Ask the Experts: How to communicate difficult information to birth parents


Lee Crawford and Brenda McCreight
Focus on Adoption magazine

A conversation with Lee Crawford and Brenda McCreight on everyday challenges.

How should adoptive parents approach their child’s birthparents about difficulties they are having with their child?

Brenda: The birth parents and grandparents having some limited, continued contact is very appropriate. But that doesn’t mean [birth parents] have a responsibility or access to what’s going on in your family, and I think that it is really important to not be over-sharing. They’re not entitled to know everything that’s going on.

Lee: I think the challenges fall in the areas of boundaries -- who is responsible for what for the child and entitlement issues. Sometimes birthparents, when they’re in an open relationship with the adoptive parents and adopted child, feel like they have the same rights and responsibilities in parenting as the adoptive parents do. Of course, that’s not really a legal point, that’s an emotional point for birth parents. And I think that sometimes adoptive parents feel obligated to meet all the needs of the birth parents, and that’s an emotional decision, not a legal-based decision. With those dynamics in play, there can be some confusion as to who needs to know what, when, and who are parenting the child. When in doubt, we need to go back to the adoptive parents and say that you’re ultimately the authority of this child. If contact, or sharing information with birthparents, is more distressing to a child, then it shouldn’t be done. I’m always looking at the needs of the child and how this communication impacts the child.

Let’s talk about some specific situations. How about a rebellious teen?

Brenda: If you’ve got a rebellious teen, they’re probably going to be contacting birth parents and wanting to go live with them anyway. So you may say "Look, they’re going through a difficult time now, they’re doing their rebellion," and then you’ll ask the birth parents to cooperate in any way you need. In some cases that may be a request: "Please, don’t reply to this, I need you to back right out and let us handle this." In other cases, it might be, "I need you to be willing to take him to stay with you for a while." It’s very individual, but it has to be totally controlled by the adoptive parents and by what they believe is right for their family and their child. Sharing [of information to birth parents] should be judged on a case-by-case basis.

How about a new medical diagnosis?

Lee: Sometimes adoptive parents will go ahead and give information to the birth family about a diagnosis. In terms of communicating to the birth parents, we can describe a child’s behaviour, but if we say the child’s been diagnosed with ‘X,’ that brings up all sorts of labelling concerns for birth parents. Talk about the strengths and the challenges, work being done, the steps that the child has made in dealing with this challenge - the context around the diagnosis instead of using the labels. Describing behaviours is more to the point; it’s more measurable to the birth parents.

It’s the right of the family to decide their boundaries about how much information goes back and forth. I encourage the parents to think of the usefulness of this communication, for the sake of the child, but also to help the birthmother not live in the dark about how their child is evolving. You can give an overview of how the child is doing without getting into specifics.

Brenda: In terms of medical diagnosis, special needs, FASD, that kind of thing, I think that depends on how the adoptive parents would share it with anyone. Maybe they do need to know. But people have to look at why are you sharing this information.

As a general rule of thumb

Brenda: If I’m not going to tell my neighbour, I’m not going to tell the birth parent. Unless I believe it is in the best interest of my child if I do.

Lee: If contact with the birth family causes the child more stress than good or makes the child anxious or pressured, or they feel more confused about who they’re attached to, or all of those issues, then we have to go back into the family and reconsider the usefulness of contact.

Brenda McCreight, Ph.D., RSW is an adoptive parent, therapist and author of several adoption-related books. Brenda is the mother of 14 children, 12 of whom are adopted and are considered to have special needs. Find out more about Brenda at

Lee Crawford, MEd, RCC, BCATR provides counselling services for adoption issues in Vancouver for children, adolescents, families, adults and couples. As an adopted adult who has experienced a successful reunion with her birth family for many years, she brings both personal and professional insight and understanding to her work in adoption. Find out more about Lee at

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