Helping Children and Youth Maintain Relationships With Birth Families

Children and youth who are adopted need to maintain relationships with their birth families, previous caregivers, or other important connections, and it is vital that their parents support them in doing so. Nurturing these relationships is in the best interests of the child, as ongoing contact with birth family members may minimize or resolve his or her feelings of grief and loss due to separation. This bulletin is intended to provide professionals with information to help children, youth, and adoptive families develop and maintain appropriate and evolving connections. 


Adoption research supports maintaining relationships between children who have been adopted and their birth families, as these connections can benefit children in profound ways (Siegel & Smith, 2012). Having some degree of openness in adoption has been shown to be beneficial for most people who have been adopted, birth parents, and adoptive parents (Siegel, 2012a).

  • Forging and maintaining relationships with birth families can help children to do the following:
  • Understand the reason for the adoption as well as its implications
  • Improve their identity formation
  • Understand the origins of their physical and personality traits
  • Find other supportive adult relationships Increase their desire to meet siblings and other family members
  • Increase communication about their adoption with their families
  • Feel positive about their birth mothers and others

Other studies on children and adults who have maintained contact and developed relationships with birth families show the following:

  • Adolescents who had long-term direct contact with the birth families who relinquished them as infants were reported to have significantly fewer externalizing behaviors than adolescents with no birth family contact (Von Korff, Grotevant, & McRoy, 2006).
  • Face-to-face contact between birth and adoptive family members helps to enhance adoptive parents’ relationships with their children and develop a close attachment to them as well as feel confident and secure in their role as adoptive parents (Siegel & Smith, 2012).
  • Adoptive parents in active relationships with birth parents showed significantly greater empathy for their children and the children’s birth parents (Grotevant, McRoy, Elde, & Fravel, 1994) and communicated more with their children about adoption compared with those who weren’t actively engaged with their children’s birth parents (Von Korff & Grotevant, 2011).

Conversely, one study shows that adolescents who feel dissatisfied with the amount of contact they have with their birth families may have negative feelings about adoption (Grotevant, Lo, Fiorenzo, & Dunbar, 2017). Contact between adoptive and birth families is a relatively new concept in intercountry adoption—where language barriers, cultural differences, and geographical distance can make continuing contact difficult. Some families involved in intercountry adoptions see how domestic adoptions have benefitted from maintaining connections with birth families and want to incorporate that into their own families (Seymore, 2015). Adoption professionals can encourage adoptive families to facilitate a sense of connection by visiting the child’s country of origin, learning the language, and incorporating aspects of the culture into daily life (e.g., food, clothing). Professionals can also coach parents in normalizing conversations about birth families to encourage their children to share their feelings about their birth parents. Helping children feel comfortable with expressing themselves openly with their parents can deepen their attachments and support healthy development (Smith, 2015).


Agency staff play a critical role in helping adoptive and birth families communicate regularly so children can maintain connections with their birth families. This section addresses how caseworkers can support connections between children and their birth families that are in the child’s best interests,3 encourage written contact agreements, mediate birth family relationships to help families overcome potential challenges, and help children maintain important relationships even when there are safety concerns.


Findings from a longitudinal study of parents who maintained relationships with the birth parents of the children they adopted suggest that a commitment to ongoing contact for the sake of the child is a key factor in making those relationships work (Siegel, 2012b). According to the adoptive parents involved in the study, forming a successful relationship between themselves and their child’s birth parents requires a shared focus on the needs of the child; honesty; self-awareness; communication; flexibility; clear boundaries; and a compassionate, nonjudgmental view.

The National Resource Center for Adoption (2014), a program formerly funded by the Children’s Bureau, recommended the following strategies for agency staff to support successful communications between adoptive and birth families:

  • Encourage foster parents and kinship caregivers to build and maintain relationships with a child’s birth family before the adoption to promote future relationship building. Regardless of the permanency case plan goal (e.g., reunification, adoption), foster and prospective adoptive parents must work together with birth families to support connections between the child and his or her birth family.
  • Help older children and youth address their needs about maintaining connections and building relationships with their extended families before an adoption has been finalized. Inform youth about contact agreements and the role of adoptive parents in helping them determine contact needs with their birth families. (See the Encouraging Written Contact Agreements section for more information.)
  • Educate children and birth and adoptive families on ways to remain in contact (e.g., letters, emails, phone calls, personal visits, social media). Emphasize to families that the type and level of communication should be in the best interests of the child and that communication needs may change over time.
  • Introduce prospective adoptive families to current adoptive families who are successfully maintaining continuing contact after adoption so that prospective families can learn from them.
  • Refer birth and adoptive families to agency or community mediation services for assistance in creating formal contact agreements. (See the Mediating Birth Family Relationships to Help Families Overcome Potential Challenges section for more information.) Assist adoptive families with how they can use social media4 to support their children in seeking to contact or connect with birth family members, including siblings, cousins, grandparents, and others.
  • Assist adoptive families with how they can use social media4 to support their children in seeking to contact or connect with birth family members, including siblings, cousins, grandparents, and others.

Although these strategies were developed for foster care adoption, they may also be useful for private and kinship adoptions.

Agency staff who work with families to support connections between children and their birth families should be aware of the impact adoption has on those involved. Children or youth who have been adopted may have attachment issues because they are grieving the loss of being raised by their birth family, among other issues. The National Adoption Competency Mental Health Training for Child Welfare Professionals offers free online training that assists caseworkers and other agency staff in identifying strategies that help families create a nurturing environment to facilitate healthy attachment and address trauma. You may access the training (modules 3, 5, and 7 are most relevant to attachment issues) at https://


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