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My Daughter is Hurting in Our Open Adoption. Help?

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.

core issues in adoption

Credit: derived from “Dew on Water” by photophilde [CC-BY-2.0]

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?

— Lina


Guest advising is my friend and colleague Judy Miller, author and trainer about adoption and parenting issues.

Core Issues of Adoption

core issues adoption

Hi Lina. I am struck by your love and mindfulness for your almost-16-year-old daughter.

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. 

Delving Deeper 

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.

  1. Take care of yourself so that you have the emotional and spiritual strength to be there for Sara. She needs you.
  2. Give Sara permission to be honest, but set guidelines about her behavior and language.
  3. Throw out pebbles (open-ended and rhetorical questions and observations), and wait for the signal that Sara is ready to Go There.
  4. 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.”
  5. Be present to interpret and respond to her verbal and non-verbal sharing.
  6. 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 my book 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.

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

Lori Holden, adoption author

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.

Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page, and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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17 Responses

  1. I really have to commend Lina for how mindful she is being with raising her daughter. Being as open as she’s been is not easy and many are unable(unwilling) to do it.

    I think the advice above is sound. Lina pursued openness for her daughter, but sometimes openness comes in different forms. You can still be open without contact and pulling back to put Sara first doesn’t mean you are closing off that openness.

    I also wonder if pulling back would be good for Tara and Jacob. Be prepared for them to feel rejection and fight for contact when it’s withdrawn. But make it clear that you are putting Sara first.

    And I agree with Lori. Lina, you’ve got this.

    1. Hi Cristy,
      Lina does have this. Tara and Jacob have indicated the need for distance at this time. She is putting Sara first while pursuing answers.

  2. “Have you and Sara discussed how her birth mother may be dealing with her own big emotions about placing Sara?”

    Sara doesn’t need that added burden. Tara is the adult, Sara is the child, Tara needs to be the adult in the situation. Sara should be free to just feel how she feels, not be guilted into just stuffing her feelings down because someone else is hurting. We do that all too often as adoptees, even in closed adoptions, we take care of everyone else, and put our needs aside. Don’t do that to Sara.

    I think the adults just need to understand that it sucks to not be kept, no mater if you wrap it up in glittery paper, it still sucks. This is adoption for some.

    Hopefully her therapist gets it and helps her process her way through it (for now).

    1. I see your point, TAO, that the adoptee should not be made to feel responsible for the emotions of the grownups. And I agree with you.

      Judy will weigh in soon, but I believe the intentions of this part of the conversation is to let Sara know that Tara’s demeanor may come from emotions other than her feelings about Sara. In other words, it’s an attempt to depersonalize the hurtful ambivalence and withdrawal.

      And I see that attempts to depersonalize something that feels so personal can be futile.

      As always, I really appreciate your perspective.

      1. Just bringing it up does that – no one needs to make her feel that way. Ask an adoptee if they are people pleasers, then ask why they think they are. Ask what they are afraid will happen if they assert their need(s) over the other person’s need.

        1. This is an important point for adoptive parents to keep in mind — to beware of the adoptee’s tendency toward people pleasing and to be cautious not to exacerbate it.

    2. Hi Tao,
      My apologies for chiming in late. We are on vacation. Lori’s response about Lina’s intention is spot-on.

      Thank you for sharing your insights. I agree that the adoptee should not be made to feel the responsibility for an adult’s emotions and decisions, especially a child. At the same time, explaining why an adult may be motivated to respond the way they are, without judging the motivation, helps. Parents are “growing kids into adults,” hopefully with mindful open guidance. As Lori stated, “it’s an attempt to depersonalize the hurtful ambivalence and withdrawal.” Of course, depersonalizing doesn’t necessarily help to alleviate the emotional pain. Lina is being mindful and open, while putting her daughter first.

  3. Sometimes openness without contact is best. I know many situations including my own (I have 2 young adopted kids), where visits will not happen unless my kids request them when they are 18 or older. My older son’s birth mom has decided that she never wants contact ever again. She has too many mental/emotional issues to keep in touch. Her issues are the reason that she couldn’t handle our visits. (Long story) We wish our kids’ birth relatives well.

  4. Why was this girl not given back to her mom….and adoption the focus? End the adoption.
    What is the point of adoption? Why did this child need to be a contract to filll whose need?
    I’m just a father who got left out and have had to hear the bs we did not know. Well not wanting to know is something also to think about. She has to please two mom’s. Why is her real mom considered to be less than? Who is her real Mom?

