Dr Richard C. Woolfson
If you have an adopted child – or are thinking about adopting child – you have to decide when (and how) to tell him that he is adopted. There are three maxims about managing this that most parents and professionals would agree with: it’s never too early to tell a child; it’s never too late to tell a child; telling early is better than telling late.
Bear in mind that in many countries, an adopted child has the legal right to know all about his natural parents. In those countries, the facts of the adoption cannot be concealed. But even where there is no legal duty to tell a child he is adopted, it is virtually always in his best interests to do so.
Here are some reasons why your child should be told about his adoption as early as possible:
1. The adoption does not become a source of distress to him. He grows up knowing that the adoption took place, and it is simply a part of his life which he accepts.
2. Deliberately concealing this information from your adopted child suggests that there is something wrong about the adoption process.
3. If you don’t tell him, the chances are that someone else will – secrets are hard to keep – and he would be shattered to hear this news from another person.
When and how to tell
The majority of adoptive parents introduce the topic of adoption to their child when he is around the age of two years (or earlier). Of course he cannot possibly understand the implications of adoption at that age, but using the word “adoption” starts to bring the concept of adoption into his consciousness. He becomes familiar with it, despite his lack of understanding.
However, if you still haven’t told your child by the time he is aged five or six years, don’t delay any longer. Remember that the older he is, the more of a shock it will be and the more he will wonder why you did not tell him before.
There are many ways to broach the subject. Much depends on your personality and your child’s personality. What matters is that you make a start.
Some parents talk about “when you were adopted” instead of saying “when you were born”, some tell their child that they are so special they were chosen to be part of the family, some have “adoption day” celebrations for their child as well as birthday celebrations, and some use photographs to explain the day he arrived in his family. What matters is that discussions about adoption are out in the open as early as possible, so that there’s nothing embarrassing or strange about the topic.
Five-year-olds are very curious and ask lots of questions, so expect him to start making detailed inquiries about his adoption even though he might not have asked much before.
Answer these questions openly, calmly and at a level appropriate to his age and understanding. Give only enough details to satisfy his curiosity; avoid telling him too much all at once. For instance, if he asks why he was adopted, you could tell him that his parents couldn’t look after him – you probably won’t have to give anything more specific at this stage. He needs time to digest the information.
There are many child-friendly books about adoption, pitched at children of different ages, and you might find these helpful in supporting your discussions. Chatting to other adoptive parents also helps you learn from their experiences.
By talking about adoption from an early age and by treating his questions comfortably and seriously, your child grows up accept, without stress or discomfort, that he is adopted. That’s far better than concealing his background in the hope that he will never find out.