Explaining adoption: It's more than being "chosen"


Ronda Payne
Focus on Adoption magazine

Explaining adoption through differrent ages and stages requires the right amount of information at the right time.

A number of decades ago (I won’t clarify how many – a lady never tells her age you know), I was adopted. My adoptive parents are amazing. They told me I was “chosen” from the earliest moments. It was part of me and something I was proud of.

Few, if any, children in my class or even my school shared a similar experience. Even in my kindergarten and primary years, the concept of the stork was dubious. Despite our young age, my friends and I knew that no bird had dropped me off at my parents’ door. But how to explain my origins, especially at a time when the backgrounds of adoptive children like me were often filled with great mystery.

While adoption is more common these days, and in many cases more visible due to multi-ethnic families, you can help your child explain adoption to their friends. The key is to provide the right amount of detail for their age range while reinforcing their confidence.

I checked in with child-counsellor Tania Bryan, of Help for Families Canada based in Maple Ridge, BC, for her view on how parents can assist their children with peer discussions. We explored three age ranges: four to eight years, nine to 12 years, and teenagers.

At the ages of four to eight, the concept of having “two mommies” is often the best place to start. Help your child understand the idea of having one mommy who grew them in her tummy while the other mommy (or daddy) brought them home to be part of the family. Once comfortable with this explanation, they will be able to express it to their friends as needed.

Because I was proud of being chosen, I would explain my adoption to friends until I was told to be quiet, but not every child is as verbose as I was.

Fellow adoptee, Becky (now age 21), found it difficult to explain the concept of adoption to her friends. “It was hard to explain the word adopted,” she said. “I would sometimes say, ‘I come from a different country,’ but even countries are hard concepts to understand when you’re young. I don’t think I really got that until I was eight or nine. Mostly, I would try to explain that my mom’s not my real mom.”

With children ages nine to 12, Bryan encourages a focus on positive language when exploring the details. “Use positive language when explaining persons,” she noted. “Use the terms adoptive parents and birth or biological parents instead of ‘real parents’.”

Quick discussion tips for kids

Ages 4-8

  • There are different ways to create families.
  • A birth mother is someone who grew the baby in her tummy.
  • An adoptive parent is one who brought the baby home to be part of their family.
  • Both types of mommies (daddies) love the baby and made decisions so the baby (child) would be happy.

Ages 9-12

  • Adoption is when biological parents can’t raise a child but adoptive parents can.
  • It was a difficult decision for the birth parent(s) but was about doing the best thing for the child.
  • Adoption is positive and is becoming part of a family.
  • It isn’t about who or how the child is. The birth parents were unable to raise that child at that time.


  • There are different ways to create families. Parents can adopt a child to create a family.
  • How everyone looks isn’t important, everyone is loved in my family.
  • My birth mother was unable to give me the things I needed.
  • Adopted children are not “different,” they simply came to their family in an alternative way.
  • It’s okay to say, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Bryan also stated that terms like “giving away a baby” should be replaced by reinforcing phrases like “adoption lets another person raise a baby.” Children are still ego-centric in this age range and will see the process of adoption as being only about them. It isvery important they understand the birth parents wanted the best thing for the baby and that they couldn’t raise any child at that time – it isn’t about the child or who they are.

If you’re not sure how to coach your child in conversations with their peers at this level, pop culture provides examples of adoption as a normal way to start a family. As Bryan says, “Your family is just as cool as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s.”

Questions come up more frequently in the nine to 12 range, so ensure your child is prepared with facts like knowing they are legally adopted (thus a permanent part of the family), understanding that the process and decisions can be difficult for the birth parents, basic details about how old they were when they were adopted, and whether they remember it or not. Role-playing can be helpful for some children, Bryan noted.

Teen years are difficult regardless of family origins, and adoption can sometimes complicate matters. Creating a level of confidence and “normalcy” is what you want to strive for with a teenage adoptee. As explained by Bryan, being “different” must be positioned in the best light possible.

“Help the teen communicate to their peers that they are not different from them in any significant way,” Bryan says. “In the social perspective of adolescents, to be ‘different’ is to be cursed. You want to avoid this; you want to ensure your teen is confident in a positive frame of difference.”

Confidence will come into play if teens are to be able to answer as much or as little as they are comfortable with about their personal background. As a teen, I was quite happy to chat about my adoption and what little I knew of my  background, but others may feel pressured, confused or even scrutinized.

“It was a bit awkward,” Becky commented, about some conversations she was drawn into as a teen. “It’s hard because you don’t really know (the answers) yourself.”

When “fitting in” is a big deal to your child, give her ways to explain that looking similar isn’t necessary to create a family – she is loved and valued as a member of the family just as she is.

Preparing children for discussions about adoption with their friends can be an upbeat, confident experience for everyone. By giving them a background of information to work with, children will have the skills they need to create positive relationships that honour their adoption.

Proudly adopted, Ronda Payne joyfully lives in Maple Ridge, B.C. in yet another renovation-project home with her husband and their pets. She is a regular contributor to a variety of publications, and also has three (or more!) books on the go.