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Explaining Adoption

How to explain adoption to your child, family and friends.

Explaining adoption to your children, family and friends

Adopting parents are frequently conflicted over when and how to explain adoption the adopted child, other children in the family and to friends and relatives.

The following has been adapted from the Child Welfare Information Gateway (HHS) article referenced above.

Children are growing up in many different kinds of families today. Race, religion and sexual orientation are all blending together and changing the "traditional" family structure. There are stepparent families - children being raised by a biological parent and his/her spouse. There are single-parent families - children being raised by one parent. And, there are kinship families - children being raised by a grandparent, aunt/uncle or other extended family member. Adoption is often one of the links bringing families together.

Adoption is an issue of extreme importance to the persons most directly involved in the adoption triad - the child, the adoptive parents, and the birth parents. However, there are the siblings, extended family members, neighbors, teachers and doctors who are indirectly touched. Occasionally, there are also casual acquaintances who will take any opportunity to talk about "their" adoption experiences - whether it is invited or not.

This factsheet addresses the complicated issue of adoption, defining it, explaining it to others, and dealing with the feelings that arise. A complete bibliography, resource list and resources for adoptive families are included.

What is adoption?

Adoption is defined as "the permanent legal transfer of parenting rights and responsibilities from one family to another." The word adoption, however, has different meanings to the people touched by it. To an adoptee, the word implies that a choice was made with the forming of his/her family. To an adoptive parent, it describes a parental relationship that was made legally, not biologically. And to a birth parent, it recognizes the loss associated with giving up parental rights.

How are children being adopted?

There are several different types of adoptions:

  • Public - Children in the public child welfare system who are placed in permanent homes by public, government-operated agencies or by contracted private agencies.

  • Private agency - Children are placed in non-relative homes through the services of a licensed (non-profit or for-profit) agency.

  • Independent - Children are placed in relatives and non-relative homes directly by the birth parents or through the services of either a medical doctor, a member of the clergy, an attorney, or a licensed or unlicensed facilitator. (Independent adoption is illegal in some States.)

  • Kinship - Children are placed in relatives' homes, with or without the services of a public agency.

  • Stepparent - Children are adopted by the spouse of one birth parent.

Why are children being adopted?

The simple answer is that children are being adopted because their birth parents were unable to care for them. But, adoption is more complicated than that. Adoption may be the result of the direct wishes of the birth parents. It also may be the result of abuse or neglect, poverty and abandonment, or the death of the birth parents. Whatever the circumstances surrounding adoption, the most important point to convey is that the child's birth or behavior did not cause the adoption. The birth parents were incapable of being successful parents to any child at that time.

Who are the children being adopted?

The most recent and complete findings on adoption come from the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Virginia. Researchers Victor Flango and Carol Flango reviewed court records, bureaus of vital statistics, and social service agencies and found that in 1992, there were 127,441 children adopted in the United States.

The Children's Bureau, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, collects data from the States semi-annually through the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis Reporting System (AFCARS). This federally mandated data collection program provides the most complete data on children in foster care. Based on the 2000 estimates, there are approximately 520,000 children currently in foster care in the United States. Of these, 117,000 are eligible for adoption. In 1998, 36,000 children were adopted from the public foster care system - 83% were under 10 years old, 52% were male and 48% were female, and 61% were of minority background.

In 1998, there were 15,774 children adopted from a foreign country (intercountry adoption). Of these 15,774 children - 89% were under 4 years old, 36% were male and 64% were female.

Where are the children being adopted from and going to?

The Demographic Statistics Branch of the Immigration and Naturalization Service tracks the number of immigrant visas issued to orphans coming into the United States, therefore providing the source of data for intercountry adoption. In 1998, 15,774 visas were issued compared to 1992, when 6,536 international adoptees were brought to the United States. The top five sending countries in 1998 were Russia, China, South Korea, Guatemala, and Vietnam. The primary receiving States were New York, California, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and New Jersey.

Within the U.S., the States with the highest number of adoptions (all types) are generally the States with the greatest populations. In 1992, California led with 14,722 adoptions, followed by New York with 9,570, Texas with 8,235, Florida with 6,839 and Illinois with 6,599.

Explaining adoption

Adoption is a sensitive subject. But approaching the subject, regardless of who is asking the questions, with a clear and comfortable understanding of your own personal feelings will ease in the discussion. The more confident parents are, the more willing children will be to share their thoughts and feelings and the more relaxed family and friends will feel.


There are different approaches to discussing adoption with children. Some parents prefer to wait until children are older believing their understanding will be more complete. Others believe that a child should never remember a time when they didn't know about their adoption. Regardless of the route that your family chooses on when and how, it is important to remember that a child should not be told once about their adoption, but talked with throughout each of the stages of childhood development. The key is to provide a comfortable, accepting atmosphere in which a child can communicate the questions they are thinking about and get the answers they are searching for. Linda Bothun, author of "When Friends Ask About Adoption - Question and Answer Guide for Non-Adoptive Parents and Other Caring Adults" offers several suggestions for talking about adoption with children:

  • Attempt to be honest without burdening children with more information than they are able to cope with at a given time.

  • Don't read more into a question than is actually there.

  • Deal with the children's emotions about adoption; emotions which usually appear at various phases of their understanding.

  • Decide what information should be shared with siblings and friends and what is strictly private (for the adopted child only).

Family and Friends

The topic of adoption is often initiated casually by family and friends in private as well as in very public places. Adoptive parents are forced to develop a comfort level for discussing adoption, often in their children's presence and before they understand the concept. Choosing words carefully in order to protect children's privacy, comprehension and self-esteem are vital. The outdated language used sometimes in questions (for example "real parents" or "own" children) may seem insensitive or hurtful, but is more a result of the lack of familiarity with correct adoption language. Usually a sincere interest is hidden behind an awkward remark. And, an angry or harsh parental response will cause more grief and doubt to a listening child than anything a friend or family member might say.

Dealing with the feelings of others

Discussing adoption with others always provides the opportunity to educate. Dealing with their feelings and attitudes, however, can be challenging. Keep in mind that children learn from the responses and reactions they witness. Honest, calm parenting outweighs any negative, external contributions. Some suggestions for reacting to the impressions of others:

  • Address misconceptions and prejudicial comments.

  • Focus on adoption; don't let the conversation revolve around an individual child.

  • Encourage the discussion at a later date (or by phone/e-mail).

  • Protect children from and teach them how to respond to comments of victimization - the idea of "being saved," "the lucky child" or "having a better life".

  • Take advantage of every opportunity to teach others about adoption.


The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute conducted a benchmark survey in 1997 examining public attitudes toward adoption. The Institute found that 6 in 10 Americans have had personal experiences with adoption, meaning they, a family member, or a close friend was adopted, had adopted a child, or had placed a child for adoption. As the number of families created by adoption continues to increase and change the view of the "traditional" family, explanations to children, family and friends become more complex and even more significant.

Resources for adoptive families

Adoptive parent groups, national organizations, community, faith-based, and school-based programs can all be helpful resources to families created by adoption. These organizations can provide a range of support - from parenting tips, educational resources, diversity and cultural awareness programs, to family recreational activities, neighborhood networks, and respite care.

The Child Welfare Information Gateway distributes the National Adoption Directory, which among listings of public and private adoption agencies, State and local child welfare agencies, and legal resources, are State by State listings for adoptive parent and search support groups. The directory is revised annually and updated throughout the year as new resources or changes are found. If you have information that you would like included, please contact the Clearinghouse.