Ask The Adoption Expert - Openness in Challenging Situations

Post Adoption Counselor Nina Friedman, LCSW answers the question How do you successfully maintain a relationship if a birthparent is exhibiting unhealthy habits or way of life?

Open adoption relationships can involve people of very different backgrounds and ways of life. In some cases birth and adoptive parents may not share similar habits or approaches to life, and those differences can create bumps in the road of their relationship.
Remember, a key reason some birthparents chose adoption in the first place was that they came to the conclusion that they couldn’t be the kind of parent they wanted for their child – they wanted the stability and role models the adoptive parents represented. With that in mind, it shouldn’t surprise you that they may still be struggling with various challenges in their life after placement, too. As difficult as it may be, keeping them in your life, and in your child’s life, can pay off in the long run.
Here are some suggestions for how to approach this type of relationship:

Speak openly with the birthparents about your concerns.
If a birthparent has substance abuse issues, for instance, you need to share with them directly your expectation that they will not be under the influence during a visit, and if they appear to be, the visit will not take place.

Structure your contact
If you are struggling to find common ground in your relationship, adding structure to a visit can help. Set a time the visit will start and end. In addition to meeting in a public place, try to have an activity, such as going to the zoo or bowling. This puts the focus on doing things together and having fun together.

Set boundaries for the relationship and your respective roles
Some adoptive parents may feel inclined to help in any way possible – giving money, suggesting treatment options, etc. While these are well intended gestures, this is not your role and may lead to additional problems down the road.
Your role is to be the best parent you can be and to honor the person that is your child’s birthparent. You should not consider it your job to change the other person or continually rescue them. Referrals to helpful resources, including The Cradle’s post adoption department, are appropriate.

Separate the person from the troublesome behavior
It is important to remember the important role your child’s birthparent has in their life. That role will continue, even if you disagree with the birthparent’s habits or lifestyle. It may take some soul searching to figure out how to accept this person as he or she is, but this acceptance is in the best interest of your child.
Children readily sense if their parents are feeling negative towards someone. Speaking about or behaving negatively toward your child’s birthparents may result in your child developing negative feelings about themselves. A child’s identity as an adopted person may be influenced by feelings and impressions about their birthparents. Positive regard for your child’s birthparents will contribute to your child’s healthy sense of identity.

If you'd like to discuss your family's specific situation with one of our therapists, we would be happy to help.