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How to Overcome Challenges in Adoptive Relationships

No relationship that offers meaning and true connection is without occasional challenges and conflicts. Think of your relationships with friends and family. The most satisfying ones usually have a higher level of emotional investment which endures through both good and bad times.

Relationships between birth and adoptive families have challenges, too. People may have different expectations or understanding of what the relationship should be like, especially in the beginning of the relationship or when a baby has been born and adopted.

Conflict may arise during significant events—family birthdays, Mother’s or Father’s Days, graduations, weddings, etc. This is especially true if details—like whether the birthparent will or will not be recognized or whether the adoptee will participate in the occasion—were not worked out in advance.

To help make your relationship with your child’s birth family as smooth as possible, on what can sometimes be a bumpy road:

  • Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and imagine how they are feeling.
  • Don’t respond in the moment. Ask for time to think about a decision if you’re put on the spot.
  • Maintain boundaries, but extend grace and forgiveness.
  • Communicate clearly, honestly and candidly.
  • Respect each other’s right to privacy.
  • Think of your child’s needs first.
  • Operate with a long-term perspective.
  • Find ways to build a relationship that extends beyond the child you have in common.

It is understandable that birth and adoptive parents may find that differences in expectations or personalities challenge their relationship. Painful feelings of loss or grief—experienced by either family—may also affect these relationships.

It may help to contact the agency that facilitated your adoption and request assistance in mediating a solution—especially if there are difficulties concerning safety, respect for privacy or boundaries.

Mediated contact through the agency, even for a brief period, can offer both families an alternative to cutting off all contact with each other in the heat of emotion. Even in states where communication or contact agreements are not legally binding, there is a moral and ethical obligation to remember and honor your commitments regarding communication.

Remember, one day your child will be old enough to talk to his birth and adoptive parents about how they handled their relationships with each other. Not honoring commitments to stay in touch can damage the trust your child has in the parent who did not keep the commitment.

Openness in Adoption—Not Just for Domestic Infant Adoption Anymore

Unlike 50 years ago, when adoptions were almost always confidential, adoptions today generally involve much more contact between birth and adoptive families.

Most people think of open adoptions when referring to domestic infant adoption. However, openness is becoming more common in plans for older children who are adopted after state foster care. A child’s safety after experiencing abuse or neglect is always a first concern, but sometimes it is possible—and beneficial–to maintain some of the relationships that the child had prior to adoption.

Even in international adoptions, many birthmothers and adult adoptees now search for each other. Adoptive families today are more aware than ever of the importance of helping their child maintain a connection to the culture of his birth. This is important because while communicating with the child’s biological family may not be immediately possible, it could be in the future.

But what does openness in adoption provide? A 2003 report from The Child Welfare Information Gateway entitled “Working with Birth and Adoptive Families to Support Open Adoption,”1 looked at the findings of the Minnesota/Texas Adoption Research Project 2, a major study of adoptees, adoptive families and birthmothers in a range of open adoptions over a period of 20 years. This research exposed some of the myths previously held about openness in adoption and confirmed important truths:

  • Parties in open (fully disclosed) adoptions are not confused about their parenting rights and responsibilities.
  • Birthmothers do not attempt to “reclaim” their children.
  • Children in open (fully disclosed) adoptions are not confused about who their parents are. They do understand the different roles of adoptive and birthparents in their lives.
  • Differences in adolescent adoptive identity or degree of preoccupation with adoption are not related to the level of openness in the adoption.
  • Adoptive openness does not appear to influence an adoptee’s self-esteem in any negative way.
  • Adoptive parents in open adoptions do not feel less in control. They have a greater sense of permanence in their relationship with their child.
  • Open adoption does not interfere with adoptive parents’ sense that they have the right to parent their adopted child.
  • Birthmothers in open and ongoing mediated adoptions do not have more problems with grief resolution. Rather, they show better grief resolution than those in closed adoptions. Researchers did find that birthmothers in time-limited mediated adoptions (where contact stopped) had more difficulty resolving grief at the first interview of the study (when the children were between 4 and 12 years old).

The research shows that what does have an impact on the child’s overall well-being and adjustment is the level and quality of open communication within the adoptive family about adoption3 and how compatible the adoptive parents feel their child is with their family4.

Regardless of how much openness exists in your child’s adoption, it is important that you create an environment where his adoption can be freely discussed and where he knows he is fully accepted.


1Child Welfare Information Gateway (2003). Openness in Adoption: A Bulletin for Professionals. Retrieved from the website for the Child Welfare Information Gateway on June 10, 2009.

2Grotevant, Harold, & Ruth McRoy (last updated April 30, 2009). Key Findings of the MN/TX Adoption Research Project. Retrieved from the website of the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development on June 10, 2009.

3Brodzinsky, David, Ph.D. (2006). Family Structural Openness and Communication Openness as Predictors in the Adjustment of Adopted Children, Adoption Quarterly, 9(4), 2006.

4Ross, N. M. (1995). Adoptive family processes that predict adopted child behavior and self-esteem. Unpublished master’s thesis, University of Minnesota. As cited by Grotevant & McRoy as part of the Key Findings of the Minnesota/Texas Adoption Research Project.