Question: My teenage daughter is struggling with rejection and misunderstandings from her birth family. I don’t know how to help.
“Sara” will be 16 soon and for the last year she has struggled with depression and anxiety. She spent a week in the hospital after having a breakdown. We are in DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) together and she’s made great strides, working hard to learn new ways to deal with big emotions.
We have an open adoption with her birth family. Her birth mother, “Tara,” chose us to be her parents and we kept in touch with her the first 3 years by phone and letters. We told Tara we were open to whatever she felt comfortable with. When Sara was 3, Tara came to meet her. The beginning of this relationship was hard, because there really are no rules and we did not know anyone else in the same situation. So we all opened ourselves up to each other the best way we could.
Over time, we got to know the whole family, including Sara’s older brother, “Jacob,” who is 2 years older, and who has a different birth father.
When Sara was 7, Tara told us she was pregnant with twins and that she’d parent them (they all live with her father). We struggled to find a way to share this news with Sara. My husband and I thought that the way we reacted to the news would be the way Sara would react. We told her that she was going to be a big sister, and they were twins! She was very excited and couldn’t wait to meet her new siblings. We all knew that there could be problems for Sara later on, maybe that she would struggle with them all being a family with her the only one not raised by Tara.
We have developed a close relationship, seeing Tara and the three children fairly often, sharing holidays and birthdays. We have taken Jacob on trips with us (the twins were too young), including camping. There were always some issues between Sara and Jacob, because they did not grow up in the same household, but we weathered those times, knowing that siblings sometimes don’t get along. But they always had a lot of fun and so did we.
Fast forward to today. Sara is struggling. She tried to share some of her issues with depression with Jacob, now almost 18. Though they’ve been pretty close for a long time, it seems he doesn’t understand her issues and thinks she’s being a big baby. They have blocked each other on social media and are not speaking any more. If they DO speak, it’s in anger.
I’m also concerned that Tara is also being standoffish with both Sara and me. She says it’s because she’s busy, but I feel a strain and so does Sara. I call and get no response. I give it time and still nothing. Finally she will respond, but it’s very tentative. She has cut off other family members for various reasons, so I think it’s not just us.
Sara is deeply hurt. She feels rejected by her birth family, a second rejection on top of the first. No one in her life knows what it feels like to be the adopted one.
I’m in uncharted territory. Should I ask Tara to meet so we can talk it out? I know she feels protective of her son (as she should) and I’m feeling protective of my daughter. What can we do?
Guest advising is my friend and colleague Judy Miller, author and trainer about adoption and parenting issues.
Core Issues of Adoption
What you share here is a knotty web of roles, relationships, expectations, and possibly emotions swept under the rug despite your best efforts. I’m sorry Sara is faced with so much. My heart goes out to her, you, and her birth family. I’m happy to know DBT is helping. I hope your therapist is competent in adoption issues.
Two ideas strike me after sitting with your letter. Neither will surprise you.
1. Sara is experiencing rejection (as you are already aware). Sara may have long-held beliefs of not being good enough, not valued enough, and not loved enough. The rejection and “different-ness” she feels appears to be reinforced time and again by Tara, Jacob, and possibly others in her birth family.
2. Sara is figuring out her identity, processing how she fits in with and is regarded by her adoptive family and her birth family. As the only placed child of her birth mother and her adoptive family, Sara’s “adopted” status deems to define her. Sara may view herself as an adopted person first, possibly “not whole,” which cycles back to “not good enough,” which stems from the core issue of rejection.
Some background on me: I am an adoption educator. I work with parents throughout North America, preparing them to parent their adopted children. My focus is on the 7 core issues in adoption and the tools parents can use to address them, as every child arrives into our world with a different temperament and has unique experiences regardless of age at adoption.
I have a 16-year-old daughter. She has worked through a lot of stuff. She is one of my four kiddos—three adopted and one homegrown. My kids have given me permission to share that we have dealt with the core issue of rejection within our family. It ebbs and flows, triggered by people and life events as they happen.
While my family does not experience open adoption in the same way you do (my kids are international adoptees), we are nonetheless open in approach. We deal with what is, based on what we know of the past. Similar to you, we strive for building and sustaining healthy connections. Nothing gets to stay under the rug. We intentionally pull the rug back, exposing the issue or emotion to light and compassionate examination.
In the spirit of compassion and support I pose a number of questions to you, ask you to pull that rug back. These questions are not asked with judgment, but with a focus on Sara. I encourage you to reflect, possibly adjusting the lens of expectations relating to her open adoption.
- What are your expectations regarding Sara’s open adoption? Given what is going on at present, are they realistic?
- What about a break? Would Sara (and you) be comfortable taking a long break from her birth family so that she can heal, and gain strength and perspective?
- What are the ground rules among you? Does Sara agree? Does Tara? Have you clarified them and agreed to them?
