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Withholding Information from Adopted Kids

This is part 2 of the Parenting GPS series, in which I’m sharing Q&As from a webinar I delivered recently on openness and embryo adoption (or donation — pick the term that works for you), which is similar in many ways to traditional adoption. In fact, many of the questions that arose from the Nightlight audience had to do with traditional adoption…like this one.

Withholding vs Sharing the Child’s Information

­Q: I spoke with an adoptive mom who had contact with her sons’ birth moms, but the contact didn’t extend to the boys. When talking to her sons about adoption, she would not tell them their birth moms’ names, even though both boys have asked.  What do you think?

Well, I think it’s a pity and a lost opportunity.* Barring some X-factor, it sounds on the surface that this decision to keep birth moms and sons separated may be based on fear and on a desire to hold tight to control. Either as a motivating factor is likely to come back and bite her. When those boys become men, or even before that, this woman may have some ‘splaining to do.

I would gently probe to find if she has a rational, non-fear-oriented way to justify this arrangement. I would try to get her to see that not addressing her own issues may cost her one day in terms of her relationship with her sons. I’d remind her that nothing is more important than the relationships we have with our children throughout their lives, and the trust that underpins it.

Healthy and sustainable relationships are based not on fear but on trust. The grownups involved must be willing to identify and resolve their own fears and triggers and issues and deal with What Is.

* I wonder if there could be  a significant piece of the woman’s decision to keep people separated that’s not stated here. Like what, I can’t imagine, but if there were I’d want to re-evaluate.

What do you think? Are there situations in which it’s all right to withhold any or all of our kids’ stories?

gps for parenting via third-party reproduction

Other questions in this series:


This post is also part of #Microblog Mondays. What’s that? A post that is not too long. Head over to Stirrup Queens to join the fun.

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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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45 Responses

  1. I had my real parentage kept secret from me, only finding out by accident when I was 50. The good news is that I met my father before he died. The other good news is that I have been free from my childhood family for 12 years and won’t see them again.

    The bad news is that, as a child, I could only understand ‘family’ as that which I experienced and took to be normal. This deep misunderstanding harmed me and, more importantly reached through me to harm others. Several people’s lives were greatly diminished and although I now understand the origins of that only I can accept responsibility.

    People keep information from children as if it was their right to do so, as if there will be no consequence, and as if it is a way to retain those children as their own exclusive property. This is a mistake. When ‘your’ child finds out and forever comes to see you as the untrustworthy and hurtful person you have been (and likely cuts you out of their life completely as I have) it is not an act of ungratefulness it is a natural consequence of your abuse. It is a necessary liberation for them.

    Closed people have more to think about than just acting decently and more to fear than just telling the truth.

    1. Thank you for sharing your story, Mike, and showing some of the consequences parents might not foresee when their child is still a child, at the time when trust-building decisions must be made.

    2. Wow. Mike, I’m so sorry that you had to live through this. Thank you for sharing your story. It adds weight to Lori’s insights and response.

    3. So what if the son or daughter finds their biological parents and wants to live with them and let’s say the parents come to the house and the kid doesn’t wanna get out the car and wants to live with them would he have to go back ?

      1. One can only say ‘so what’ from the perspective of a parenting or ancestral adult, and then only by putting aside any or all concern about the young or adult person who was adopted.

        ‘So what’ seems ridiculously out of place in the context of the discussions here that arise specifically because parenting and ancestral adults care very much about the people whose lives they have shaped.

        So what? – ‘The kid’ is a person worth of empathy and their predicaments are worth understanding; in adoption or any other form of blended family.

  2. As an adoptee first, and then an adoptive parent 32 years later, I cannot think of a SINGLE reason to withhold information. There are ways to present bad/hard info in an age appropriate way, adding details as the child matures, but beyond that, there should never be information that an adoptive parent has that they do not share with their child. One of the most hurtful things my adoptive mother EVER did was withhold information from me, and 30 years later, I’m still hurt by it and have never been able to trust her the same way since.

  3. My nephew is adopted and this is something we struggle with as a family. His mother is extremely closed about any information regarding birth family, but this is also an extension of her own issues and dysfunction. It’s very sad, though, as we’re already seeing our nephew pull away from her and it is likely that the thing she fears most (aging alone and having no one) will likely come true because of her choices.

