Dear Thelma: My adopted child is confused and curious about her birth parents


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Dear Thelma,

My family is currently facing a challenging situation with our adopted teenager, whom we will call Lucy.

We brought Lucy into our home when she was just eight years old, and we've always cherished the joy she has brought to our lives.

However, as she's grown into her teenage years, we've encountered a problem that has left us feeling uncertain and concerned.

Lucy has become increasingly curious about her biological background and the circumstances surrounding her adoption. This is a natural part of her identity exploration, but it has created some difficulties in our family.

She's been asking questions about her birth parents and is eager to learn more about her heritage.

While we've always been open about her adoption, providing her with as much information as we have, the problem lies in the fact that we have limited details ourselves.

The challenge we face is twofold. First, we don't possess much information about her birth family, and the adoption agency that facilitated the process has disclosed very little due to privacy and legal constraints. This lack of information has been frustrating for Lucy and has raised her curiosity to new heights.

The second aspect of this problem is that Lucy is struggling with her sense of identity. She often feels like she doesn't belong or fit in, which is further complicated by the regular changes and challenges that adolescence brings. She has expressed a desire to connect with her biological roots, and this has left us feeling somewhat helpless.

We want to provide Lucy with all the love and support she needs during this time in her life. However, we don't know how to help her navigate her feelings of confusion and the curiosity about her adoption that has been causing tension in our family.

How can we best support Lucy during this period? Are there any resources or professionals who can assist us in addressing this problem and helping Lucy feel more at ease with her identity?

Concerned Parent

First, let me say that I admire the way you’re handling this. Being open about the adoption and sensitive about the effects on it is sensible and selfless. With some adoptive parents feeling too uncomfortable to deal with these issues, it’s so refreshing to hear from you. Kudos!

OK, so identity is a complex issue. For most of us, our biological heritage, “where we come from”, is a significant element. Other elements include cultural identity, personal relationships, social status, values, and beliefs.

For kids who are adopted, looks can be significant, and often spark the first questions. As you may have read, many of the South Korean and Chinese children who were adopted by white and black Americans in the 1970s and 80s report growing up and feeling like outsiders due to visible differences in racial or ethnic characteristics. For some, this has caused significant psychological distress.

Then there is the biological factor. Although it makes sense today to know about heritage for medical issues (like depression or cancer), knowing where we come from also acts as an anchor in history.

Although logic suggests that other people’s experiences do not impact on our own lives, we feel it is important. We want to know our blood, what our grandparents did for a living, if we ever migrated from somewhere else, and more.

On top of that, there is the awful pressure of films and fiction. Like the classic 1905 A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, stories tend to paint amazing pictures of wonderful families who accidentally lost their kids. When reunited, it’s all picture perfect.

So your daughter Lucy feels this burden. As she didn’t come into your family until age eight, she may have some memories, of an orphanage perhaps or maybe her bio family. But they will be incomplete as she was just a tot at the time.

This brings us to two important points.

First, all people feel disconnected sometimes, and teens tend to feel it more than most. Lucy won’t know this, so she may think it’s part of the emotional challenges stemming from adoption.

Second, in real life, there are happy reunions but there are also many who do not want to reconnect. Sadly, there are many kids who find their bio family, only to be rejected. Thus trauma is added to stress.

As you are blocked from finding out more, Lucy cannot right now explore her needs. However, this may change. Privacy laws for sperm donation have changed in many places, and you never know if adoption privacy rules will change in the future.

For now, here’s what I would do. First, you push the things that help form identity that you can control: Personal relationships, values, and beliefs.

Start by mindfully celebrating your relationship. Go for regular family meals, family outings, and remember your history together. This need not be fancy! Cook together, go to the mall together. Do mum-daughter and dad-daughter stuff.

Also, you start talking a lot about how you share values and beliefs – basically, what makes you family. Because biological heritage is just one thing; what really binds us is love and shared history.

Second, identify ordinary teen identity issues that come along with healthy adult development and separate these from adoption issues. This might be quite challenging, but as you have shown a lot of sensitivity, I think you can do this.

A sensible move is for you parents to talk to kids of other teens. See what’s going on there. Also, read books on adolescence and identity. Many books are US- and UK-oriented but you can figure out the cultural differences.

Have conversations with Lucy about what is natural teen development and what is added by her uncertainty about her heritage. Be warm, open and don’t be in a rush. Also, don’t look for fixes. Just talking nicely will relieve a lot of the anxiety and stress.

Third, read up on adoption trauma. I use that phrase so you will get good search results online. However, please know that drama sells, so online resources tend to focus on the horror cases.

There are millions of adopted people who live very happy lives! Just read other people’s experiences and see what useful strategies you can pick up.

Fourth, if Lucy doesn’t already have a support group, find a place where she can share with other adopted kids. If you can’t do this in person, look online. Tip: As a parent, you go in first and make sure it’s not toxic.

Finally, yes, counsellors can help you talk through adoption. Not everyone has experience, so you may need to check around.

One possible resource is If they’re not available, call the numbers above. And if you can’t find a specific professional for adoption issues there, then a second-best speciality will be anxiety and stress.

I hope this helps set you and Lucy on a path to feeling less stressed. Good luck, and know I’m thinking of you.

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