October 13, 2019

How and When to Tell a Child They're Adopted

“A predictable sequence of events nearly always ensues after I mention to someone that I’m adopted. First, people blink, then quickly apologize for whatever assumption forced the clarification—that it must be my dad who’s tall, or that it must be my mom who passed down her olive skin to me … that some distinctive feature of mine must run in my family. Then come the questions: “Do you know your birth parents?” “How old were you when you were adopted?” And, almost without fail, “When did you find out you were adopted?” Whatever conversation was going on before the subject of adoption came up, I am always sorry to find, is now lost to history and forgotten.

The enduring popularity of that third question surprises me. The two other questions are aimed at understanding the circumstances under which I joined my family; the third question, an arguably more invasive one, probes into how my family dealt with the aftermath. It is, essentially, asking whether my parents lied to me. (My answer is always that my parents made sure I grew up knowing from the start that I was adopted, and that I have memories both foggy and vivid of my family reading to me throughout my childhood from a storybook they made, which contained Scotch-taped photographs and the story of the day my parents picked me up from an adoption agency in Tennessee. My older brother, according to our book, “gave me a bottle and a kiss” as I rode home for the first time in my car seat.)

The question of when adopted people learn about their adoptee status, fascinating as it may be to the general population, has generated only a meager amount of scientific inquiry. A robust body of research exists on the psychological effects of adoption and children’s understanding of it. But Amanda Baden, a professor in the graduate counseling program at Montclair State University who has been studying adoption-adjacent issues for 25 years, was surprised to find little research on how the age at which people discover they are adopted affects their later outcomes in life. This summer, Baden and her colleagues published a study on the outcomes associated with the discovery of adoption status at different stages in life. The results suggest that disclosure of adoptee status after the age of 3 could have negative consequences on an adoptee’s future life satisfaction and mental health.”

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