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We adopted our six year-old son at age one. When he asks questions or makes comments about the first year of his life, or when he was "in momma's tummy," we have never lied to him. We tell him we didn't know him yet because he used to live with a different family when he was a baby. However, this information always goes straight over his head, and he shows no further curiosity. It's like the idea seems completely absurd to him, so he ignores it.

I had a friend who found out when he was 18 that he was adopted, and the sudden revelation really shattered his sense of identity. I had hoped to spare my son much of the same difficulty by being open about it from the start, but it seems he is headed toward it suddenly "hitting him" one day anyway.

Should I sit my son down with this express purpose and hammer the idea until he understands? He has very strong ADHD-like behavior, so we occasionally have to do this for other concepts. Or should we continue answering him truthfully but not pressing the matter? Is there a certain age or stage at which he will be more receptive to the information and we can expect natural curiosity to prompt him to ask us more questions?

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I have no reference or experience to back this up, so a comment instead of an answer: my instinct is that sitting him down and trying to really impress upon him the concept seems like it would be detrimental. I suspect that the friend who learned when he was 18 was effected as much by the fact that he was ignorant of the fact for 18 years as anything else. – Beofett Sep 5 '13 at 20:22
You may get some hints from these:… and I especially like the "My parents picked me" book – Rory Alsop Sep 5 '13 at 21:38
I'd imagine partly why it was hard for the 18 year old friend of yours, was that he also had to contend with being deceived for all those years. When it does sink in for your son, he'll at least know you've been honest, even if he wasn't fully ready to accept what you were telling him. – balanced mama Jan 3 '14 at 0:15
At some point, he will get what you tell him and what it means, he's just too young to plainly understand the concept of adoption. The good thing is that you're already telling him openly, there's almost no chance for him to only realize at 18... – Laurent S. Jul 6 at 8:53

2 Answers 2

Not that I have any experience with that particularly fun topic or research data to back it up, but just from my experience dealing with young kids that would be my 2 cents...

I think it's a bit early for the concept to sink in. I don't know at what age this would start to be appropriate and to have significance in his eyes, but I'd say you could probably wait a few more years. I'd wait until 8 years old, maybe even later. Though after that I would indeed worry about the shock being stronger.

It's a bit of catch-22 really, as if you say it a bit too early it doesn't matter and hit him at all and it'd be probably bad to try to hammer it, and if you say it a bit too late then he'd have defined some identity and get hit harder than you'd want to. But you know that already...

It's like the idea seems completely absurd to him, so he ignores it.

That seems rather normal to me. Some 6 year old will have a good understanding of what a pregnancy really is, others see it in a quite abstract manner. They may just get that siblings were supposed to be in mommy's tummy and other kids were in their mommies' tummies, but some won't have that clear-cut an idea about it. Surely some get it better and sooner than others, but some also simpyl mimic behavior from their usual templates: adults surrouding them, kid books, cartoons, etc... It may look like all the chips are in place for them to understand, but it's still rather superficial.

Also, you can't expect him to really focus on the matter, as it doesn't have much importance for him at this age. It's a stage where a child is still mostly defined, in terms of identity, by his surroundings. He doesn't question his "self" now. He's got his family and friends, that cocoon around him is all that really matters. But he's personality should be almost set in now, and his identity will follow-through soon.

Anyways, I'd wait a bit longer, until he's had time to get more information on the topics of both birth, adoption, parenting, etc... Surely at some point you'll start to notice that he apprehends these on a deeper level, and you'll sense that the time has come.

Until then, maybe instead of addressing the issue directly you could simply push him in the right direction by using stories for kids that approach the matter. It may still "fly over his idea" at first, but it'll also quickly raise questions and make him more curious about it.

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Even if he doesn't understand it now, he does still know about it. As he gets older and gains more understanding of how the world works, he'll reinterpret his adoption story bit by bit as more of it starts making sense to him.

As long as you keep being open and honest about where he came from, it will never come as a big shock like it does to someone told for the first time as an adult. He probably has about as little understanding of biological childbearing as he does of adoption, and he'll gain the capacity to understand both at a similar rate.

In contrast, someone like your friend, as he was developing an understanding of where babies come from, he was led to believe he came from his adoptive mother's tummy. As he was forming his identity in adolescence, he took that for granted. So it's no wonder it came as a big shock to be told he was adopted, after going so long believing he was their biological child.

However, if you want your son to have a better understanding, try making it more concrete for him. Some ideas:

  • Are you thinking of getting a new pet? If so, point out the parallels between how you're getting a new puppy or kitten or whatever and how you got him. Obviously, there are differences, but you're still getting a little baby who was born to a different mommy and taking them home to be part of your family now. Watching it happen in front of him could make it make a whole lot more sense.

  • Do you have any baby pictures, pictures of where he lived before, or other things related to his adoption? Try showing them to him and talking about what they mean. For example, if he was internationally adopted, showing him pictures of his home country and talking about how he used to live there would allow him to form a mental image of life before he was adopted. (Be honest about why he couldn't stay there, by the way. You don't need to overwhelm him with horrifying details, but make it clear that they couldn't give him the kind of care a baby needs, and that it's not his fault they gave him away.)

  • There are some picture books you can buy about adoption. You could do some comparison shopping and see what you can find that reasonably matches with his experience.

If he still doesn't get it (or if you've already tried my suggestions), don't worry about it. He'll figure it out when he's ready to understand. Just keep being open about it, and he'll do fine.

(On an aside, did you know that ADHD is overrepresented in adopted children? It's thought to be a mix of higher rates of ADHD in parents who give up children; higher rates of prenatal exposure to nicotine, alcohol, and other substances; and the impact of adverse caregiving environments on infant brain development all contribute to this finding.)

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