Supporting a child through his or her desire for more birth family contact.
Every adoption story is unique and beautiful. Here are 7 ways to support a seeker, or an adoptive child looking for his or her birth family. Every adoptive family has followed a personal journey, and every adoptee will view his or her story in a different light. Often, we hear about how adoptive families feel about or deal with openness, but I don’t think we hear from adoptees on this issue near enough.
It used to be thought that children should be protected from difficult pasts, but the veil of shame over adoption has certainly been lifted. In more recent years, adoption professionals have increasingly advised that adoptees do better, emotionally, in the long term by having more information about the birth family of origin. One thing I know for sure is that adoptive parents have wide and varied opinions on the topic. Factors that play into this can be fear, insecurity, addictions issues in the birth parents, unsafe behavior in the birth parents, and concern over the influence on the child, or even the pain or emotional roller coaster the child might go on when being faced with some facts from his or her past. I know families who are very open about adoption, some that are begrudgingly open about adoption, and some that wish closed adoptions were not a thing of the past. No matter where you fall on this spectrum, it is important to understand that familial opinions on birth family or openness are usually of little concern to the adoptee. Some adoptees will be natural seekers—wanting, and maybe craving birth family connections possibly more than you ever imagined, despite your opinion or ideas on the matter.
I have a seeker. One of my adoptive children is incredibly keen to know and meet and love her extended family. Our family supports three very open adoptions, and although it isn’t always easy, I have felt affirmed that we are doing the right thing. All of our children have thrived in open adoptions, but one child in particular just can’t quite get enough. We get lots of questions. Who do I look like? Who do I act like? Who are my biological grandparents, and where do those family members live? Who else out there am I related to? If you have an adoptive child who is a seeker, it is likely that his or her desire and drive will not go away. For some adoptive parents, that invokes feelings of dismay or maybe dread. For others, it’s possibly excitement, a challenge, or any other range of emotion. Either way, many times a seeker will press on with or without your help because the desire to know who he or she is cannot be squelched. Because children need our unconditional love, guidance, and support, I think that it is so important that parents push aside personal discomfort to walk this journey with the child. If there are concerns for safety, that is all the more reason to be right there with your child, helping the child navigate this. While all parents deal with insecurities over whether he or she is doing a good job as a parent, and a million other little insecurities, adoptive parents do have considerably more on their shoulders. We deal with the opinions of others, possible medical or neurobehavioral issues, past sadness about infertility, or lost pregnancies, the list goes on and on. I truly believe that adoptive parents must work to push any hindrances aside to be fully available for the child. We may decide, given a child’s age, that he or she is too young, or not ready for new or increased contact. But, for every child, there comes an age where that decision is right out of our hands. There is no set age but rather depends on the child’s own behavior and maturity. A child of 8 years old actively searching on social media for family members will need you to come alongside a lot sooner than a curious 15-year old who is asking you how to start the process. There is no way to predict how our kids will react, but I have seen 9-year-olds rummage through an old phone book, looking for potential relative matches to phone, and I’ve seen young teens run away from home to go look for a birth parent. Long before it gets to this point, if you are seeing any signs of intense seeking, it is time to support this child. Your child will be safer with you on his or her side, and it should create positive memories for that child to look back on if you are an advocate rather than an adversary in that search. So, how do you support a seeker?
As the adoptive parent, or another supportive adult in the child’s life, you may not ever fully understand why the child feels the way he does. That is ok, you don’t have to. You do, however, need to have grace and empathy. Sometimes, a child of adoption struggles with a deep hole inside of him that he so desperately wants to fill with the birth family, and it does not matter how bad his past is. It might not matter that he was neglected or abused by his family of origin, and it might not matter that pain is laced through this decision to connect. What matters to some kids is being with those people, individual roots, and knowing those roots. When we lock horns with someone and disagree, again and again, it can cause both sides to entrench more fully in a personal stance. This pitting against one another would be a sad outcome for adoptive parents and adoptees. An adoptee will eventually get old enough to do whatever he pleases and to seek whomever he pleases. By being empathetic early, and immediately, you protect your relationship, which is paramount to everything else.
Have a Plan.
While you might not know where to start, or what to do, it is your job as the parent to be the calm, confident leader. You can research ideas, or talk with an adoption consultant. You can reach out to an adoption support group in your area or online, or to an adoption social worker. Have a rough framework of what feels acceptable to you—if you are not ready to meet with a birth relative face to face, think about alternatives, such as using Skype or Zoom, or connecting via Facebook or email. If you have a clear idea of what your boundaries are, you will be set up to give your adoptee some options that are both acceptable to you, and doable. This makes for a successful plan right off the start.
