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My Teen Wants to Live With His Birth Mom. Now What?

Of all the questions I’ve received while leading workshops and  webinars on openness, this one stands out because it gets at the heart of the the deepest fears people have about undertaking a parenting journey in which our child has (shudder) other parents.

Fear causes us to close down.

And as we see from so many comments on the previous post in this series, closing down can so easily cause us to lose what we want most.  Think of loving a flower so much you crush it in your hand.

The Effect of Fear and Closedness on Adoptive Parents’ Relationships with Their Kids

Here’s the third question that came at the end of a webinar I delivered on parenting via donor conception (donor eggs, donor sperm, donor embryos). You’ll see again that third-party reproduction and traditional adoption have a lot in common for both parents and children.

How do you handle a 17 year old who you have raised with love and understanding and all of a sudden they decide they want to go live with their birth parents because they say your rules aren’t fair?

gps for parenting via third-party reproduction

This is where mindfulness and resolving our own triggers can keep an issue from being magnified. For if we are able to neutralize fears within us, then we are free to focus only on the teen’s issue. As the grownups in the equation, isn’t that how we’d like to parent — to make sure our kids don’t have to navigate our issues as well as theirs?

So that’s the first thing: resolve any fears you may have about not being good enough parents, about being abandoned by your teen, about feeling unappreciated (“after all I’ve done for you”), about losing your teen to his birth parents.

The second thing is to tune in with your teen. Sometimes that’s simply abiding with him — bearing witness to his angst without question or lecture. Sometimes it’s finding a good counselor or therapist (an adoption-competent one if at all possible) to help work through knotty problems like control issues — common to adoptees, according to the Primal Wound theory — identity, relationships, self-esteem, and other things teens grapple with. Wanting to move in with birth parents may not be the actual issue, but a piece of a bigger puzzle.

(Then again, maybe it is the actual issue. Teen issues are notoriously difficult to suss out.)

Why Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is allowing  space and light  into a dark,  tight place. Mindfulness is stopping to breathe. Mindfulness is a tool that helps us open to our inner selves. Mindfulness enables us to pull out our fears and resolve them.

Without mindfulness, your issues and your teen’s issues could mix in a toxic way, with everyone reacting from deep-seated fear, everyone panicking, and with things so much harder than they need to be. If you’re in the grip of fear at the same time your kiddo is, who’s driving the bus down the craggy mountain?

Think about what you want most with your kids. I’m guessing in the top 3 would be a healthy, vibrant, eternal relationship. Are you more likely to get that by being closed or by being open?

Mindfulness brings about openness.

You can see that my response to the participant’s question is more about how to figure out what to do rather than offering actual advice what to do. In preparation to handle this very difficult situation — which I may very well face myself one day — I aim to do two things.

  1. Preserve the relationship with my kids above all else.
  2. Remain vigilant of my own fears and insecurities and deal with them so that they don’t affect my judgment or my relationship with my kids.

What do you think? What advice do you have for the parents of a teen who wants to live with a birth parent? Is that different from wanting to live with another person? Why or why not?

Other questions in this series:

  Image courtesy of nuttakit at

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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21 Responses

  1. Lori, I love your OPEN HEARTED approach to everything. I just wanted to throw this observation in from more than 20 years of private practice: I can’t remember a teenager from my own case load who didn’t express at some time in some way a desire to “live” with the “other” parent. They didn’t always follow through with the stated desire but the desire to “know” that other parent deeply always seemed to manifest. (This is true for all kids, even non-adopted kids from divorced parents.) It is not only common, it seemed to be a universal urge. Your advice here is stellar.

  2. My thoughts mirror Corie’s. I too can remember being a teenager and wishing for a different family. All of it havin to do with me testing boundaries and a “grass is always greener on the other side” mentality. What hurts in this case is the fear from the adoptive parents that somehow they’ve failed. That they will be abandoned.

