Talking to your child about adoption

Adoptive parents are strongly encouraged to be open and honest with their child from as early as possible. But this doesn't mean that issues around adoption don't continue to pervade their experiences throughout childhood and, indeed, as an adult.

Issues facing adopted pre-teens

Being a tween is all about starting to investigate what it means to separate from your parents - but for an adopted eight to 12 year old, there are big additional factors. It can be confusing for a child to realise that at the very moment they're ready to start seperating themselves from their parents, they're more interested than ever in their 'other', birth parents. 

Another big issue is that because friendships are now becoming increasingly important to pre-teens, and usually the objective is to become as similar to friends as possible, then starting to explore what being adopted really means may make your child feel anxious and worried about seeming so 'different'. 

In the pre-teen years, as at every stage of life, adoptive parents have to cope with the whole gamut of emotions and changes that every parent has to deal with, but with a whole extra raft of adoptive issues, too.

Meanwhile, the adopted pre-teen has to cope with everything their peers are going through, with extra issues surrounding their adoption heaped on for good measure. For example, they might typically wonder things such as: 'Who are my birth family? Do I look like them? Do I behave like them? Will I ever meet them, and if so, when?' And: 'Why couldn't they take care of me when I was younger?'

Adoption UK says every pre-teen is likely to have their issues around adoption rise to the surface around this age, so you should expect them to want to discuss these.

If they don't mention them, don't assume it's because the issues aren't there. You might need to give your child 'permission' to address these concerns by starting the conversation yourself, which lets the child know you're open to talking things through, if and when they want to do so. 

School issues for adopted children

On our Talk boards, many adoptive parents feel alarmed about what's happening at the end of primary school and start of secondary school. Many have concerns about curriculum topics that could cause problems for adopted children, and are critical about schools and teachers for not taking their children's needs into account when, for example, they organise a lesson on exploring family trees or tracking genetic origins.

"My daughter was asked to do a family tree in school - and she just did one using us and my parents and family, and pretended that the things that were similar were inherited, eg brown eyes from dad, height and boobs from mum etc. She just answers anything like this as though she isn't adopted. We talked about in advance: part of our 'job' as adoptive parents is to anticipate problems and come up with solutions in advance." Mumsnetter MaryZ

The watchword seems to be this: don't just assume your child's school will be sensitive. Find out what's on the upcoming curriculum, and if you have concerns about how it will be handled, talk to the class teacher well in advance.

Bear in mind that when your child goes to secondary school, it will be harder to keep all school staff abreast of your child's history because there are so many more staff involved, so it might be worth seeing the head of Year 7 in advance of your child's arrival in the new school.

Your adopted child's friends

Now your child is older, she will have to decide how much to disclose to friends about the adoption and his or her past. It's worth talking all this through with your child, as she is entering a stage when friendships are notoriously fickle, and a much-trusted ally one week may become a spiteful and cruel enemy the next. Make sure your child realises that once information is imparted, it can never be taken back.

For some adopted children there are issues about the use of Facebook. If your child's birth family saw photos posted there, there could be repercussions and they could even try to make contact. 

If they're going to share their story with friends, pre-teens need to know how to handle questions.

"They need to know that something can be private without being secret," says one Mumsnetter. "It's no secret that my husband and I have sex. But it's considered private, and I would expect to be asked about it only if it were relevant, like by doctor discussing contraception." Her adopted daughter, she says, has a number of standard responses to unwelcome questions.

  • "Yes, I'm adopted, but it's private and I don't want to talk about it."
  • "My parents say I shouldn't have to talk about this if I don't want to."
  • "My mum says if you need to know anything you should ask her." (Useful when an adult is asking a question.)

If your non-adopted pre-teen has a friend who is adopted

If you have a non-adopted pre-teen who has an adopted friend, talk to them about the importance of being sensitive. Tell them to be led by their friend, and not to ask questions she may find uncomfortable, but be open to talking about being adopted if she wants to.

Last updated: 9 months ago