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How to talk to adopted children whether to explain adoption or about other difficult subjects depends on encouraging safe communications. Parents that understand the real, underlying reason for a child’s emotional reaction will be able to address the child’s core issue and talk to the child with empathy instead of bewilderment or anger.

Adoption, abandonment, birthparents, loss, grief and fear are themes that can produce anxiety, outbursts or dead silence—not the kind of conversation starters that families like to bring up at the dinner table. However, it is exactly this type of subject matter that impacts adoptive families on a regular basis, and parents can either ignore the issues, or learn to look at an adoption related talk as an incredible opportunity for building family intimacy. Adoptive parents can use the power of talk to connect with their child, explain adoption to their child, create history for their child and help heal their child.

Adopted children have experienced some important losses in their short lifetimes. They have lost birthparents, extended family, history and heritage. Internationally adopted children have lost a country, a language and ethnic identification. Adoptees may feel personal shame from their perception surrounding the circumstances of their losses, and may react strongly to triggered feelings of rejection or abandonment.

Understanding ‘what’ adopted children need from their parents (and why) is key to actively encouraging conversation about the type of topics that tend to make children unhappy and parents uncomfortable.

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How to Talk to with a Young Child



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Personality, age and early life experience have a lot to bear on how a child reacts to talk about adoption, and on the gamut of personal feelings that adoptees grapple to understand.

Young children are concrete thinkers, and tend to regard adoption as a happy, practical solution to a child needing a family and to parents wanting a child. Watching a child’s adoption video, looking at the adoption photo album (or lifebook), or reading a children’s books about adoption together, are all excellent activities that reinforce a child’s own life story—and help a parent explain the bittersweet, broader concepts of becoming an adoptive family. These activities are a gentle introduction to the multiple layers of adoption, and help to prepare the child for a deeper understanding at a later age.


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How to Talk With Tweens and Teens


Older children are notorious for not wanting to talk to their moms and dads about private thoughts or emotional matters, let alone talk about adoption related feelings that may be part of their struggle to understand who they are.

Tweens (ages 8-12) are learning how to fit in to their social group, but adopted tweens face a terror of rejection, which may place a tumultuous importance on making and keeping friends. Teens are learning how to separate from their parents, but adopted teens must learn to individuate from two sets of parents—adoptive and birth—while seeking to form their own identity. The unknown variables in adoption (and especially birthfamilies) can make this teen business a frustrating process.

Parents can also become tongue-tied at this age and stage. In addition to the usual discussions on sex, drugs and alcohol, adoptive parents need to consider more complex conversations with their tweens and teens on adoption ethics, genetic factors in addiction, and the need to identify and deal with emotional turmoil.

Expert Viewpoints:

  • Jean MacLeod : At Home in this World
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How to Talk About Tough Topics


Building a communication base, where trust is a core part in talk with a young child is foundational for the teen years, and to securing a solid long-term parent-child relationship.

Helping a young child use the feelings words (sad, mad, scared and happy), and regularly calling a teen on an emotional core issue instead of berating the symptomatic bad behavior, gives children the internal tools to eventually understand, express and direct their own feelings and reactions when they do find themselves in tough emotional situations.

Communication is a line of defense against loss, which is one of life’s toughest issues for an adoptee with previous trauma. A family death or divorce may trigger a major loss reaction, but even lesser changes like going to camp, sleepovers, moving, or attending a new school may need to be deconstructed and acknowledged as an ‘everyday’ loss issue for an adopted child.

Honest communication is also a parent’s strongest tool when having to discuss difficult information with an adoptee. An attachment or adoption therapist can also provide a family with additional guidance when it’s age appropriate to talk about detailed reasons for a child’s abandonment; birthfamily history of drug addiction or alcohol abuse, rape, incest, physical abuse or neglect; and disruption or dissolution.

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