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How to Explain to Children Differing Levels of Openness in Adoption

Question:    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

levels of open adoption

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.

Send in your own question for possible inclusion.

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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7 Responses

  1. Lori, You are so great at this. I think your response was spot on.

    To the person with the question: My son and his brother were both adopted as infants. Both are in their late 20s now. I’ve enjoyed an open adoption between our families; however, his brother (who is two years older than him) knows only his birthmother and it was a very strained and quite awkward attempt at semi-openness. At this point, it is virtually a closed adoption by choice of the birthmother.

    When the boys were young, this caused a bit of resentment between them.

    While one received numerous birthday and Christmas gifts from birthfamily far and wide, the other barely received an acknowledgement from his birthmother.

    Their parents handled it as best they could, in much the same way Lori advises. You can’t control other people; however, you can do your best to help your child (or children) process events and then respond in a healthy way. Sadness, hurt feelings, anger, resentment – all of the emotions are healthy and need to be expressed in order for understanding and healing to occur.

    One thing my son’s mother advocates is the beauty in “no expectations.” Her philosophy is: expect nothing, be grateful for everything. She doesn’t lower her expectations (how sad would that be?!). Rather, she *manages* her expectations – and she’s taught her sons how to do the same. Instead of hoping for a card or letter or gift or phone call, they are pleasantly surprised when one arrives.

    My advice would be to take it one day at a time. Honestly, you don’t know if things will change and if openness is a greater possibility down the line. Instead of hoping for it – wouldn’t it be a great surprise if it was? All the best.

    1. You bring up a really good point, Kim. The involved birth parent can be mindful of the feelings of the “other” child and be as inclusive as possible. Of course, it doesn’t make up for the absence of one’s own birth parent, but inclusion goes a long way (and exclusion is even more profound).

      I love your advice and your son’s mother’s philosophy.

  2. Hi Lori, I agree with your advice completely.

    I was wondering in addition to listening and empathizing, how about offering the child who does not receive gifts and time with birth family, to think of an activity they would like to do and then spend some extra time with that child doing that activity? Of course you can’t “make up for” time with birth family, but you can give your child a special day out doing an activity they love, while the other child is spending time with birth family.

    I also might be inclined to send some anonymous gifts to the child who isn’t receiving packages and goodies, from the good fairy. But that’s just me 🙂

  3. Oh, I like this very much. Especially because it is something that will take place in any family where there is more than one child. You always have differences between the kids, and you have to navigate it in such a way that honours each child where they are.

  4. Thanks Lori. These are important questions that our family struggles with even though both our girls have very open adoptions, but each birthmother handles that openness differently.

    I thought the idea of taking away the adoption charge was helpful. You used examples where you wouldn’t compare the two children’s experience, but address each one in a free standing way. I could imagine saying “you seem sad that you didn’t make the team” vs. “is it hard for you that your sister made the team and you didn’t?” You might go to that question but not start there. I’d suggest the same with the adoption question, not starting with the comparison. “You seem sad that your birthmother didn’t send a present. Am I right about that?” vs. “are you sad your birthmother didn’t send a present and your sister’s did?” Again, that might be the next level of discussion, but it might be better to start the conversation without the comparative aspect. Just a thought.

    These are always difficult conversations to navigate and we have our own feelings as well and hate seeing our children hurting. My word (which I don’t always live well) is “accompaniment” – when we can’t fix it (or maybe even when we can) we can always accompany our children in their sorrow, pain and loss.

  5. Love your words: “You can’t protect them from all sadness — nor should you — but you CAN help them develop resilience as they process sadness and disappointment.” Resilience is such an important life skill.

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