The Hazards of Adoption Reunion

Adoption Reunion is a goal for many adoptees and in conversations with hundreds of other adoptees, I have learned that for many of us, once we make the decision to search, we tend to dive in head first without realizing the pitfalls and hazards of adoption reunion.  Much has been written about the benefits of adoption reunion and in my opinion, the benefits far outweigh the pitfalls. However, knowing in advance what the pitfalls can be, is helpful in better preparing you for them.

This blog is in no way discouraging reunions, as I strongly believe searching and reunion is a normal and healthy desire.  All people, adopted or not, have a general curiosity about where they came from and in some cases, to want to know the people who brought them into the world, in addition to knowing their siblings and extended family.

Many adoptees are getting information handed to them via opening of original birth certificates in some states or through generous and talented search angels in addition to a bit of good luck with social media or genetic genealogy.  The information is coming faster than we can process it at times, which is good, but overwhelming.

Let's talk about Information versus Relationships.

Information is good to have and I would say that gathering information is the first stage of adoption reunion.  We may build a family tree if we have a name.  We may search public records hoping not to find a criminal record or we may  look at photos on our relatives' Facebook or Instagram accounts. We may be reading our ancestors' obituaries or wedding announcements.   This is the information gathering stage in preparation for the next stage which is Attempting Contact. 

Attempting contact is a choice that not everyone will make; however, I would say the vast majority of adoptees who have been searching will make some form of contact.  A good rule of thumb is to remember that we have a right to know who our families are, but we don't have a right to a relationship.  Relationships must be mutual.

Attempting Contact has several purposes.  For some adoptees, they hope for an actual relationship to develop with a family member.  For others, they are seeking some basic information such as medical history or family photos, but are not expecting a relationship.  Some adoptees will not attempt contact for their own personal reasons or if one or both birth parents are deceased, they may decide not to contact family members for a variety of reasons (one big one being that they fear they are the family secret).  If one does attempt contact, this is the point where the hazards and pitfalls will begin to appear.  And that is what I want to talk about today.

We would not have made it this far as a species if we did not have a natural distrust for outsiders and people that we don't know as "family" (I include close friends as family too).  You will more likely trust your next door neighbor who you have a 12 year history with over a stranger who messages you on Facebook.  This is normal and this keeps ourselves and our loved ones safe.  Getting a random Facebook message from a stranger is kind of what "getting a knock on the door" used to mean. People may be naturally suspicious of you. They may have been watching alot of crime T.V. (my favorite) and wonder if you are scamming them or lying to them in some way.  They may immediately wonder, "what does this person want?".

Defenses go up and depending on the personality, you may get the following responses:

IGNORED - This is exactly what it sounds like. Your messages may be read but not answered.  Or your messages may never be read.  Your snail mail letters will go unanswered and your phone calls will not be returned.

BLOCKED - in my view, being blocked on social media is more than a defense -- it is going on the offense.  Not only do I want to pretend you are not there, I am going to actively stop you from ever bothering me again.

ACKNOWLEDGED BUT LATER IGNORED - you get a return message, phone call or email and the person may answer a few of your questions and have many questions for you (i.e. are you sure you are John Smith's daughter?  I know all of his kids and you aren't one of them!" ).  Later on the person stops speaking to you and you can only imagine they talked to John Smith who may have given them the smackdown for being in touch with you.


Some found members of your birth family will automatically assume that you want something other than what you say you want.  They may think you are there to claim the family fortune or to hurt or harm them in some way by dredging up the past.  Some family members could be jealous and not want to share their parent/relative with you as they see you as a threat in some way. On the other hand, family members may give you the benefit of the doubt and understand that you are very brave for putting yourself out there without any guarantee of a positive reception.  These are the types of people you are hoping to find -- good, kind, understanding and empathetic to your situation.

REJECTED - See my blog titled What to Do When Your Mother Refuses Contact or Information.

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WELCOMED - Being welcomed is what you see on different talk shows when they feature adoption reunion.  Everybody is happy and sappy and welcoming to you -- the lost bird.  I list this as a potential hazard because it's what happens after the honeymoon wears off that can be hazardous. In addition, being welcomed can be overwhelming for the adopted person when a huge group of family begin calling and sending emails and photos from every direction.  This is both positive and negative when suddenly you are "big news" in the family.  Suddenly, you have way more attention than you were preparing for.  


Closed Records

This is the biggest hazard of all for adoption reunion.  The state you live in may be withholding your records in addition to the adoption agency.  These facts alone cause many adoptees to give up on their searches.  Fortunately, there is something you can do now.  Take a $99.00 DNA test and get involved in opening original birth certificates for adoptees in your state.  If you have a name, get an membership and start building your family tree and reach out to the many search angels in the adoption community.


We are usually not aware of what is going on in another person's life if we are not currently in active relationship with them.  Has there been a recent death in the family?  Is someone filing for bankruptcy or dealing with a lawsuit?  Is the person in the middle of divorce?  The term "timing is everything" applies in adoption reunion.  In my own reunion, my timing was good due to my birth mother recently revealing my existence to my siblings who never knew about me.  I was fortunate. Many times timing can work against you.

