Letting Teens Take the Reins

As teen's desire more control over their lives, they want to be the decision-makers in determining contact with birth family.

Parenting teens: a dad sits outside with his son at a picnic table

Openness in adoption has been steadily growing over the years. For some families, relationships with birth family may have been open from the start. Other families establish contact for the first time during the adoptee’s adolescence.

However the relationships come to be established, it is usually the parents who make the decisions about contact. But as adolescents begin to desire more control over their lives, it is no surprise that decision-making about relationships with birth family would evolve as well.

How do we meet the challenges our teens present in wanting to manage the relationship without us? How do we cope with anxieties that arise as connections are made?

Letting Teens Take the Lead

As they reach adolescence, some teens want more contact with birth parents. Abigail, for example, visited with her birth mother twice a year. At age 16, she asked to spend the whole summer with her birth mother’s family. Abigail’s parents were caught off-guard, and their instinct was to say no. This was beyond their idea of openness. But Abigail did not give up. She felt that it was time for her to take charge of the relationship, and she wanted to connect on a deeper level with her birth family.

Abigail’s parents realized that their reaction was based on the common fear of “losing their daughter.” They were concerned about letting her stay with her birth mom, whose parenting style was quite different from theirs—more permissive, less structured. In the end, they let Abigail spend four weeks with her birth mom. What was important, though, was the process the family went through to reach the solution. Abigail’s parents could accept how important Abigail’s birth mother was to her.

On the other hand, some children want less openness as they reach adolescence. At 17, James began separating from both sets of parents. He had little interest in spending time with family, preferring his friends and girlfriend. Monthly visits with his birth parents ceased, and he avoided their phone calls. James’ parents understood this “rite of passage,” but his birth parents were deeply hurt. They shared their feelings with James’ parents, who tried to get James to be more sensitive to his birth parents’ feelings. This caused friction between James and his parents. They realized that he needed to negotiate his relationship with his birth parents on his own terms. They needed to support him in this time of separation.

Making It Work

Whatever the situation, parents can handle the challenges that arise around relationships with birth parents if they are prepared to do three things:

 1. Understand your true feelings regarding the relationships. Do you really have to set limits to protect your teen from the birth parents’ unhealthy choices? Or do your feelings reflect understandable, but irrational, fears about losing your child?

 2. Build a positive relationship with the birth parents, in which your parental role is respected. While some birth parents prefer to communicate directly with the teen, it is imperative that they know that all decisions must involve your input and approval. Encourage them to communicate directly with you, as well.

3. Establish respectful communication with your teen. Aim for mutual problem-solving and compromise, so that your teen develops an age-appropriate sense of control, while he is still accepting of parental involvement.

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