How to Explain to Children Differing Levels of Openness in Adoption

Dear Lavvie:    How do we explain different levels of openness to our children? We have a very close relationship with our son’s birth mother and his biological brother and grandparents but because of our daughter’s birth mother’s lifestyle our relationship with her and her other children is limited.

Our children are only 2 and 3 right now but I know soon enough they will start to question this.    ~~ Jamie

open adoption advice

Take Away the Adoption Charge

Dear Jamie:   First let’s look at HOW you decide what to say. To get yourself into a clear mindset (e.g., you’re not freaking out about the adoption part), let’s reframe things in a way that neutralizes the adoption charge. Here’s one way to do that:

Imagine that 10 years down the line one of your children qualifies for an advanced math class and the other doesn’t. Or one makes the team and the other doesn’t. How would you approach such a situation of imbalance with each child?

My guess is that you’d aim to meet both your children where they are. You probably wouldn’t aim for absolute fairness — reducing the benefits available to one in order to make things equal for the other. Nor would it be in your power to elevate the child who is experiencing lack to the level of the child who is experiencing bounty.

You would probably help each understand, gently and age appropriately, why things are the way they are, and you’d abide with them if/when they feel sadness. You can’t protect them from all sadnessnor should you — but you CAN help them develop resilience as they process sadness and disappointment.

We Don’t Always Get to Deal with the Ideal

As parents we must help our children to live in their world as it is. Sometimes things aren’t ideal, and our choice is to either change it (if possible) or accept it (if change is not possible). It’s great that you’re asking about how to explain so that you can do exactly this.

Words I might use would be:

I wonder how you feel about your birth mom not being around the way Brother’s is.

(Pause so Daughter can express herself…and listen.)

I’m sad about that, too. Right now, she’s not in a place where she’s able to be in our lives, but we are open to that one day happening.

I would then be silent and let Daughter do the talking so I could discover where she is. Offer the space for her to share her thoughts with you, if she chooses. She may not choose to at this point — she may have a lot going on and be unable to make sense of her own emotions — but making space for her to do so helps her know she can open up to you in the future if she is grappling with an issue.

This is more on this in my book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption, in Chapter 5, “Openness and the Adoptee.” Just keep in mind that adoption relationships – like all relationships – have an ebb and flow. Things may change for either your son or your daughter in terms of birth parent contact. While you can’t always control WHAT happens, you can support your children in how they RESPOND to what happens.

Dear Readers, what say you?


About this Open Adoption Advice Column

  • I may 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.

As always, readers are encouraged to weigh in thoughtfully and respectfully. I ask everyone to 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.

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Open adoption parenting & mindful living