When to tell 9 year old that she is adopted?

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.

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  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. 

I am an adoptive parent of a now-teenage girl, a friend of other adoptive parents, and friend of several adult adoptees. I believe your niece should be told as soon as possible. She probably should have been told long ago. Adult and teenage adoptees speak of this as a moral issue, that it is immoral not to tell an adopted child the truth, however painful. Even under the best of circumstances, adoption is based on loss, and even kids too young to form verbal memories feel that loss profoundly. If your niece had known since she could talk that she was adopted, her parents could have helped her grow into her life history in stages. Her parents may have a lot of fears about this, given their daughter's painful background, but the alternative of her figuring it out later would be far worse for her and for her forever family. (If she isn't told, she will figure it out eventually.)

There are a lot of books that can help your niece's parents. We read and reread some of them when our daughter was little, and now that she's a teenager she reads them herself. One that our kid especially treasures is Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew, by Sherrie Eldridge.  Another good book is Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self, by David Brodzinsky et al. There are a number of therapists who specialize in adoption, and your niece's parents might benefit from a couple of consultations with one before broaching the subject with their daughter. Your niece's parents may want to consider how to set the stage for the initial conversation (i.e., making things as calm and comforting as possible, maybe getting a gift such as a nicely framed family photo to underscore their love and connection with your niece, etc.), how to prepare themselves for difficult and painful questions and possibly anger from their daughter, how to discuss this with their other kids (e.g., allowing your niece say when to tell them or allowing her to tell them herself, so she 'owns" the information -- whatever else happens,your niece should be told first), and being ready for and accepting of your niece's desire to interact with her biological parents and other siblings.

Ideally she would have been given this information regularly, in age-appropriate terms, from the time she was about 2.

It’s really really hard to find out about being adopted as an older child. No matter how loving your family is and how great things have been it can feel like the people you trusted the most have been lying to you your whole life. 

In other words, tell her right now. Like today or tomorrow. 

I am the Mom of an adopted child.  In my case, the birth parents were not a couple and also did not have the financial means to raise a child.  She came to us a day after she was born and has always known she is adopted. I don't understand why she hasn't been told she is adopted earlier. I would think not disclosing something so important would risk trust and identity issues for the child.  Is it because the birth parents were/are incarcerated and that is somehow something her adoptive parents have been hesitant to disclose? Given that she is about turn 10, she will be able to understand that her birth parents were not able to take care of her. Isn't that the bottom line?  Allow the child to ask any and all questions she needs answered.  I don't think her adoptive parents should wait another day.

I so feel for your family.  I'm a former adoption social worker, a current therapist and an adoptive mom.  The time to tell your niece is *as soon as possible.*  I'm so glad you didn't wait any longer to ask and I so appreciate the concern for her well being and the rightness of timing.  I know a lot of families are afraid to tell the children, thinking it's best to wait til they are "old enough" to handle it but then that sense of "old enough" proves to be elusive or uncertain and the telling just gets put off indefinitely.  The problem is, in waiting for all the best reasons, when the child learns the truth you inadvertently risk her feeling betrayed that this information central to her life and identity have been withheld from her.  Also, this is a big secret to keep over so many years so the risk of someone accidentally telling her gets bigger over time.  I really recommend the book "Telling the Truth to Your Adopted or Foster Child."  It really lays out the arguments for telling a version of the whole truth in an age appropriate way immediately, then adding detail as the child grows and/or has more questions.  I'm really really sorry that the foster professionals did not provide education and guidance around this at the beginning so your family was not left to figure this out alone.  I have a friend who found out accidentally in his early 20s that he was adopted and it caused a permanent rift between him and his parents --- he did feel lied to about what felt to him like the very most central fact about his life and he feels he cannot trust them at all now.  That you asked and have such concern for your niece's wellbeing gives me confidence you can help navigate this situation. 


My sister was adopted at birth and my mom and dad told her from the time she was bone. Something like she grew in another woman’s belly but she (my mom) was her mom. I think telling her sooner rather than later is the best bet. It will establish trust and I think the longer you hide it the worse it seems. Good luck I know it’s a very challenging subject and still holds charge for my sister.


