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Adoption and Social Networking

Published: 16.03.17 by Online Team

Posted on behalf of Eileen Fursland

The film Lion, released earlier this year, powerfully demonstrates the incredible power of the internet when it comes to finding places and people you thought were lost. 

It tells the story of a boy called Saroo. Saroo is only five years old and living in poverty in rural India with his mother, older brother and younger sister when he mistakenly gets on a train which then sets off, transporting him a thousand miles from home. He is alone in the bustling city of Calcutta (now called Kolkata) and, as a Hindi speaker, he cannot understand the Bengali spoken around him. He struggles to survive on the streets until eventually he is taken to the police and then a children’s home. After a while the authorities give up on trying to find his family and he is adopted by the Brierleys, a couple who live in Tasmania, an island state of Australia.

Years later, as a young man in Tasmania, Saroo is tormented by the loss of his birth family and the thought that they would never know what became of him. But then he discovers Google Earth. He spends years poring over satellite images of India, calculating speeds and distances to work out where that train might have travelled from. Finally, he spots something he recognises – a water tower that he remembers seeing from the platform at the railway station. Using scraps of memories of landmarks from his childhood, Saroo is able to re-trace his path back to the village of his birth, more than two decades later, despite not knowing its correct name, or his mother’s name, or his own birthday.

I won’t tell you what happens next in case you go and see this wonderful film. 

Adoption and Social Networking

Of course, heartwarming stories of reunion after adoption are all very well. But if you have adopted a child who was neglected or abused by their birth family you may feel rather less enthusiastic and – let’s face it – quite concerned about the internet’s amazing capacity for tracing people and what this could mean for your child and your family. Most adoptive parents will have heard about adoptive teenagers having unplanned and unmediated contact, via the internet, with birth family members. The teenage years are fraught, even at the best of times, and many adoptive parents probably hope that their children will wait until they are older and emotionally more able to cope before re-connecting with birth relatives.

Many adopted children, like Saroo Brierley, will have a strong curiosity about their birth family members. This is normal and natural, and doesn’t mean they are unhappy with their adoptive parents. Puberty often brings about a surge in curiosity. Even if children have been told, from an early age, about their birth family and the circumstances of their adoption, as they grow older they will have more questions, and different questions.  And they start wanting to know what their birth family members are like, where they are and what they are doing now. As they develop a deeper understanding of what adoption means, the account in their life story book may no longer cut it. The life story book is historical information, written for a young child. Many adopted young people do want more in-depth, up-to-date information, even if they don’t feel able to ask for it.

They are used to turning to the internet for answers to all their questions, so it should come as no surprise if they think this would be a good way to find answers to questions about their birth families.

Some teenagers are strongly drawn to the idea of tracing their birth family, while others may do it out of idle curiosity or boredom or because their friends have suggested it. Others, of course, won’t have any inclination to do it at all.

If an adopted child wants to know more and they don’t feel they can ask their adoptive parents, there’s every chance that they will do some digging around and search in secret, without support from anyone. They may go ahead, assuming – as teenagers tend to do – that it will all go swimmingly. But it doesn’t, always. If they do manage to find someone and get in touch, in some cases this unmediated contact becomes overwhelming or goes badly wrong and the teenager can quickly feel out of their depth, confused, torn by conflicting loyalties and afraid of getting into trouble. For some, involvement with birth family members they haven’t seen for many years can be destabilizing and damaging to the young person themselves and the adoptive family dynamics, as well as hugely worrying for their adoptive parents. In other cases, of course, it can be positive, with the young person being able to form a good relationship, for example with a brother or sister.

Some young people are determined to meet their birth parents because they can’t see any other way to find out what they want to know. Prevention is better than cure. That’s not to say you should try and prevent contact if your child is very sure they want to meet a birth relative - but there may be other ways they can get their questions answered, short of actually meeting.  

Pretty much everyone who knows about adoption is now of the opinion that it’s better to be open with your child about adoption, share as much information as you can, talk to them about adoption and their birth family and reassure them you understand why they might think about their birth family and feel they need to know more.

Rather than turning to the internet, it may be possible to find out more up-to-date information their birth family by asking the adoption agency for help. If you decide that it would be beneficial (or at least, more beneficial than your child going ahead with it alone) to set up a meeting for your child and a birth family member, you can ask about this. It may be possible to arrange to do this by having an adoption worker acting as an intermediary and with preparation, support and safeguards for everyone. Everyone involved can take things a step at a time, not exchanging contact details until they are ready. You don’t have to wait until your child is 18 – with your consent, it can happen sooner than this. Meeting them can be helpful for some young people – provided it’s handled sensitively and especially – of course - if the birth family members are prepared and given support to say that they are sorry about what happened in the past. 

Meeting birth parents – however it comes about – can be a reality check and may help some young people to really understand why they were not able to stay with their birth family. At the very least, it puts to rest some of the questions that have been tormenting them, even if the answers are not always what they were hoping for.

Of course teenagers are notoriously secretive and unwilling to share their innermost feelings with their parents.  And however open you are, there are no guarantees that your child won’t make secret contact online. But if it does happen, try to keep calm (at least outwardly) and think about the best way to handle things from now on. If a teenager has just re-connected with a birth relative and is feeling excited and elated about it and you try to ban him from continuing to contact them, it’s likely to be counterproductive.  Again, support from an adoption worker, a third party who’s not emotionally involved, can be really helpful in some cases. They may be able to ease communication between all parties, put in place some boundaries, set up a different contact arrangement and get through to a teenager who is refusing to believe what their parents are telling them.

Many adoptive parents, when they think about unmediated online contact, focus on the risk that a birth family member will trace and contact their child. This does happen, of course, and if you or your child would not welcome such contact you should take every precaution to make it difficult for anyone to trace you online. There’s a wealth of information out there about online privacy measures and there’s quite a lot you can do to reduce the risk of being traced. For example, for social networking purposes, young people with unusual names might want to use a nickname or their middle name instead (just don’t tell anyone I said that). But in many cases the contact is initiated by the adopted child or young person themselves and of course those measures won’t prevent this.

Your child may be too young for any of this right now. If you have adopted more recently and contact arrangements have been set up, consider the long-term usefulness of maintaining contact. If you can keep it up through the more challenging times as well as the good times - even if you can’t see much in the way of benefit for your child in the short term – those links could be something to build on in years to come, when your child has pressing questions to ask their birth family.

Adoptive parents need to talk with their child about the “what ifs”. What would the child do if they wanted to find out about their birth parents, or siblings, or grandparents? What if they were afraid you might be cross or sad about this? How would they respond if they got a message one day out of the blue? Wouldn’t they like to be the person who decides who should be able to get in touch with them and when? Most young people like the idea of being in control – this idea may persuade them of the benefits of using privacy settings on social networking sites, for example. Help them think it all through before anything happens. All of this reduces the risk that they will act impulsively and reply straight away to an unsolicited message and increases the chance that they will come to you, rather than the internet, with their questions.