Explaining Adoption

Parent Q&A

  • When to tell 9 year old that she is adopted?

    (14 replies)

    My 9 year old niece (biological child of my brother) was adopted at  2 months of age by my sister and her husband.  The biological parents were arrested and the baby was placed into foster care until my sister could get from San Diego to Santa Rosa to take possession of her while they were in jail.  After that, the monthly visitations proceeded for almost a year, with the intent of reunification, but the biological parents failed their requirements and eventually signed over parental rights to my sister and brother in law.  

    My niece now has an amazing life!  She is the youngest of 3 kids, happy, smart and well-adjusted.  She lives less than a mile from grandma, and enjoys a close relationship with her, as well as with me and my family here in the Bay Area.  She has a huge extended family and her life is full of love.

    My question is in relation to the timing of one day telling her that she is adopted (and that she has at least 2 older siblings that we are aware of).  After a family reunion this summer, some of our family members reported that she told them something like "I can't figure this out -- I don't look like anybody else in my family" which isn't really true, but it is true that she doesn't look much like my sister's other 2 kids. 

    She will turn 10 in September.  Does anybody have experience with telling a child that they're adopted, and what is the best timing for this?  I want to be able to help my sister and brother in law in their decision about when and how to tell her.

      As an adoptive mom of a 20 year old, I would do this as soon as possible.  They should get some counseling first, so they can anticipate how to support her in her adjustment to this additional information about herself and her early life. 

    We sought help from Virginia Keeler Wolf and she was helpful for our daughter when she was about 10.  http://www.attachmentadoption.net/clinicalstaff_virginia.html


    We adopted a child at birth and have told him many many times from when he was a toddler and older , repeatedly over the years, working into conversation, rather than a big announcement.  We understand that what is recommended in the literature. That normalizes it. Feel free to consult with a counselor at Adopt International in SF for a professional option. 

    The time has long since passed to tell her. Perhaps your family had reasons for keeping this a secret but ideally this should have been something she has known since before she even understood what adoption is. She is already clueing in to the fact that something is different (and is it possible she already knows and is dropping hints hoping that someone will be honest?) I anticipate this will likely be very hard news to deliver and for her take. With that being said, she is absolutely old enough to get the full truth and perhaps also an apology for not telling her sooner. I would highly recommend your sister/BIL consider a family therapist to help them figure out how to deliver the news and perhaps with someone who could also see their daughter as well. Perhaps this will go more smoothly than I anticipate but I would have these resources ready in case it's tough. Here are some good initial talking points too. Good luck! Sounds like she's a great kid with an amazing family. 

Archived Q&A and Reviews

3-year-old: Do I have a mother?

May 2002

We are a two dad family and adopted our almost three year old two years ago through foster care. Our child recently asked if he has a mother? We replied, ''yes.'' He then asked, ''who is my mother?'' We weren't expecting this question until he was older. We started to explain that his mother was sick and couldn't take care of him, but then decided that was not the right approach because we don't want him to think that everytime one of us gets the flu he'll given away. We also think simplier answers are the best, and answering only the question he asks would be prudent, however he's a very precocious kid and the questions will likely keep coming. It is not developmentally appropriate for us to discuss the birth mother's circumstances with him and probably won't be until he is an adult. It is also very unlikely that he will meet his birth mother in the next 10- 15 years and we do not have a picture of her and likely will not be able to get one. We're feeling some anxiety because we want to protect him by doing this ''right,'' and we are both reality based and want him to understand his circumstances in developmentally appropriate ways, as this is his life. We have several questions for the group: 1) Can others who have adopted children and have had the experience of talking about these issues, share them (of particular interest would be situations where the children will not likely meet their birth parents); 2) Does anyone have books on this subject that they would recommend with good chapters on talking to your child about adoption; 3) We'd be open to hearing ideas others have as well. Thanks much.

