There is no such thing as a closed adoption anymore. Access to the internet and social media has changed that forever. Parents today have valid concerns about screen time, cyber security, identity protection, and digital citizenship. However, adoptive, foster, and kinship parents have several additional concerns about handling social media contact and birth family contact.
Social Media Adds Layers to the Relationships
For families in an open adoption relationship, concerns about social media contacts are not necessarily a pressing issue. After all, your child has experienced contact with her birth family through text, phone, or video calls. You all might even enjoy regular connections in the closed Facebook group you set up for her birth parents and extended family.
The issues are more complex for adoptive, foster, or kinship families with limited contact with birth families. You can take several steps to help you prepare for contact with your child’s birth parents or extended family. Remember, our kids are “digital natives,” – meaning they are growing up immersed in the world of social media and online connections. The likelihood of contact is higher, and it’s happening younger and younger for them.
Prepare yourself for the eventuality of contact
Deal with your own “stuff.”
We talk a lot in the adoption, foster, and kinship community about addressing your unresolved issues that impact your attachment and parenting styles. Facing your concerns about contact between your child and his birth family can stem from those unresolved issues, too.
Be willing to ask yourself a few hard questions about why contact concerns you, what about it produces anxiety, and why. Are you afraid of being “replaced”? Are you fearful of what contact might mean to your child’s mental health? Do you worry about the stability of your family unit? Are you worried about interference with your parenting? Settle these issues inside of you first. In doing so, you are not making your child’s desire to search and establish a connection with his birth parents about you.
Put yourself in your child’s shoes.
Most people are curious about their origins, their ancestors, and their family’s unique history. Our adopted, foster, and kinship kids are no different. Imagine what it would be like always to wonder who you look like. Or from whom your musical talent comes and who else has your weird toes. Imagine never seeing someone who shares your genes. Consider what it would feel like to know you have siblings but not know where they are or how they are doing. Many adopted people crave this information. It has nothing to do with how they feel about their adopted family. It simply isn’t about that.
Try to cultivate some empathy for your child’s curiosity so you can meet him where he’s struggling. If you need help settling your fears and engage in curiosity with him, seek the support of an adoption-competent therapist.
Here are a few resources to help you better understand your child’s desire for contact:
- What Adoptees Want Adoptive Parents to Know About Reunions
- Adoptive Mom Feels Left Out at Son’s Reunion with Birth Mother
- Birthparents On Their Minds
Search before they do.
If openness has not characterized your adoption previously, consider why that is. Think about how you can begin to change that for the sake of the child. Even if you are confident that your child isn’t searching yet, you can try to find your child’s birth parents on social media. Then maybe expand your search to known birth family members. If you cannot find them on your own, reach out to your placing agency. Ask to review the file and gain access to current information they might have.
Prepare yourself to talk with your child about the information by reviewing his adoption file. Look for contact information, extended family information, and other facts you might have forgotten or didn’t have at the time of placement.
Consider meeting with the birth family.
Reach out to your child’s birth family, whether in person, by video call, or phone conversation. Tell them you’d love to talk about your child’s interest in contact. You might also ask for their input on healthy boundaries for all of you, along with concerns either of you might have. Try to listen for what they are hoping for and share what you and your child hope this contact will be.
Think about the history between you and use these early conversations to get hopes and hurts out in the open. Use this time to “clear the air” between you. You want all the adults to be unified, emotionally present, and safe for the child. Then you’ll be freer to build a healthy relationship for all of you moving forward.
Preparing your child for contact
Build on the openness you’ve crafted so far.
Adoptive, foster, and kinship parenting focuses a lot on establishing felt safety and trust to help our kids cope with their adoption story. As your child prepares for contact, expand that safe space so he can be free to ask questions about his birth family and feel your support in finding the answers. Model openness in your conversations about his adoption and birth family. Even if there’s been no contact yet, you can do this by asking questions, engaging in curiosity, and listening to him. Make sure he knows that no question is off-limits between you. He should also hear that you will be with him searching for answers even when it’s hard.
Establish internet safety practices.
Of course, if you haven’t already, now is the time to teach your adopted, foster, or kinship child about safety on the internet. Keep a spirit of open communication by regular check-ins on the social media and apps your child uses. You might also consider your family’s definitions of privacy vs. secrecy. Talk about access to your child’s social media accounts and passwords. If you feel overwhelmed by it all, ask your child to teach you what she uses and how she uses it.
