Ask AF: How Do I Set Boundaries With My Child's Birth Family?

Has a birth family member said something that upset your child? Here's how to handle the situation and set healthy boundaries.

Q: At our last visit our eight-year-old daughter’s birth mother told her that she’s her “real mom,” not me. Our daughter was upset about this for a long time. Should we stop the visits for a while? If so, how do we explain this decision?


A: While the etiquette book on open adoption has not yet been written, a parent’s job is always to meet her child’s needs. An eight-year-old typically has intensified feelings and fears about adoption. She grasps adoption better than a younger child, but she doesn’t understand the legal system, and so can have insecurity about the permanence of her family. In this context her birth mother’s telling your daughter that she is her “real mom” was highly inappropriate and confusing.

Your choices for dealing with this problem depend on the birth mother’s maturity level and her knowing her boundaries. The word “real” may mean “biological” to her, but it means something else to your child. Have a frank discussion about the inappropriateness of this word. If the birth mother doesn’t understand, or if you think it’s best to postpone the next visit, explain that your daughter is learning more about adoption and needs time to process her complex feelings. Say that you would like to hold off on visits until your daughter is ready to resume them, and talk to your daughter about the new plan.

Keep in mind the goal of open adoption is not to log hours together, it is to have relationships that are in the best interests of the child. Meaningful relationships are honest, and they evolve over time.

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