OAB Roundtable: What is open adoption to me?

leafwater-insideTo me, openness in adoption is an attitude. It’s a belief that our kids are best served with honesty, respect for their origins, and the understanding that caring about, connecting to and loving one family does not preclude caring about, connecting to and loving another. Openness is making decisions with this attitude that open adoption advocate Jim Gritter calls “hospitiousness” towards our children’s birth families.

Adoption researcher, author and therapist David Brodzinsky, PhD, makes a distinction between two kinds of openness. There is structural openness, which might include cards, letters, phone calls or visits. And there is communication (or communicative) openness, which is when adoption topics are respectfully and honestly dealt with by the parents.

For adoptive parents, structural openness may be out of our control. Our children may come to our families via closed adoption because the birth family members cannot be found, such as in many international adoptions. Or our children’s family of origins may not be safe for them, as in some foster-to-adopt situations. But communicative openness is always in our control. No matter how much or how little information we have, we can create openness in our attitudes towards our children’s stories.

Many families have communicative openness without structural openness and some families have structural openness without communicative openness. I have heard many stories of adoptive parents who have open adoption in name only; those who have regular communication with birth parents but keep a lid on any adoption discussion in their homes. Maybe they’re hoping that structural openness is enough. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

According to Brodzinsky’s study, “Family Structural Openness and Communication Openness as Predictors in the Adjustment of Adopted Children,” it’s clear that those of us who are living structural openness have more prompts for communicative openness. For children who have the presence of birth family members in their lives, there tend to be more opportunities for questions, answers and discussion. But most adoptive parents aren’t really given any instruction about how to respond to those prompts and many are flailing.

Lots of studies show that openness benefits children (research says they have better self esteem and fewer behavior problems than children adopted in closed adoptions) but this study in particular ties this to communicative openness. In other words, how the family processes adoption is a stronger predictor of positive benefit than how the family structures adoption. Says the study, “… communication openness appears to be a stronger and more consistent predictor of children’s adjustment than the extent of structural openness that exists between the adoptive and birth families.”

This is good news for those adoptive families who are unable to have structural openness; your child can still reap the benefits of openness in adoption provided you are able to foster a sensitivity and respect for your child’s birth origins and are able to convey that to your child. And it’s a reminder to those families who do not have communicative openness; you need to learn how to talk to your kids.

I will write more about how you can do that, too, in future blog entries.

This is my entry for the Open Adoption Bloggers Roundtable #44: What openness means to me. Check out the other entries here!

Comments 2

  1. it’s such an important point to make, I think, that you can still have an attitude of openness in the home when contact isn’t possible for some reason. thanks for participating!

    1. When I was preparing for my workshop at the Coordinators2 Open Adoption symposium I spent a lot of time researching communicative openness and its value. I think that at the beginning when people had to choose openness the agencies that were practicing it were active advocates and did more preparation (at least that’s my impression from talking to those people at the head of the movement) but now that it’s the norm more or less, there are more people who believe that if you do cards and send pictures then you’re doing openness and don’t think much further about that. When I read narratives of early open adoption families, the default seems to be fairly open discussion but when I talk to families who adopted in an open adoption by default (because it was the only way they would be placed with a child) they aren’t necessarily prepared to talk about adoption even though they dutifully send letters and pictures. It’s interesting.

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