I have absolutely no authority on this subject, but that has never stopped me before.... Anyway, I heard this lovely story from my Mother-in-law (her daughter is adopted). She told her that another mommy had him in her tummy, but he was actually meant to be with another family. So, the mommy who grew her in her tummy knew this, and when she was born, gave her to the family that she was meant to be with (her adoptive family). This makes the birth mother seem very generous, and also makes the adoptive family seem like the ''right'' family.

I have also heard parents tell their children that they are ''chosen'' children, and how lucky they are (and the parents, too). Of all the thousands of children--millions of children--in the world, they picked just the right one! How lucky is that?!

My daughter is not adopted, but has many friends who are, and she, too, knows their adopted-stories. She is jealous that they arrived in the world the way they did, and have such special families.

Anyway, good luck to you. Your kid already has a headstart, having such caring fathers as the two of you. Mary

How about some advice from a child of adoption? I ran your situation by mt husband, who is adopted. He's never met his birth family, and won't. His birth mother passed away, and his birth father abandoned him. His parents always told him the total truth, the mom that gave birth to him got VERY sick and passed away, and his the dad could not handle a baby on his own, so he found the best home possiable. My husband did not really understand then, but he really respects his parents now.

I am a teacher. I have specialize in pre-schoolers, but recently began teaching kindergarten. I have been in ivolved with MANY adopted children. It seems to me, that if your son's birth mother's situation is beyond him now, bring it to his level, as best you can, then let him grow into it. For example, ''Your birth was very very sick (Tell him- it's not like when you guys have the flu, a different kind of sickness, like in the hospital kind of sickness.) and she decided that it would be best for your son have 2 healthy parents!'' Then focus on YOU have him now, like that was always the plan, it's the happy ending to the story. Best of luck!

You're right, 3 is not at all too early to be talking about your son's adoption. And there are a lot of good resources out there to help. ''Raising Adopted Children'' by Lois Melina jumps to mind as a very good start. I'd also check out what PACER (pacer- adoption.org) and PACT (pactadopt.org) have to offer - these are both reputable, responsible, and wonderful resources.

In short, I'd advise being truthful. With a 3-year old, truthful doesn't have to mean ''warts and all,'' but it means that you shouldn't say anything you'll have to retract. For instance, ''your birthmother couldn't take care of a baby, so she made sure she found you your forever family to take care of you.'' (Notice the ''a baby'' terminology - it wasn't HIM she couldn't take care of, it was any child.) Then at age 8 or 10 or 12 or 16 or whenever, you can add details that your son will be able to understand, always building on the true story you started with.

My daughter is adopted from China, so I tell her (at 2.5) that she grew in her birthmother's tummy, but that the birthmother and birthfather couldn't take care of a baby, so they made sure she was safe and that someone would take good care of her. All true. Then I tell her that I knew my baby was out there somewhere, so I looked for her and found her in China, and that I'll be her mommy forever. I always point out different families to her so she knows she's on a continuum, and she knows that some kids' birthmothers and birthfathers are their forever parents, and some have different birthparents and forever parents. My daughter hasn't asked about meeting her birthmother yet, but I'll say that we won't be able to meet her because she wasn't allowed to tell people her name, so we can't find her. There will be a lot of grief about that over time, and I'm trying to be ready for it, to let my daughter have it and work through it. In your case, you'll have to come up with the truest, simplest explanation about why your son won't meet his birthmother (''we don't know where she is'' or ''she's too sick to see us'' or whatever).

Good luck! Hook up with other adoptive parents to check in on these questions, which will keep popping up! Nancy

I have two children adopted as infants in Guatemala, now ages 7 & almost 12. They are almost certainly never going to meet their birth mothers. The simplest statement to make to them when they are very young is ''when you were born your birth mother was not able to take care of any baby, so she made an adoption plan for you.'' It sounds a little awkward, but it's important to say ''any baby'' instead of ''you'' so your child won't think it was his fault, that he was a bad baby. It's better to say ''made an adoption plan'' instead of ''gave you up for adoption'' because ''making a plan'' sounds like a deliberate, well- thought-out and loving act, while ''giving up'' sounds hopeless and apathetic. In our case, I know almost nothing about their birth mothers, so I couldn't answer many questions. I just try to portray them as basically good people who were overwhelmed by difficult lives and made the best decisions they could for their babies. You may know things about your child's birth mother that you will not feel comfortable discussing with him for many years. I feel that way about discussing my children's birth country with them. Guatemala has a tragic history of terrible atrocities committed by Guatemalans against Guatemalans. If anyone has any advice about how to present that to kids I'd like to hear it! Melinda

