As a special needs adoptive parent, I deal with anger a lot. Birth parent anger is among one of those situations. Developmental delays and another special diagnosis can leave some children easily frustrated and easily angered. If you throw something like Reactive Attachment Disorder into the mix, your parenting journey might be filled with angry blow-ups from your child—and you may have to deal with your own anger about your child’s behaviors, about things that happened to your child before he or she came to your home, or even about the adoption process. One thing that adoptive parents aren’t always prepared for is birth parent anger.
In Canada, truly closed adoptions do not exist anymore. Every adoptive family chooses differently as far as the level of openness with birth parents. As long as this is done with love and grace rather than fear or anger, this is fine. Every family has to find its groove. For those of us that have chosen to include the birth parents in our lives and in our families, or for those parenting through kinship foster care, direct placement adoption (where a traditional adoption agency is not used; rather, the birth parents ask someone already known to them to consider adopting their child) or other close-knit situations (such as grandparents or aunties and uncles raising the children of relatives), something we need to expect at some point and learn to deal with, is birth parent anger.
Anger is a natural human emotion. While anger can be harmful, it also serves an important function. When we are dealing with an angry person in our lives, regardless of circumstance, we can tend to want to avoid the situation, or the person. Dealing with an angry person can be uncomfortable. In adoptions, this can be magnified. On top of all the regular emotions that come with an uncomfortable confrontation, we also feel the weight of how this affects our child of adoption, how this affects our family dynamics. We can be concerned about how future interactions with this important person will be impacted. Adoption, by its very nature, is emotionally charged. Adding anger to the mix can feel heavy and overwhelming.
The very first thing that needs to be remembered is that anger can be viewed as being a means to give us information. If anger is happening, stop and think: why? What is happening? Anger can let us know that:
- Something is perceived as wrong or unfair.
- Feelings have been hurt.
- Expectations may not have been communicated effectively.
- Expectations may not have been met.
- The person experiencing the anger is under a lot of stress or is tired.
- There is an underlying emotion, such as fear.
Anger is a reaction to an event or emotion. As an adoptive parent, I have, at times, felt as if I live under a microscope. Well-meaning outsiders give unwarranted advice on how to handle behavioral or medical issues in our special needs children, and almost everyone has an opinion on how you are parenting. Because our adoptions are very open, I have also felt that I need to be perfect and flawless in order to impress our birth parents, to prove the couple made a good choice in picking us to raise the kids, and most importantly, to avoid any angry confrontations with the birth parents. Except, it hasn’t worked out quite that easily.
I recently saw a Facebook meme depicting a man in full armor, with only a slit for his eyes to show through. And wouldn’t you know it, in the next frame, he got an arrow right through that tiny slit, the only chink in his armor, regardless of how necessary it is. I can relate to this. I feel like so many times, I have planned, I have prepped, I have tried to imagine every possible situation so that I can keep others happy in our adoptions, only to have some blindside me out of the blue. Case in point, when we were fostering our daughter, who we would later go on to adopt, I would dress her up in cute outfits, and place her on ornate blankets to take photos to text to her mom, who was missing most of her in-person visits due to some serious issues in her life. We didn’t know her well yet, and I thought the care and attention I put into the photos would be evident—plus, babies spend a lot of time on the floor for tummy time, learning to crawl, etc. Late one night, I got a message: “Why is my daughter always on the floor? How come you’re never holding her in the pictures?” Uh-oh. So much for well-laid plans. I have learned that some birth parents have little experience with parenting or baby/toddler/childhood stages. Confusion or misinformation can happen. Other parents who have parented for years before losing custody of children may feel frustrated that you don’t do things a certain way, or may not like some of the family rules you have created, or abide by. Another example of a time we experienced birth parent anger is actually a common thread and something that has come up again and again. I am a busy mom of five; I am a writer; we have a farm. I also lose my phone all the time. It has happened many times that I have looked at my phone after hours of ignoring it, only to find a birth parent or relative who has been calling and texting all day and is quite upset that I haven’t been answering. This was not intentional on my part—or, if it was intentional, I needed time and space to think about my answers or my plan of action. Either way, it created a situation where someone felt put out and offended. It may have hurt feelings. So, what do we do once a birth parent has become angry with us, whatever the reason?
- Stay calm. You need to stay calm. When another person is upset, things can escalate quickly, especially if you are also becoming agitated. Speaking softly and making eye contact if you are meeting in-person can go a long way to de-escalating a difficult situation. Breath deeply–if you feel yourself beginning to shake, you may need to take a moment to calm down before continuing. It is ok to ask for a break or a moment to collect your thoughts.
