Through the years, I have received a number of calls from adoptive parents asking for advice on how to handle conversations with their child about their birth parents. They ask if they can search on behalf of their child; how they can support their child’s desire to reconnect with their birth family; will this process negatively affect their child or their relationship.
But before I discuss birth search and how to support your child, I first want to discuss one key step that should occur long before your child can ever begin a search: sharing their background information.
Even when their child is near adulthood, I often hear from adoptive parent that they still have not shared all of their child’s background information with their child. They either didn’t know how, they say, or were afraid their child couldn’t handle the information. And it’s true: adopted children often have a past that includes difficult and sensitive information. But waiting until your child is “old enough to handle the information” is rarely a good idea. By waiting, you run the risk of damaging your relationship with your child and betraying their trust.
If you wait too long, you should prepare for them to say, “You had this information. Why did you not share it sooner?”
Begin telling them their story early on. Some of the information that may be appropriate for an 8-year-old may not be appropriate for a 3-year-old, of course. But as they get older, and can understand more, you can begin to share more specific details. If it is difficult information, involving such highly sensitive issues as rape or a history of mental illness in your child’s birth family, let them know that some of their information may be difficult and let them guide you as to how much detail they want you to share.
Always be open and honest about your child’s history. There should be no secrets or withholding of information. Don’t wait until they are older and you feel they are ready to hear the information. It is their information and every Adoptee should know their history early on. Also, keep in mind that when your son or daughter turns 18, they will have full legal access to their file and background information. It is far better for them to hear a painful history from their parents than from a social worker they barely know. (See additional resources on this topic below.)
When your child comes of age and is ready to start a birth search, it will also be much less anxiety-inducing if they already know their background — and you will be in a much better position to support them.
The Complexity of Birth Search
To initiate a birth search, you will need to find out the laws in your state. Every state has their own search and reunion laws that dictate who can search and when a search can be initiated. Agencies are also restricted by each state’s laws as to what services they can provide. In most states, Adoptees can only initiate a search once they turn 18 and only Adoptees are allowed to search. A few states will, however, allow adoptive parents of a minor to search. This is also the case in the Adoptee’s birth country. Not all countries will allow adoptive parents to search.
Aside from the legal issues that dictate when an Adoptee can search, you should also prepare for the emotional complexities of birth search and reunion. This process doesn’t just affect the Adoptee, but it can affect his or her adoptive parents as well — regardless of the age of the Adoptee at the time they choose to search.
For adoptive parent of minors, you will be more involved in the search. For adult Adoptees, the adoptive parents may or may not be involved — this will depend on the Adoptee and how involved they want you to be. It is not uncommon for us to work with adult Adoptees whose adoptive parents are not at all involved or may not even be aware that their son or daughter is searching. This can be for several reasons, but the most common ones we hear are that the Adoptee is either estranged from his or her adoptive parents or they don’t want to hurt their adoptive parents — and it’s easier on the Adoptee not to have them involved.
Things to Keep in Mind
Regardless of whether you are directly involved or not, there are a few things you should keep in mind if your child initiates a birth family search:
Through the years, I have talked with several adoptive parents that start off supporting their child in their search — even encouraging them to search. However, when the search is positive, they are surprised that they feel uncertainty and concern. They often ask, “How can I be feeling these negative feelings, when I am the one who encouraged him to search?” This is not uncommon — especially when the search is positive and your child begins a relationship with their birth parents. It is normal to feel uncomfortable and to worry about how this will affect your relationship with your child.
Talk to your spouse and/or a trusted friend. If this does not help, consider talking with an adoption-competent therapist. Don’t push these feelings aside. They are real and need your attention. While tending to your feelings, however, be sure not to impose these feelings on your child. It is not their job to take care of you and reassure you. You need to find a way to reassure yourself and trust your relationship with your child. It’s okay to feel what you are feeling; it’s not okay to pass on those feelings to your child.
While the above applies to all adoptive parents — whether your child is an adult or a minor — if you do live in a state where you can initiate a search for your minor child, there are a few additional things to keep in mind:
I do believe that there are advantages to adoptive parents being more a part of the process then just being on the sidelines of a birth family search. For adoptive parents of minors, being a part of the process is easier since they need your help to initiate the search. You will have the opportunity to also develop a relationship with your child’s birth parents if the search is successful. However, for adoptive parents of an adult Adoptee, it can be more complicated.
Searching for birth parents can give your child the connection they are missing. It can be life altering. It can be complex and filled with different emotions for you and your child. And whether your child is a minor or an adult, you do have a place in this process. But the degree to which you are involved depends on the circumstances and, most importantly, is up to your child.
Resources — Talking about Adoption with Your Child
Not in Front of the Children: How to Talk to Your Child About Tough Family Matters,
by Lawrence Balter and Peggy Jo Donohue
Talking with Young Children About Adoption, by Mary Watkins & Susan Fisher
Telling the Truth to Your Adopted or Foster Child: Making Sense of the Past, by Betsy Keefer and Jayne E. Schooler
Resources for Adoptive Parents on Birth Family Search
Books and Websites
Searching for a Past: Why Adopted Children Seek Their Roots and How Parents Can Respond. (Chapter 13 in The Whole Life Adoption Book: Realistic Advice for Building a Healthy Adoptive Family.)Schooler, Jayne E. Atwood, Thomas.
Reasons why adopted children search for their biological parents are discussed. Possible outcomes as a result of the search are explored, and strategies that parents can use to respond to the need to search are discussed.
Once They Hear My Name; Korean Adoptees and Their Journey, by Marilyn Lammert, Ellen Lee and Mary Anne Hess. Reviewed by Lynne Connor