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April 2005Vol. 6, No. 3Counseling Birth Parents

Among the members of the adoption triad (children, birth parents, adoptive parents), birth parents who voluntarily relinquish their children are the least studied group by researchers and the least visible group for counselors. In "Birth Parents in Adoption," counselors M. O. Wiley and A. L. Baden provide a scientist-practitioner review of the literature on birth parents, present a number of case studies, and discuss implications for counseling birth parents.

A review of both the clinical and empirical literature from a number of professional disciplines focuses on:

  • Prerelinquishment and the decision to relinquish one's child for adoption
  • Early postrelinquishment (defined as the first 2 years after placing the child)
  • Long-term postrelinquishment effects throughout the lifespan
  • Birth fathers
  • International adoption
  • Openness in adoption

More than 20 years of research illustrates that birth parents who are seen in counseling or research have experienced significant disruption in their lives due to the relinquishment of a child. Some recent studies observe that birth mothers who relinquish fare comparably with those who do not relinquish on external criteria of well-being (e.g., high school graduation rates); however, serious long-term psychological consequences of relinquishment are often apparent. Clinical symptoms identified for birth parents include:

  • Unresolved grief
  • Isolation
  • Difficulty with future relationships
  • Trauma

The authors note implications for counseling at each relinquishment phase. Prerelinquishment counseling for the birth mother can be helpful for her immediate adjustment and for preventing a disrupted life later, according to adoption specialists. The effects of early postrelinquishment vary greatly, depending on the birth parents' coping skills, support system, and degree of involvement in planning for the adoption. During this phase, counselors should be prepared to help birth parents with their grief reactions, including assistance in normalizing feelings of anger, loss, and sadness. For birth parents experiencing long-term postrelinquishment grief and even trauma, counselors may want to make use of techniques such as journaling, bibliotherapy, and letter writing. A case study is presented that illustrates the effective use of family therapy following a search and reunion to help the birth mother better understand the role of relinquishment in her family.

The authors describe a notable pattern in the literature—that helping to choose the adoptive couple prior to relinquishment was associated with positive psychological outcomes for birth mothers 4 years later. One study reviewed found that birth mothers who had ongoing contact with the adoptive family showed better grief resolution than birth mothers whose contact had ceased. Furthermore, they found those parents with fully disclosed adoptions also showed better grief resolution than those who had no contact. The authors mention a continued need for research on specific variants of openness in adoption and effects on outcomes for birth parents.

The full article, "Birth Parents in Adoption: Research, Practice, and Counseling Psychology," can be found in the January 2005 issue of The Counseling Psychologist, available from Sage Publications at