- Hear the person. Hold space for the birth parent. This means connecting to what the individual is saying. You don’t need to validate anger, but you do need to validate the birth parent as a human being. Saying “I hear you,” or “You sound very upset, I’m sorry to hear that,” can de-escalate a tough situation–we all want to be heard and understood. Shutting people down can increase anger. You can continue the conversation by saying, “I’d like to hear more about this. What made you feel that way?”
- Ask for some time. If you are also experiencing anger as a reaction to the birth parent’s anger, it is unlikely the situation will resolve well. Be honest. Say that you are feeling upset or angry, and say that you would like some time to cool down. Ask if you can call the person back or meet again later once you have cooled down. Your honesty about your own anger will help you build rapport with the birth parent. Don’t try to be a hero. You’re not a hero, you are a human, and humans are prone to anger.
- Acknowledge your role. Sometimes, anger is completely misplaced or is the result of a misunderstanding. If you have done something wrong, or if you did contribute to the situation, apologize. You can’t make someone forgive you. If the individual is still angry, let it lie. You’ve done your part. Sometimes, birth parents dealing with addictions or mental health issues may not be rational. These parents may need to seek personal help. Once you’ve done your part, let it go.
- Keep the kids out of it. Never bash the birth parents, even if the couple is totally in the wrong. Birth parents are important to kids, and we need to uphold the birth mother and birth father with basic dignity and respect, regardless of the past or what has been done. You don’t have to condone the wrong, but don’t add to it by gossiping about the birth parents, cutting an individual down, or belittling the couple. If you have nothing nice to say, choose another topic.
- Get help. If the birth parent becomes violent, makes threats, or shows aggression, it is time to ask for help. Call the authorities, because that situation is no joke. Abusive behavior that threatens your safety or the safety of your children is never okay and needs to be taken seriously. Sometimes, adoptive parents fear to call the police, as it may further anger the birth parent. Regardless, dangerous behavior must always be reported. The birth parent is responsible for dealing with his or her own anger and must be held accountable for inappropriate behavior. Sometimes, birth parents must lose the right to access the children for visits or updates if the couple or individuals involved are unable to maintain appropriate behavior.
While we can’t always prevent angry situations, there are things we can do as adoptive families to reduce these uncomfortable incidences. The following recommendations will help to build healthy, strong relationships, and help decrease episodes of anger:
- Say what you mean, mean what you say. Be honest, always.
- Don’t make promises in the heat of the moment. Sometimes, we might promise or commit to something when someone is mad at us, just to get the individual off of our backs, or to end the discomfort of someone being upset with us. If we cannot follow through on these promises, though, it will only lead to anger again in the future.
- Be clear about your expectations and ask about the birth parents. Unmet expectations almost always result in anger. Be intentional about sharing what is on your heart or how you envision things going; if the birth parent isn’t forthcoming about personal expectations, ask questions. How often do you want to meet? How often are you expecting to receive photos or updates?
- Be consistent and follow through. Keep the promises you do make. If you feel frustrated when someone is running late or cancels at the last minute, you can bet others feel that way if you do the same. Remember that birth parents have probably been eagerly awaiting the visit with the child, the birthday celebration, etc. If you consistently show that you cancel last minute, don’t come, or forget, resentment will build. Life happens, and cancellations might be necessary, but be fair. How would you like to be treated if roles were reversed?
- Hold space for addictions and mental health issues. Parents with cognitive deficits may struggle to understand or process what is happening. Birth parents suffering under these circumstances may need to be reminded of expectations and rules; when addictions come in to play, firm, loving boundaries are best.
- Do it like a queen—or, in other words, be graceful, always. Don’t lose your peace or your cool. You may just be a role model that someone else never had. You never know who is looking up to you, or what your example means. If you expect a birth parent to be on his or her best behavior, you’d better be on yours, too.
- Forgive and let go. If anger has been a problem in your relationship in the past, you need to set it free. Holding on to grudges will only encourage further anger. If the situation has been resolved or is in history, it is not necessary to dwell on it. Keep your relationship in the present to keep things free and clear of emotional clutter.
Birth parents and first family relationships are so important. Children of adoption will have varying degrees of interaction with biological families; whatever your level of openness, your adopted child and the birth parents deserve an adoptive family willing to try to work out differences that arise. Life is not easy or perfect, and sometimes we will get it wrong. The good news is, every day is a gift, and we get to try again tomorrow. What a blessing that is.