Adoption Parenting: Preschool

This was taken directly from Child Welfare Information Gateway

Parenting an adopted preschooler is very similar to parenting any preschooler. As parents, you should not ignore the fact that your child is adopted or their experiences prior to the adoption. But you need not worry unnecessarily about these issues, either.

Children ages 3 to 5 are limited in how much they can understand about adoption. Like all children of this age, adopted children are naturally curious and may ask many questions. They are also growing and changing rapidly. As their abilities develop, so will their understanding of their place in their families and communities. These early years are a good time for you to start practicing how to talk about adoption in a positive and relaxed manner. This will set the stage for open communication as your child grows.

This information is designed to help you understand your preschooler’s developmental needs. It also provides practical strategies to promote a warm and loving relationship with your child based on honesty and trust.

Adoption and Child Development


It is important to understand the typical developmental tasks and needs of preschoolers, as well as how adoption-related experiences may affect your child. This knowledge will help you better meet his or her needs, build a close relationship with your child, and promptly identify and address any delays.

Preschooler Development

Preschoolers don’t need special classes or expensive toys to learn and grow. Simple everyday interactions such as singing, talking, touching, rocking, and reading can help create a bond with your child and support healthy growth. The following are common characteristics and needs of preschoolers:

What Preschoolers Are Learning
  • How to jump, hop, climb, ride a tricycle, throw a ball (large muscle development)
  • How to color, draw, cut with scissors, brush teeth, use forks and spoons (fine muscle skills)
  • How to put words and short phrases together
  • How to concentrate on a task
  • How to recognize family members and friends
  • How to name simple emotions such as happy, angry, sad, or scared (children this age will also begin to show more complex emotions such as jealousy or empathy, although they won’t understand the names for them until much later)
  • How to express emotions and interact with others appropriately
How Preschoolers Think
  • They believe in magic and imaginary characters such as fairies, elves, and monsters.
  • They believe that they cause life-changing events and that everything revolves around them.
  • Their thoughts are often occupied by fantasies and fears.
How Parents Can Help
  • Provide space, activities, and playthings to stimulate both large and small muscle groups.
  • Provide chances to play and talk with others.
  • Teach appropriate social skills through words and by example.
  • Model and talk about healthy ways to cope with emotions.
  • Calm their fears. (“See, there are no monsters hiding under your bed.”)
  • Help them understand cause and effect. (“You went into foster care because your parents had grown-up problems that kept them from being able to take care of you, not because of anything you did.”)
  • If possible, when transitioning a preschooler into your family, use familiar foods, clothing, and blankets—little things that will help them feel comfortable and ease the transition.

Adoption Considerations

It is important for adoptive parents to understand how their child’s prior experiences, as well as their individual mental and physical capacity, might affect their development. Many children will catch up developmentally; some children will always have challenges. The following experiences sometimes contribute to delays or disabilities, but they do not affect all children in the same way:

Poor Prenatal Care

Poor prenatal care or nutrition can harm a child’s physical or mental development. Prenatal exposure to alcohol or drugs my damage a child’s developing brain or lead to specific disabilities.

Child Abuse or Neglect

Early neglect or abuse may limit a child’s physical, mental, emotional, and social development.

Often, the longer a child has experienced abuse or neglect, the greater the impact on development. Children whose early lives are harsh and/or unpredictable may not be able to develop the trust needed for healthy emotions. Sexual abuse can have an especially negative impact on young children by alters a child’s understanding of appropriate roles and relationships. Physical abuse and harsh physical punishment my affect how a child responds to discipline.

Institutionalization or Multiple Moves

Young children in institutional care (e.g., orphanages) are at risk for delays in mental, social, and physical growth. They also may have challenges processing sensory information or challenges with balance and movement. Institutionalization or multiple moves from family to family may limit a young child’s ability to form a healthy attachment to a primary caregiver. This can delay emotional and social development.

Grief and Loss

Children who experience separation from their birth parents may feel an unresolved sense of grief or guilt. Even children adopted as infants will experience grief about the loss of their birth parents and a potential life with them. These feelings may recur over their lifetime, even when their adoption is a positive experience. Unresolved grief can affect a child’s emotional and mental development.

Addressing Children’s Developmental Gaps

If your child spent a lot of time living in an institution or was in an abusive family situation, he or she may not have been taught or shown how to communicate or regulate feelings. He or she may not have had chances to learn to play with other children, take turns, or just have fun. Developmentally and experientially, your child may be much younger than his or her chronological age, and it may be helpful to think of the child in that way. As a result, your child may need time to “catch up” to children in the same age group in some skills. If English is not your child’s first language and he or she was placed after beginning to understand language, there may be additional delays and challenges.

