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Birth Family 101

Your grade-schooler wants to know about her history—so you must be ready to talk.

by Marybeth Lambe, M.D.

We may gently broach the adoption story when our children are toddlers. But around age 7, when all children start to wonder "Who am I?", our children begin to understand for the first time that joining one family means leaving another. Depending on their nature, they may begin to ask questions. At the same time questions, such as "Why didn't your real mom keep you?", may come up at school. Our task is to prepare our children.


Talking Tips

To best help our children understand their birth history, we'll want to respond to their questions truthfully. This is not to say that all difficult information must be given, but rather that the facts we offer should be based on the truth as we know it. Next, we must be attuned to our children's emotional signals, so that we find opportunities to inform them even if they do not voice queries or concerns. Finally, we need to be open and ready for conversation. If your child doesn't ask, find ways to initiate dialogue. You may offer a general comment, such as, "I was thinking about your birthmom today," or ask, "Do you have any questions about your birth family?" You might assess your child's thinking by asking, "Aunt Kim was wondering if you get your beautiful hair from your birthmother or father. What would you say to her?"


Books, music, and movies often provide openings into discussions. When we're watching or listening together, my children are more likely to ask, "Do you think my birthmom held me?" Or say, "I bet my birthmom was sad," or "I wonder if my birthfather ever saw me."

If you have photos or a written history of your child's birth family, share them. Pictures of foster parents, orphanages, birth cities, or crib mates; notes from your adoption agency; or an adoption journal can help your child understand her birth and her journey to join your family.


The Facts As We Know Them

Children may daydream about their birthparents (were they handsome, famous?) and the circumstances of their adoption. As much as possible, remove judgment from your version of the adoption story. Emphasize the known events, and admit it if you don't know important facts about the birthparents or their motives. Try to maintain a positive attitude toward your child's birthparents and to portray them as real people.


The truth is that most birthparents are average, ordinary people who could not parent a child and made the hard choice of adoption. Be clear that this choice was made by adults, not prompted by anything the child did. Speaking often of birth history helps all family members get used to the words and narrative and lets your child know that she can always come forward with questions and emotions about birthparents. Some kids will have an easier time talking about birth-family history than others. But the truth for all of our children is that they were born before they were adopted. To honor their present and future, we must honor their past.

Marybeth Lambe, M.D., is a family physician and writer based in Washington.

How do you talk about birth family with your children? Share conversations you've had in the Parents of Young Children group on AdoptiveFamiliesCircle

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