DEAR AMY: After 20 years of marriage, my husband and I are getting a divorce. We have two kids, a 12-year-old son and an 18-year-old daughter. My husband adopted my daughter when she was 3. She believes my husband is her birth father.

How do I tell her he’s not her birth father? How do I help her if she wants to meet the birth father? How do I explain to my son that my daughter is his half sister?

I want to handle this with compassion for both children. -- Confused

DEAR CONFUSED: The way to have a difficult conversation is to prepare by thinking it through and finding the right way to express yourself, simply and truthfully — and then being brave and patient during the conversation and after.

Timing is also important, so I wonder why you are choosing to disclose this now. If it is out of anger or retaliation toward your ex during a heated period in your relationship, I urge you to wait until things are stable. Ideally this conversation would be held with you and your ex together, united by mutual love for your daughter as well as your desire for her to know the truth.

He should be involved because his job will be to tell your daughter that, no matter what, he will always be her dad. As her adoptive father and the man who helped raise her, he is her “real” father.

When the moment is right, sit with her and tell her that she has a different biological father from her brother. Answer questions truthfully. If she wants to meet him, help her to find him and play a supportive role throughout the process.

After you speak with her, you should convey this information to her brother, plainly and accurately. Do not emphasize the fact that they are “half” siblings, but focus on the wholeness of their relationship, now and moving forward.

A professional therapist with experience working with adolescents can help your daughter to process this information, along with helping her deal with complicated feelings and frustration with all of the adults in her life. She might feel confused and abandoned, and you should be patient and consistently kind — and always in her corner.

DEAR AMY: I chuckled when I read “The Only Mom’s” dilemma: She was offended when her teenage son called a friend’s mother “Ma.” She said she wanted to be the only “Ma” in her son’s life.

She has it all wrong! She should be thrilled that he is comfortable with his friends’ mothers. When my son was growing up, he and his friends were always in and out of one another’s homes and refrigerators. When the teenage years hit, I was on a need-to-know basis about most things in his life that didn’t involve food, getting a ride somewhere or clean clothes.

What we discovered was that all of the boys would open up with other mothers. We then carefully shared that information with one another. I found out that my son had a new girlfriend from another mom; in turn, I was able to tell her what college her son was leaning toward choosing. It really does take a village. -- Another “Ma”

DEAR “MA”: What an eloquent testimony to the influence and power of all of the honorary parents in a young person’s life. Thank you.

DEAR AMY: Responding to the dilemma posed by “In a Quandary” — the woman who saw an acquaintance drive away cradling a newborn baby in one arm — I once saw a young mother put her toddler into her back seat with no seat belt and no child seat.

I immediately called 911 and reported the make, model and license number, along with the issue. The police stopped the woman almost immediately — that’s how to stay out of it and make sure the child is safe. -- Concerned

DEAR CONCERNED: “In a Quandary” had already waited a day, worrying about what to do, but I agree with your choice.

Amy’s column appears seven days a week at Write to Amy Dickinson at or Ask Amy, Chicago Tribune, TT500, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60611.

by the Chicago Tribune