    Like you stated, I think exploration is key here. Taking a step back and addressing the heart of the matter. Because at the end of the day, I’m willing to bet this young man would be crushed if his mother was no longer part of his life.

  3. I am right there with all three of you, with each or your ideas beautifully and thoughtfully stated.
    As a clinician and an adoptive mother who has helped my kids open their originally closed adoptions, I well understand how threatened an adoptive parent can feel. It has been a hard process to support my daughter to meet and spend time with her birth mom. I had to hear her belief that it would be better there and tolerate some rejection of me to get to the other side, which has turned out to be much more balanced.
    I definitely feared losing her. But I find now that she has an understanding and a relationship with her birth mom she can appreciate what is good in each of us. Everybody wins. And I am blessed to have formed a great relationship with her birth mom myself for which I am very grateful!

    1. Though reality can be scary, I think it’s so much more grounding in adoption than is staying in fantasy land.

      I love that you were courageous enough to open up and enable your daughter to find the Win that worked for all of you.

  4. Do you think it’s a problem if this is actually an option, though? I recognize that most teenagers (and small children and tweens) feel at some point that their home life is too oppressive and they would be happy if they were just somewhere else. But in general, a child says these sorts of things knowing that they don’t really have any other choice. But with a birth parent in the picture, and if the birth parent were willing – well, that raises a host of legal and liability issues.

    1. Making it OK depends on so much. It depends on the trust level between the two families, the level-headedness of the grownups involved, the sense of attachment the teen feels to either/both sets, and, of course, on what legal arrangement could be made.

      SO complex.

  5. My son was adopted (closed) not long after birth (we really struggled with the decision). He met his mother the moment he was able to arrange that We were separated at that time and both married . I was (quite deliberately) fixed on the idea that he an I not do the reunion until he had settled into a final sense of who he was. It just seemed unfair to add the rollercoaster of reunion to the time when young adults are in such turmoil trying to become their adult selves.

    For a few reasons, it was quite a bit later. What I learned was that our reunion was a requirement of his finalizing an understanding of himself. His adoptive mother had known this for some time and was not only supportive but quite active in helping us through this process (although she kept a low profile to be certain it followed its own course).

    I expected to meet a stranger. In fact I’ve never met anyone as much alike in my life. Obviously he was not a stranger in his adoptive family but he was a bit of a mystery (to which his mother and I held the key).

    I have been shocked by the balance between genetics and parenting (actually we all were). I think this is particularly difficult in embryo adoption – the other discussion – but it is not clear at all that the choice of birth canal competes in any significant way in competition with either genetics or parenting in the long run.

    1. Good point about the difference between a biological mother and a genetic mother, and the influences each role might or might not have in who a person is/becomes.

      Thank you so much for sharing more of your story. Your son’s adoptive mom sounds like she was tuned in and mindful the way I hope to be.

  6. “How do you handle a 17 year old who you have raised with love and understanding and all of a sudden they decide they want to go live with there birth parents because they say your rules aren’t fair?”

    At 17 are the rules actually fair – would be where I would suggest starting. At 17 they are at the brink of legally being considered adult and moving out into the world – with or without you. If the rules are just as rigid as they have always been – will he (she?) be able to move into adulthood – or should the rules be modified to let him gradually take on the responsibility of making it on his own over this year?

    The grass is always greener argument…you know, if I never heard this referred to an adoptee and their family by birth again – I’d say I’m seeing progress. Perhaps, seeing as we have nothing to go on – the rules are fine and just an excuse to make you feel better (aka less threatened) and instead – he wants to actually live with them, get to know them, create those memories that everyone should have with close relatives that you can sit around decades later and reminisce about.