    I’ve yet to meet anyone who didn’t want information about their origins/biological background. Even if this information has to be given slowly and in an age-appropriate manner. It’s true that there are times where this information is extremely hard. But it’s usually far better than being left in the dark.

    1. This: “it is likely that the thing she fears most (aging alone and having no one) will likely come true because of her choices.”

      Yes. It’s like crushing a flower in your fist because it’s so beautiful and you want to hang on to it so tightly. You lose what you want most.

  4. I don’t have any adoption experience, but what I am reading all makes sense.

    I do have experience with life and openness in general and in “regular” families, there needs to be sharing of information also. Maybe not everything at once, but at least at an age appropriate time and manner.

  5. We are just in the home study process part of adopting, and I can’t think of a reason to withhold information. Maybe age appropriate adjusting of a narrative if it’s tricky, maybe, but never hiding or refusing to share when asked. I have seen the damage keeping info secretive and “shameful” can do as my sister found out in her early twenties that our dad was not biologically her dad and she had a whole other family connection elsewhere. It was tough and continues to be tricky to this day, as the secret has still been kept from members of our family and it’s a sticky point that continues to complicate the family dynamic. Information may not be easy, but it’s the CHILD’s story, not YOURS. Thank you to Mike for sharing such a painful story and giving the perspective of that deep sense of betrayal that keeping info secret can impart. We’re all about the openness, ourselves.

  6. Whoa. Given my personal experience with information about my biological father being withheld by my mother (she kept photographs of him and didn’t release them to me until recently and only gave me some of them at that), I can truthfully say this is a bad idea. And, to make it all about me, this type of communication that she’s using is what my mom did my entire life. It’s not healthy and is likely to result in major problems down the road.

  7. Our full biological daughter, who was placed as an embryo with another family, and is now 5, has never been told she’s adopted. My children, her full biological siblings, are getting older and would love to know and have some sort of relationship with her. We are told that our 5-year-old, embryo adopted daughter will be dictating how our relationship with her will work out when she’s old enough to handle that information. I wish I had been more educated about the power we gave away and what we opened our family up to when we placed our embryos for adoption. It’s the biggest regret of my life. It’s difficult at best to put into words how betrayed and tormented we feel by this. More importantly, I can’t begin to imagine what this is doing and will do to her. We NEVER agreed or intended this for her. But – her mother gave birth to her. I guess they can keep it secret forever or until my kids contact her on Facebook.

  8. Sigh…despite everyone wanting to believe adoption has actually changed, it hasn’t. To some, it is still the same old secrecy, lies, insecurity, and having the power. Sorry Lori – I generally try to hold my temper, but seriously? They want to know the name of the mother that brought them into this world after carrying them in her womb for 40 weeks – her knowing their name(s) and denying her sons a small snippet of THEIR information that everyone else has always known?

    My guess is that she believes that knowing her name will make their mother by birth real to them – she needs to figure out that their mother by birth has always been real to them, and she’s the one that is driving a wedge in what should be an honest parent/child adoptive relationship…

    I can just imagine what would take place if they said they want to search…guilt trip would begin before you could count to three.

    I know I’m rambling, but if you want a long-term relationship with your adopted child then – create one that will last and stand the test of time (and life). This is not the way to create at best, anything other than obligatory loyalty (guilted) relationship…said the adoptee who’s actually in a good half-century plus relationship with mom (dad’s passed)…

  9. I have no experience with adoption, but I could not agree more with this: “Healthy and sustainable relationships are based not on fear but on trust.” Yes. A thousand times, yes.

  10. While I can’t think up a scenario when it would be appropriate, I like that you left the door open to that possibility because I think that conveys a healthy sense of openness, too. That anyone can step forward with their truth and have it heard.

  11. As an adopted child (now long an adult), I am always for complete openness regarding the birth story. I don’t ever remember a time that I didn’t know I was adopted. It was just a fact of our lives, along with the idea that we were very special because our parents chose us (I’m including my two adopted sisters too).

    I do believe though, that depending on the circumstances, there may be age appropriate times to share certain information. But when they are old enough to ask, as for the names of their birth parents, they are old enough to know.

    1. Like others have said, the age-appropriateness is a key piece in parent-child relationships. And parents must be attuned to the child to best choose the timing of these talks, as well as the content.

