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What you need to know about adoption searches and social networking

What you need to know about adoption searches and social networking

More and more adopted teenagers are tracing--or being traced by--their birth relatives online and making contact with them. Sometimes, this happens without the knowledge of their adoptive parents. The search capabilities of the internet and the growth of social networking sites, such as Facebook, make it simple for people to trace others with the help of just a few significant details.

Some adoptions are open, where adoptive parents and child have regular contact with one or both birth parents or other relatives from the outset. But in other cases, adopted children have not seen their birth parents since they were very young. Sometimes, there may be siblings they have never even met.

Many adopted adults are happy to trace their birth relatives via the internet when traditional methods have drawn a blank. And some have been able to meet family members face-to-face and develop positive relationships. Afterwards, they may value social networking as a way of staying in touch at a distance.

But for adopted children and teenagers, reconnecting with birth relatives via social networking in an unplanned way, without any support, can be emotionally challenging. It can sometimes lead to difficult situations where kids are ill-equipped to cope with the scenario on their own. This is particularly true of adopted children and teenagers who were removed from their birth families due to neglect and abuse.

Some adoptive parents might welcome renewed contact with their child’s birth family as a way of helping the child find the missing pieces of the jigsaw that is his identity. However, every adoption is unique and many adoptive parents feel extremely anxious about the implications of social networking for their adopted child. Some cases of unplanned contact with birth relatives put at risk the child’s well-being and the stability of the adoptive family. While not all contact with birth relatives is harmful, and often it can be positive for the child, it is better for everyone concerned if this contact can be achieved in a planned and open way, with support and mediation via a skilled and experienced intermediary, if necessary.

The solution doesn’t lie in banning children from using the internet or trying to stop them from finding out about their birth relatives. It lies in recognizing your child’s natural curiosity, sharing information and being open and truthful, so that if he has questions, he will turn to you for answers, rather than resorting to late-night secret sessions on the internet. Everyone involved in adoption must understand how social networking has changed the landscape--and be prepared for whatever it might bring.


Do

Do take sensible precautions to protect privacy online

It is getting much easier to find people by internet search or via social networking sites. So if you don’t want your child to be traced and contacted by a birth relative via the internet, it is a good idea to take some sensible precautions to protect your – and your child’s – privacy online.

Encourage your child to protect her personal information online and use privacy settings on social networking sites, as this will reduce the chance of unexpected contact. Explain to her that in adoption, it should be up to the adopted person – and not the birth relative - to decide if and when to make contact. Some teenagers will respond positively to the idea that they should remain in control of who contacts them and when.

While birth relatives may not know your family’s surname, sometimes a child’s unusual first name, especially when combined with a few other significant details about your family, may be enough to allow someone to find you. For example, if you write a blog, you may want to be careful about posting identifying details. If your child has a Facebook profile, he can take certain precautions so that only his trusted friends can see information he posts.

There’s lots of information available on how you can protect your family’s online privacy. Just like any other parent, you should discuss online safety with your child and to talk about what he is posting and who might be able to see his personal details online. But remember, none of this will work if your child is actively looking for his birth parents or actually wants to be found.

Do understand that your adopted child will have questions

The vast majority of adopted children and young people who have not maintained contact with their birth parents or birth brothers/sisters will be curious about them at some time or another. They are also likely to wonder about the circumstances of their adoption. Often this curiosity intensifies during puberty and the teenage years. Young people start to think more about their own identity and what has made them the person they are. At this time, they may start to question the story they have been told about their adoption during their childhood.

If you have not continued to talk to your child about adoption--giving a more detailed account about her birth family and why she needed to be adopted, with information that is appropriate to her age and growing understanding--she is likely to have many unanswered questions. Older adopted children, even those who have been given a lot of information about their adoption, are also likely to wonder about their birth family now – where are they, how are they doing, what kind of people are they, do they resemble him? They may wish for up-to-date information about them.

