Is Open Adoption Confusing for Kids?
Does open adoption make adoptive and birth parents feel better, but overlook the needs of adopted kids?

If we want to learn, we have to listen, even when (or maybe especially when) listening is uncomfortable. I received the following comment from an adult adoptee on my blog 10 Topics Adoptive Parent & Birth Mother Must Discuss Before Adopting questioning open adoption–the holy grail of current adoption practice.

On one hand, all of this openness sounds good. I admit that when I first heard of open adoption, it seemed way better than what I went through. Then, I took a step back and asked myself, “How would I feel if I had always known my biological parents, and they acted happy and satisfied that someone else was raising me”?

I would have been upset. Very upset. It would have been worse than not knowing. It would have been like getting stabbed right through the heart. What child wants to hear a parent say that they’re happy about something like that? Absolutely no one. It would be worse than closed adoption. It would be worse than having no parents at all.

It seems that openness is more a mechanism to calm the fears of both sets of parents. Biological parents get to see that the child is alive, well and (hopefully) properly cared for. The adoptive parents get legitimacy. They get the ultimate stamp of approval.

How utterly sad and lonely for the child! What does the child get out of it, except for a lifetime prescription for Prozac? Is that really a life that we would wish upon anybody? (emphasis added)

Is Open Adoption All About the Parents?

I do truly understand how annoying it is when someone starts quoting research that contradicts a heartfelt statement of your life experience. It has the potential of making the person feel dismissed. However (isn’t there always a “however”), in this case the adult adoptee was speculating on how she assumes adoptees in an open adoption would feel, so it seems fair to point to research in that area, not to negate her point, but to show how at least some open adoption adoptees feel.

The Largest Study on Open Adoption

The Minnesota/Texas Adoption Research Project (MTARP) is a longitudinal adoption research study that focused on how open adoption affects adopted children, birth mothers, and adoptive parents.  It was national in scope and followed participants for over 20 years.  It is the largest adoption study of its type involving over 720 individuals. Participants were interviewed and visited at several times during the study. You can read our summary of this research on the Creating a Family Adoption Research page.

The study compared adopted children and adolescent adjustment among different levels of openness. I was surprised to find that the level of openness did not affect adjustment one way or the other, at least up to the teen years. Bottom line is that adopted adolescents looked about as adjusted as all US teens.

On average, our sample of adopted adolescents was no different in levels of adjustment from the national norms developed on a set of well validated measures. In addition, level of openness by itself was not a major predictor of adjustment outcomes…. However, relationship qualities such as collaboration in relationships [between adoptive and birth families] and perceptual qualities such as [adoptive parent’s perception of perceived compatibility] were predictive of adjustment across openness levels.

What Message Are You Sending

Regardless if kids overall in open adoptions are not being harmed by the experience, I think the commenter’s point is worthy of serious consideration. What message are we sending our kids in open adoptions? Can children accept that a birth parent is happy that the child is doing well in his adoptive home, but still wishes things had been different, and that they had been able to parent? Is this the message your child is getting?

P.S. I am interviewing adult adoptees for a book on what their experience and what they would like adoptive parents to know. I would love suggestions of adoptees to interview, and I’m particularly interested in talking with adoptees raised in an open adoption. They need to be over 18. PLEASE ask around.

Image credit: Pipistrula