Empower your child.
Hopefully, you have already laid a good foundation between you and your child of openness and felt safety. You can build on the trust between you when you empower your child to make wise choices and grow in self-awareness. In addition to supporting his interest in contact with his birth family, offer him opportunities to try new things. Encourage him to try new hobbies and interests and to follow his curiosity. These opportunities can stretch his ability to figure out what he needs and be curious. Often, kids who have experienced trauma and loss feel uncomfortable with this kind of curiosity, so you are building skills for life, too.
Your goal is to empower him to handle contact with his birth family. The side benefit of equipping him in these ways is that you are also setting him up to become a confident, well-rounded adult.
Give your child the information you have.
Your child deserves to explore her curiosity and develop her identity using all the information you have about her family of origin. Talk with her in age-appropriate ways about what you have found thus far. If you searched contact or information before she did, tell her why you did. Assure her that you will share whatever you find and will be present to help her process it. If she is not interested yet, revisit the conversation occasionally. Assure her that the door to explore the topic is always open.
Partner with your child in identity-building.
As your child develops his identity, remember his sense of self doesn’t just come from what he learns in contact with his birth family. It’s also vital that he feel free to explore his birth culture, the community where he lives now, and where his birth family lives. His birth family’s religion or race might also inform his growing identity. Scaffold his understanding of his story by offering him your steady, safe presence, your research skills, and your curiosity.
Game out the possibilities.
It would help if you prepared your child for the possibility that her birth family might reach out to her first. Get the conversation rolling by asking what would that feel like to her? What might she say or do? Many families find it helpful to create scripts together that your child can fall back on for answering complex questions. You might also see benefits in role-playing scenarios that might cause your child some anxiety.
What if Contact Has Already Begun via Social Media?
1. Respond, don’t react.
First, thank your child for telling you (if applicable). Invite him to talk about why he embarked on the search without you. Be sure to frame it without judgment. Instead, focus on how to do it together better next time. Choose the bottom line of “how can we partner in this contact from this point forward?”
2. Ask your child to show you what has already happened.
If you already have no expectations of privacy, your child shouldn’t be surprised that you want to see what happened already. Ask her permission to know what happened, how it happened, and why. Couch these conversations in empathy, openness, and remember the priority is preserving your relationship! However, if you haven’t yet established boundaries around privacy and safe internet habits, backtrack and proceed slowly.
3. Invite the birth family to the conversations.
Request a meeting or set up a private online group, such as what Facebook can offer. Regardless of what happened or how open your adoption is thus far, it is reasonable to ask for a review of expectations and boundaries for all parties. Talk about the key issues early: How will you resolve conflicts? How will you monitor safety issues? Do they have concerns? What are your child’s worries? What are yours?
4. Facilitate conversations.
As you build the relationship, intentionally look for ways to expand contact while maintaining a safe space for your child. Keep pointing your efforts toward how you can all participate in ways that prioritize your child’s best interest. It might feel like you are leading the way in challenging conversations or even mediating tender feelings on both sides. Both sets of your child’s family should feel the incentive to prioritize the child’s best interests, which can keep you all working together to handle the questions along the way.
Keep Your Eye on Your Goal
Sometimes, you may need a professional to support you and your child through this process. It’s helpful to remember that asking for help is not a sign of weakness – it’s a sign of wisdom and can be empowering to you and your child. Seek an adoption-competent therapist, caseworker, or social worker from your agency. Remember, the goal is equipping your child to navigate contact with his birth family. You can learn together how to have productive conversations between you to support and empower your child to explore and embrace his whole identity.
If you have navigated social media contact with your child’s birth family, what have you learned about the process? Tell us about it in the comments.
- Helping Children and Youth Maintain Relationships With Birth Families
- Managing Shifting Expectations in Adoption Over Time
- Helping Children Connect With Their Birth Parents
- Fears and Consequence in Choosing Open Adoption: Common myths and misconceptions
- Finding Joi: Lessons from Search and Reunion
- From Face-to-Face to Facebook: The Role of Technology and Social Media in Adoptive Family Relationships With Birth Family Members
Image Credits: Susan Jane Golding; Nenad Stojkovic; Micah Sittig