Teenage Years: Communicating with Your Teenager About Adoption

This was taken directly from Child Welfare Information Gateway


Adopted teenagers wonder about their birth families and think about adoption more than most parents realize. They need parents who are comfortable talking about adoption, who aren’t threatened or hurt by the discussion, and who can help answer their questions and discover information about their pasts.

Children are best served by parents who talk about adoption from the youngest ages with openness and in a matter-of-fact way. Teens should not be “surprised” with new information about their adoption. Keeping secrets generally implies something is wrong and often has more to do with the adoptive parents’ own losses, fears, and comfort than with the child’s needs. Do not wait for your teen to raise the topics of adoption and their birth family. Let your child know that it is okay to talk with you about adoption issues, and make sure that it is. Some children never raise the subject, for fear of offending their adoptive parents. Others act disinterested, when in reality they yearn for more information or for a safe place to express their feelings about adoption.

Use teachable moments

Find appropriate times and ways to talk about adoption. Rather than trying to force adoption discussions, parents of teens may have more success by using “teachable moments.” Look for events that naturally lend themselves to the topic of adoption. The arrival of a newborn in the neighborhood can lead to discussions of pregnancy, birth, and adoption. Mother’s Day or Father’s Day are logical times to offer help in researching additional information about birth family members and roots, if little is known. Take advantage of an international news special to talk about your child’s homeland. Articles about foster care can spur discussions of child protective services and your child’s experience, if relevant.

Provide opportunities for your adopted teen to talk to others about adoption without you around. An adoptive teen group (meeting in person or online), other adoptive families with teens, or an adoption mentor (an older adopted person) can provide a safe outlet for expressing confusion, anger, or sadness.

Provide full disclosure

Teenagers need more detailed information about their past than they could understand at younger ages. This information should now include all that you know or can discover about their genetic histories and their birth and adoption circumstances— including information that may be upsetting or difficult to share.

Adoptive parents often struggle with sharing negative information about their child’s birth circumstances, such as if the child was abandoned or if the birth parent had a criminal history. When their adoptive parents are not straightforward in sharing full information, however, teenagers often imagine something even worse than what really happened. Youth placed at older ages may have inaccurate memories of the experience. Further, some teens may become resentful if the truth is revealed later. Withholding information that they have a right to know can be harmful to building a trusting relationship with your teen.

As teenagers develop, they increase their ability to understand and consider situations from many viewpoints. This is an ideal time for adoptive parents to help their sons and daughters make sense of their histories, to come to terms with what happened, and to think of their birth families with compassion.

Develop a lifebook

Information about our origins and histories contributes to the development of our identities and our understanding of how we are influenced by our pasts. Some sort of permanent document can help us remember our life journeys. For adopted persons, such a document should include information about the time before they were adopted, photos and reminders of birth family members, and information about their genetic and cultural roots.

If your teenage son or daughter does not have a lifebook or similar tool that records personal history, now is the time to help create one. Adopted teens have created photo-essays, videos, and blogs or Facebook pages to tell and preserve their stories. Adoptive parents can help by teaching teens about Internet safety, making backup copies of all documents and photos, and keeping these valuable records in a safe place.

Offer to help your teen find people from his or her past who might provide photos, information, and even alternate viewpoints about the family’s circumstances and the need for adoption. You may need to do a bit of detective work, especially if the adoption occurred years ago. If your child was adopted from another country, help research the economic, political, and social situation at that place and time to shed light on possible birth and adoption situations. Your teen might want to interview a representative from the placing agency or orphanage to gather more information.

If your teen is not interested in gathering this information, keep the door open. Remind your teen that you are available to help whenever he or she is ready. You might even proceed on your own. The longer from the adoption date you wait, the more difficult it is to make contacts with people who can provide information. Preserve the information, photos, and memorabilia until your son or daughter is ready for it. For some adopted persons, this interest or curiosity does not arise until they become parents themselves. Then, they truly appreciate their parents’ efforts to preserve their histories.

Prepare for search and/or reunion

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We all have a need to know who we are and where we come from. Many adopted adults want to know of and make contact with birth family members or others who share their ethnicity, race, or country of origin. An adoptive child’s adolescence is a good time for parents to prepare themselves emotionally for future searches for birth family members and possible reunions.

Remember that “search” and “reunion” do not have to go together. Many adopted persons want only to search for the identities of birth relatives. Not all want to take the next step of contacting and meeting those family members. Many need time to think and process information before taking that next step. The interest in doing so may be episodic, with more interest around birthdays or holidays, other significant dates, or special life milestones such as graduations or marriages.

When searching, teens must be prepared for a range of reactions if there has not been ongoing contact with the birth family. As the adoptive parent, you can assist by preparing your child and ensuring that any contact is appropriate. Often it is a matter of clear role definition for all parties. Professional social workers or therapists who know about adoption may be able to provide assistance.

Adoptive parent support groups and parent mentors can be helpful resources during this process. A professional counselor or therapist who knows about adoption issues can help you identify and address your feelings, fears, and grief, so that you can maintain an open and honest relationship with your child. Adopted persons may be terrified of hurting their parents when they search for their birth family. Your unconditional love and support will be very important if and when your son or daughter is ready to take this step.

Start preparing now by gathering information about how an adoption search is conducted in the State where your child’s adoption occurred. Private placing agencies may have their own resources and methods for assisting adopted persons in locating birth family. Professional search groups, registries, and the Internet can be helpful. International adoption agencies can help with communications and search services in other countries. Many State agencies maintain postadoption services, an adoption registry, or offer a confidential intermediary (someone who acts as a go-between) to help adopted persons, birth parents, and siblings who want information or to locate each other. The age requirement to participate in these services is usually 18 or 21.

For more information, visit the Search and Reunion section of the Child Welfare Information Gateway website:


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