Preschool: Communication About Adoption

This information has been taken directly from Child Welfare Information Gateway

Parents who project an attitude of acceptance and comfort with adoption are better able to help their children explore their own feelings and fears. With young children, how you say something is more important than what you say. Stay relaxed and matter of fact. Your tone of voice is important. Parents who grimace or tense up when the topic of adoption is raised may send the message that something is wrong with being adopted. Similarly, keeping information “secret” implies that adoption is negative, bad, or scary. This section provides strategies to help you communicate effectively with your preschooler.

Talk Openly About Adoption

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Preschoolers love stories and will want to hear their own adoption story again and again. These years are a great time to practice approaching the topic comfortably and honestly. Preschoolers are limited in how much they can understand about adoption, so simple explanations will work best. Be concrete and use props such as dolls, simple drawings, and story books. Don’t feel you have to cover everything at once; you and your child will have many chances to talk about adoption.

Preschoolers generally feel good about having been adopted but may still have questions. At this age, they are beginning to notice pregnant women and wonder where babies come from. The most important idea for the preschooler to grasp is that he or she was born to another set of parents and now lives with your family. (Some adopted preschoolers have thought that they were not born.) You can help your child understand this idea using clear and simple explanations. (“Babies grow in a special safe place inside their birth mothers’ bodies.”) Don’t worry if they initially reject the explanation.

Children this age are also self-centered and concrete in their thinking. They often blame themselves for life events. Language is an important consideration whenever discussing adoption, both with your child and in responses to other people’s questions when your child is present. Tell the adoption story in words that will help him or her build a positive identity, calm fears, and understand his or her personal story.

Consider the following word choices:

Instead Of: Say:
“Real” mother/father OR “Natural” mother/father Birth mother/father OR First mother/father
We could not have our own baby We could not have a baby born to us
Your birth parents were not able to take care of you. Your birth parents had grown-up problems, so they could not take care of a child.
They gave you up for adoption. They made a plan for you to be adopted.

Use a Lifebook

A “lifebook” contains the background and story of your child’s life. It is a sort of personal history book, where your child can collect pictures of important people, places, and events, as well as objects and other memorabilia that have a personal meaning.

Here are some tips to help you create this book with your child:

  • Start at the beginning of your child’s story—with his or her birth, not with the adoption.
  • Present facts simply, in ways that the child can understand.
  • Maintain contacts with birth family members, orphanage staff, and previous caseworkers and caregivers to gather photos and memorabilia for the book.
  • If your child was adopted internationally, include visuals from his or her native country (postcards, women fabrics, popular folk images, native cartoon characters).
  • Allow your child to decide when and with whom to share this valuable book.
  • If necessary, put aside sensitive information until the child is old enough to understand it.
  • See the Lifebooks for Children section of the Information Gateway website for more resources.

Support Birth Family Relationships

Open adoption” refers to maintaining contact between the child (adoptee) and his or her birth parents or other birth relatives. Like not keeping adoption a secret, an open adoption can have great benefits for the adoptee as well as the adoptive parents and birth families. Many adoptive families choose to maintain some level of contact with their child’s birth family members, although the degree of openness varies.

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Families can select an arrangement that best suits their child’s needs. In some adoptions, adoptive family and birth family members contact each other directly. In others, information is shared through an agency, caseworker, or lawyer. Some families choose to share only medical histories and other background information without identifying information such as last names or addresses. Families should learn more about the benefits of open adoption by working with their adoption agency and by reading and educating themselves about adoption issues.

Adoptive parents sometimes worry about relationships with the birth family. Sometimes their initial reaction to the idea of openness and contact is one of fear. (Will their child prefer the birth parent? Will the child reject the adoptive family? Can the child become confused about having two families?) Because of these fears, adoptive parents may want to refuse any contact. Adoption experts note that contact with birth family members generally has a positive effect on children. Contact with the birth family helps a child develop his or her identity, build self-esteem, and feel more—not less—attached to the adoptive family. Like all relationships, these types of relationships may feel awkward at first. Sometimes an outside adoption expert, such as a counselor or agency social worker, can help everyone define and feel comfortable with their respective roles. Early meetings may need to take place at a neutral location, or initial contact may be by letter, email, or phone.

Preschool-age children have limited understanding of their relationship to their birth parents. (One little boy said, “Susan is my birthday mother because she comes to my birthday parties.”) Help your preschooler see that these other “parents” or relatives are important. Speak of them respectfully and comment on their positive qualities. Seeing that you value his or her birth relatives or previous caretakers will help your child feel better and closer to you.

Families may look quite different from one another. In today’s families, it is not unusual for a child to have both a dad and a stepdad or multiple grandparents. This variety in families may make it easier for you to talk to your child about his or her birth family. It may also help your child to have separate labels for each family member (Grandpa, Pappy, Grandfather; Mommy, Birth Mother).

