Your child will eventually pop the big question — “where do babies come from?” — and your answer will have a lasting impact on the way they think about what it means to be part of a family.
This is especially true if your child was adopted or conceived with donated sperm or egg (also known as third-party reproduction), because their origin story will affect them in many ways as they age,
That’s why, in Shelley Steenrod‘s opinion, it’s crucial to be open and honest with your child. She’s a professor of social work at Salem State University in Massachusetts.
“It’s essential for kids to know who they are and where they have come from,” she said. “It’s very important for them to integrate all aspects of themselves and their history into their whole self.”
If you choose not to tell your child the truth, you run the risk of them finding out later in a different way — like through a DNA test.
“We live in such a high-tech world, children are going to find out one way or another,” said Steenrod. “As the holder of that information, you want to be somebody who shares it with your child in a way that’s going to be loving and nurturing and not surprising.”
Here, Steenrod and other experts share tips for telling your child their unique origin story in a loving way.
Tell the truth from the beginning
Keeping your child’s story a secret can inadvertently associate adoption and third-party reproduction with feelings of “guilt and shame,” said Steenrod.
“Families can be created in all different kinds of ways, and that’s something to be celebrated.”
That’s why it’s critical to tell the truth from the outset. For Steenrod, this means talking openly about your child’s origin story long before they ask questions about it.
“You’re building it into the narrative of your family’s story and planting seeds that later, can become flowers … you can then tug on and pull on to talk about more complex pieces of adoption,” she said.
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Nikki Martyn, program head of early childhood studies at the University of Guelph-Humber in Ontario, agrees: “We need to start having these conversations with children right away,” she said.
“We are where we came from.”
Martyn recommends building the story in a physical way, using something like a scrapbook. This will give your child an item they can go back to and say, “this is where I came from.”
“Emphasize how important they are, how much they were wanted and how much they were loved,” she said. “If this is what they are told early, they’re never going to question it.”
Expect to talk about it often
Your child’s origin story is a big part of who they are, so they’ll likely have questions about it for years to come.
At first, said Steenrod, focus on the basics. “Say ‘I want to tell you how families are made’ and then include all the ways out there,” she said. “Totally normalize it.”
Slowly and when you think they’re ready, reveal to your child a little bit more of the story.
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As your child grows up, they’re going to develop the cognitive and emotional resources necessary to have more advanced conversations about it.
“There may come a time when they start to think, ‘If my birth mom could choose not to keep me, she could have chosen to keep me. Is there something wrong with me?’” said Steenrod.
That’s when you want to re-emphasize “the child’s strengths and how lovable they really are.”
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If your child’s origin story contains trauma or some other adult subject matter, it can be tricky to find a good time to tell them the whole truth.
According to Martyn, it’s up to you and your empathy to know when it’s the right time.
“At a very young age, it would be [something along the lines of] ‘your biological mom wasn’t able to take care of you because she was having a hard time,’” she said.
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When the child gets old enough, you can elaborate on struggle and pain — feelings that children understand. If their biological mother suffered from addiction, for example, you can explain the science behind addiction.
“All the while, you’re emphasizing that [the child] was your greatest gift,” Martyn said.
Emphasize love, connection and commitment
Many parents worry how this news will affect a child.
Parenting expert Caron Irwin suggests focusing on “tangible examples of the love and connection and commitment that your family has” during and after each discussion.
“The thing that makes a family is the traditions and the rituals and the love and the connections and the things that you have that are unique among you all,” she said.
If you’re worried, try following the conversation with a “photo album of a special vacation” or “finish up … with the special hug that you have with your child.”
“Those kinds of things are going to … give them security,” she said.
Martyn backs this up — it can feel like the truth might hurt them, or it might make you less of a parent, but that’s not the case.
“They don’t need to be protected from their origin story,” she said.
“There’s nothing wrong. That’s why we have to re-frame it and celebrate these differences.”
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