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Birthparents on Their Minds

Your teen probably spends a lot of time thinking (or fantasizing) about her birthmother. Here's how to get some of those thoughts out in the open.

by Debbie B. Riley, M.S.

A s children enter adolescence, they usually become more private about their thoughts and feelings. Adopted teens are no exception, and they may find the subject of birthparents especially uncomfortable to discuss with their parents. Consequently, you may not know just how often and how intensely your teen is thinking about her birthparents.

Identity formation is the main task of adolescence. To accomplish it, teens who were adopted delve more deeply into their adoption stories—why they were placed for adoption, and who their birthparents are. Teens try to figure out who they are by comparing themselves—their values and beliefs, strengths, challenges, interests, and talents—to their parents. Adoptees must integrate information and history from two sets of parents.

If you have an open adoption, your teen's birthparents can and will serve as role models. Tell them your child has some new questions, and ask them to talk with your teen. You may want to have a discussion with the birthparents first about what is appropriate to share at this juncture.

Filling In the Blanks
Teens hold on to whatever information they have about their birthparents, and try to fill in the gaps. They may try to satisfy their curiosity by expanding on their knowledge and "owning" their history. Seventeen-year-old Amy knew only that her birthmother, in Guatemala, was single and impoverished. She immersed herself in learning about Guatemala—dressing as she thought her birthmother might, downloading Latin music on her iPod. She studied Spanish at school and gravitated to other Latinas. Engaging in these behaviors was a productive way of trying to "know" and be connected to her birthmother—as well as integrating her heritage into her identity.

Some teens fill in the gaps in undesirable ways, particularly if the little that is known is negative or if they get the sense that birthparents are a taboo topic. Cindy, 15, imagined that her birthmother, in Russia, was an alcoholic who was promiscuous and unstable. This compromised her self-esteem and led her to engage in risky behaviors, thinking that such behaviors were inevitable, that she was "acting like her birthmother." In therapy she insisted that her birthmother should have found a way to get her act together and raise her. Her parents were surprised by the anger and feelings of rejection she expressed, and worked at talking through it.

Teens will also wonder about their birthparents' relationship as they begin dating. Was it casual or long-term? Did the birthparents mean anything to each other? Were they adolescents themselves? Robert, 16, knew that his birthfather had a brief, casual relationship with his birthmother when they were teens. He came to believe in committed, not casual, relationships, and was unique among his friends in having a long-term girlfriend.

Parents must open lines of communication at every opportunity. If your teen is not asking you questions about his birthparents, ask him questions. Let him know that you have given him all the information you have, and that it's within his power to make good decisions and determine his life's course.

Debbie B. Riley, M.S., is CEO of the Center for Adoption Support and Education (, in Burtonsville, Maryland, and coauthor of Beneath the Mask: Understanding Adopted Teens.


It's important for teens to know they are not alone with their thoughts and feelings about adoption and birthparents.

  • Look for natural opportunities to open a dialogue, such as birthdays, Mother's Day and Father's Day, during National Adoption Month, or when there's a news story about adoption. You can say, "I am thinking of your birthparents today. When did you last think of them? Do you have any new questions about them?"
  • Help your teen connect with other adopted teens through support groups, workshops or camps, or online communities, so she can share what’s on her mind with others who understand.
  • Identify adopted adults who may serve as mentors, role models, and confidantes.
  • Explore your own feelings about search and reunion, if your teen expresses an interest. Do you have a plan to guide and assist him?

Connect with other parents raising teens in the Parents of Teens and Young Adults group on

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