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How to Create Openness in International Adoption

Recently, the adoption and post-adoption staff at Holt went through a training given by domestic adoption social workers that opened our eyes to the difference between true “openness” in adoption versus contact with a birth family.

These adoptees were placed domestically within the U.S., so contact with their birth families was not difficult to facilitate. One of the big takeaways for many of us was a series of testimonials from young adult adoptees on how much they appreciated contact with their birth parents. It filled a void for them and supported development of their self-identity, which can be a very difficult task for adoptees.

Often, parents are drawn to international adoption because contact with the birth family is not an option. This creates a sense of emotional safety for the adoptive parents. They don’t have to worry about birth parents suddenly entering the picture.  However, the adoptee pays a price. It is clear that adoptees fare better when they can have contact with emotionally healthy birth family members. Sadly we cannot provide that for most of our internationally adopted children, but what we can do is create a climate of openness. Here is how we can do that…

Let our child see and hear us saying respectful things about his or her birth parents. Sometimes, we can feel judgmental about birth parents. We wonder why they couldn’t find some way to keep their child, why our child’s birth mom abused substances while pregnant, or why the birth dad didn’t stay and take care of his family. It is hard to understand all the hardships and cultural pressures parents from other countries have to deal with. Recently, I was in the Philippines and as I was riding in a van with a bunch of other social workers, I glanced across the street and saw a makeshift shelter composed of a part of a fence, a tree, half a sheet of plywood and a tarp for a roof. A woman and several children were huddled inside. The image burned into my mind. That evening, there was a terrible electrical storm of an intensity that only happens in tropical areas. Even the locals were shocked. And I couldn’t help but wonder how that poor family fared during that terrifying storm. How did that mom console her kids and tell them they would be OK. Would they? Who could blame a mother for wanting a better life for her kids, one in which they do not have to fear for their lives something as basic as the weather?

We need to be sure to find good things to say about our children’s birth parents, such as: I am thankful that your birth mother gave you life or your birth father must have been a handsome man because you are such a good-looking boy. Wonder aloud why your child’s birth mother thought it was best to place your child for adoption or how often his or her birth mother thinks about them or if their birth father went to college, or has a trade, or is a soldier. After you have wondered out loud about these things, you could ask your child what he or she thinks. If at first your child is hesitant to engage in this conversation, don’t pressure them. You could end that temptation with simply saying, ‘I wonder about your birth parents and I am wondering if you do, too.’  Your child may not answer or may deny wondering about his or her birth parents. But be assured that they do. And don’t be surprised if weeks later, your child says something connected to this conversation. It is like you are planting seeds of openness — showing your child how open you are to talking about his or her birth family.

Another way to practice openness is to create an atmosphere in which your child’s adoption is discussed honestly and naturally — and just as easily as discussing what homework they have that night. It is up to the parents to create this environment. It can be difficult as an adoptive parent to know how much, when, how and where to bring up this topic. Well-intentioned parents often wait for their child to bring up the subject. The difficulty with this approach is that often, kids don’t want to hurt their adoptive parents’ feelings by asking. So everyone is waiting for the other one to start the conversation. Parents, as the adults, need to be the ones to bring up the topic just like with racism and sex.

Another approach to creating openness is to incorporate traditions into family celebrations that acknowledge your child’s birth parents. You could acknowledge them on your child’s birthday or include spoken thoughts about your child’s birth parents on religious holidays or family vacations. For example, if your family likes skiing or camping, you could wonder out loud or ask your child, ‘Do you think your birth father would like skiing?’ or ‘What do you think your birth mother would say about camping?’ You could really ask this question about any activity or topic, from fishing, shopping and cooking to whether they like dogs or cats.

Once you develop mindfulness about creating openness, there are endless opportunities to bring the birth parents into your child’s daily life. This openness will allow your child to further integrate all aspects of themselves and facilitate a richer, fuller self-identify.  When children can confidently disclose their deepest thoughts and feelings with their parents, the attachment deepens. Young adult adoptees at our Holt camps have always told us that their thirst for knowledge of their birthparents in no way diminishes their love or commitment to their adoptive parents and family. It is not a situation of one over the other. But rather, it is an issue of completeness for your child. Even if they can never find their birth parents, they will find comfort in being able to include you in their journey — from the first musings to a full in-country search — knowing that their safe haven of your love will always be there for them.

Abbie Smith, LCSW | Former Holt team member

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