birth parents. The child’s feelings towards their birth family will almost certainly fluctuate throughout their development, further making it more important to avoid categorizing the birth parents permanently.
4. Do relay the most negative details using a third party if you wish.
An adoption-sensitive therapist (not all are) or agency case worker can be used to tell your child the harshest parts of their story. Children may act in anger towards the messenger of difficult news. It can also help a child to hear the information from the source at the agency themselves. Adoptive parents can interview a potential therapist before introducing the child to them. Having a rehearsal of them sharing the information can help assess the therapist’s sensitivity.
While third-party involvement removes the parent from the role of messenger, the adoptive parents do need to be involved in this meeting. Adoptive parents should be present for emotional support for the child, and they can also help by keeping record of the details which may be forgotten or distorted in the child’s memory (an audio recording can be invaluable if possible). Parents need to reassure the child that they are loved unconditionally during and after learning this information. Once the details are known, adoptive parents will have to reinitiate conversation about the child’s story and ask for questions regularly.
5. Do remember the child owns their story, not you.
Since this story belongs to the child, they should control how the story is shared outside of the immediate family. Adoptive parents should help their child prepare for the questions they will face from strangers. This can be accomplished by helping the child form a short and simple version of their story that can be shared with those they aren’t close to. This story can be similar to the version of their story children were given when they were young. Children can use this story to protect themselves from intrusive questions that they will certainly be faced with. Adoptive parents should have conversations about the types of questions and situations children will face, and what information should be shared with different people. In general, giving their name, place of origin, and when they joined the family will cover most questions. Remind the child that they do not have to share their personal information with anyone.
Withholding the child’s own information has been found to do harm, rather than protect them. By telling the full story openly, leaving space for the adoptee to express their feelings, and modeling positive discussion around the child’s birth family and origins, parents let their children know they are safe to process their roots and integrate them into their identity.
Written by Alyson Summer Del Castillo
Boston Post Adoption Resources
Read BPAR's book review of Telling the Truth to Your Adopted or Foster Child: Making Sense of the Past by Betsy Keefer Smalley and Jane E. Schooler
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Use BPAR’s book Adoption Is a Lifelong Journey, illustrated by Kelly DiBenedetto and written by clinicians Kelly DiBenedetto, Katie Gorczyca, and Jennifer Eckert, to open a dialogue with your child in various stages of their development. The book shares parenting tips about language, things to think about, and additional resources.
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Prepare for a conversation with BPAR’s blog “Shame and Adoption — A Guide to Parenting with Empathy” by Darci Nelson
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Early readers can prepare for intrusive questions using the strategies in Marie Discovers Her Superpowers by Chaitra-Wirta Leiker