  12. I agree with your response, and have found the comments very interesting. Consideration of all these issues was high in my mind when looking at whether we would or could adopt or use donor egg. Which brings me to a question. Is egg/sperm donation treated the same way? Do parents disclose this to their children?

    1. I’m not sure. I think it’s moving that way. There are many who want to learn from the mistakes of secrecy and shame prevalent with closedness, as being reported by adoptees. And find better ways of helping the resulting children integrate their biologies and their biographies.

    2. Yes. All children deserve to know their biological origins. And with the ever increasing use of DNA, it’s pretty much guaranteed they will find out at some point. Secrets are bad and destroy relationships. Lying to your kids about *their* identity and origins is never ok.

  13. Lori, once again you have a good conversation going here.
    I second the emotion that withholding information from children will only come back to bite everybody. The truth, even when it is difficult, is what gives wholeness to all members of the adoption constellation and integrity to our relationships.
    To the parent who’s 17 year old wants to live with his birthparents I understand how painful and rejecting that must feel. Maybe a visit to see what that would really be like is a place start to join him in exploring the idea, as difficult as that is. My daughter spent a holiday week with her birth family and was very happy to come home. She had a really nice time and it was not the fantasy she had in mind.

    1. What great insight, about your daughter’s visit and fantasy. Another case in which resisting means persisting, and indulging helps put fantasy to rest.

      Yes, this: “The truth, even when it is difficult, is what gives wholeness to all members of the adoption constellation and integrity to our relationships.”

  14. We are definitely in the midst of some age-appropriate…redaction, I guess?…that we didn’t anticipate when the children were born. They know everything I know about their mother except one thing, which I’m also not going to share here, but is a circumstance that I’ve noticed my children see as a very black-and-white thing (as most children see many things) and so I am holding onto it until they are better able to process it without the information unduly impacting their impression of her. (I should probably note that there is a close family member in my family who has been in a similar circumstance & they don’t know about that yet, either, for the same reason.)

    I was reading a book the other day in which the author noted that she doesn’t refer to her children (and they are her biological children) as “my children” but rather “the children who share my life” or something similar. Her rationale for this is that her children don’t belong to her – they are their own people, not little adults-in-training for her to mold. I found it a particularly interesting turn of phrase as an adoptive parent. I remember early on feeling more than a little anxious about having to “claim” my children; I would be lying if I said that I didn’t second-guess our decision to refer to their mother as “Mama D” once my oldest began talking (OMG I have to share them!). I feel less of that now; I guess it’s 6 years’ experience at this now? In many ways I do see them as “the children who share my life” – they aren’t mine, but neither would they be if they’d been born to me.

    It makes me so sad to know that there are so many adoptive parents operating under the assumption that they can control who their children become by limiting access (to information, to people, to whatever). It’s not healthy for anyone, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it ending well…

  15. Like others have said, there is a time for some information to be “redacted” due to age appropriateness, but everything I’ve ever read says that the full truth should be known before the kids hit puberty. I really can’t imagine withholding information for any other reason than that. A young child can’t process, for example, what it means to have been conceived by rape, but, ultimately, even that story needs to be told, because it is HIS (or HER) story.

    And yes, a lot of withholding really does seem to be because the adoptive parents fear what might happen, or are confused by the information. A question that always comes up is “When should I tell my children they have ‘siblings’ who weren’t placed?” And they put the word “siblings” in quotes, as though the kids weren’t really related. My kids have always known that they have siblings, because to hide that from them would be a huge violation of trust, and I say as much every time that question is asked.

    Anyway… Looking forward to the rest of the series!

  16. My parents taught me not to lie and I was punished if I were caught. However, when it came to my adoption they lied by omission.

    Lying by omission does not build strong relationships. My adoption was closed in the 50s, however, there was speculation about my birth mother’s identity based upon a teacher and an administrator who worked at her school related to my a-father. That information was passed around the a-family as I lie in the bassinet. It was hinted to me by a younger a-cousin when I was a teen; this a-cousin told me her family contacted my b-family. I dismissed it because they were so awful anyway.

    Imagine my horror when I heard it was true in my 40s. My a-mother is still alive and lives with us. Her family is not welcome here – for a variety of hateful reasons including this which she just can’t understand.

