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How to Tell Your Child She's Adopted

When Katy Mobley was 3 days old, her parents sent out adoption announcements to their family and friends. Early on, they also made a point of regularly telling their daughter how wonderful it was to have adopted her. "From the moment we brought Katy home, we wanted her to feel that her adoption was a positive event," says her mother, Marilynn, of Marietta, GA.

Katy, now 14, feels comfortable asking her mom and dad questions about her biological parents. The Mobleys are convinced that they can communicate so freely because they were open about their daughter's adoption from the get-go.

Most experts agree with the Mobleys' approach and suggest that parents talk openly about their child's adoption, even during infancy, to set a good tone for later on, when children will want to explore their feelings on the issue. Ultimately, an open atmosphere helps them to grow into self-assured adults, says Lois Ruskai Melina, author of Raising Adopted Children.

Of course, a child's understanding of adoption changes as she matures. Most kids don't start to grasp the concept until age 5 or 6, but if they've been prepared, they won't be shocked when the story does click.

Here are five ways to keep the lines of communication open:

-Use the word "adoption" regularly. The word shouldn't become your primary focus, but say it when it feels natural. This way "adoption" never becomes taboo.

-Share stories. Read books about adoption, such as The Day We Met You, by Phoebe Koehler, and Let's Talk About It: Adoption, by Fred Rogers. Or weave your own tale: Richard Gellerman, of Tucson, AZ, told his 1-year-old daughter, Kayla, about a little squirrel whose parents didn't have enough nuts to give her, but were able to find another mother and father who did. "Kayla didn't yet grasp the fact that she was adopted," Gellerman says, "but the story helped to introduce her to the concept."

-Create a memory book. Little kids love seeing what they looked like as babies and learning about their own history, even if they don't understand every aspect. When Katy Mobley was 1, her mother showed her photos of the day they brought her home. There was even a snapshot of the adoption agency.

-Take cues from your child. If she asks, "Did I grow in your tummy?" explain pregnancy and birth in the context of her own experience. Say, "You grew inside your birth mother, another woman, and then you came to live with us." If your child doesn't express much interest in her adoption, don't dwell on it. You can be sure at some point she'll need to learn more. Once a 5-year-old becomes fascinated with the human life cycle, she'll want to know everything—from where she came from to how she relates to her immediate and extended family.

-Be patient. While your child might acknowledge that she's adopted, she won't really know what that means until she understands conception and pregnancy, says Sharon Kaplan Roszia, an adoptive mother, and a program manager for the Kinship Center adoption agency, in Santa Ana, CA. So don't become frustrated if your child doesn't seem to "get it," Roszia notes. It's perfectly natural for her to ask questions—sometimes even the same ones over and over again.

Who Else Should Know?

Doctors: Supply your pediatrician with the birth parents' medical records, if you have them. Also let him know about the quality of prenatal care received by the birth mother. Both could have an influence on your child's health.

Teachers: Tell them on a need-to-know basis. For instance, if your child has a genetic tendency toward learning difficulties, informing teachers might help to make sure his educational needs are met.

Friends and Family: Share the full story with them only after your child knows it.

Saying the Right Thing

When your child asks about his adoption, be honest, but don't think that you have to explain everything at once. It's fine to wait until he's older to tell him more, especially if you think the truth might confuse or hurt him (which could be the case if he was abandoned). Just don't say anything untrue, because you may have to contradict it later.

Emphasize that there's nothing wrong with him. Explain that he was given up for adoption because his biological parents were unable to care for a baby at that time.

Stress that adoption is permanent, so your child won't worry that you'll give him up someday, too.

Talk about your child's birth mother and father. Otherwise, he might conclude that his adoptive father is his birth father.

Encourage your child to discuss his emotions.

Tell a child that she was given up "out of love." She may worry that if you love her, you'll give her up, too.

Say that you "chose" her. In order to be chosen by you, she might conclude that she was unwanted by someone else.

Denigrate the birth mother or father. They have a real connection with your child.

Expect her to come to terms with her adoption immediately. Many kids surprise parents with emotional reactions at age 7 or 8.