Isn't it amazing how quickly they ask these things. It is tricky to explain to children why their birth parents are not raising them. The way we have talked about it in our family is that sometimes people who become parents are not able to care for a child. In our case the birthmother was involved in selecting the adoptive family so we talk about how she looked for a family that would love her child and take care of it. Every child's adoption story is unique, and you have to be honest and yet stay appropriate. If she was an addict that had her child removed from her, something simple like, ''Your birthmother (name goes here if you know it) loved you, all parents love their children. Sometimes parents cannot take care of children. When that happens families that are waiting and hoping for a child are united with the child as a family. (Name your child calls your partner goes here) and I were SO excited when (social worker's name goes here) united you with us to be a family forever and ever. I know that your birthmother wants you to be well taken care of and that is what we will always try to do.''

Eventually you will get the ''Why couldn't she take care of me?'' Two things with that questions 1 - make it clear it was not him specifically she couldn't care for, she could not care for any child properly, and 2 - don't make something up. It is OK to have questions without clear answers. ''Sometimes people can have very serious problems that make it hard for them to take care of themselves or anyone else. I don't know all the details of why (birthmother's name) couldn't take care of you. I do know that she wanted you to be well taken care of since she couldn't do it. Do you sometimes think of reasons why you think she couldn't take care of a baby?'' You'd be amazed at the ideas that they come up with, this can be a good time to air his hidden concerns. Good luck. Feel free to email me if you want.

Our approach has always been to try to stick to the truth, to keep it simple, and not to bring in details that haven't been asked for. You at least don't have the complication of explaining why your child didn't grow inside you! We basically told our two adopted children, at this age, that their mothers couldn't care for them and wanted them to have a family with a mother and father who could take care of them. Obviously, in the case of two dads, you wouldn't use exactly these words. You CAN tell him that his mother is someone you have never met and that he has not seen since he was a baby (he may be thinking it's the lady next door). You can add that some people become mothers at the wrong time. They want the best for their children but can't always provide it. Sometimes the best thing they can do is let other families raise them, etc. Just a couple of sentences may be enough at one time. He'll come back with more questions when he's digested the first answer. Even a pretty awful situation can be presented honestly but in a very limited way. (For example: Your mother just wasn't able to care for you in the way a mommy needs/wants to, so the foster care agency found us because we could take care of you; if the next question is why, you can say you're not sure because you never met her, but some mothers just can't get a job, don't have a partner to help, or have health problems that keep them from providing what a baby needs). If the truth is drugs, mental health problems, or abuse, a time will come when you feel more comfortable telling him, obviously not at this age, but maybe before full adult hood. That's a judgement call you can make later on. Sounds like you have a bright, inquisitive child--enjoy him. An adoptive mom

You asked about a book: ''Talking With Young Children About Adoption'' by Mary Watkins and Susan Fisher is widely available and discusses what children understand and feel about their adoption stories at different developmental stages. I'm a single adoptive parent of a daughter who may someday be able to meet her birthmother. The challenging questions for us have been about Dads. I'd be glad to talk to you more if you'd contact me by email - Lorraine

I already wrote some advice about explaining adoption, but I wanted to add this point I forgot last time: your son doesn't have a mom. Your son has two dads. In addition, he has a birthmother and a birthfather. It occurs to me that if, as you say, he asks if he has a mom and you say ''yes,'' that will always be confusing. He has two dads and no mom. Just as my daughter has no dad, just one mom (and our neighbors have no dads and two moms, and our friends have one mom and two dads, and ... you get the idea!). She has an unknown birthfather and birthmother, but they're not her dad or her mom. I guess that makes my 4 cents by now! Nancy