    You can either cling tight and or open your heart and ‘hear’ what he actually needs from you right now. Perhaps it’s the rules and you need to get him ready for being his own boss in less than a year. Perhaps it’s just teen soon to be an adult rebelling. But perhaps – it’s a need to know where he comes from, and find out all those things most people know – my sense of humor is just like Uncle Steve’s, I get my mechanical aptitude from my mother by birth, I want to look around and see myself reflected back, I want those same shared memories that I have with my family by adoption with my family by birth…

    As to the mom – if you’ve been mom this long – what are you worried about? You can’t undo 17 years of life and wipe away all those memories. Kids naturally start untying the apron strings in the teen years – it’s pretty normal…

    Being adopted is complicated…being a teen is complicated…being an adopted teen is HARD…

    1. Excellent points about being on the brink of adulthood anyway, and about the unknowable number of variables that could be part of this teen’s reasons for wanting to live with his birth mom. Any one of them alone could be knotty, but tangle em all up and yup, complicated.

  7. It’s good advice that applies inside and outside of adoption. Yes, the situation is different and the logistics are different, but that openness can help nurture and grow any parent/teen relationship.

  8. When I went through divorce, I saw a counselor to help me process my own feelings and to help me support my kids through this difficult time. One of my boys was acting out in anger. My counselor suggested that I look beyond the misbehavior (or negative/mean statements) to hear what my son was feeling…”I am hurting, angry, confused. I need attention, etc.”

    Two years later I remarried and my sons would say things like: “You are not my real dad,” (to my husband — who later adopted them), and “I would rather live with Dad,” when they felt angry, threatened, or hurt.

    When I reacted to what they said, it usually ended up with both me and one of my sons being angry and hurt, resulting in separation. When I listened to both their words and tuned in to their feelings, we found connection and openness.

    It seems that staying open (pausing to respond) takes more mindfulness, inquiry, vulnerability, and usually more time (at that moment), but being closed (reacting) leads to hurt feelings and separation.

    Lori — thank you for your gentle, practical reminders about staying open. I believe openness is the key to strong, healthy relationships.

  9. My daughter was younger when she asked why she couldn’t live with her birthmom now that she was old enough to care for her. ( Her birthmother was very young and my daughter was told this was the reason adoption was chosen) Because I have a great relationship with her birthmom I called her to talk to her about it. It was a little scary for us both. Me, wondering if she would think I was a bad mom and she was wondering if she should get involved. But because we both love this little girl.. She reached out to our daughter and told her that she loved her very much but she believed that I was meant to be the mom that raised her. I’m sure that was so very hard for her! But because both of her moms ( yes, she calls us both mom and I’m ok with that ) answered her question with love and compassion instead of fear and insecurity we taught our daughter that it was ok to feel these things and talk to us both about it. I admit it hurt to have her say that..but this is the reason both of her moms work hard on our relationship with each other, so we can be better moms to her. I feel so blessed to have her birthmom in my life and in my daughter’s life.

  10. i am always amazed when people claim the adoption was successful because the adoptee rejects their mom. in any other familia relationship would you consider it successful if they refused to see them? when children become teenagers they start to come into their personalities and skills, why wouldn’t they want to be with someone who shares this? why recommend that if they request this, that you visit an adoption therapist? at best (and typically) they find someone who loves them from the bottom of their heart and works for the best of them. At worst they don’t like them as you had hoped and now they know for sure. (i would love to be a mouse in the room when the mom is admitting she’s not good for her child, adoption soul murder over and over and over)

  11. As an adoptee who was abused by my adopted parents; There may be good reasons why an adoptee wants to go live with their first-parents. I was 16 when I found my parents. Not all adoptive homes are wonderful. The three kids I knew growing up who were adopted also had terrible experiences in their adoptive homes. I think that a 17 yr. old should have some input in where they live and with whom. Children of divorced parents often are given a choice about which parent they want to live with. Why not allow adoptees a similar choice?

    1. I am sorry to hear you suffered abuse, Lorene. I wish (as I’m sure do you) for a world in which that never happened between any kind of parent and child.

      I think you have a good point about 17 year olds having input on their living arrangements. If the goals are (1) staying in relationship with the son/daughter and (2) prepping them to make big decisions on their own, then hearing and factoring in their thoughts seems like a necessary ingredient.

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