Your child's ages and stages in adoption


Lois Ruskai Melina
Focus on Adoption magazine

Though, of course, children are all different, research has shown that children who join their family through adoption tend to go through specific stages in their understanding of their family and their place in it. Here we summarize one of the best descriptions of these “ages and stages,” which can be found in Lois Ruskai Melina’s book Raising Adopted Children.

Baby to toddler

Your toddler may be able to parrot what you have told them about their adoption, and appear to understand, but, at this age, they do not fully understand what being adopted means—even if they do a good job of appearing to. This is a time to set the foundation for comfortable family discussions about how your family came together. This is also a time that parents can try to resolve areas around the adoption story that they are uncomfortable about before the conversations with your child get more serious—he or she will notice your discomfort, even if you try to hide it.

  • Child is able to notice if he looks different from his adoptive family but unable to fully grasp the implications of being adopted
  • Asks simple questions about physical differences
  • Ready to learn and re-tell his personal adoption story

Grades K - 2

This is a time children start to really think about life and death, birth and conception. Even parents who have talked about adoption from the beginning may need to start from scratch. Leaving out the birth mother andfather by saying something like, “Mommy and Daddy couldn’t make a baby, so we called an adoption agency and they found a baby for us,” can lead to confusion for the child over their birth and conception. Adopted children need to know that they were “born” just like every other person. Birth fathers are often left out of such explanations—this can lead to confusion for the child. Some adoptees grow up thinking that their adoptive father istheir biological father. Include the birth father. If the circumstances of the child’s birth are not known, the likely circumstances can be discussed. The goal during this stage is that children understand the process of adoption—later they will begin to understand why it happened, and what it means to them.

  • Understands implications: to be adopted means one was first given away
  • Early positive feelings turn to uncertainty
  • Sense of loss; grieving for birth parents
  • May romanticize birth parents
  • Discomfort with being “different”
  • Asks more difficult questions: “Why am I adopted?” “Where are my birth parents?”

Grades 3 - 7

Children now usually have an understanding of blood relationships, birth and adoption. They still probably don’t understand the legal aspect of adoption and may still think that their biological parents could “reclaim them.” Children at this age can worry about losing their parents and may worry about separations from parents. At this age your child may show some grief about their separation from his or her birth parents. Parents should tell their child that it’s okay to feel sad and that their feelings will eventually go away. Your child may also be curious about his birth parent’s relationship and any other siblings that he might have. He or she may also spend time pondering on what being adopted saysabout himself. If a child is asking a difficult question, it probably means that he or she is ready for the answer.

  • Understands the meaning and implications of being adopted
  • Acknowledges two sets of parents; ambivalence towards both
  • Resurfacing of grief related to loss of birth parents
  • May romanticize birth parents
  • Discomfort with being “different”
  • Re-asks question, “Why am I adopted?” Seeking depth in answers
  • Emotional search for birth parents
  • Self-esteem challenged, reconcept of early abandonment
  • Integrate adoption into one’s sense of self


By 12 or 13, children usually understand the legal process of adoption, and they have a better understanding of the reasons children are placed for adoption. Adolescence is characterised by the need to develop a sense of identity—being an adoptee can complicate and add layers to this process. Teens make sense of themselves in relation to the people around them—adopted teens must do that job twice—with their adoptive family and their birth family whom they may or may not know. This is a time when the child may think about how adoption has shaped them as a person and “what might have been.” The more information the teenager has, the better he or she will be able to answer some of those questions.

  • Yearn for connection to genetic past
  • Idealizing birth parents
  • Loss of birth parents extends to loss of a part of one’s self
  • May try on traits of birth parents in process of self-definition
  • Seek to “rework” adoption story
  • Awareness of not fitting in physically with family
  • Identity formation: challenge “Who am I?”—must figure out who they are in relation to adoption
  • Differentiation is complicated by one set of parents being unknown
  • New curiosity about origins
  • Consider possibility of searching for birth parents

Stage strategies for parents

0-3 years

  • Collect as much information as possible (e.g. letters from birth parents and photos)
  • Make a lifebook
  • Begin talking comfortably with your infant, family, and friends about adoption.
  • Read adoption-related picture books to your child.

3-6 years

  • Encourage questions and answer honestly. Difficult issues may be deferred until child is older (but never changed).
  • Read adoption-related books
  • Tell child's adoption story as a bedtime story
  • Meet with other adoptive families--this helps normalize adoption for a child
  • Use and add to lifebook

6-12 years

  • Ask if the child has questions or feelings he or she would like to address. Don't force the child to discuss issues, but let him or her know you are open to talk when the time is right.
  • Let child know you are not threatened or angry about questions about birth family.
  • Let child know that he or she can love both sets of parents and does not have to choose.
  • Maintain contact with adoptive families--this helps a child feel less different.

12-16 years

  • Child has a right to his or her birth information. Help child access and accept information.
  • Try not to respond to child's anger with anger--anger is normal, don't take it personally.
  • Let child know that you love him or her no matter what.

16-19 years

  • Be alert for sadness on birthdays, graduation time, Mother's Day, and other important dates.
  • Keep the adoption topic open.

Reprinted with the permission of C.A.S.E. (The Center for Adoption Support and Education)'