I would highly recommend you call PACT, An Adoption Alliance organization. 510-243-9460. They are having a workshop called Stepping Stones, talking with children about adoption. June 8th, 9am - 12:30pm. in Oakland. $25.00. I recently went to one of their workshops and found it to be extremely educational and addressed everyones specific situation. The women who lead it have grown adopted children and share their own experiences as well as all the families they have worked with. They deal with all colors and styles of families. They also bring a huge selection of adoption books to purchase. Chris

Let me add my 2 cents worth here. I am the single mother of my son adopted at birth who is now 5. When he was 3 he started asking about his father- where was he and why didn't he have one? Developmentally, this was the right age to asked these questions. I actually think your daughter's question relates to the make-up of your family and is not necessarily about adoption. Questions about adoption usually come later when kids start to grasp what adoption really means, around age 6. In the meantime, as everyone else has said, you need to talk opening about adoption, using appropriate concepts and language for her age. This is how I answered my son's questions: In our family we don't have a daddy, we just have a mommy. I went on to explain how different families look, etc. I did tell him that he had a birth daddy, because he is adopted. My son's questions really focused on the daddy issue, and not on adoption. So- in addition to checking out how to talk about adoption, it's good to check out developmental issues of young children in general, and then how they relate to adoption. Now- some other resources to check out- a book called Real Parents, Real Children. Another one called How To Talk To Young Children About Adoption (or something like that). Tapestry Books is a resource that focuses exclusively on adoption issues (they have a Web site and a catalog). Subscribe to Adoptive Families- a good magazine. And the last thing I want to say- I disagree with the idea of telling adopted children that their parent(s) ''chose'' them because they are so special. This could give the idea that some day they could be ''unchosen.'' I get a lot of good advice by talking with other adoptive parents who have been through or who are going through similar stages. Good luck! Mona

One other avenue you may wish to pursue is talking to adults who were adopted as children, or reading books from that perspective. As with everything, there is a range of experience available, from people who are truly angry and unforgiving regarding the circumstances of their birth/adoption, to people who feel completely happy with their adoptive families and have no desire to know anything about their birth families.

I think one of the challenges that adoptive parents face is how to be non-defensive when one of the real issues in adoption (such as the grief or anger of a child over having been given away) seems to challenge the validity of your own parenting. Giving a kid the room to face their negative feelings and grow with them, while trying to avoid projecting your own feelings over your status as a parent, can be the best gift any true parent (adoptive or biological) can give.

The three best books I read were Lost and Found & Journey of the Adoptive Self by B.J. Lifton, and Birthright by Jean Strauss. (Journey of the A.S. had some really strong stuff in it I didn't agree with, but overall, I liked it.) Both of the Lifton books deal explicitly with identity issues frequently associated with not knowing much, if anything, about your birth family.

Good luck. I'm glad to see that you are dealing with this early! Wish my adoptive parents had had the courage and resources to deal with the situation better. mm

This message is more for the other adoptive parents that responded to the dad asking for help. I just want to caution you, when you tell you children, ''Your birth mother couldn't take care of ANY baby.'' While it's a good thing to make sure that the child doesn't see this as a personal issue. However, I know many children that grew up, and met their birth parents, only to find that they birth parents had other children. So, maybe telling your child, ''You birth mother wasn't in a situation to take care of ANY bab then.'' Just a thought...

We adopted our daughter when she was 2 days old. She is about to turn 4. We have always talked to her about our having adopted her. Our daughter is very smart and full of questions and the key is keeping it all age-appropriate. I would like to recommend a book by Lois Melina (who is great in general regarding adoption) called, ''Raising Adopted Children''. I would also like to recommend going to a workshop by Jonathan Pannor. See http://www.post-adoption.org/. He does Workshops & Counseling for Parents Building Families through Adoption and I took one with him about a year or so ago that was extremely helpful for the same questions you are raising. Lori