“Mom, do you remember the day that I picked you?” My son asked me as I stirred the pot on the stove. The memory of that day came rushing back like it was yesterday. “Of course I remember that day, Bubby! It was the best day in the world!” It happened shortly after we had met Gus and his older sister, Sally. We knew we would eventually be taking them home and adopting them, but no one had told them yet. All the grown-ups in their lives wanted to see how they would react to us. How this 5- and almost 3-year-old would feel about being sent home with yet another family.

We picked them up for a day of fun and weren’t quite sure how they would react to a whole day with us. “You can call us Melissa and Steve or ‘Hey you!’ if you forget our names.” I told them. “But what if I just want to call you Mom?” Sally replied. “Well, if you want to call me Mom, you can. But if you don’t want to, it’s okay, too.” I couldn’t imagine being 5 and meeting my fourth mother. Of course I was excited by her reply, but I wanted to make sure she knew we weren’t forcing her to see us as parents before we had earned that title.

That night, as we drove them back to their current foster home, Sally was asleep in the back seat. Gus was babbling to himself, and began to point at me saying, “Mama, mama!” Then he pointed at my husband and said, “Dada, dada!” Over and over he chanted these two sweet words until we reached his foster family’s home. My heart was full.

So as I stood at the stove stirring pasta, listening to my now 7-year-old son talk about “picking me”, something occurred to me. When adopting older children, it is so important for them to have a say in their own lives. No matter what background they’ve come from–no matter how they made their way into your family–they’ve certainly experienced a lot of loss, uncertainty, and vulnerability. They are old enough to feel the weight of it, they are old enough to speak their mind on it, and they are certainly old enough to be heard about it.

When we teach our children an empowering narrative about their adoptions, we give them a slice of the control they so desperately need. We subtly shift their perception from being that of a victim of circumstance and authority to a perception of being a leader of their own situation and destiny. Yes, bad things may happen to them, but they can conquer those things because they can trust themselves enough to make the right choices to do so.

What can stop our kids if they truly believe they have the power to determine their own outcome in life? What can keep them down when they understand that they were smart enough, and strong enough, and WORTH enough to be heard throughout the adoption process? They will absorb this message and carry it forward with them forever. Adoption then will not be something that happened to them: It will be something that happened for them.

A few simple steps we as parents or caretakers can take to encourage our children to gain control of their adoption story are:

1. Validate the feelings of the children in our care.

Feelings are big, and messy, and complicated, and that’s okay! Give your children permission to feel whatever it is they feel at any point in time. Let them know you hear them, and you want to understand how they are feeling.

2. Be honest.

Always be honest in a kind and loving way, even when it’s hard to be. There are things we don’t want to have to discuss with our children, but honest answers to their questions will help them build trust in us. They will be able to see that you are their ally and will help them make decisions that are truly in their best interest.

3. Acknowledge the choices and consequences of all involved in the adoption process.

Our children did not choose to be placed in a family other than their family of origin. The adults in their lives made choices that caused the children to need outside adults to ensure their safety and well-being. Our choices do not make us good or bad—but our choices will always have either a positive or a negative consequence. Making that clear is extremely important. Our children are not responsible for the situation they are in, but together, we can move forward in whichever direction is best for each child.

4. Help them understand the adoption process.

Between caseworkers and birth families, judges, attorneys, and everything else that comes with the adoption of an older child, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and out of control as an adult, let alone as a child. In an age-appropriate manner, explain each step of the process. Ask for their input, and help them set realistic expectations about what lies ahead.

5. Let your child make age-appropriate decisions whenever possible.

There are many choices throughout the process to make, both big and small. Any time you can give the children the opportunity to make a decision, give it to them! Guide them toward two practical options that are both in their best interest, and let them have the deciding voice.

I’d love to learn from you in the comments below. What else would you add to this list? How do you empower your children? How do you encourage them to embrace their adoption story?