Adoptive parents face some big decisions when it comes to telling their child about his or her adoption: When is the right time to start talking? What, exactly, should they say—or not say?
Experts often debate the age issue, but ultimately the decision is up to you as, of course, you know your child best. The most useful approach for many adoptive families is to embark early on an entire lifetime of conversations so that your child grows up knowing that you are willing to talk about his adoption, answer his questions when possible, and discuss his birth parents when and if he is ready. This sets a framework of comfort and openness around the topic, which will be beneficial as your child gets older and more curious.
In fact, thinking about your child's adoption story as being a series of discussions may offer some relief, rather than believing you need to have the "one big talk" and get it right. You are beginning with a simple story and adding more details and complexity as they get older.
What They Understand
Like so many touchy topics, toddlers cannot understand the idea of adoption. Right now, your child knows that you are her parent and you are a very important person in her world. But how you came to have such a large role … that's a concept that evades little ones! While individual experiences vary, many adopted children will at points in their development feel and express a sense of loss. It is important, as your child grows, to leave room for all her emotions during conversations about her adoption: love, contentment, sadness, and anger.
What she does understand at this age about you as her parent may depend on how long ago you adopted her.
- If you have parented your toddler since infancy, she's already come to trust the love and care you provide. Even in her first few weeks with you, she could recognize that you could be counted on to meet her needs. (Read what she learned week by week, here.)
- If your child was adopted as a young toddler, she may have recently experienced the loss of her birth parents. In this case, much of your focus now as a parent will be on helping your child develop attachments to you—showing (and telling) her that you love and care for her deeply and will eagerly provide a safe and healthy world.
You may consider giving voice to her sense of loss. While the specifics of that conversation are beyond a single article, consider statements such as "I know miss your 'Mom' [or however your toddler referred to her birth parent/s] and you feel sad/mad. I will take care of you and help you with the sad/mad feelings. I love you very much." If you are concerned about your toddler or she is having difficulties adjusting to your home, talk with your pediatrician, who can recommend a mental health professional in your area.
It's only once a child is preschool-aged that he'll begin to grasp very basic ideas of what it means to be adopted, and that understanding will increase as he gets older.
What to Say
Instead, you may want to start including the words describing his adoption in your discussions of family:
We were so happy the day we adopted you…
I was so happy the day you came to live with us…
No matter how you bring up the adoption itself to your toddler, what is most important during these conversations is to express that you love him and that he will be taken care of. This supports your child's attachment to you as a reliable (and again, loving) parent.