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Explaining Adoption to Young Children
There are two fears many parents have when it comes to telling their child that she has been adopted. The first is that the revelation will devastate the child. The second is that the child will someday want to leave them in search of her birth parents.

In response to these concerns, some parents decide not to reveal the truth to their child. Though I can understand how one would be tempted to keep the information under wraps, I strongly discourage anyone from doing so. After all, this is one secret that is next to impossible to keep. Sooner or later, your child will find out from someone. I can tell you from professional experience, learning it that way can be hurtful, indeed. In my practice I have met several youngsters who discovered during adolescence that they had been adopted. They reacted with shock. They felt betrayed and were in considerable emotional turmoil. A few even became depressed.

It’s best for your child to hear the story of her adoption from you. If you worry about how to tell that story, let me assure you that there’s a way that’s as pleasant as it is memorable.

The approach I recommend is a process that actually takes place over a period of years. When do you begin this process? For children to understand the concept of adoption, they must be old enough to know where babies come from. That understanding typically begins to develop around the age of 4 or 5 and is usually grasped by 6 or 7.

Since children this age love and learn best from stories and pictures, a wonderful way to explain your child’s adoption is to create a picture album, reinforcing it with the story of her arrival into your lives.

Start off by purchasing an attractive, fun photo album, one that leaves you room to write. You might want to name the album “The Story of Me,” or choose another title that appeals to you.

Once you have the album, collect photos of you and your spouse before you were married. Next, add pictures of your marriage, relatives from both sides of your family and your home. After that, chronicle baby’s arrival: pictures of the nursery, the baby shower, friends and family waiting to meet her and the big mument itself.

This is every bit a traditional baby album in that it captures all the exciting “firsts” in baby’s life, such as first meals, first steps and the first birthday. To complement the pictures, include significant details and dates in your child’s baby book. You may decide to include both your child’s birthday and the date she joined you at home, for example.

When your child shows an interest in looking at picture books and hearing stories, bring out her special baby book. She may not be old enough to fully appreciate the story you’re sharing, but she’ll love listening to you tell it as she gazes at pictures of herself. And you’ll have an opportunity to talk about her arrival without feeling unduly stressed or anxious.

As you look at the book again and again as your child matures, it will be easier to start talking in more detail about adoption – for example, the difference between a “birth” mother or father and a “real” mother or father. You can tell your child that her birth mother is the parent she grew inside of before she was born, and the real mother is the mum who takes care of you every day. Naturally, you will find the words that best suit you.

What are the advantages to explaining adoption in the manner I have descoted? For one, it’s a gradual process that allows parents and child to talk about it in a relaxed manner, during a pleasant encounter. Secondly, like any story she hears repeatedly, your child will have an easy time accepting the story of her adoption. Believe me, children do not tire of seeing photos of themselves, and of hearing their mum and dad tell them how they arrived, how the family welcomed them and how they have grown and flourished.

In addition to creating a special book for your child, I’d also recommend browsing the library or bookstore for books about adoption. These will help you answer your child’s questions, which will undoubtedly become more specific as she grows up.

As your child matures, she may also throw some of the information you have shared back at you. Perhaps, in the heat of an argument, she’ll say something like, “You’re not my real parent.” But don’t let this possibility deter you from telling her the truth. Think of such hurtful statements as your child’s way of challenging your authority and manipulating you, and move on.

If you’re like most adoptive parents, you know that your child became yours the mument you held her in your arms. The very act of creating a special book for her, and of sharing the story of her birth, will reassure her who her real parents are, and remind her of their unconditional love for her.

Kenneth N. Condrell Ph.D Child Psychologist