For internationally adopted children with no birth family member contacts, show your interest in finding as much information as you can. Help your child learn about his or her country of origin—its culture, history, language, native foods and manner of dress, and current events. Talk about the possibility of a future family trip there, if financially possible.

Help Children Cope with Adoption-Related Losses

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Children adopted as preschoolers often feel sad or angry about their separation from the people they remember. These may include birth family members, foster parents, and orphanage “brothers and sisters.” Some preschoolers adopted as babies show sadness when they begin to grasp the concept of adoption and the people they have lost, even if they have no conscious memory of them.

Young children, like all people, experience grief and need to mourn and work through loss. You can help them by answering their questions honestly, accepting their feelings, and helping them remember important people in the past. Learning to be comfortable with your won feelings about adoption, why you choose to adopt (e.g., infertility), or missing out on your child’s earlier experiences creates a positive and significant bond with your adopted child. Acknowledge their feelings without trying to sweep them away or clear them up. You may also acknowledge your own sadness by saying something like, “I’m sad too that I didn’t get to be with you when you were just a little baby, but I’m happy that your birth mother (and father) had you and that you came to live with me.”

Accept sadness as a normal part of a child’s coming to terms with adoption. Don’t deny your child this feeling or rush him or her through it. Even children adopted as infants, with no memory of their birth parents, will experience these losses, issues, and feelings. This is a part of adoption, not only for the adoptee, but also for the birth parents and adoptive parents who grieve what might have been. Your own understanding of adoption issues will better prepare you to respond to your child’s questions and feelings. However, if your preschooler seems sad or angry much of the time, seek help. Extreme behaviors or moods (control issues, withdrawal, apathy, extreme fearfulness, poor appetite, aggressiveness) may result from unresolved grief. If your child shows these behaviors, look for a therapist or counselor who specializes in young children and truly understands adoption. Ask other adoptive parents for recommendations whenever possible.

Address Adoption Fears and Fantasies

Young children who have already lost one home might be very fearful of losing another. This may lead to increased insecurity. Fears may take the form or sleeping or eating difficulties, nightmares, separation difficulties, nervousness, or increased allergies and illnesses. Here are some things you can do to build your child’s physical comfort level and emotional security:

Build a Safe Environment

Install night lights, buy soft cuddly clothing, prepare favorite foods, and give your child extra attention. Whenever possible, keep important tops, clothes, and other objects from your child’s past. Establishing consistent routines and rules will also help your child feel safe and secure.

Let Your Child Know That You Will Always Be There

Reassure your child that your family and home are permanent. If your child was adopted past infancy, he or she may experience separation anxieties. When you leave the house, make sure to point out that your departure is temporary. Ease the child into visiting a new location or getting to know a new caregiver. Talk in advance about where he will go, what he will do, and when you will come to get him. Visit the site together if possible. Help your child select a comfort item from home to bring along or to play with together later at home. Always pick him or her up on time.

Acknowledge Fantasies

Many children fantasize about an alternate family life. Some children dream of a “real” mother who never reprimands or a father who serves ice cream for dinner. The fantasies of an adopted child may be more frequent or intense because another set of parents really exists. Accept your child’s pretending or wishing without defensiveness.

Give Your Child Permission to Talk About Birth Family

You can even take the lead by saying, “I bet your birth mom thinks about you,” or “I wonder if your birth dad had such clear blue eyes like yours.” Teach your preschooler that it is okay to care about both adopted parents and birth parents.

Incorporate Adoption Into Family Traditions/Rituals

The preschool years are a wonderful time to start family rituals that celebrate your child’s cultural heritage. They are also a good time to celebrate the role of adoption in forming your family. Birth parents and grandparents can be remembered on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day by special cards, prayers, or candle lightings. International adoptive families can celebrate significant events of their children’s countries of origin, such as the 15th of September (Guatemalan independence) or the Chinese New Year. In addition to a birthday celebration, your family can develop a special way to acknowledge the child’s “adoption day.”

Be Sensitive to Daycare/Preschool Concerns

Parents often wonder whether they should talk to their child’s teacher about adoption or the child’s past. A good rule to follow is to share only the information needed to ease the child’s adjustment and to keep your child and his or her classmates safe. Ask that adoption be included in materials and discussions. Consider donating appropriate picture books about adoption. Help teachers use positive adoption language and be aware of situations that may be hard for adopted children (for example, assignments involving bringing in baby pictures, creating family trees, or discussing family histories).

The preschool years are when children become aware of physical and cultural differences. They can also learn some basics about the different ways families are formed. Ask the school to include books, dolls, and playthings to represent cultural, ethnic, and family diversity.


Continue to Preschool: Discipline Considerations or return to Adoption Parenting

Resources

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2009). Parenting Your Adopted Preschooler. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.