Plan to Research.
For some adoptive parents, finding info on birth families might not be much of a task. Perhaps you adopted your foster child, and have intimate knowledge about her families of origins. Many provinces in Canada have adoption registries. An adoptee can sign up to receive notice or correspondence if a birth parent, relative, or sibling also signs up for contact. Privacy is protected through a repackaging of mail through a neutral registry mailing address, which can put adoptive families at ease, and social workers manage the correspondence when new family members sign up for contact or wish to be removed from contact. For others, information might be much harder to find. A family we know adopted from an orphanage in China. There was no information available about the son, and it is highly unlikely he will ever have information about his biological family. This creative family traveled to China years after his adoption to take a tour of the orphanage, and even got to speak to some of the staff, still employed there, that cared for him when he was a baby and young child. That can be a special gift to give an adoptee. For some families, this type of international travel might not be feasible. If not, consider researching the orphanage. You can print off photos, request pamphlets, and reach out to the orphanage. Not all orphanages will be open to conversation, and the orphanage’s ability to disclose information might be limited by its country’s policies. It doesn’t hurt to ask, though, and may help your adoptee answer some of her burning questions. You can also reach out to the adoption agency that was used. Even if little comes out of it, your adoptee might find comfort in knowing how the adoption process through her country of origin worked. Never underestimate the power of knowledge. I can think of one case in particular where an adoptee was thrilled and felt so loved when she found out the time, cost, and detail that were involved in her adoption. She felt so taken care of knowing that a whole team of people worked to bring her home to her adoptive family.
I think that patience is a virtue in the adoption world, completely. We might be waiting on a home study, or a match, maybe on a transition, but it can feel like we are always waiting. This is similar when it comes to helping a seeker. You might be waiting for information, a letter back, a phone call, or, your adoptee himself. Expect emotional highs and lows. Expect that while sometimes your adoptee might be excited and impatient with his search, other times he might be reluctant, or unsure. As an adult, be steady and confident, yourself. Make allowance for mistakes, waiting time, and changing emotions.
You might find yourself overcome with much emotion or strong feelings through this process. This is especially true if your child comes from a past of violence, neglect or abuse, or if such things come to light for the first time on your search. You might meet people you don’t agree with, don’t like, or don’t get along with. Remember, this is not about you. While you always reserve the right, as the parent, to put a stop to anything unsafe or unhealthy, it is your job to remain neutral when it comes to biological family choices, issues, opinions, you name it. Adoptees most often want to please both sides—biological, and adoptive. Your adoptee may find it hard to navigate if it is clear you disapprove or are shocked by the lifestyle of the birth family, for example. Steer clear of opinions on non-safety related issues to protect your adoptee’s ability to love both sides.
Record Your Journey.
This is no ordinary journey—this is the journey of a lifetime. Scrapbook it as you go, blog it if you want to (while respecting the privacy of others who may not want the story out to the public), journal it, or any other thing you feel you can do to keep a record of all of it. If your child is too little, unable, or disinterested in this, I would suggest that you as the adult take this on in some capacity. It doesn’t have to be fancy or elaborate. Simple and thoughtful entries are just fine. This record might turn into a treasure of great value later on in life, and you have the privilege of being a part of it.
Be Excited and Enjoy the Journey.
Whether you expected to one day search out birth family origins, or whether you dreaded this day, your enthusiasm, or lack of it, will be evident. For the sake of your child, go into this journey with as much enthusiasm as you can muster, and look for the good things along the way. You might find yourself traveling together, spending long hours at the computer, or just discussing how things have turned out. Make yourself and your adoptee comfortable. Grab some snacks, snuggle up, put on your favorite music—whatever you need to do to create the atmosphere and attitude of joy and love that you all deserve.
However your adoptee thinks about her family of origin, you as an adoptive parent or another adult in her life have such influence over her experience. Adoption comes with big emotions, and at times, unpredictable circumstances. You have such a blessed opportunity here to build into something beautiful, and lasting. I keep getting this image of a parent and child, side by side, at the top of a hill, binoculars raised to the eyes, arms linked, a small, slender arm of a child reaching out, and pointing to something on the horizon. When the opportunity presents, go, with your child, and run. Seek, together.