    Your children deserve whatever you know about their adoption, because someone else will tell them if you don’t. It’s like stepping on a landmine; you’re intentionally placed in a situation to deal with hurtful information with someone you don’t even like. Some folks are hateful by nature and can’t wait to tell secrets. Nothing is that well hidden. The lying will stop, even if the adoptee has to stop it themselves by eliminating people from their lives. We deserve respect; we are not possessions; secrets make you sick. The truth sets you free.

    Good topic Lori.

      1. For me that the others knew IS actually worse. The main secret keepers had their reasons, often powerful. I can understand and forgive that. We all love people who fail in the face of such things.

        My issue with my main secret keepers is that, even now, they refuse to shift into reality and it is simply impossible to maintain a relationship with them. The secret is out and it is time to move forward. I never pretended anything and now is not the time to start. I was simply duped. It is simply too much to ask that we just quietly close pandoras box and, even now, to refuse any information I can’t discover myself against all resistance.

        My issue with the others is that they sat quietly by and let this happen. The discovery simply clarifies that, for whatever reason, they cared about others more than myself.

        The result of the secrets we are discussing here is a deep abiding and permanent anger. It is not a rage or even particularly emotional but is is powered by an absolute resolve and it is permanent.

  17. In this day of Google…I would imagine that this mother fears that the boys would try to contact their birth mothers, and there is some reason it is not appropriate. Not knowing how old the boys are, it’s hard to say if this is a reasonable fear – my 2nd grader knows how to Google people and she asks a lot of questions, especially about people.

  18. I wonder if she believes she is protecting her sons. My daughter’s biological father has never met her. We have contact with her birth mother and my daughter knows about her, has pics etc. Bio dad has made some very questionable life decisions and is not someone we will, at this point (my daughter is a toddler) allow in her life. It is an issue of her safety at this point. And I worry a lot about how my husband and I will present this information to her as she gets older and asks. My protective instinct is to shield her from him and who he is but I know that’s not the right approach and she deserves the (age appropriate) truth.

    1. That is probably her motivation, Beth. I believe almost all parents want to do their best possible for their kids.

      I hope you’ve read through these comments, many from adoptees. The gist seems to be that not knowing has more harmful consequences than knowing, especially on the relationship between parent and child. I think you are on the right track with the intention to tell everything to your daughter, age-appropriately.

      Also, there is a difference between giving her her story and facilitating contact with her birth father. I believe you can give information and still protect.

      1. I have read the comments and i will not be keeping information from her. You are right – contact is a very different thing.

  19. We have kept things age appropriate for our adopted children who are under the age of six. Their adoption situation is unique as they did not live with us full time until they were almost three and 18 months old.

    While we do not have contact with their birth parents for safety reasons, we do have contact with many other members of their birth family. It was just recently that I realized we had never verbalized the fact that their birth parents were the parents of their “first Mommy.” I can’t imagine not sharing such important information with them.

    While we will only share things as they are age appropriate, we feel it is vital to always be truthful to them.

    What a tragedy for this adoptive Mother to keep this information from them when they have asked. It only plants seeds of distrust.

    1. “What a tragedy for this adoptive Mother to keep this information from them when they have asked.”

      This is similar to what many US states do to their adoptees – despite adoptees, at the ripe old age of majority, requesting their unaltered birth certificates from government records, several US state governments withhold this information from them.

      How is state withholding of adoptees’ information/records from adoptees any better or different from adopters’ withholding of adoptees information/records? It’s also a form of control over adoptees. Based on fear too? Quite possibly/likely.

  20. The context of this discussion is adoption, but the harm caused by parental dissimulation and withholding of information is fairly universal. I was lied to about a rare genetic disorder with which I was born (I was told something more “palatable” rather than the truth about what it is). The ostensible justification was to “protect” me because the truth is disturbing and unsettling. I figured out the truth, alone and scared, in a medical library when I was 20. I never trusted my parents again, and have never missed them at any time in the years since their deaths. Interestingly, if sadly, I later realized that lying and withholding information was their overall parenting style and not specific to just my medical condition. Parents lie to children to protect themselves from having to deal with things parents find upsetting or the consequences of truthful disclosure. But being a parent, a real parent, means confronting such parent’s own anxieties rather than denying their child autonomy and the right to know.

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