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A Child's Developmental Understanding of Open Adoption

Patricia Martnez Dorner MA, LPC, LMFT

Open adoption offers an opportunity for the child to build his understanding of adoption having his adoptive and birthfamilies as resources. The developmental tasks of the child in a closed and in an open adoption are much the same. A primary difference is that development of understanding is significantly helped by the access to contact and by the availability of concrete people and information.

During infancy, the child can be surrounded by family members from both families, acquiring a pre-verbal familiarity which will serve him well as his comprehension increases in complexity. This time period is valuable in that the adults in his life are building bonds and memories as well as laying some pathways for the evolving relationship. The child becomes exposed to adoption vocabulary which is a building block for his developing understanding.

The preschool years typically bring questions regarding whether the child was born in his mothers womb. The ability to answer this honestly and comfortably is enriched by the birthfamilys involvement in the childs life. In a concrete manner, the child is able to learn that he was born of his birthparents who are real people to him. This distinguishes the process very dramatically from the closed adoption experience where parents may answer truthfully but are able to present only an abstract concept about the childs birthparents. This age group thinks concretely so it follows that understanding has a chance to develop more easily for the child living an open adoption.

The school age years involve more complex thinking and more complex questions. During this stage, the child usually asks whom he resembles and why his adoption happened. These questions follow adopted people well into adulthood. Children of open adoption do not have to expend endless energy wondering about either of these core questions because answers tend to be readily available. They see whom they resemble and they can ask birthparents about the reasons of the adoption. This frees energy for other developmental tasks and opens the door for the growing understanding about their adoption.

Identity issuers have a central focus during the teen years. Having access to both his adoptive and birthfamily allows the teen to evaluate consciously and unconsciously his sense of self and belonging without external obstacles such as secrecy and scarce information. It is typical for a teenager to have more say in how he wants to handle the relationship with his birthfamily, allowing him the space to continue to sort out the significance of adoption in his life.

During each developmental stage, open adoption offers avenues for building understanding. This has to be healthy.

206 Lochaven Lane, San Antonio, TX 78213; (210) 341-2070,

Presented at Open Adoption Conference for Families & Professionals, Colorado, 1998. Reproduction permitted when author is cited. Patricia Martnez Dorner.

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