Open adoptions can be full of complex emotions. I have heard of many of different types of open adoption relationships. Some are smooth sailing while many have bumps in the road. “Boundaries” is a familiar topic when adoptive parents get together and discuss issues that arise in their relationship with their child’s first family. Most of us adoptive parents don’t like to set rules because we feel so honored to have this child entrusted to us. But when you look at boundaries as rule setting, you can set yourself up for failure. Instead, boundaries should be viewed as a method for maintaining a healthy relationship. Just as my family knows not to call too early in the morning or too late at night unless it’s an emergency, birth parents should know the limits of what we strive for to maintain normalcy. Setting the boundaries with the people in our lives means we can live comfortably, avoid unnecessary surprises, and not be annoyed because we didn’t let people know how we’d like our family to work.
When adoption is the reason your relationship exists, it is built on a foundation of needs: The need the birth parents had to place their child. The need the adoptive parents had to become parents. The need of the child to have stability and a life the birth family didn’t feel equipped to provide. Just because this relationship was formed based on the need you had for being a parent, it does not eliminate the need the child and the birth parents also had. We often forget that we, as adoptive parents, are also allowed to have a voice in the triad. We’ve all seen articles about using positive adoption language as well as “inappropriate things strangers say” but what about flipping the tables for a minute? What about the things that birth parents sometimes say that should probably not be said in the presence of the child they placed? In grieving, sometimes inappropriate things can be said and done that can confuse and hurt the child and his adoptive parents. May it be out of nervousness or just not being able to find the right words; if we are all in this for the child’s best interest, here are some Do’s and Don’ts to consider:
DON’T Make Promises You Can’t Keep.
A child in adoption suffered a great loss. The child puts a lot of trust in the adults in their life, including his birth parents. If a birth parent is constantly a no show to a promised get together or the child continuously waits on a phone call that never comes, that loss is amplified over and over. If you are regularly unable to follow through with promises, do not share your intentions with the child in advance; coordinate with the adoptive parents only so the child is not setup for a potential heartache.
DON’T Confuse Him with Titles.
A young child is still learning his adoption story and where everyone in his birth family and adoptive family fits into the equation. Titles like “mom and dad” and “brother and sister” can be very confusing for an adopted child. Often a kid can get very defensive and withdraw at the mere mention of someone else besides his parents being called mom and dad, so reserve those titles for the adoptive parents unless the child feels strongly about using them for you as well. Often the child will have siblings also living in the household. If you have children you are parenting, referring to them as the child’s “brother and/or sister” can be very confusing for young children in both families. In time, the relationship will be understood by the child, but for now, the only brother or sister he may understand is the one that lives with him at home. While these titles are completely accurate terms to use in conversation with others, they can be hard for young children to grasp. When things get confusing for kids, they can have emotional outbursts, withdraw from their normal behavior, or become very sad. Having a conversation about the best ways to refer to yourself and other family members with your child’s adoptive parents is a great way to handle this.
DON’T Let Your Words Imply Uncertainty in His Placement.
If you say things that contradict the benefits of placement, it can be very confusing to the child, even make older children feel that they or their adoptive parents have somehow let you down. I have seen children grow very fearful that they may be taken from the home they know and love based on a well-intended or off-handed remark made by a birth parent, birth grandparent, or other extended birth family member. So, it’s best to not say things like “Want to come home with me?” or “I never should have let you go.” Even if it is how you are feeling at the time, it can cause a great deal of anxiety to the child who cannot process those emotions at such a young age.
DO Tell Him You Love Him.
Shower him with affection and make sure he never thinks that the placement happened because you didn’t love him. But, understand that all kids go through phases where they may not reciprocate the affection you are giving, especially if they don’t see you often. Their shyness, nervousness or preference to sit with one of their adoptive parents should never be mistaken as a rejection of you or your love.
DO Be Supportive of His Parents.
The day may come when he is angry with his parents and comes to you looking for someone to take his side. You can be a great resource and safe sounding board for venting. But in the end, supporting his parents in discipline or rules is respectful and solidifies the team and family dynamic that you worked so hard to build!
DO Remain Flexible.
There may come a day when your child’s parents have to come to you with some new boundaries or concerns. Try to see it from their perspective. They see the ins and outs of daily life and the emotions brought on by adoption and may often shield you from that out of respect. Just know that coming to you with something new can be just as hard for them to do as it may be for you to hear. They certainly don’t want to hurt you or your relationship with your child, so try to listen with a loving, open heart if and when they do.
Similarly, there may be times when you have a desire to limit or broaden the relationship based on other factors in your life at that particular time. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your child’s parents to share your thoughts or ask your questions. While there may be reasons that certain requests cannot be accommodated at that time, it never hurts to ask.
DO Always Put the Child First.
The child’s health and well-being are the most important factors. If we all work together, we can help our child grow, learn and heal.
What are some things you wish your child’s birth or adoptive parents knew?