Q: Our 14-year-old son, who was adopted by open adoption, now wants to go live with his birth mother. She was completely out of the picture until a couple of years ago when she suddenly showed up, telling us that she'd completely changed her life and wanted to re-establish contact with "her" son. At first, it was just phone calls. Then she asked for daytime visits, then overnights. Then he wanted to go on vacation with her last summer. In the meantime, he's become more and more difficult to live with - moody and disrespectful, mostly, and his grades have taken a nose dive. He's told us he doesn't want to live with us anymore. I think he believes there will be no rules with her and he'll be able to eat ice cream all day long, figuratively speaking. What should we do?
A: Unfortunately, I've heard variations on this same story many, many times. It's why I've been opposed to open adoptions from the beginning. This is an example of how this seemingly "fair" arrangement can turn into a nightmare for adoptive parents when the child enters adolescence and begins agitating for contact with the birth mom. It's also a major reason why so many American parents, instead of adopting American children and risk having to deal with courts and social services agencies that have seemingly low regard for their emotional investment, go outside the country to adopt.
Today's young teens, male and female, seem highly attracted to any opportunity to produce and take part in social drama. This is fueled, in large part, by the fact that what I call "psychological parenting" - the expert-driven parenting paradigm America embraced in the late 1960s - fails miserably at teaching children to put their emotions under the control of rational thinking. Emotional control is incompatible with children having a supposed right to express their feelings freely, one of the most powerful of the post-1960s parenting memes. Public schools that no longer teach critical thinking skills don't help the situation.
In danger of being forgotten is that American teenagers were once generally respectful, trustworthy, rational, hard-working, and the like. What was not so long ago the norm has become the exception to the teen whose feelings rule. The upshot of this is a dramatic rise in teen mental health problems since the 1960s. Some researchers estimate that today's children, compared with 1960s kids, are 10 times more likely to experience a major emotional setback by age 16.
Put this all together with open adoption and you have a potential "I want to go live with my birth mother because she really understands me" soap opera when the adopted child hits adolescence. The fact is, your son doesn't know what is best for him. His birth mother doesn't know what's best for him, either. If she did, she wouldn't be engineering this from behind the curtain. Of the players, only the two of you truly know him and have his best interests in mind.
The further tragedy is that judges sometimes treat these situations as they would treat a custody dispute following divorce. Furthermore, the agreements you signed at the time of adoption put you in a legal bind here. Therefore, the best thing for you to do is get yourselves a family attorney who has had a good amount of experience in such matters.
In the meantime, continue to love your son, understanding that he's captive to his feelings. That's not a good thing at any age.
Family psychologist John Rosemond: johnrosemond.com, parentguru.com.