Multiple Families, Discipline and Adopted Children

Like all children, adopted children need nurturing, love, guidance and discipline. While most adoptive parents are ready and willing to provide these essentials, the mere thought of including the child's birth parents in the process can lead to insecurity and concern. Questions may arise, such as "Will my adopted child's birth parents completely take over" and "Will I not be viewed as the parent?"

Despite such worries, many adoptive parents participate in open adoptions anyway, committed to helping their children develop socially and emotionally under the best possible circumstances. Nevertheless, when an adoption brings multiple families into the equation, complex issues such as discipline are likely to come up at some point. Therefore, it is better to anticipate challenges and take proactive measures to minimize their negative impact rather than take a wait-and-see approach.

Benefits of Open Adoptions
Open adoptions first gained popularity in the 1970s and have become fairly commonplace ever since, according to The Washington Post Magazine. An open adoption is one that gives full parental rights to the adoptive parents but still makes it possible for the birth parents to have some form of involvement in the adopted child's life. In such instances, the goal is generally a child-centered form of collaboration that fosters communication between both sets of parents.

Research has shown that open adoptions can be beneficial to adoptive parents, birth parents and adopted children, according to the Infertility and Adoption Counseling Center. Not only do they promote communication and information sharing that can be of great value, but also they can help reduce or alleviate feelings of rejection by the adopted child. Also, research reveals that when birth mothers in particular are able to have access to and communicate with the adoptive family, they tend to experience less grief over the adoption and feel better about their role in the adopted child's life, according to a study by the University of Texas, Austin.

Who's in Charge?
Even when adoptive parents and birth parents partake in open adoption with the best of intentions, the question of who's really in charge may be raised, especially with discipline issues. The Adoption Information Center of Illinois offers this advice:

"While all parents feel insecure in the parenting abilities to some extent, adoptive parents must give themselves the right to parent their adopted children. They should not undermine their parenting by feeling that, since they did not give birth to a child, they really shouldn't act like a parent to an adopted child. The law gives adopted parents all the rights and responsibilities of the birth parents."

Since the adoptive parents have assumed legal custody of the child, they have the right to set the pace and tone for parenting. It is not up to the birth parents to determine what rules will be followed and what forms of discipline will take place, although the birth parents can be instrumental in reinforcing certain rules so that the adopted child will not attempt to pit one set of parents against the other. The goal should be to establish what has been referred to as "an adoptive balance of power," according to The Washington Post Magazine. Achieving this balance requires time, patience and a desire on both sides to always act in the best interest of the child.

Setting Boundaries
It is wise for adoptive parents to establish boundaries as early as possible in an open adoption to prevent confusion and chaos. It is recommended that the involvement of birth parents begin at a slower pace and gradually increase, allowing the adoptive parents time to adjust to their new roles, says the Infertility and Adoption Counseling Center. Joni S. Mantell, psychotherapist and director of the center, offers the following advice:

"Prior to adoption, many prospective adoptive parents are in a state of disbelief or even denial that they will really become parents through adoption... They will need time to emotionally connect to becoming parents and optimally this would be respected by birth parents and adoption professionals."

When Relatives Become Adoptive Parents
While it is important for adoptive parents to set boundaries with birth parents, this can be much more difficult to do when both sets of parents are related to each other. When one family member agrees to adopt the child of another, this is referred to as kinship adoption. Although kinship adoption has existed informally in some cultures for centuries, if not handled properly, it can tear a family apart.

When aunts, cousins or even grandparents suddenly become adoptive parents of their own family members, it is a major adjustment for all parties involved. It can be especially difficult for the adopted child to grasp and accept, particularly if the child's siblings remain with the birth parents. The adopted child may experience intense feelings of rejection and long to be with the birth parents. In such situations, the only real solution may be to hire a professional counselor to work with both sets of parents and the child to set appropriate boundaries. 

Putting the Child First
When the adoption of a child brings multiple families together, some degree of conflict is inevitable. It is critical, however, for both adoptive parents and birth parents to keep in mind that how they handle these difficult situations will resonate with the adopted child for years to come. Engaging in power struggles, putting one another down and making a child feel as though he or she must choose will likely have disastrous consequences.

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