Friday, March 23, 2012

Explaining Adoption to 3-5 Year-Olds

At Adoptive Families, some advice for talking adoption to the preschool set:
When children are very young, your tone and your comfort with the topic are as important as the facts, so you can stick to a simple version of his story. Think of it as a sketch that you’ll fill in with more details. The only caveat is to be honest and avoid saying anything you’ll have to contradict later.

* * *

Adoptive parents sometimes skip the birth step when telling their young child his story. They may say, “Mommy and Daddy couldn’t make a baby, so we called an adoption agency. They found a baby for us, and that was you.” Other parents start talking about adoption by focusing on the child’s birth country. Lily, age five, from Lawrenceville, New Jersey, thought she was born “from China.” Keep in mind that preschoolers are literal thinkers. It is not unusual for a child this age to conclude that “adoption” means being hatched, delivered by plane, or some other non-natural process. Include your child’s birth in her story even if you know little about it; your child needs to know that she was born normally, like any other child.

* * *

Preschoolers begin to differentiate between birth and adoption as different ways of entering a family, and to realize that they have two sets of parents. They’ll start asking questions that they’ll pose many times over, in different forms, in the years to come. Why did they place me? Did they give me up because something is wrong with me? Children tend to feel responsible for whatever happens to them, and may worry, Maybe I cried too much, didn’t eat enough, and so on. Reassure your child that nothing he did or didn’t do led to his being placed for adoption, and that his birthparents could not take care of any baby because of their own situation.

On the other hand, don’t give the impression that something is wrong with his birthparents. Even if you have troubling information about the birthparents, try to send the message that they did their best, given their circumstances. At this age, your child needs to feel that he was born to good people.

Don’t tell a preschooler, “She placed you because she loved you.” This may only lead your child to worry that you, her loving parent, could place her again.

* * *

If your child is of a different race, or has clearly different physical features, from your family, she’ll become aware of this around age four. She may notice it herself, or overhear someone commenting on her appearance. Explain that the birth process is the same for everyone, but that people from different cultures have distinguishing physical features and their own rich heritage.

Although it is tempting to smooth over your differences, you should acknowledge them and help your child take pride in his cultural and racial heritage.

* * *

The most important goal at this stage is to create an open, empathic family atmosphere in which adoption is freely discussed and all questions are welcome. Laying this foundation will serve you and your child well in years to come, as her feelings about adoption become more complex, or if you have negative information to share.
Remember, it's never too early to talk to your kids about adoption. The key is to make it developmentally appropriate. And one of the best parts about starting young (even younger than age 3) is that it gives YOU the opportunity to practice and become comfortable with adoption talk while your child is still too young to understand much of what you're saying. That early practice, and laying a foundation to build on later, will benefit both you and your child. Remember, too, that adoption talk is not a one-time deal -- you'll be talking to your child about adoption forever.

There's good, basic advice in this article, and practical suggestions of actual words to use -- something I always find helpful! And if you're just getting started with adoption talk, you might want to check out these posts: Ten Commandments of Telling and Talking Adoption Tips.

This part tickled my funny bone: "All children at this stage are egocentric, so if he gives it any thought, an adopted child will probably assume that all children join their families by adoption."  That's EXACTLY what Zoe thought at this age!  She once asked why her birth parents couldn't adopt her!  Didn't seem to matter that the story had always been, "You grew in your birth mother's tummy until it was time for you to be born;" Zoe still thought that the only way to have stayed with her birth family was for them to adopt her. . . .


Sergio Freddson said...

This is great to know! You're right: children are very literal thinkers. Our oldest is about 8 and he is still pretty literal. Our youngest (adopted) is starting to reach an age where we feel the need to tell her about her adoption and this article seems like it will really help us. Thanks for sharing your process with us!

Audrey Blakeney said...

Explaining to a child that they are adopted can be a very difficult discussion. My sister adopted a baby a few months ago, and she is already worrying about how she will tell him. I like your tips, however, about using a calming tone and simplified story. Doing so would help your child feel more at comfort and better understand what you are saying. Thank you for posting these tips about how to explain adoption to younger children.