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What every adoptive parent should know about search and reunion

Michael Grand, PhD, C.Psych Professor of Child Clinical Psychology and Director of Clinical Training, Department of Psychology University of Guelph

Adoptive parents must consider many things when their adult adopted children begin the journey to discover the first chapter of their lives---a journey that has taken the adoptee from one family and led to the formation of a second. These lessons are offered in the spirit of fostering closer ties between adoptees and their birth and adoptive families.


Do understand the importance of search

The first rule of search and reunion is that search is not about dissatisfaction with the adoptive family. An adoptee’s need to know about oneself and one's roots is primal. In order to have a fully developed identity, we need to know who we are and how we came into the world. If we are “shadowed” by an unknown past, by an unseen set of truths that we know little if anything about, then we may not develop to our fullest potential.

When the adoptive family understands the importance of search for an adoptee's sense of self, they will not fall victim to the myth that the adoptee is substituting one family for another. In most cases, following reunion, adoptees draw closer to the family that raised them and with whom they have had many years of shared experience and love.

Do be open with information

Adoptive parents withholding information from an adoptee is not a sign of love and protection. It is a sign of disrespect, indicating the adoptive parents' lack of trust that the adoptee can make adult decisions. Too many adoptees learn late in life that their adoptive parents knew more about their origins than what was shared with them. Perhaps their parents withheld the truth out of kindness, out of fear of rejection or out of fear of public scrutiny. Whatever the reason, this is a very difficult thing for adult adoptees to come to terms with, especially if their medical and family history have been fabricated. In the end, openness and honesty trumps secrecy every time--no matter what the adoption story.

Do act in a respectful manner

Speaking ill of the birth family does not discourage adoptees from searching. In fact, the more an adoptive parent disparages the character or actions of the birth parent, the more adoptees desire to make contact with birth parents. Some adoptive parents are prone to speak of the birth family in negative terms, hoping to bring the adoptee closer to the adoptive family. However, the message heard by adoptees is, "The source of your DNA is bad and thus, so are you." If adoptive parents wish to keep their children close, respectful conversation about origins is a necessity.

Do recognize that “no” can mean “not yet” or “I can’t tell you”

The dynamics of search and reunion are complex. Sometimes, adoptees do not publically search for fear of hurting their adoptive parents. They may hide their search from them or delay the search, even though the adoptee may have a pressing need to discover more about origins. In neither case does this serve the best interests of the adoptee or adoptive parents. It denies the adoptee the opportunity to receive the emotional support needed from adoptive parents that will help to mediate the stress of coming to terms with his/her own history. Adoptive parents have a responsibility as parents to assist their adult adopted children in this normal developmental task.

Do follow your adopted child’s pace when integrating with birth family

Adoptive and birth families may differ in social class, ethnic background and life experiences, which can result in awkwardness in reading social cues. In some cases, adoptive and birth mothers make a quick and strong connection, leaving the adoptee to the side, as the two mothers pursue their relationship. In the end, successful integration of the two families requires that each family recognize that search and reunion is about the adoptee feeling connected to the two families. Cognizance of this will help lead all family members to find a way to live together at an agreed-upon pace.


Do not direct the search

Many adoptive parents are tempted to move from showing support to taking control of a search. Searching can be exciting and will certainly bring out the detective in all of us, but the fact remains that this is the adoptee's search and must follow the adoptee's pace and direction.

Adoptive parents may assist by providing information, such as the Adoption Order, the social history of the birth family, papers from the agency and communications from social workers, lawyers and doctors involved in the placement. Depending on jurisdiction, adult adoptees may be able to obtain identifying information from adoption agencies and state registries. In addition to gathering facts, adoptive parents are encouraged to support the adoptee through the emotional highs and lows of this process. Use of search and reunion support groups, whose leaders are well-versed in the dynamics of this process, also are recommended. Their skills and experience are invaluable.

Do not misinterpret heightened emotion as rejection

Following reunion, adoptees may become emotionally distraught. This is where the adoptive family can be especially helpful and supportive--not by being directive or analytical, but by being comforting and present. Sometimes, the adoptee just needs time to assimilate new information or deal with a birth family far different than the one that was fantasized about. They may feel let down or they may wish to spend every waking moment with new-found relatives. If adoptive parents recognize these responses as an attempt to normalize this unique situation and can be emotionally available for their children, they will do much to cement their relationship together.

Do not ignore feelings of loss

Reunion regenerates feelings of loss for everyone. Adoptees may grieve the person they could have been; birth parents grieve the loss of a lifelong relationship with the child; and adoptive parents grieve the loss of their exclusive relationship with the adoptee. For reunion and reconnection to work, there must be mutual recognition of such losses and attempts by all to support others as they experience loss. At this pivotal point of transition in the two families, competition over who has experienced the greatest loss will not serve anyone well. However, expressions of empathy will do much to achieve improved relationships.

Do not violate the adoptee’s right to privacy

Search and reunion can bring many positive benefits to the adoptive family. However, in the end, the reunion experience belongs to the adoptee and should only be shared with others to the extent that the adoptee has given permission for this to happen. Therefore, adoptive parents must temper their enthusiasm for sharing the reunion story by respecting whatever limits have been placed on its distribution by the adoptee.

Jumping cartoon

One of the most common questions asked of search and reunion specialists is, "How many reunions are successful?" The answer is all of them. They are all successful because the initial effort was to find and contact the missing family of origin. Whether the reunion develops into a warm, positive relationship that grows over time is another question and depends on many things, including the willingness of participants to not take the relationship for granted; to be patient as all parties to the reunion learn to dance with each other; their willingness to accept differences in experience, style and temperament; and their willingness to expand their horizons. How can adoptive parents--with the best interests of their adopted child at heart--not wish for such potential riches?

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Michael Grand, PhD, C.Psych Professor of Child Clinical Psychology and Director of Clinical Training, Department of Psychology

Michael Grand obtained his PhD in Psychology from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He is a Professor and Director of Training in the Graduate Program in Child Clinical Psychology at the University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario. He c...

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