    1. Hi, Scott. I’m sorry for your pain of being left out and not knowing. That must be very hurtful.

      You’re new here, and maybe you are not aware of my thoughts on the word “real” in adoption. I don’t think its use by adoptive or birth parents helps the adopted person because it’s a splitting concept, not an integrating one.

      As for the approach you recommend taking, placing Sara with Tara doesn’t sound like an option now, as Tara’s ambivalence is part of the issue Sara and Lina are dealing with.

  5. “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?”

    In reality this means end the relationship with her birth family which will likely create short term calm, and lifelong issues. Sometimes we look for the easy way out because it’s convenient and less stressful. Sara has her whole life ahead of her. Severing relationships will not help her in the long run and she may resent this strongly when she is older.

    1. Taking a break and severing a relationship are two different things. There is nothing in Lina’s letter or in Judy’s advice to indicate that anyone is looking for the opportunity to sever after 15+ years of openness.

    2. Hi Anonymous,
      Neither Sara nor Lina is looking to end the relationship. There are times when a taking a break or stepping back might be beneficial. Taking a break from is not the same as ending something. Taking a break is an act mindfulness, of hitting “pause” and being present in the emotional and/or physical space needed to regroup, recharge, unflood, heal, etc.

  6. What folks fail to understand is there is a splitting of the adoptee whether or no, one calls one set or both sets of parents ‘real’. I have to say over and over again that this is NOT in the “best interest of the child”. I wish people would come to understand the damage that is done even if or when you can ‘create’ a compliant, calmer, seemingly well adjusted child. Sometimes children, even older children, just shut the hell up and shut down and give in and give up because there is no way to FIX it. Then they spend the rest of their lives trying to ‘fix’ what should have been dealt with and corrected in childhood.

    Why do people say adoption is in the best interest of the child? Why do they feel (hope) open adoption is ‘better’? Is great depression in the ‘best interest of the child’? Is anxiety in the ‘best interest of the child’? Is confusion in the ‘best interest of the child’? Is the rage and anger a good thing? I seem to remember, for those who believe in God, something in His word that says, “provoke not your children to wrath.” Is the ‘wrath’, rage and anger, which is often known to be an issue, for those who are adopted, in the ‘best interest of the child’? What?? You say, ” It’s okay for you to feel angry. It’s to be expected for you to feel angry about being/feeling abandoned. It’s okay, I’m here for you, I’m not going anywhere”. So we get to play the rescuing ‘saint’. We get to play the non-abandoner. We get to be the ‘good parent’. Really? Wouldn’t it have been best to keep the child from those feelings to begin with! ? Is hurting and great pain from feeling rejected, unwanted by your true family in the ‘best interest of the child’? Is not understanding why you can’t go to live with them when you know they exist through phone calls or letters or e-mail, or why you can’t go home with your family when there are in person visits in the ‘best interest of the child’? Especially if there are other siblings that were KEPT!?

    You all keep saying you are trying to find the best way to help the adoptee…. there is only one way to do that. Keep them with their family. Adoption, open or otherwise is not in the best interest of the child in regard to all the emotional and mental upheaval that an adoptee endures through. their. life.

    No, I’m not saying a child should stay or be kept in an abusive family situation. That is not what most of these situations are talking about. Is the desperate need to be a parent so overwhelming that a child must be gotten and retained no matter the cost to the child? Why?

    Yes, by all means, let’s take a break (from reality). Just put it off for the adoptee to have to deal with/ face later. Yes, that’s best, so we can have our normal little quiet life now. You, adoptee, can deal with it all later. How helpful. (not) Kind of like the massive debt of the U.S. that we are leaving for the next generation/s to deal with. We don’t want to make the sacrifices now so they will have something better or at least not be burdened with such a heavy load.

    When will you start listening to adoptees and their children and grandchildren who have had to walk through this living nightmare!? Why can’t you find a better way? For. The. Child.

    1. yes. I agree. Taking a break teaches secrecy. It teaches shame. It does not teach how to cope with perfectly normal feeling of anger, of feeling dismissed. A lot of the earlier conversation revolves around how to keep the adopters nice little world…. well ….nice.

      Quote …” Tara’s ambivalence is part of the issue Sara and Lina are dealing with ” ………..and I bet that feels invalidating and stressful to some one of 16. Bit like mother reading her diary.

      Things may not be ” real ” to you but perhaps they are to her.

      There is no way to fix it. No way tell some one ” I am sorry you are hurting ” easily but you guys need to practice.

  7. When an adoptee is rejected by birth relatives, what she needs is connection with another adoptee who has suffered rejection. I have, and I will speak with any rejected adoptee.sherrie eldridge

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