When we walked in the door with my daughter after just a few days of being away, my 4-year-old son was ecstatic. He was completely enamored with his new little sister. My newly 2-year-old son, however, appeared as if he had just seen a ghost. Who was this intruder and why was she in his old car seat? He walked slowly up to her and stared intently. He gently placed his arm on hers and moved in close. Her eyes smiled at him as she cooed at him and reached for his face. It was then in that moment that he took his hand, placed it on her face, and immediately stole her pacifier and ran.

Adoption is a strange situation for a little child. There is no growing belly to prepare them. No strangers asking them if they are excited. In our case, we did not really know when she was coming home, so it was a complete surprise to everyone. Our oldest son was 14 when we brought our daughter home and fully understood what was happening. We were able to explain to him the ins an outs of the process and keep him updated with every step. My 4-year-old son knew that he would be getting a little sister, but viewed it more like a gift from the stork in those days. Then, on the other hand, my 2-year-old son viewed it as an alien invasion. For each of our children, teaching them about adoption came with the expectation that neither would understand it the same, some would not understand at all, and the acknowledgment that not understanding it fully was okay.

When teaching a young child about adoption, you have to meet him on his level. A 2-year-old is not going to understand adoption. No matter how many books you read or talks you have, it is best to simply focus on preparing your child for a new sibling and explaining adoption as she grows. For my 4-year-old who could grasp larger concepts in a limited capacity, it was best to use books and videos to explain adoption. One book I adore is Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born by Jamie Lee Curtis. It details the birth of a child who has been adopted and the journey home. My now 7-year-old understands that the version we read (you can change some details for your adoption story) is his sister’s story, and he can tell the story to her through that book. Even though he is 7, he still struggles a bit with the concept of adoption. For a while, he thought everyone was adopted. However, he now has met my daughter’s birth mom and understands that, though we are my daughter’s family, she had a family before us who still love her deeply. For a 7-year-old, the minute details may not be clear, but the stability of figuring it out as he goes and knowing it will one day make sense is enough.

To teach a small child about adoption, stick to small facts in words they can understand. Watch videos and read books like the ones recommended here. After you have read a book or watched a video, ask your child what questions he may have. This will not only help you gauge his level of understanding, but it will help him feel open to talking to you when he is unsure and will ask questions when he needs to understand. For many young kids, they do not yet understand childbirth in general. The distinction of biological and adoptive will be largely lost on them. For them, they are simply gaining a sibling. It is important that they know about adoption, but understanding it will happen organically as we encourage questions and meet them where they are at.