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Dear Angel: Is there an appropriate time to tell your child they are adopted?

Dear Angel: Is there an appropriate time to tell your child they are adopted?

There was a time when I thought it was best to delay the conversation. When my son was old enough to understand, when the time felt right, I’d make plans for the big “Reveal Day” and tell my son he’d been adopted into our family at birth. I blindly assumed there’d be obvious signs or increased questions from my son that would let us know Reveal Day was at hand. My husband and I made plans to announce his adoption over a quiet moment on the couch together, with a picture book or photo of his birth mom. So, I was taken aback when Reveal Day happened inside an elevator after my biological son, age five, announced to my adopted son, age three, that he refused to drink out of the same cup.

“We don’t share the same germs,” said my five-year-old.

“Yeah I do,” argued my adopted son.

“No you don’t,” my son continued before I could hush him. “You have a different mom and dad.”

Ouch. Reveal Day was permanently botched. I snatched the drink out of my five year old’s hand and told him sharply, “We are all family. We share joys, laughter, pains and sorrows. We even share germs. And we will definitely share our drinks.” It wasn’t the gentle conversation I originally planned. Yet it made me realize this: The perfect time to tell a child about their adoption…is NOW. The sooner the better.

Telling a child they are adopted can feel daunting, even filled with anxiety. In my experience, the longer a parent waits to discuss adoption with a child, the greater the risk that child will hear about it from someone else; a sibling, grandparent, family member, classmate, and ultimately question why it wasn’t explained earlier. I’ve read excerpts by expert adoption workers who recommend that a child be told about their adoption between the ages of 6-8, saying kids at this age usually feel established enough in their family not to feel threatened by learning about adoption. Some suggest that a child under the age of six are unable to cognitively work through the losses implied by learning that he or she was born into a different family. In my experience, a child can not only feel established in their family at a much younger age, but deserves to know about adoption as soon as possible. No one should be expected to keep a child’s adoption story a “secret” until a designated time period. The time is always right to tell a child about their adoption story in age-appropriate ways. In addition, it’s important to talk openly about adoption with siblings, grandparents, other family members and friends.

Starting from an early age, there are simple ways to introduce an adopted child’s birth family into their lives:

Visible Photographs/Letters

If possible, have a framed photograph of your adopted child’s birth mom in a prominent place in the home, such as a family or living room, so that its visible to everyone in the family. Keep letters in a scrapbook or memory box in an easily accessible place. Adoptive parents can make a point to talk openly about the birth parent’s photograph as someone special in their family. Invite observations and questions from your adopted child, as well as siblings and friends, about the privilege of having an extended family member: A Birth Parent.

Words of Gratitude

Pray alongside your child or express words of gratitude for their birth mom on a regular, if not daily, basis. Thank her for the gift of life she gave. Thank her for choosing your family to raise and love her child. Pray for her to feel peace and comfort surrounding her decision. Pray for her heart to heal. A simple prayer of gratitude can include the following, “Thank you (Birth Mom) for blessing our family with our son/daughter. May she feel loved and cherished today. May she always know how grateful we are for her beautiful gift of love.”

Be an Advocate

It’s important to be the greatest advocate for your child’s birth mom. If you know positive stories about your adopted child’s birth mom—share them when your child. For families not involved in an open adoption plan, they can still honor a child’s birth mom by simply taking the time to talk about her in a kind-hearted manner. Understand that the words you choose to describe your child’s birth mom will have a lasting effect on your adopted son or daughter. Birth moms deserve to have some recognition, even if the circumstances that led to an unplanned pregnancy weren’t ideal, which brings me to my final point:

Be Truthful

As your child matures and becomes older, be open and honest about the circumstances that led to their adoption. Be as forthright as possible, even if the information is difficult or painful. Adoption is imperfect. Every adoption story begins with a sense of grief and loss. From personal experience, I’ve learned that adopted parents can help an adoptee experience healing by demonstrating a consistent level of engagement with difficult questions and willingness to help process lingering emotions. Remember, just because an older adopted child isn’t talking about their adoption doesn’t mean their story isn’t permanently etched in their psyche. They deserve to know the truth behind their story, as best you can tell it.

Adoption is a family affair. Encourage open communication among siblings about what it means to be adopted. They hear the whispers. They notice the hushed conversations. They have a desire to feel included. Adoption reaches far beyond the triad of a birth parent, adopted parent and adoptee. The most important thing is to have regular, open discussions with your family, including adopted children and siblings together, about adoption.


Adrian Collins

ARSS Angel

Visit to learn more about her adoption story, listen to recent podcasts, and sign up for her e-mail newsletter with adoption tips and updates.​

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