Circumstances surrounding conception

This is an area that can trip up many adoptees, who usually have no idea of the circumstances of their conception when approaching a family member.  This puts you at a great disadvantage.  If you were the reason people divorced or if there is a lot of negative emotional energy surrounding your conception, relinquishment and birth, you may receive the full brunt of that negative emotional energy directed at you when you make contact.   On the other hand, if you are the result of two people who were deeply in love and could not be together, you may be the recipient of a lot of positive energy.  It truly is a crapshoot, a roll of the dice, as nobody can control the circumstances surrounding their conception and birth and how others respond to that.


Some of us who were naive going into reunion (raises hand) may be surprised to learn that you are a family secret -- a skeleton in the closet.  Your appearance may remind people of infidelity, sexual abuse, under-age sex, or a bad first sexual encounter and in a minority of cases, rape.  All of these situations create shame in family members and unfortunately, they may take it out on you.  Decide beforehand if you are o.k. with a family member asking you to "stay the family secret".  Some people cannot tolerate secrets on any level (raises hand again).  It is important to understand that due to the sensitive nature of many family situations, discretion when dealing with other people's secrets can protect others and yourself.   It's possible you may be such a huge secret that your mother never told another living soul about your existence.  Sadly, these mothers many times are the ones who reject contact with their adult children.  

If you learn you are a secret, then you have a very important decision to make about contacting extended members of your family.  This is a heavy burden and will put you in a position of either protecting the secret keeper or being the family whistle blower.  Opinions vary widely on how to handle these situations, but each person has to decide what is best for them.

Emotional fallout  

I mention this one last because it is the one that hit me the hardest and the thing I was least prepared for.  After the initial high of meeting my birth family, I was an emotional train wreck.  This went on for months without any support.  I muddled through, but you don't have to.  Join a support group. Read books/blogs written by other adoptees.  Talk to someone you trust about the feelings you are going through.  

Being prepared is half the battle and will help you to understand that when you make contact, that approach, timing, patience and a bit of good luck will go a long way.  Ultimately, we cannot control how others react to us, based on their own life experiences and the circumstances surrounding our births, relinquishment and adoption.  

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We can still hope for the best and embrace those family members who also embrace us.  If nothing else, I can guarantee you after your search, you will be better qualified to dig up information than any private investigator and these new skills will help you to help others who are also searching.

The hazards are many, but have faith in yourself that you will be able to mitigate any fallout and embrace the amazing parts of this journey. 

I wish you the best!


  1. I was better prepared for rejection than I was for the welcome I got from my first mother and her family. The emotional tailspin? Was huge, and long-lasting. I didn't expect that at all! I'd been drinking the adoption kool-aid for years -- adoption wasn't important, I was JUSTFINE. Turns out, I had decades worth of feelings to feel. Still feeling them.

    Contact on my paternal side was both better and worse -- I sort of got the rejection I was expecting, but not consistently for a few months. I did get some of the information I wanted (along with denial, vagueness, and some truly weird statements) but didn't get the one thing I really wanted, which was a single conversation.

    My advice? Get your support system into place before your search, or before you make contact, or whenever you finally admit you need it. Find an adoption-literate counselor (i.e. one that will not tell you to "just be grateful") and figure out what your insurance covers for mental health. It is easier to sort it all out with help.

    1. Some very wise advice, Yan! Thank you for sharing it!

  2. Some great advice, Lynn! And I agree with Yan, sometimes the welcome can be harder than rejection (even though in my case it was only with extended family). And yes, support is important. I live in Australia and decided to contact an organisation called PARC (post-adoption resource centre) which is run by the Benevolent Society and it was nice to be able to talk to counsellor on the phone whenever I felt like it (they are there to just listen). Also, I had joined a forum at the time and thus realised that what I was feeling was normal.

    In regards to this:
    "Many adoptees are getting information handed to them via opening of original birth certificates in some states"

    Wouldn't it be good if advice like you have given here was sent out with every OBC? Perhaps some states in the US do so, I'm not sure.

    When I reapplied for my OBC from NZ (I had lost it years before), they sent me a little booklet - I would be interested to know what you think of it:

    (note the first "page" is a blank green page - there is more there).

    It gives good advice about the pros and cons of each mode of contact.

  3. Hi JJ! Thank you for your comment and posting the booklet! In the U.S,, when you apply for a birth certficate, that is all you get. No helpful booklets!! Another big issue, which I will be blogging about in the near future, is that there are very few trained therapists in this country who understand adoptee issues. I personally have been to a handful of therapists and not one of them understood adoptee issues. There are private agencies like Adoption Network Cleveland that will help with these issues; however, most adoptees are kind of one their own once they figure out who their birth parents are (most achieve this by becoming really good detectives, rather than given this information as their birthright).

  4. I usually don't comment on Adopted Persons blogs, but here goes - remember that you are not the only person on this "reunion" boat and the emotional insanity goes both ways. Try to be kind and COMMUNICATE - as often as possible in non-threatening and passive voice works well. Remember that electronic communication can be ultimately unsatisfying to one party or the other. Also, families are not always what they put on for "strangers" so take the stories with a grain of salt and know that they are colored from view points. Good luck.

  5. Thank you for sharing your perspective, Lori! So important to be respectful and treat others like you would want to be treated!


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