Of course, you may not have all of the answers or even be able to find them out for her. For some children, especially those adopted from abroad, there may be many unknown pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that are impossible to track down. But you can tell your child, and show her by your attitude, that if and when she wants to know more, you will do all you can to help.

Do keep talking to your child

Perhaps your child doesn’t mention adoption or ask questions. Don’t assume that he is not thinking about it. You may need to be the one who brings up the subject and create opportunities for him to ask questions. Adoptive parents must show children, from the earliest days right through to the teenage years, that they are comfortable with the fact that their child is adopted and that they won’t be hurt or angry if he wants to know about his birth parents.

Sometimes, talking about adoption happens naturally as a result of letters, Skype, social networking, phone calls, or visits to birth parents or other birth family members. But if such direct contact is not possible, adoptive parents also can demonstrate this by their “communicative openness” – their readiness to talk about adoption, their acceptance of the child’s birth family and their empathy with the difficulties of his birth relatives.

Making every effort to maintain agreed contact with birth relatives (if contact arrangements have been put in place and if this is helpful to the child) may have long-term benefits to your child in terms of keeping open those lines of communication. It may mean there is no need for him to go searching for them on Facebook when he is a teenager because he will already know about his birth relatives. And there is less likelihood of him idealizing them or believing, mistakenly, that meeting them will be the answer to his problems.

Do have “what if…?” conversations

If your child is starting to use social networking sites, you should have conversations about what might happen. Just like other parents, you will want to alert your child to the risks. But if your child is adopted, you will want to explain that he may need to do some things differently online if he doesn’t want to be contacted by birth relatives. For example, ask “What would you do if you ever got a message from your birth father or your birth sister?” Sometimes when children get an online message, they think they have to respond instantly. Talking about things before they happen allows him to think them through. If he ever did get such a message, he might be more likely to talk things over with you, rather than feeling he has to send a reply immediately. You also should be asking about his feelings re his birth family and what he would do if he ever wanted to know more about them. In some cases, friends with little understanding of the complexities of adoption may even be urging him to look for his birth family members.

Discuss with him the possible problems of making contact online out of the blue. Help him to see that the best chance of a positive outcome – if he decides he wants to make contact – comes when the process happens slowly, perhaps with counselling, support and an intermediary, so that everyone can take it one step at a time.

Do recognize the limits

If an adopted teenager is on the receiving end of messages or phone calls from a birth relative, and the contact is making him distressed, angry or overwhelmed, you may need to help him find ways to end it. There are a range of methods, from asking the person to stop the contact, blocking them on social networking sites and changing phone numbers, to involving the courts if the person poses a risk.

Things are more complicated if an adopted teenager and a birth relative have made contact online, have exchanged details and are both determined to maintain this contact. Even if you are concerned about the contact, in practice, it may be difficult for anyone to stop it in these circumstances. An often painful lesson for adoptive parents is to recognize that there are limits to how much they – or anyone else – can control the situation when older teenagers are involved. Indeed, attempting to put a stop to it could push your teenager further away at the very time when she is likely to need your support.

Ask yourself: What am I afraid of? Sometimes parents have a genuine and justified fear for their child’s safety and emotional stability. But another part of it may be an understandable fear of being displaced in your child’s affections. While it may feel like this is happening at times, this is unlikely to be a permanent change.


Don't

Do not feel threatened by your child’s feelings toward birth parents

Your child’s curiosity about her birth parents is perfectly natural. If you were adopted, you would probably feel the same. Thinking and wondering about her birth parents does not mean she loves you any less. You need to remind yourself that it is not about you.

If a child or young person wants to meet their birth parents, sometimes it is because this is the only way they believe they will get answers to their questions. Parents must show they are taking their child’s concerns seriously. If parents can talk to their child again about her birth family and life story in a way that takes into account her adult level of understanding, and/or provide some more up-to-date information about her birth parents, she may be content and decide to leave meeting them until much later.

