Pros & Cons of Adopted Kids Meeting Their Birth Parents

By Benna Crawford
An adopted child may need to meet birth parents to complete a sense of self.
An adopted child may need to meet birth parents to complete a sense of self.

Adopted children search for birth parents for all kinds of reasons. When they are mature enough to choose to find and meet their biological family, the search becomes a journey, to a deeper self-understanding and a confrontation with reality that can never be fully anticipated. If a meeting is initiated for a younger child, by the birth or the adoptive parents, the experience is a completely different one. The only certainty is that a birth parent meeting must always be integrated; it can never be undone.

Hero's Journey

Adult adoptees often have questions about their genetic medical inheritance. Those questions typically surface when they are about to become parents themselves and want to know about health issues or genetic markers they may pass along to their own children. Teenagers and school-age kids might be curious about their near-sightedness or left-handedness. But even a search for medical information is a journey with stops and starts, progress and challenges, and emotional resonance. Circumstances and government regulations may make it difficult or impossible to track birth parents. Birth parents may be deceased, or they may not wish to be found or they may be unwilling to invest in a relationship. An adopted person can't predict with certainty what the outcome of a difficult, time-consuming, emotionally taxing search will be.

Highs and Lows

If not much is known about the birth family, the truth may be disturbing or unpleasant. And internationally adopted child might have been abandoned due to poverty or political regulations. Birth parents might feel, or be, legally jeopardized by contact. A birth mother may have been a prostitute, a rape victim, or a young girl abandoned by the birth father. The birth father may never have known about the child. There may have been issues of drugs, incarceration or abuse as the incentives to relinquish a child. An encounter years later could bring deep joy and significant closure to an open wound. Or, an impoverished family might consider that the adopted child owes them financial support; an emotionally needy birth parent might make demands for attention the adoptee cannot comfortably fill.

Better Later

In almost every instance outside of open adoption, in which the birth mother chooses the adoptive parents and maintains a presence in the adopted child's life, a meeting with birth parents will be confusing and potentially distressing to a young child. Kids don't want to be seen as disloyal to their adoptive parents. They may harbor fears that they will be "returned," or relinquished again. A younger child could view a birth parent as a curiosity, while the birth parent views that child through a prism of loss and grief. There are no hard rules about ages for birth family meetings. But the potential complications of outreach when a child is young, or navigating the tumultuous changes of adolescence, could be difficult to process or emotionally devastating. The ongoing contact of an open adoption implies a commitment of support in the child's best interests. A first meeting can be challenging enough for an adoptee who is an adult.

Stranger in the Mirror

There can be a tremendous feeling of closure in meeting someone who looks like you, may share your personality or physical quirks, and can reassure you that you were wanted and loved, despite circumstances that made adoption the best choice. An adoptee may need to reassure birth parents that he is fine, life is good, full of opportunity and happiness. A meeting can be the beginning of an important reconnection and a lifelong relationship that satisfies everyone. This is the ideal -- a second, loving family to expand a world. But when things are not so rosy, a birth parent meeting can trigger grief, anger and disappointment. It can be a bruising encounter or a chilly turning away. It can require substantial healing. For an adopted person, a first-time meeting with birth parents -- successful or not -- is an occasion when a supportive adoptive family is a blessing.

Gift-Wrapped Good Wishes

A meeting can be awkward and tense and a small gift, especially from a younger child, may serve as a convenient icebreaker. An adopted child might decide that a framed photograph of himself, engaged in a favorite activity, is a comforting present for a birth parent. A homemade frame makes it even more personal. Something unusual that a kid chooses could become a treasured memento -- a simple silver pin carved in the shape of a dancing child, a Christmas ornament if the meeting happens around the holidays, a mug with a clever design. The gift shouldn't be too elaborate or the affection too forced -- let the child decide her comfort level with expressions of love or family. But do some research for a family from a different culture. A birth parent gift should honor cultural constraints and show sensitivity to any economic disparities between the two families.

About the Author

Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .