Proceed with Caution

A search for birth parents may bring up powerful feelings for an adopted child. Make sure it's their choice to initiate the journey.

Adoption expert Lois Melina on talking with adopted children about unknown birth family information

As all parents know, explaining a complex idea, like death or reproduction or politics, to a child requires tailoring the explanation to her emotional maturity and ability to understand it. Adoptive parents should consider a child’s developmental level in the same way when they talk about adoption. A five-year-old, for example, may well understand that she grew inside another woman who is not the same woman as her “mommy.”

That five-year-old, however, doesn’t have enough life experience to understand the economic or social factors that led her birth mother to place her for adoption. Recently, I’ve heard from a number of adoptive parents of preteens and teenagers, who are contemplating seeking out birth parents, in hopes of helping their children make sense of their life stories. The decision to make contact with a child’s birth parents requires assessment of the child’s developmental stage. It is quite different for a child to have birth parents in his life from infancy than to have them introduced to him for the first time in adolescence.

Why Open Adoption at All?

Open adoption, in which birth parents remain part of the adoptee’s life as she grows up, began as an alternative to traditional confidential adoption some 20 years ago. By then, a number of adoptees who grew up with little information about their origins had described the profound impact that secrecy had on them.

They said that, even though adoption gave them loving families, they felt there was something shameful about a past that could not be revealed. They said they had difficulty figuring out who they were when they had never seen anyone who looked like them.

Those who found their birth parents often said that meeting them provided some peace. They were able to learn why their birth parents relinquished them. The vast majority heard that their birth parents thought about them daily, that the relinquishment was not made out of a lack of love. Through reunion, adoptees could join their missing biological/ethnic/historical selves.

The hope of open adoption was that a child would not feel cut off from her heritage nor suffer the shame of secrecy. The adoptee, it was hoped, would grow up integrating her biological, ethnic and historical selves, growing up whole, rather than having to piece the strands of her life together at a later date.

The Culture of Openness

In the last 20 years or so, adoptive parents, for the most part, have raised their children in what might be called a culture of open adoption. Parents understand that treating adoption as a shameful secret is damaging to their children. They are comfortable with adoption and positive about the decision made by their children’s birth parents.

When birth parent contact is possible, parents usually work out how much contact to have. Most often, they decide in favor of indirect contact through an intermediary. They begin with minimal contact, on the theory that they can always increase their involvement with birth parents, but would find it difficult to decrease contact later.

However, birth parent contact that may be relatively straightforward when a child is a baby becomes complex 10 or 15 years later, once an adoptee has developed her own interpretation of her adoption story. As a child grows up, she takes information she receives and processes it, drawing conclusions about why her adoption happened and what it means. It is vital for adoptive parents to communicate openly during these years. That means listening — not just talking.

Children who grow up in open adoptions interpret their stories with the benefit of ongoing involvement with their birth parents. In contrast, although parents of children adopted through confidential or semi-open adoptions may convey positive interpretations of the story, children then take that information and mix it with their own experiences in the world. The result may well be a story quite different from her parents’.

Parents of preteens or teenagers from confidential or semi-open adoptions may wonder if they should seek out birth parents in the hope of countering any negative images. For adoptees to be introduced to birth parents at this point, however, is quite different from merely adding more information. Sometimes the child has told herself, “I was placed for adoption because I was a valuable child who deserved more than my birth mother could provide.”

Meeting her birth parents might validate that story or it might not. The story might be, “I was rejected by my birth parents because they thought I wasn’t worth keeping.” Meeting the birth parents could challenge that story, but it might not. In either case, there is significant emotional risk for the adoptee. As with any risk, there’s potential benefit; but it’s still a risk.

Whose choice is it to search?

Joy Kim Lieberthal, a social worker and adult Korean adoptee, advises parents not to rush into a search for their children’s birth parents. Lieberthal was six when she was adopted, and 24 when her birth mother found her. Like many adoptees, she believes children should decide themselves the appropriate time to reconnect with their birth parents.

Making the decision to search gives adoptees control over a process that they could not control when they were young. It allows them to proceed only when they are ready to take the emotional risks involved in establishing ties with birth parents. For these reasons, many firmly believe that the decision to search should be made by the adoptee.

Books by adoptees who have gone through search and reunion are helpful in understanding the emotional roller coaster of searching. Even adoptees committed to searching find themselves proceeding in fits and starts over a period of years as their ability to cope with life’s changes evolves.

Even adoptees who have been unswerving in their decision to search may hesitate when the time comes to punch in the phone number of their birth mother. Passive permission from a child to search — the teen who says, “Go ahead if you want, but I don’t care” — isn’t sufficient. The act of searching makes it real — as talking about it does not — and gives the adoptee the option of retreating if emotions overwhelm him.

Once children are old enough to sense the loss of adoption and to interpret what happened to them, parents must respect the intensity of their emotions. The internationally adopted child’s return to his country of origin or search for birth parents may bring up powerful feelings.

It’s easy for parents to tell themselves that facing it is the only way to work through these emotions. While that may be true, “facing it” has to be done on the adoptee’s terms. If the adoptee is ready, he or she will be the one to take action.

Parents play a critical role in helping a child make sense of her adoption story through open communication and discussion throughout childhood. This means listening, even when your child expresses hurt or sadness. It may mean providing professional counseling to help a child work through his complex emotions. And it means giving your full support if and when she chooses to reconnect with her birth parents.


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