I learned that my father wasn't my biological father when I was 18 years old. While I handled the news better than some people might, the information has caused many challenges in my sister's life - she has not been successful in maintaining long term relationships and feels that she isn't really part of our family because she doesn't have the same DNA as our dad. It's been devastating for her, despite years of therapy. Based on everything I've read and heard, tell your niece sooner rather than later. She is approaching adolescence soon and deserves to know the truth about her identity. This is her family story and it's not fair to her to keep it a secret from her - especially when so many other people in the family know. It's a sad outcome that her bio parents were not able to parent her the way she deserved, but she has a wonderful life and a full family. She is surrounded by love - that matters a lot. I suspect that she will be upset that she wasn't told sooner, especially since her questions imply she may suspect that there is information that is being kept from her. It's probably worth getting advice from a professional on the best way to share the news. Good luck.

I'm sorry to tell you but I think most people who are familiar with adoption believe 10 is very late to tell a child he or she has been adopted. When my husband and I adopted our daughter 25 years ago we were advised to talk about it from the very beginning so that the word and concept were very familiar and as matter of fact as describing her hair color. While her understanding of the concept changed and developed as she grew older and she understood more and more about her birth family, it was never a surprise to her that she came into our family differently than her sister did. 

I think your sister and brother in law should consult some professionals about how to introduce this topic, and should be prepared for some anger from their daughter about not being told this information before. I think they should also seek out a professional who can talk to their daughter so she has someone she can honestly express her thoughts and feelings to. While her life is happy and full of love, adoption can bring up strong emotions around identity and belonging, especially during adolescence, and your niece and her family could probably benefit from some professional guidance about how to deal with these feelings. I recommend PACT, An Adoption Alliance as a good source of information and support for adoptive families. I wish your family the best!

I read your post carefully twice, looking for the reason that your 9-year old niece hasn't been told of her adoption.  I'm an adoptive parent.  For at least the last 25 years, professionals have advised that adoption be a natural topic of discussion with a child from babyhood on.  For this situation, I would look for a therapist or adoption specialist to help guide your family and support your niece who may well feel resentful that she wasn't told earlier, especially since it seems it's known among your extended family.  You don't say where you are, so it's difficult to suggest a particular agency or therapist.  

The best timing is before they can even understand, but that ship has sailed. I was adopted at birth in the 70s and don't remember being told, because I just always knew. If your niece is starting to make those comments she already suspects something is up. Clearly your sister and brother and law didn't get counseling around this at the time of adoption, so I would encourage them to get it now. Not just about timing, but about how to do it. They probably have some baggage or expectations about how she'll react, which may or may not be true. That's why I think it would be helpful for them to talk to a therapist with experience in this area. If they don't see it as a big scary traumatic secret, then they'll be able to tell her without communicating that it's a big scary traumatic secret. Especially if her biological parents' history is not a pleasant one, a therapist can help them how to figure out how to be age-appropriate, honest, and gentle in discussing it. Families get made in all kinds of ways, and nowadays there's much more visibility and acceptance of that. It's obviously not an emergency, but there's no particular reason to wait. At this point I think the when is not the most important part (though hopefully soon), it's the how. 

As an adoption social worker, I agree with what’s been said in others’ responses to you so I won’t be repetitive. I strongly advise that your niece’s parents speak with a therapist who has experience working with clients regarding adoption. Being that your niece was adopted out of foster care, she should be a client of the Adoption Assistance Program (AAP) through the county that did the adoption. Her AAP social worker can assist with resources, specifically adoption-specific therapists  

All the best to your niece. 

We adopted my niece (she came to us at 5 years old) and Virginia Wolf (already referenced on this thread) was invaluable during the process. One of the most helpful things (at her recc) we did was create a story of our daughter's life, with photos, real names, and timeline of how her story unfolded. It didn't go into lots of detail, but was a high-level story in which she could reference in her own privacy and also give her a jumping board for asking more questions. The book was very helpful in 1) explaining her story 2) giving her the truth 3) allows her to re-reference her story as/when needed (in example, I notice she will re-read the book whenever something relating to her bio parents happens, a visit, a phone call, etc.) while I agree with the other respondents it would have been ideal to tell earlier, it can still be done well. I suggest speaking with a professional, creating some sort of keepsake for her that she can reference privately, and taking ownership over not having told her earlier (we didn't want xyz, we were worried that xwy, etc.). Good luck!