Ask AF: Family Interactions After Kinship Adoption

"We are adopting my sister-in-law's teenage son after fostering him for five years. What can I say to her at family gatherings, to family who still don't get that we'll be his legal parents—and to my son, who hears all of this?"

Q: We have been fostering our 16-year-old for the past five years, and will be legally adopting him soon. Because it’s a kinship adoption (my husband’s sister is his birth mother), his birth mother will always be “in the picture” for us and for the extended family. We understand this, but it can be challenging. For example, she has agreed to the legal adoption, but tells him things like we’re “just taking care of [him] for now,” or that she’ll “always be [his] real mother.” Relatives will ask us about “_____’s boy” or imply that I took him from his mother (even though he was removed from her care for safety reasons). What can I say to her and others at family events? What should I say to my son after he hears these kind of comments?

A: These are difficult issues—perhaps most of all for your son. He will have to learn that he can love both of you.

As for the language question, both of you are “real,” but your sister-in-law is using the term in a way to imply that you are his “fake” mother. So, when she says, “I will always be his real mother,” just reply, “Of course, you will always be his birth mother.” And when relatives refer to “So-and-so’s son,” just correct them and reply, “My son is doing well.” Explain the language you’re using to your son, as well.

When relatives make comments about his birth mom losing custody, or the circumstances around when he was moved to your home, a good reply is “That is my son’s story to tell when he is an adult. Let’s talk about something else.” The relatives may be making these comments out of feelings of shame about her loss of custody or their inability to provide a home for your son, or guilt that they didn’t intervene earlier, but family events are not a good place to air these feelings.

Continue to be open with your son. He is old enough to understand the truth about what happened, and this will also help him feel OK when others offer a different scenario. You can prepare him for family events by explaining, “Not everyone in our family really understands adoption. If someone asks you something that bothers you, come talk to me.” Also know that it’s OK to avoid and/or limit family events for awhile.

is a co-author of Parenting the Hurt Child: Helping Adoptive Families Heal and Grow, Adopting the Hurt Child: Hope for Families with Special-Needs Kids – A Guide for Parents and Professionals, and therapeutic workbook series The Adoption Club. Kupecky also co-authored The Mystery of the Multiple Mothers: A Cub County Caper, a mystery novel with an adoption theme, with her brother. She has been working with adoptive families and children for more than 35 years, and recently retired as a therapist at Adoption & Attachment Therapy Partners, in Broadview Heights, Ohio.

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