These responses may help you answer your question, Should I ask Tara to meet so we can talk it out? My sense is that Sara may currently need some space from her birth family until the time she feels on more solid footing identity-wise. She may need your help in making a break happen.
Here are a few more aspects for you to ponder.
- Does Sara have a relationship with any adopted people, particularly older adoptees who might be able to mentor/guide her? You state that no one, including her birth family, knows what it’s like to be the adopted one.
- When and where does Sara feel safe? What is her safe place?
- Does Sara seek comfort with you? Does she seek your presence, ask to be held or touched? (I’ve found my daughter calms and centers when I gently place my hand on her wrist. Sometimes, she wants a hug, and then she begins to melt. I feel her heart rate lower considerably.)
- What does Sara want? What is her goal at this point in her young life?
- Have you and Sara discussed how her birth mother may be dealing with her own big emotions about placing Sara?
- What type of discussions do you have with Sara? Are you calm and non-judgmental about her birth mom and family? What do you do if she becomes emotional — angry, sad, blaming?
- What grounds and centers Sara? For my 16-year-old, it is getting her hands in the dirt. I happened upon this one day. I tossed a “pebble” out, saying I could use the help in the garden. She came out a bit later. I handed her a pair of gloves and kept my mouth shut. Eventually, she began talking. I listened. She weeded for two hours. She hugged me later saying how much better she felt. “Thanks for hearing me, Mom.” For my 14-year-old, we walk to the river and sit next to it in silence. He talks when he’s ready, not when I think he should be ready.
- What does Sara enjoy? Does she have a creative outlet? What activities do you and Sara enjoy doing together?
I realize I’ve asked many questions, but I often find that the asking unveils nuggets or new perspectives for you to explore—individually, with Sara, and with your therapist.
Some Steps to Take…
I can’t tell you there’s a direct path to resolving Sara’s feelings or to repairing relationships with Tara and Jake, but I can share with you some steps that may help along the way.
- Take care of yourself so that you have the emotional and spiritual strength to be there for Sara. She needs you.
- Give Sara permission to be honest, but set guidelines about her behavior and language.
- Throw out pebbles (open-ended and rhetorical questions and observations), and wait for the signal that Sara is ready to Go There.
- Consider creating a parent-child communication journal. This is written from you to her, and visa-versa, with honesty. Agree on a routine of writing and sharing that works for you. Always close with the positive, as in “I love you.” and “I’ve got your back.”
- Be present to interpret and respond to her verbal and non-verbal sharing.
- Touch Sara, if she is okay with touch, and hug her if she allows it. A 30-second heart-to-heart hug releases oxytocin—the bonding hormone, reduces depression and anxiety, and builds trust and safety. I have found that hugging my kids is healing for them and helps to repair the flair-ups in our relationships. Plus, well, I love hugging them…
You may find that one or both of my books to be of help. What To Expect From Your Adopted Tween is a guide to help parents assist their children in understanding, examining, and resolving adoption-related issues. My second book is a workbook. Writing to Heal Adoption Grief: Making Connections & Moving Forward helps older adopted teens and adult adoptees process feelings tied to being an adopted person. Some adoptees journal with it; others use the workbook in support groups or with their therapist.
Open Adoption is Complex
As a parent, it hurts like hell when the painful, ambiguous vortex of adoption emotions sucks your child in. Any rejection can revive feelings tied to the adoptee’s initial rejection—relinquishment.
Adoption is messy and complex. Keep encouraging Sara to talk. Continue to listen to what she has to say. Sustain your efforts to connect with her. Give her emotional and physical space when she indicates she needs it. Sara will share when she’s ready, as she needs to share.
Reinforce that you will be there for her, as you always have been. You love her, no matter what. You will not reject her, no matter what.
Lina, you are obviously a wonderful mom, willing to seek out anything that will help your daughter deal with her big emotions and her core issues around adoption. What you’re aiming to do isn’t easy, but with continued connection and attunement, you stand a really good chance of helping Sara heal and find her core.
My 2 cents
You have already realized there is no easy answer, Lina. What’s available to you is being there for Sara and supporting her as she processes her sense of rejection and figures out who she is. It sounds like you are already tuned in to that.
As you ponder the questions Judy asks, you may need to help Sara set firmer boundaries with Tara and Jake until she feels more capable of dealing with what she perceives as their disapproval and ambivalence. In the meantime, make sure to also take care of yourself.
You got this.
Dear Readers, what say you?
About this Open Adoption Advice Column
- I occasionally call on others to help with answers, to tap into group wisdom.
- I am not trained as a therapist. Please do not rely on words in this space to make your own major or minor decisions.
- Readers are encouraged to weigh in thoughtfully and respectfully. Remember that this is a teaching endeavor rather than a shaming endeavor, and that we aim to bring light rather than heat. It’s my belief that people do the best they can with what they have to work with, and our goal is to give folks more to work with.
Send in your own open adoption question. I’ll either offer an answer or find someone who can address your issue.