Denying Adoption vs Dwelling on It: When to Tell

Question: We already have an open adoption. My son is 4 years old and I keep wondering: when is a good time to tell him that he was adopted?

I still think its too early right now, but when do other parents start to open up about this? I just don’t want to make it a huge thing in his life, but he does have other half-brothers and sisters out there and I do want him to reach out to them if he ever decides that’s what he wants.

~~ Mary
open adoption advice

When to Tell a Child S/He Was Adopted

Dear Mary: I’m a little confused because I can’t figure out how you have an open adoption without your son knowing he was adopted. Maybe you’re meaning you have an open adoption around a different child?

In any case, let’s address when to tell. Adam Pertman, President of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency, tells of his social worker friend who once advised that you should tell, “On the way home [from the hospital].” This is because it’s arguably more about you becoming comfortable with delivering the story as it is about your child being able to receive it.

Trust is a fundamental part of your relationship with your son, upon which everything else rests. So you must tell, and soon. If you have a series of little talks, you won’t have to have The Big Talk. The more you can normalize the way you yourself think about it, the more matter-of-factly your son will be able to take it in and incorporate it into his identity. He will take many of his cues from you, so it’s wise if you first see if you have any sensitive spots in talking about it — much like having the Birds & Bees talk.

Denying vs Dwelling

I can understand your not wanting to make adoption bigger than necessary. But by waiting to tell, you run that risk. Why? Because avoiding the discussion may mean that the subject carries an emotional a charge for you. And by not dealing with it, that emotional charge does not get resolved and may even intensify.

As adoptive parents, we want to find the sweet spot between dwelling on adoption and denying its effects. Somewhere in between is a healthy place to be.

I find that bedtime is a good time to have focused and relaxed conversations. My children loved Jamie Lee Curtis’ Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born, and I’ve also heard wonderful things about Gayle Swift’s ABC, Adoption & Me. To find others that fit your situation, check out the collection at Tapestry Books.

See also: check out the comments on this post about giving an adopted person ALL of their story.

Dear Readers, what say you?


About this Open Adoption Advice Column

  • I may occasionally call on others to help with answers, to tap into group wisdom.
  • I am not trained as a therapist. Please do not rely on words in this space to make your own major or minor decisions.

As always, readers are encouraged to weigh in thoughtfully and respectfully. I ask everyone to remember that this is a teaching endeavor rather than a shaming endeavor, and that we aim to bring light rather than heat. It’s my belief that people do the best they can with what they have to work with, and our goal is to give folks more to work with.

Send in your own open adoption question. I’ll either offer an answer or find someone who can address your issue.

Open adoption parenting & mindful living