Explaining Adoption to a Young Child

Learn what to say about adoption to a young child .

In this article, you will find:

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Explaining Adoption to a Young Child

A simple story about adoption can suffice for the child who is 3 or 4. Most children like to hear their “adoption story.” When my son was little, he loved his story. He wanted to be told again and again how Mommy and Daddy ran around the house when they heard he was born and how they called everyone. And how when they saw him, Mommy was so excited she jumped up and down like a little girl. And how she told Daddy to drive extra, extra careful on the way home with him.

Your child's story won't be the same—it'll be unique. Here are a few details to include:

  • How you felt when you first learned about your child
  • How you felt as you waited for the child to enter your family
  • Your reactions when you learned the child would be coming
  • What it was like when you first saw your child, in person
  • What were the reactions of others in your family—your spouse, other family members, the child's siblings, and so on
  • What the first few days with the child were like

The good news about explaining adoption to preschoolers is they like to hear about it and generally react very positively. In The Psychology of Adoption, psychologist David Brodzinsky explains: “They generally are told about being adopted in the context of a warm, loving, and protective environment. Thus the emotional climate surrounding the telling process is one which fosters acceptance and positive self-regard.”

Familybuilding Tips

Children, especially younger ones, can be amazingly resilient. One minute, 5-year-old Tamara is upset that she didn't grow in Mommy's tummy. Then, while Mommy is agonizing over whether she said the “right thing,” Tamara is running out the door to play with her neighbor. However, sometimes issues and concerns do bother children. If you sense your child is upset, some careful probing can often reveal what's going on.

Of course, very young children can't really understand adoption yet! This doesn't mean that when they do understand adoption, they'll feel badly about it. It just means that you should not assume your 3-year-old child has accepted adoption for life just because he is happy hearing the adoption story now. There will be other questions as your child grows up.

In fact, while you might feel that you should talk about adoption to your 3- or 4-year-old, your child doesn't really need to hear about it much. As the authors of Talking with Young Children About Adoption (Yale University Press, 1993) say, “Adopters and adoptees are often out of phase with each other regarding worries, concerns, and pain around adoption. For parents these worries and concerns surface before adoption and are often strongest during the child's toddlerhood, when the issue of beginning to talk with their children about adoption is often negotiated with some trepidation and sadness.” But your young child might not even understand or care.

You can also supplement the personal adoption story with one or two books about adoption. I strongly recommend Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born by Jamie Lee Curtis, a charming and beautiful book.


In Parenting Your Adopted Child: A Positive Approach to Building a Strong Family (McGraw-Hill, 2004) by Andrew Adesman, M.D., Dr. Adesman emphasizes that no matter how old your child is, or what the reason for the adoption, one best explanation is that the birthparents were unable to be parents. This covers all situations and takes the burden off the child, who may fear that he or she in some way wasn't good enough and that's why the birthparent chose adoption.

Information Overload

Some parents go overboard when they explain adoption to their young children. They buy five or six (or more!) books about adoption. They talk about adoption constantly. They press the child to ask questions. In their over-eagerness to discuss the subject, these adoptive parents can make their children tense and distressed.

Here are a few points to keep in mind:

  • Select one or two adoption story books. Read them to your child. If she likes them, read them again. If she doesn't like them, put them away.
  • Don't obsess if your child doesn't seem to accept her adoption. Give the kid a break: She's 4 years old.
  • If your child asks a question when you don't feel ready to answer—such as why her mother didn't want to raise her—try not to clutch up. Take a deep breath and answer. If you really don't feel up to it, tell her you'll talk about it after dinner, tomorrow, or some other definite time. Make sure that you talk to her then.
  • Take your child to adoptive parent group parties where other adopted children attend. At one party, an amazed 8-year-old told me that almost all of the children at the party were adopted! She had thought she and her brother were the only ones.
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