What Preschoolers Understand About Adoption

When explaining adoption to preschoolers, keep it age appropriate — and be sure to emphasize the love.

Explaining adoption to preschoolers should stay mostly light-hearted

Preschoolers are in a magical phase of development, where they’re exploring the relationships around them. They’re beginning to understand what “family” means and to compare their family to others.

A preschooler may question where she came from, or what it means to be adopted. So we may decide to begin a dialogue, talking about how we became a family and why. When explaining adoption to preschoolers, here are a few questions you can prepare for — what kids might ask and some ways you might respond.

CHILD: “What is ‘adopted’?”
PARENT: “Adoption — or being adopted — is a wonderful, loving way of making a family. It’s when you are born out of another lady’s tummy and into our family.”

Preschoolers like to keep one foot in fantasy and the other in reality. They divide the world into good and evil, want happy endings, and don’t necessarily require a logical answer to every question. For instance, they don’t need to hear about the painful experiences of a birth parent, the deprivations of poverty, or the horrors of war. Instead, they need to know that their birth mother wanted the best for them.

CHILD: “Why couldn’t I live with the other lady?”
PARENT: “Your birth mother wanted you to be happy and loved by parents [a parent] who were ready to love you. You were ready for a family, and Mommy and Daddy were ready for you. So we became a forever family.”

Preschoolers are able to understand emotions, such as sadness, happiness, excitement, and fear, and are beginning to empathize with the feelings of others. So you can talk with them about the emotions of adoption: the sadness of a birth mother’s goodbye, her happiness in knowing that a good mom and dad were chosen for her child, your excitement in seeing your child for the first time. You can also link these feelings with the actions that may have accompanied them — for example, “We were so excited to see you that we cried happy tears.”

CHILD: “Why?”
PARENT: “Everyone wanted you to be loved and happy. The woman whose tummy you grew in — your birth mother — was sad to say goodbye, but she was very happy she was doing her best for you. She had both sad and happy tears.”

Preschoolers can’t understand the nuances of adoption. But they can comprehend that they grew in another mommy’s belly; that saying goodbye can be sad, but good things can come from it; and that their family was created by love. When our children ask questions, we need to listen and let them be our guides. As their understanding of adoption grows, we can build on their story — and help them make sense of all their family relationships.

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