Ask AF: Letting a Preteen Take the Lead in a Birth Parent Relationship

"At what age should we start letting our daughter take the lead in birth parent contact? I know that my daughter will be able to call her birth mom freely when she gets her own cellphone, so how do we step back responsibly?"

Q: At what age should we start letting our daughter take the lead in birth parent contact? We have a very open adoption with our 11-year-old’s birth mother. She lives about an hour away, and we see her several times a year, plus talk, text, and so on, frequently. Recently, my daughter has been taking the phone into a different room for her calls (and, when I ask her what they talked about, she’ll give tween answers like “Nothing,” or “Just stuff”). My husband and I are planning an overnight trip for our anniversary next month, and she asked if she could sleep over at her birth mom’s. We explained that her grandparents were looking forward to her visit and that the plans had already been made (both true), but what about the next time she asks? We love our daughter’s birth mother, and it’s hard to explain why I’d be uncomfortable with an overnight at this point without sounding judgmental, but she does still act quite “young.” I realize that my daughter will be able to call her birth mom freely when she gets her own cellphone next year, and that she’ll manage her own relationship with her when she’s an adult, so how do we step back responsibly over the next year, or seven years?

A: It’s wonderful that your family has such an open, integrated relationship with your daughter’s birth parent! I’m assuming that, generally, it’s fairly simple and straightforward to establish and uphold guidelines for staying over at other people’s houses. You likely have a rule that an adult needs to be home while your daughter is there, and to know that family to be responsible and trustworthy.

The situation is no different with a child’s birth parent. You mentioned that your daughter’s birth mother is a little “young.” That’s OK, as long as you know her to be a responsible, trustworthy adult. There are obvious deal breakers—drug use, sex, violence, legal matters, etc.

Your decision also depends on your daughter, to some degree. Does she tell you when something has gone wrong with friends and/or teachers? Does she try to protect others by not telling you what’s going on? If so, she might feel disloyal to her birth mother if she were to tell you something that bothered her about the visit.

So, if you trust your daughter to be honest and open about her visit and her birth parent to be fairly responsible and trustworthy, then I think that it’s fine to allow her to stay over. And, you’re right, as she gets older, your daughter will have increasing independence in her relationship with her birth parent, and in all of her relationships.

works with adoptive parents and adoptees through the life cycle in a private psychotherapy practice in Newton, Massachusetts, and speaks nationally about adoption, race, and parenting. In her professional work, she also draws on her personal experience as an adult transracial adoptee. Naftzger is the author of Parenting in the Eye of the Storm: The Adoptive Parent’s Guide to Navigating the Teen Years. She leads online and local groups for adoptive parents. Learn more and join her mailing list at

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Author Shelly Roy with her adult son, 19 years after adoption