Was Your Estranged Adult Child Adopted?

Adoption adds complexity to parent-adult child estrangement

One of the most important tasks for parents estranged from adult children is to understand their children’s reasons for creating distance.

Until parents can put themselves in their children’s shoes and see things as they do, it’s almost impossible for them to make the repairs that are usually necessary before the relationship can resume. For most, it’s a difficult and painful project.

For parents of adopted children who become estranged as adults, this task is even more challenging.

With some exceptions, adoptive parents are not usually adoptees themselves. They bring lots of love and hope to the relationship with their adopted children, but little personal knowledge of the issues faced by adoptees.

Understanding the Adoptee Experience

Here are three important facts adoptive parents need to understand before attempting to reconcile with their estranged adult children.

1. Adoption always begins with loss.

It’s easy to focus on all the positives of adopting a child. For both parent and child, adoption can provide a second chance to create loving and fulfilling family bonds.
But every adopted child had biological parents who either chose, or were forced, to give them up. Losing this primary relationship is a deeply felt loss that can only be fully appreciated by people who are adopted.

Adoptive parents generally want to help their children feel good about themselves and about having been adopted. Their efforts to soothe their children’s pain can feel to those children like a refusal to acknowledge it.

Even very well meaning parents can make the mistake of minimizing the extent of their adopted children’s loss.

Their failure to understand and accept their child’s pain may create an emotional gulf between them.

The child might also associate their adoptive parents with loss, leading them to reject the parent before the parent can reject them, as their biological parents seemed to have done.

2. Non-white adoptees face racial prejudice in white-majority countries.

Adoptive parents don’t always understand that the social protection offered by their own whiteness doesn’t extend to their black, Asian, or other non-white child. Whether it’s simply another child’s curious stare, or the trauma of racially motivated bullying, non-white adoptees’ day-to-day experience is typically different from those of their white families.

Many adoptive parents try to protect their children by effectively erasing their heritage. They urge the child to “just ignore” racially insensitive comments from others. This approach unfortunately adds insult to injury and widens the gulf between parent and child.

3. Trans-racial adoptees are vulnerable to identity crises and damaged self-esteem.

Nowadays there’s more awareness than ever around the importance of celebrating adoptees’ country of origin or cultural heritage.

It used to be common in adoptive families to downplay the adopted child’s heritage. “You’re much better off with us,” was the message these kids received. It’s still true today in many families.

Many adoptees identify with, and are curious about, their heritage. By ignoring their national, ethnic, or cultural origins, families unwittingly communicate disapproval of the adoptee himself.

E.g., If I was born in Korea, and my family never talks about Korea, I may feel inadequate because I’m Korean by birth. I.e., Since Korea apparently isn’t worth talking about, I must not be worth much either.

Your adopted child may never talk about any of these ideas. But that doesn’t mean they have no bearing on your relationship.

What to Do Now

If you’re the parent of an adopted and now estranged adult child – especially one from another country or race – it behooves you to educate yourself about the issues above. Read books about the adoptee experience, and search online for information. Doing so will help you demonstrate a genuine appreciation of your child’s position.

Whether or not your estranged adult child was adopted, walking in his or her shoes is usually necessary before you can have the kind of meaningful conversations that could bring you back together.

This article was informed by an interview with Eli Harwood, LPC, director of the PASS Center in Denver, Colorado. The PASS Center provides adoption-related counseling services to individuals, couples, and families.

Listen to an excerpt from that interview on the Reconnection Club Podcast.

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