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When do I tell my child he was adopted?

June 19, 2012

This question is, by far, the most commonly asked question I hear when completing adoption home studies. Some families are in the pre-adoption stage, hoping and watching to be matched with a child. Most families are already parenting a young child and are struggling to find the right time and the right words to tell their child that he’s adopted.

Without question, my advice to families who do not yet have a child in their home is to begin talking about adoption from the very beginning. For a newborn, this may mean whispering sweet stories about the first time you met her birthmother, or how exciting it was to be at the hospital, or how often you think about his birthfamily. I encourage parents to begin practicing “the story” right away, so they can grow comfortable with the facts and their child never has to remember “The Day I was Told I was Adopted.”

However, many families are already parenting an older child- age three, four, five…even eight, nine, ten. Usually this child has been raised by their adoptive family since birth or shortly after, and a legal adoption is finally taking place. Most often, I’m working with a step-mother or step-father who is adopting the step-child they have raised since the child was very young. Many families tell me that they’ve just never brought it up, and now it’s hard to find the words. Other families are intentionally withholding this information from their child until he or she is “old enough to understand.” I rarely meet a family who intends to withhold this information forever, but it does happen. Typically, when families ask me when they should tell their child, I say “Tonight.”

When do I tell my child he was adopted

There is no point in waiting. There will always be a reason to delay this conversation, fears about how the child will react. Each day that goes by makes it more and more difficult to have this conversation with your child.

But HOW do we have this conversation? How do you tell your son or daughter the person who has raised them their whole life is not their biological mother or father?

Introducing the Concept of Adoption

“All children have a first mommy and a first daddy, as well as a forever mommy and a forever daddy. For most children, their first daddy and their forever daddy is the same person! Some kids have a different first daddy and a forever daddy (or first mommy and forever mommy). You have a first daddy AND a forever daddy, who will be here and take care of you every single day! He loves you so much and will never leave you. Your forever daddy first met you when you were {INSERT AGE HERE}.”

Depending on your child’s age, you may or may not have to give some information about the “first daddy.” The questions your child will ask will vary largely on their age, developmental level, and the circumstances why their first mommy or daddy has not been able to care for them. If your child is too young to understand how babies are made, don’t worry! You’ll be able to simply differentiate between first and forever without talking about conception. Young children understand that most babies have a mommy and a daddy at birth.

Aren’t Young Children Confused?

My experience has been that no, children are not confused. They take these statements as truths about their lives and don’t realize that there is anything unique about this situation. As they get older, they’ll begin to incorporate information about their life story as they naturally reach new developmental milestones. Children are confused when the adults in their lives withhold information from them. Children are extremely intuitive and can sense when something is “off,” even if they never say it out loud. Oftentimes, talking about adoption for the first time is actually a relief to children.

It’s important to note that your child MAY feel confused if you are ambivalent or uncertain about telling them about their birthparents. Children will pick up on the fact that you feel uncomfortable and wonder what that’s about. Most often, they’ll assume that it’s because they have done something wrong. Therefore, it’s CRUCIAL that parents spend time talking with their spouse, close friend, or other support system before talking with their child.

For additional reading about why it’s important that children understand the truth about their life story, you can read “Talk to Your Kids About Adoption” Part 1 and Part 2.


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Robyn Gobbel, LCSW is a child and family therapist in Austin, Texas specializing in adoption, trauma, and attachment counseling.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 25, 2012 8:25 am

    While some may assume that your advice is directed only toward same race adoptive families, where the lack of a biological link isn’t self-evident, it’s also good counsel for interracial adoptive families like mine. We’ve made our girl’s adoption stories part of their life stories since the very beginning, in word, song and frequent viewings of the videos chronicling our trips to China. For us it’s not about trying to negate the impact of their beginnings, but to give them a confident ownership of their own stories.

    • July 25, 2012 7:37 pm

      Hi Chuck! Thanks for stopping by! “Confident Ownership of Their Own Stories” is a beautiful way to state the importance of understanding your life narrative- all of it. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

  2. Leslie Abel Waite permalink
    March 7, 2017 12:02 pm

    Thank You for any help with telling the 3 year old the truth….

    • March 7, 2017 5:24 pm

      Hi there! I edited your comment a bit just to protect privacy, but wanted to respond. I always think it’s best for adoption to be weaved into a child’s story and not be a time the child learns they were adopted. All though the situation feels unique, I’d stick with the same approach of “all children have a first daddy and a forever daddy…” language that is in the article. I’d start adding this piece into the narrative right away. It’s hard to be more specific without having an actual relationship or understanding of the dynamics- good luck!

    • Leslie Abel Waite permalink
      March 7, 2017 6:01 pm

      Thank You Robyn…..I do feel it is easier to explain that you were not in” mommy’s tummy” to a 3 year old….so first father/forever father sounds like a great start at her age

  3. Leslie Abel Waite permalink
    March 7, 2017 6:02 pm

    PS…I am 61 and adopted…I can not remember a time when I didn’t know that I was adopted…..

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