Do not believe that banning and blocking will work

Trying to stop your child from using the internet or blocking certain websites won’t work and it would be unfair. If your child is over the age of 13, and all his friends are using Facebook, he won’t thank you for saying ‘no.’ In fact, he might go off and set up social networking accounts in secret. And that means you have lost a valuable opportunity to talk to him about staying safe online and to support him if he gets into difficulties.

If he is not supposed to be on Facebook, he’s a lot less likely to come and ask you for help. A determined child will be able to find a way to get online even if he’s banned from the internet by his parents. After all, he probably has numerous friends who have laptops and mobile phones. So instead, try to set boundaries and keep lines of communication open as much as possible and for as long as you can. Don’t appear anti-internet. Take a positive interest and ask him about what he does online. Show him you understand why his online games and social networking are so important for him.

Do not go crazy in a crisis

If you find out that your adopted child has been trying to find his birth parents or other relatives online, that they have contacted him, or that they have been secretly meeting, try to stay calm. You may feel extremely angry with the birth relative for having contact with your child in secret or upset that your child has done this. But getting angry and shouting is not going to help you find a constructive way forward. It will just make your child shut down even more. Try to stay approachable so that you can work out together where you go from here.

Don’t forget that it is your child’s life story, and as he gets older, he may feel he has a right to know his family. When he is young, you naturally want to protect him. But as he gets older, he may have strong feelings about what he’s entitled to know and who he wants in his life. Can you respect his views and still be there for him? He still needs you.

Do not try to go it alone

Perhaps there has been no contact between your adopted child and his birth relatives since he was a baby. And now he is a teenager and asking questions. You are probably afraid that he might try to find them. It is not advisable for adoptive parents to search online and make contact with their child’s birth relatives themselves.

As an adoptive parent, you are very involved, and the situation will be highly emotionally charged. Dealing directly with your child’s birth parents – especially if she was removed from their care because of neglect and abuse – would be quite emotionally demanding and difficult. If you think it is time to take steps towards reunion, it is likely to be better to get an adoption social worker or someone experienced and skilled in adoption reunion to help you. Having an intermediary protects everyone’s confidentiality in the early days and allows the contact to progress slowly at a pace that suits everyone. It also means people can withdraw from the process at any time if they change their mind.

If there has already been some form of unplanned and unmediated contact between your child and his birth relatives, and you are concerned about the effect this is having on him, you may need to seek help from a therapist or other professional experienced in adoption and the effects of trauma. Sometimes, birth relatives tell the child a different story about what led to the adoption. For example, if they neglected or abused the child, they may deny this. This can be very confusing for a child who experienced trauma in early life. Seek the help of a specialist, especially if communication between you and your teenager seems to be breaking down.

Do not give up hope

There are times when contact with birth relatives works out surprisingly well, confounding parents’ fears and anxieties. Don’t give up hope even if you are going through a rocky patch with your adopted teenager. In a few cases, teenagers believe the grass will be greener with their birth parents and announce that they are going to stay with them. For adopters, this disruption of their family can feel like the end, but it is not the end. Teenagers who do this may return after a while, having realized that they need to be with their adoptive family. In some cases, once the crisis is over, they feel more settled and manage to form positive relationships with birth family members.


Summary
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The prospect of adopted teenagers making contact with long-lost birth relatives online, in an unplanned way without support, is something that is very concerning for many adoptive parents. There are some sensible precautions all adopters and adopted young people may wish to take. Everyone involved in adoption--adopters, adopted young people and birth relatives--must be prepared for the possibility of an unexpected approach via social networking. Consequently, an open, honest approach and sharing information with adopted children are more important than ever before.


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Eileen FurslandTrainer and writer

I am a writer based in the UK and I write books, articles and training courses about issues affecting children and young people, particularly adoption and fostering. I have written widely about the implications of social networking for adopti...

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