You can help your child overcome these developmental gaps by adjusting the way you interact with your child to his or her developmental needs, rather than his or her age. Allow your child to learn at his or her own pace. Break tasks down into smaller, doable steps so that the child can feel a sense of mastery and accomplishment

The following are some examples:

  • Teach your child new ways to interact and communicate. Use both actions and words. (“I am waiting for my turn to throw the Frisbee.” “John showed his anger with words, not fists.”)
  • Teach your child about safety, privacy, and healthy family relationships. Demonstrate appropriate behavior and explain. (“In this home we go to the bathroom one at a time,” or “We do not keep secrets.”)
  • Use simple games and activities that help your child develop and coordinate all five senses. Finger-paint in the bathtub with colored shaving cream, practice writing with foam rubber letters, play dress-up with multi-fabric clothing and accessories, identify toys and point out their different characteristics (red, yellow, smooth, soft, big, small). Allow your child to play with “baby toys” designed for much younger children. A child cannot catch up without experiencing earlier developmental steps.

Parenting to Build Attachment

You can also use knowledge of your child’s developmental needs to help enhance your child’s attachment to you. Offer your child the kind of attention, nurturing, and physical closeness that he or she may have missed during early months and years.


Here are some things you can do to build attachment with your preschooler:

  • Smile at your child often, make loving eye contact, and use frequent praise.
  • Increase your physical contact (hug, hold hands, let your child sit on your lap). Be careful to use “safe touch” with children who may have been sexually abused.
  • Spend as much time with your child as possible. Consider reducing your work hours or taking a leave of absence during the child’s initial placement, if you are able.
  • Allow your child to go back to an earlier developmental stage, such as rocking on your lap cuddled in a blanket. Play baby games like peek-a-boo, feeding each other, and pat-a-cake.
  • Show your child how to play, how to have fun, and how to be silly.
  • Establish regular routines, guidelines, family activities, and traditions.
  • Plan future events to reassure your child that he or she will always be part of your family. Show your child where he or she will go to grade school, middle school, and high school. Talk about the future in your conversations (e.g., next Thanksgiving, next summer, on your sixth birthday).
  • Help your child grieve losses. Talk about former caregivers, and look at their photos together, if available.
  • Help your child remember his or her past.

When to Seek Help

Children learn skills (talking, walking, kicking a ball, recognizing letters) at their own pace. Don’t become alarmed if your child is slightly behind others his or her age in one, two, or more areas.

However, any child, adopted or not, may have a developmental delay or disability. This is defined as a ‘’significant’’ delay in one or more skill areas. Some delays are present at birth while others become more evident as the child grows. You should be prepared to nurture and assist your child if you discover a developmental delay. This is the role of all parents, adoptive or not. Joining a support group or parent group, particularly with other adoptive families, may help your family cope with these issues.

If you notice significant delays, loss of previous skills, or extreme behavior, contact your child’s doctor. You should also report if your child has excessive reactions to touch, light, sounds, and motion. A professional can help assess your child’s development and determine if serious delays exist. Often it is fairly easy to address developmental issues, and interventions may have more impact if the child is very young.

There are many things you can do if you feel that your child’s birth family history or early experiences may put him or her at risk for developmental delays or disabilities:

  • Talk to your child’s doctor about the possibility of a developmental delay or disability. Choose a doctor who has experience with children who have been adopted or those in placement, if possible.
  • Contact you State’s post-adoption resource center or adoptive parent association. See the Postadoption Services section of the Information Gateway website for more information:
  • Seek support and advice from experienced adoptive parents of children similar to yours. Join an adoptive parent support group.
  • Ask for professional assessment. Under Federal law, a young child who might have a physical, sensory, mental, or emotional disability is guaranteed the right to an assessment. If your child receives Medicaid, screening is free through the Early Periodic Screening, Diagnosis, and Treatment (EPSDT) program. For more information see:
  • Attend ongoing training on adoption and special needs.

If your child is found to have a disability, he or she might be eligible for Early Childhood Special Education. This can include speech therapy, occupational or physical therapy, and counseling. Some services can be provided ah home, while others may be offered at a child development center.

As always, it is important that you maintain a positive attitude and establish a tone of loving support and encouragement by showing you are willing to meet the child where he ore she is developmentally. Recent research shows that nurturing environments and loving relationships can build resilience in children.

Communication About Adoption

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

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.

Continue to Adoption Parenting: Preschool Part 2

  • Communication about adoption continued
  • Discipline considerations

Return to Adoption Parenting


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