Difficult conversations in Adoptive Families: Thirteen Tips

July 1, 2014

Father and son sit near car with opened boot and going to talk a

Starting a difficult conversation can be challenging whether it is with a spouse, friend co-worker, stranger or family member.

But holding adoption conversations with kids can be especially hard when the information being shared is painful or difficult to accept. To balance  children’s feelings, with their need to learn the truth requires special preparation. Be intentional about what information you will share and how you will frame it. How can you set the stage for success?


1. Think the conversation through in your own mind so you can explain the facts in an age appropriate way. Get comfortable with the facts so you can remain neutral as you discuss them.

2. Lay the foundation for the conversation when children are young. Expand the scope and depth of the story as they mature.

3. Choose your location. Because eye contact may overwhelm them, many kids find it easier to listen when they are not directly facing you. (How many times have your children initiated difficult conversations when they’re in the car and you are driving?) Get creative here. Look for activities that allow them to stay physically occupied but not resentful of the change in focus. Some places to consider:

While they are busy playing with paints, clay or sand

While they are stargazing

While you are sitting together on the sofa (before or after “their” program broadcasts)

4. Explore the topic in the third person. “Some kids wonder about…” or, “Some kids believe …” This avoids putting them on the spot for sharing their personal thoughts and feelings before they are ready.

5. Be alert to signs of overwhelm or an inability to face the topic. Always follow their cues. End the conversation with an invitation to continue it whenever they are ready or curious. Be relaxed and respect their readiness so they don’t feel judged for their inability to handle the topic at this moment.

6. Convey a willingness to share information and answer their questions but without forcing the issues. Encourage them to come up with their own questions about adoption in general not just questions that are limited to their personal history.

7. Project confidence in their ability to hear the facts of their story. It is their truth and they are entitled to know it.

8. Acknowledge the reality without minimizing or exaggerating. Convey empathy and strength, not pity or fear. (“I feel sad that you must face this.” Versus “I don’t know how you’ll cope with this.”

9. Many families benefit from having a pet. That unconditional love and nurturing relationship puts few demands on a child and returns their emotional investment many times over. At some level, it echoes the “adoption” relationship as a way of expanding the family. Include the pet in the conversation as an emotional cushion for big feelings.

10. Often reluctance increases along with curiosity and worry as children become teenagers. Be observant for behavioral cues as they may be hesitant and/or unable to voice their confusion themselves.

11. Avoid pushing the problem by suggesting everything is an adoption issue; this may make them more upset and may cause them to bury their struggles deeper. Concentrate on sustaining a strong relationship. Trust that they will let you know eventually, if adoption is the cause.

12. Clearly convey that you are capable of hearing their complete range of thoughts and feelings both the positive as well as negative, the happy as well as the sad. Do not expect them to adjust their ideas and emotions to ease your feelings. But be honest regarding your own discomfort simply assure them that they still have your support.

13. Readily admit when you do not know the answers. Honesty is essential; brainstorm together and discuss possibilities. Adoption is about permanent relationship regardless of the challenging facts of one’s history.


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