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What Preschoolers Understand About Adoption

Our little ones sometimes live in a fantasy world. But they're also ready to learn about their JoAnne Solchany, Ph.D.

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, explaining how we became a family and why. Here are a few questions kids might ask and some ways we 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 birthparent, the deprivations of poverty, or the horrors of war. Instead, they need to know that their birthmother wanted the best for them and that they were meant to be your child.

CHILD: "Why couldn't I live with the other lady?"
PARENT: "She wanted you to be happy and loved by a mommy and daddy who were ready to love you. You were ready for a mommy and daddy, and we 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 birthmother'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 birthmother—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.

JOANNE SOLCHANY, PH.D., is a Seattle-based therapist and an adoptive mother of two.

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