What Happens When Parents Wait to Tell a Child He’s Adopted

A new study suggests that learning about one’s own adoption after a certain age could lead to lower life satisfaction in the future.

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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.

When—and even whether—adoptees should find out about their adoptee status has been a topic of debate among experts for decades. For much of the 20th century, it was common for parents to simply never reveal their adopted children’s origins to them; research conducted in the 1970s showed that most parents didn’t. Those who did, Baden’s study notes, tended to do so in adolescence or adulthood, as some experts at the time believed it best to wait until an adopted person was old enough to understand the concept of adoption and its implications.

Today, adoption professionals are closer to a consensus on whether and when to disclose the information to children. The most common recommendation to adoptive parents is to disclose the story of a child’s adoption to him or her at a young age, the logic being that it can be harmful to children’s mental health to discover that their parents have lied to or misled them for a significant amount of time. Still, Baden finds, that logic is far from universally intuited, even by people who spend a lot of time thinking about mental health: Baden often asks her graduate students who want to be counselors when they think children should be told they were adopted, and the range of answers she receives is surprising. “I always get a couple of people who say, ‘As early as possible, from the moment you adopt them,’” she told me in an interview. “But the majority of people say 5, 10, even 18 years old, and a few say never.” And some experts still recommend waiting until a child is old enough to grasp the concept, though this viewpoint is rarer today than in the past.

Baden and her team surveyed a sample of 254 people, ranging in age from 24 to 78, who had been adopted before their first birthday and told at some point about their adoption. Each participant completed a questionnaire that assessed their life satisfaction, general degree of day-to-day distress, and coping ability, and included a few open-ended questions about how they learned they were adopted. Ultimately, the researchers found that “those in the earliest age group of adoption discovery, birth to 2 years of age, reported both the least distress and the highest level of life satisfaction,” and that adoptees “who consciously recalled the revelation and their age at discovery (aged 3 and older) reported comparatively higher levels of distress that increased with later ages of discovery.”

The results didn’t necessarily surprise Baden. An adoptee herself, she has generally observed both in life and in her practice that adopted people who can remember the day they learned they were adopted tend to find the fact more distressing—and most people’s earliest memories are from when they were about 3 years old. “The thing about late-discovery adoption is, everyone else already knows,” she says. So when the adopted person finds out that parents, grandparents, and even siblings have been consciously withholding information, the discovery can be painful.

Denise Cuthbert, a professor at Australia’s Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology who has researched the history and sociology of adoption, is familiar with the phenomenon Baden describes. “Late discovery adoptees report—amongst other things—high levels of grief and a sense of betrayal at what they perceive to be the ‘lie’ perpetrated against them,” she wrote to me in an email. This is often the case even when the adoptee and adoptive family have an otherwise loving relationship, she added. And indeed, the participant testimonies included in Baden’s study carry themes of trauma and betrayal. “I’m much more guarded in every aspect now. Finding out that everyone knew and I didn’t is probably the single most traumatic event in my life,” wrote one 54-year-old woman who had learned of her adoption just five years before. “I began stealing from my adoptive parents [mostly money] out of anger, outrage, and a sense of betrayal,” wrote a 49-year-old woman who had learned of her adoption at age 18.

Of course, other factors could influence the outcomes in a study like Baden’s. David Brodzinsky, a professor emeritus of clinical psychology at Rutgers University and a longtime researcher of adoption, wonders about the reliability of the memories of study subjects who reported finding out they were adopted at an extremely young age. While many people do have memories of their early childhood, he points out, “Most people do not have accurate memories of life before 3 to 4 years of age. Anything that they think they remember before that is often influenced by stories told by parents and others in the family.” So when adoptees say, “I found out when I was a baby” or “I’ve always known I was adopted,” it may not necessarily mean they were told before the age of 3.

Brodzinsky also raises the question of whether an early disclosure of adoptee status should be understood merely as a symptom of a more open, communicative parent-child relationship—which, as Brodzinsky notes, also leads to more positive mental-health outcomes. It could be the open family environment, and not the timing of adoption disclosure, that actually determines an adoptee’s outcomes later.

Baden acknowledged when we spoke that late disclosure of an adoption is often a result of parental secrecy, which can be a side effect of the lingering shame, grief, or trauma of being unable to reproduce biologically. “One of the main reasons I think a lot of people do lie, or at least don’t tell, is because they themselves haven’t come to terms with it,” she told me. “They want to pretend or they want to believe that the child is theirs by birth, and they have leftover grief and loss issues related to not having their children by birth.” Parents’ unresolved grief and trauma can also have detrimental effects on their children.

Baden hopes the new findings will help counselors advise adoptive parents and parents looking to adopt. While she can understand the impulse to wait until kids will understand the hows and whys of their adoption, she believes that dishonesty within the adoptive family has far more grave and permanent consequences than does a temporary misunderstanding or oversimplification of the concept of adoption.

By the time children are 5 or 6 years old, she says, “they’re asking about their own birth stories—whether they know they’re adopted or not.” If they are adopted but haven’t been told by that point, parents have to tell what often turns into a series of falsehoods: “You have to lie about what it was like when you were pregnant with them. You have to lie about what it was like when you gave birth.” Baden warns that telling those little fibs to hold kids over until they’re old enough to fully understand can create trauma in itself, as the moment of truth becomes a moment of betrayal—“of feeling like you’ve been misled to think your history is something different.”

Ultimately, Baden believes the best way to set up adopted kids for future mental health and life satisfaction is to avoid misleading them about their origins, and she sees the study as an important step in establishing a body of evidence to support that. And even if a young child doesn’t quite get it when her parents tell her the story of her adoption, Baden thinks that’s okay.

“One of the things I try to teach is that [kids] don’t have to understand the ins and outs of how an adoption takes place, but they can understand the basics, just like they understand the basics of anything,” Baden adds. When you read a child a storybook about airplanes, she won’t necessarily understand how or why an airplane can stay in the sky over the course of a transcontinental flight, Baden says, but she’ll understand that the airplane flies. The rest of the specifics will fall into place as she matures.