About 2.1 million children living in the United States were adopted into their families. Adopted children have unique needs and their life story may be much different than their friends.
Read on to learn how you and others around adopted children can talk with them about adoption, help them overcome challenges, and develop a positive life story.
Adoption has changed
Stories about adoption told on TV and in movies do not always reflect how adoption is in real life, this is often exemplified in LGBT adoption. Some infants and parents are brought together through private adoption. A small number of international adoptions involve children born in another country and adopted by American parents.
Other children are adopted by relatives or non-relatives from foster care. Children enter foster care for many reasons. Most often, it is because of a difficult living situation for the child such as neglect, a parent struggling with substance use such as opioid addiction, physical abuse, or housing problems. About 81% of children adopted from the foster care system have special needs.
Use the right words, right away
Adoption, adopted, birth family, biological family, foster care, kinship care. Right from the start, adoptive parents should make these words part of everyday conversations. There is no reason to wait for the “right time” to start telling their child about their adoption story.
A child understands adoption gradually as they grow, just as with all other developmental tasks. Talking about the adoption regularly can help build trust between you and your child. It also gives your child a chance to think about and ask questions and share their feelings. Here are some ways to get started:
- Begin with simple parts of your child’s life story.
- Build more detail into the story as you talk more.
- Create a life book. Use a three-ring binder so you can add to the story over time.
- Start talking about difficult details of the story like abuse, trauma, and substance use with school-age children.
- Explain that being placed away from their birth parents was not their fault; they were not a bad baby or child. Talk with your teen about why their birth parents could not take care of them. This lets them know that the birth parents made the decision based on what they felt was in the best interest of the child.
- Talk about their birth parents as people who chose “to make an adoption plan” or to “place them up for adoption,” rather than being “put up” or “given up” for adoption. Most birth parents have thought long and hard about their decision to place a child for adoption. It is very important to a child’s self-esteem to know that their birth parents loved them and worked hard to reach a decision that they felt to be in their best interest.
- Note that describing a child as a birth child or an adopted child is not necessary. Explain that siblings who joined their family by birth and adoption are equal members.
- Children cared for (in kinship care) then adopted by a member of their birth family may not know why they cannot live with their birth parents.
Each adopted child’s life story is unique. The words used to tell their story give children strength and resilience.