Do I Have to Pretend to Respect My Child’s Birth Parents

Dawn Davenport


talking with Adopted kids about birth parents

We received a question asking if adoptive parents had to pretend to respect birth parents who had harmed their adopted child or were all around lousy parents. I asked the question on yesterday’s Creating a Family show on Talking with Adopted Kids about Birth Parents.



Separate the Person from the Action

It’s true that sometime our children’s birth parents have hurt them through abuse, neglect, or pre-natal exposure to drugs or alcohol.  We adoptive parents would do anything to protect our kids, and like every other parent, we are inclined to dislike anyone who may have hurt our child. The problem is that the people we are inclined to dislike are the people who gave birth to the child.

We find ourselves caught is a bit of a bind: we know our children may identify with their birth mother and birth father, so we need to  speak well of them, but we strongly dislike them for what they have done. Walking this line is not always easy.

Both of the adoption social workers on our show yesterday, Dr. Jennifer Bliss, with Independent Adoption Center, and Danielle Goodman, with Adoptions from the Heart, said that it was important to separate the person from the action. Whenever talking to our children about things we wished their birth parent had not done, our first step is to make sure that our language is about the act, not the person. No child wants to believe they come from bad people. Sage advice! You really should listen to the full show.

Topics Covered on the Show

We covered the waterfront of talking about birth parents on the show, including:

  • Best terms to use for birth parents.
  • When to introduce the idea of birth mothers and birth fathers.
  • How much should you speculate when you don’t know much.
  • How to talk about birth fathers? How to explain the birth father’s role when you don`t want to talk about sex.
  • How to talk about birth fathers when the conception was not consensual (i.e. rape).
  • When should you tell a child some of the “bad things” about their birth parents and poor choices their birth mother and birth father made?
  • How to navigate different levels of openness between your adopted children?
  • What to do when a birth mother or birth father regrets their decision to place for adoption and are sharing this information with the adopted child.
  • Suggested books for talking about birth parents with adopted kids.

Has it been hard for you to respect your child’s birth parent when they hurt your child or when they make poor life choices? How do you talk to your kids about them?

02/10/2014 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 9 Comments

9 Responses to Do I Have to Pretend to Respect My Child’s Birth Parents

  1. Avatar marilynn says:

    Dina wow your cool too. “I am surprised by some other adoptive parents who are asking for a lot of understanding and lenience for their traumatised children (and rightly so!), but are quite happy to show little or no understanding towards the equally traumatised birth parents.” Interesting point

  2. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Anon AP – yes it sounds tidy. It also sounds really caring and like great and respectful behavior. Like your a nice person to be around. Kudos.

  3. Avatar AnonAP says:

    One of the things that seems like it will be especially difficult is the need for maintaining privacy and the potential for the child to interpret that it is due to shame rather than just a desire to not splat personal details all around the place. Truth is, of course, that some of that is due to the fact that people will be judgy. Balancing that explanation against what we feel and believe as parents seems tricky.

    Also, we want our daughter to be proud and comfortable talking about her interactions with her birthfamily, but we’ve already run into people who start making rude comments just from hearing us say that we’re getting together with her siblings for some event or other. How to protect her against that kind of insidious stuff while still letting her know that it really is OK to have this part of her life as open or closed as she wishes…oof.

  4. Avatar Yan says:

    I’m an adoptee born to a teenaged first mother who was, even from the minimal information I had growing up, very obviously not married. My Catholic parents never directly spoke ill of her or her choices.

    But the strong doctrine against pre-marital sex in the Catholic church, and their harsh judgement of other people who engaged in anything they considered “inappropriate” definitely impacted me. If my biological family were hell-bound sinners, what did that make me?

    Adoptive parents need to be aware that adoptees know that we have another set of parents. We know we are not with them. And if you are judging them? We will know that, too. We learn a lot from your attitudes towards people in difficult circumstances, and if we tend towards our first parents’ issues, we will feel and fear your harsh judgement of us.

    One of the best things you can do if you want to become an adoptive parent is to really honestly work towards non-judgemental compassion towards first parents, all of them. Don’t ignore neglect and abuse, but understand that “choice” isn’t the end all and be all of actions we make in our lives. Choices are not made in a vacuum.

  5. Avatar Dina says:

    Interesting topic! Without having listening to the show yet (so forgive me if I repeat sthg. you said already):

    I am surprised by some other adoptive parents who are asking for a lot of understanding and lenience for their traumatised children (and rightly so!), but are quite happy to show little or no understanding towards the equally traumatised birth parents.

    My children come from a very dysfunctional family. Abuse and neglect have been going on for generations. Yes, they made awful choices, but they were under immense financial stress, they had little education, they have trauma in their genes and experienced trauma and they suffered severe discrimination. So how much choice was there really?

    My children and their siblings are the most generous, kind, fun, bright and beautiful children. Of course their birth parents would have turned out very similar under different circumstances. So I find it easy to respect my childrens’ birth parents. I know I can’t trust them and they have done awful things, but deep inside them are my children.

    I have a feeling some of the dislike/disrespect comes from feeling threatened. Many adoptive parents don’t want to share their kids. They want to forget that their children have a past they don’t share. I don’t think his is in the best interest of the kids though.

    • Dina: [My children and their siblings are the most generous, kind, fun, bright and beautiful children. Of course their birth parents would have turned out very similar under different circumstances.] That’s a great way to look at it.

  6. Avatar S. says:

    It strikes me that the philosophy of separating person from deed has to be universally applied. In a conversation about birth parents’ drug use, it is important to frame the conversation in terms of actions and choices. But, two days later, when there is a story on the news about a drug bust, we need to keep that same frame. Our kids will see our hipocracy if we start using judgemental language.

  7. Avatar AnonAP says:

    I am an atheist, but the phrase, “There, but for the grace of god, go I”, seems like a good starting point. I don’t mean that we are all fated to one path or another, but I can think of many times in my life where I started from or was able to get to a good place because of the efforts of someone else, from parents to mentors to kind strangers. I have done many things of my own volition to be where I am, but I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize the things that have supported me that were out of my direct control too. I don’t know who I would be without those supports.

    In regards to our daughter’s birthparents, we will talk about making choices and all the things that go into doing that, including considering current circumstances, background, consequences, risks, personality, and how those various elements constrain or open up different options and potential outcomes. And, most importantly, deciding what is important to oneself to help guide decision making. Obviously this can’t just be a conversation that happens once or on one topic. Both empathy and the ability to analyze situations and make good decisions grow with practice, so we’ll have to start having these conversations about life and society in general as well. Hopefully all of this will knit together with our genuine regard for her birthfamily and help her develop a positive sense of this side of herself.

    All sounds so neat and tidy, doesn’t it?

    • Yeah AnonAP, it sounds neat and tidy in practice, but gets complicated when we implement, but that could be said about most things in life. As our guest experts talked about on the show, we can also explain our children’s birth parents choices in context of their life, and draw distinctions for our child to help them realize that they are not “fated” to repeat these mistakes.

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