Although we encourage parents to start telling children about donor conception when they are under five, we know that there are many families with older children - sometimes even adults themselves - who have not 'told' yet. Our Telling and Talking booklets cover all age groups, but we are always ready and happy to individually support families in telling older offspring. We have particular experience of supporting parents of donor conceived adults. If this is your situation do contact us in the first instance at firstname.lastname@example.org
Reasons to tell
Telling children about their origins by donor conception –
- Puts honesty at the heart of family relationships
- Is respectful of donor conceived children/people as individuals in their own right
- Allows donor conceived people to make choices about their lives
- Allows donor conceived children to learn about aspects of their history, integrate the knowledge as they grow up and accept their story without shock or distress
- Means that significant differences between a child and parent (in looks, talents etc.) can be easily explained. Some DC adults have thought they must be adopted or the result of an affair by their mother.
- Means that a true medical history (or lack of it) can be given to doctors, making diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions more accurate. It also removes anxiety about the inheritance of disorders from the non-genetic parent
- Does not mean that children will reject their non-genetic parent.
Are there any circumstances where ‘not telling’ is the right thing to do?
DC Network is committed to the principle of openness for all children. However, if a child has severe developmental delay or learning difficulties parents will need to take into account developmental age and the needs of their particular child when deciding when and how to tell. In communities where donor conception is disapproved of parents first of all face very difficult questions about whether donor conception is right for them and if they then go ahead, the dilemmas of sharing information with their child and others. If a child is unable to be proud of who they are then not 'telling' may be the only reasonable option.
Parents need to be very honest with themselves. Concerns that a child may be upset or confused by being ‘told’ can cover anxieties and fears that properly belong to the parents and are not to do with the child at all.
Is there a ‘right’ age to start telling?
The goal of early ‘telling’ is that a child should grow up ‘never knowing a time when they didn’t know’ about their origins by donor conception. In practical terms this means starting the process of sharing information with your child from under the age of five. Some people like to start talking with their baby – chatting about the donor while changing a nappy is popular. Others like to settle down and enjoy ordinary family life first and then introduce one of the Our Story books from around 18 months or two years. A few families wait until their child starts asking about where babies come from at around 4.
What is worth taking into account in deciding when to begin the story is that the earlier you start the easier it is likely to be for you both. It gives you a chance to practice the language at a time when your baby is not really understanding the words but simply enjoying being talked to. It also means that once you have started you always have something to build on.
If for some reason it has not been possible to start early, then ‘telling’ is possible at any age. It simply takes more preparation and has to be undertaken as an event rather than a process.
What can help in knowing when to tell (and how to do it at any age) –
- The Telling and Talking booklets, 0-7, 8-11, 12-16 and 17+ are designed to support and guide parents in starting and continuing to be open at any age.
- The Our Story books for children conceived by sperm donation, egg donation and also double or embryo donation are wonderful starting points for sharing information with children
- Join DCN to talk with other parents about when they ‘told’ their children
- Come on a Telling and Talking workshop
- Read the recommended books in the DCN Library for stories of when parents around the world have shared information with their children
If for some reason you have not told your child and s/he has now reached late teenage years or is into adulthood you may find yourselves wanting some support before going ahead...or want to talk about the pros and cons of doing so. DCN recognises this as a particularly challenging situation and we are happy to offer you support in the form of a face to face consultation, plus all our usual services. We may also be able to put you in touch with other parents who told their children in adulthood.
What language should we use?
Parents often worry that starting to share information with a very young child means that they will have to start talking about sex and reproduction in a way that is inappropriate for such a small person. Using the ‘building block’ approach where information is built up in very small chunks over time means that language can remain simple and sex and reproduction does not need to be addressed until a child is ready to take this on board.
What can help with the language and timing of telling –
- The Telling and Talking booklet, 0-7 gives examples of language you can use with any baby or child in this age group
- The American Fertility Association has produced a very good booklet on openness and ‘telling’ for parents of children conceived by egg donation.
- The Our Story books for children conceived by sperm donation, egg donation and also double or embryo donation contain language that parents often find valuable to use.
What sort of reaction should we expect?
What matters most to young children is that they have a loving and secure relationship with their parents. This is what helps them feel good about themselves. They do not care about genetic connections so when you talk with them about ‘Mummy not having enough eggs so she needed some help from a kind lady’ or ‘Daddy’s sperm not being able to swim fast enough to reach Mummy’s egg’, your child’s response may be indifference, to ask if they can have sausages for tea or to ask what a sperm looks like (most will think they know an egg when they see one). Each of these and anything else is a completely normal response.
If you are ‘telling’ for the first time when your child is over seven, then it is likely to start with a ‘sitting down and telling event’ rather than a process over the course of several years, although you can prepare the ground by talking about how all families are different and sometimes parents need some help to make a baby.
Children of eight or over have much greater understanding than those under this age. How they receive the news about being donor conceived is likely to depend as much on how you feel about it and go about telling them as on their own personality and general way of dealing with things. If they understand immediately – and not all children do make this link at first - that the information means that they do not have a ‘blood’ connection to one or other parent (or both) then there may be an element of shock. Some children are interested in the science involved in donor conception and particularly IVF. The older they are the more likely it is that they will be angry at not having been told this information earlier. Some children are sad for a while that they are not connected by genes and blood to a much loved parent. This can also happen in middle childhood as part of the process of integration in children who have been told from a very young age.
What can help with understanding reactions at different ages –
- The Telling and Talking booklets, 0-7, 8-11, 12-16 and 17+ are designed to support and guide parents in starting and continuing to be open at any age and to give insight into different reactions at these stages of development
What happens if and when our child starts sharing what we are telling them with others?
Young children rarely talk about donor conception to others, not because it worries them, but because it is of no interest at all. Even when children are older they often find that other children change the subject because they know nothing about it. This can be quite frustrating for a donor conceived child who thinks DC is cool and wants to talk about it!
Older children who are comfortable with their origins are well able to correct others when they make wrong assumptions – that a child is adopted, doesn’t have a mother/father or is an orphan. They may well mention in biology or personal and social education classes that they are donor conceived and this is mostly received simply as factual information.
Confident children whose parents have been open with them from the beginning are well able to combat the rare attempts at teasing or bullying based on their DC origins.
Sharing information with primary school teachers can be valuable so that they can support and back-up a child who talks about their beginnings in class. At secondary school stage the information is the childs’ to share, or not, as they choose.
What can help with supporting children telling others –
- The Telling and Talking booklets, 0-7, 8-11, 12-16 and 17+ are designed to support and guide parents in starting and continuing to be open at any age and give examples of situations where children have told others and handled their responses.
How do you Tell when you have children with different beginnings?
In DC Network we have many families where not all the children are donor conceived. Sometimes there are adopted children or step-children from a partner’s previous relationship. An increasing number of families have one child conceived without help at all or using IVF with the couple’s own eggs and sperm, and then need egg donation to have second or subsequent child.
Difference in itself can be perceived by parents as a problem, but children are only likely to find it so if parents are anxious, stress differences, and treat children unequally. Of course treating children equally does not necessarily mean treating them the same, as each child should be responded to according to their different needs.
What can help in families where children have different beginnings?
- Read the booklet Mixed Blessings: Building a family with and without donor help. This was written especially for you.
- There are sections in Telling and Talking 0 – 7 and 8 – 11 about sharing information when there is difference in the family.