Offering support for your child’s grief for their birth family

No matter how happy a family formed through adoption is, it’s a family that’s formed around a loss – a child’s loss of their biological parents, and those biological parents’ loss of their children. This is true to one degree or another in closed adoptions, open adoptions, infant adoptions, and adoptions of older children, although children in each of these different situations may think of and process that loss in different ways.

This means that parents of children who have been adopted have the added responsibility of supporting their children through the potential for grief over this loss, and helping their children work through these feelings. This can be true of children who have been adopted at any age. Even very young children, who may not be able to fully understand abstract concepts like adoption or loss, still feel the loss of familiar people and places. Some adopted children also don’t just grieve once – grief for a loss of parents or caregivers from early childhood is a kind of grief that children may need to face and process in different ways and at different times throughout their lives. Not all children experience these feelings, and those who do often experience them in different ways at different times in their lives, but in all cases, parents can help by keeping lines of communication open, and offering their children many chances to talk about what they might be feeling.

One of the ways parents can help to address feelings of loss is by talking about birth parents if children bring them up, and making sure children know that it’s okay to feel sad about their birth parents, or about their adoption in general. Children who feel like they always have to have positive feelings about their adoption can feel stress or guilt about the kind of conflicted feelings that are completely natural.

Talking about grief is an important part of processing it, and children who aren’t offered the space to process their grief in this way may have more trouble dealing with their feelings. Some parents may worry about bringing up biological parents before their child does, but as important as it is to listen to a child’s cues, it’s also important to remember that children take a lot of their cues from their parents. Adopted children whose parents never bring up their birth parents may feel like the subject is off-limits. Parents can walk the fine line between being pushy and not talking about a child’s birth parents at all by bringing them up in small, casual ways – maybe by wondering out loud if their child’s biological parents shared their interest in sports, or infectious laugh.

Children being raised in open adoptions may experience some of these feelings but not others. All children are individuals who will process different parts of their backgrounds in different ways. More than that, widespread open adoptions are a somewhat recent event, and the specific ways they’ll influence emotional development isn’t entirely clear.

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