Most people do not handle change well simply because most changes are not easy, and, generally, the easy path is the preferred path. Adoptive families go into the adoption process expecting things to not be totally smooth, but sometimes adjustment is much harder than anticipated. Whenever there are changes made to any family dynamic, there will be an adjustment period. Whether it is a move or new job or a new child, life can seem to go into a spiral with the change. It is not unusual for the changes to cause an upheaval or unrest in the fabric of the home.
Child welfare aptly states that “For many adoptive parents, completing the adoption matching and placement process means that the most difficult phase is behind them. Most adoptive children settle in with their new families, and research shows that the great majority of adoptive parents are satisfied with their decision to adopt. … But settling into parenthood or the “postadoption period” can present its own difficulties for parents. In some cases, adoption-related concerns arise long after the adoption has been finalized, and parents may be unprepared for the issues that may come up throughout the lifelong adoption journey. Some stressors are the same types of challenges that all families—biological and adoptive—face; however, there are other potential stressors unique to adoption and adoptive parents.”
Placement of a child into a new environment with a new family brings with it a whole new level of change. Adjustment is tricky and never looks the same for each person or family. Why is that? Because no two persons or situations are the same, which makes it impossible to nail down specifics and absolutes. The best I can offer is a series of possibilities that can affect why a post-adoption placement period can be so difficult.
1.) A Grueling Adoption Process
It is important to mention that prior to starting the adoption process, the adoptive parents should come to terms with any loss of a child, failed in vitro, or infertility issues. Adopting a child will not make the pain of these events go away. One child does not replace another. Each child should be loved for the unique little person they are and not have unrealistic expectations or burdens placed upon them.
The adoption path itself is very tedious. The fact that adoption laws vary according to state and country make the process maddening at times. During the months and sometimes years of preparation, adoptive parents will have their lives turned inside out and their ability to parent questioned, causing them to constantly second guess their parenting skills, as well as their calling to adopt. Then there are the disrupted adoptions, abrupt suspensions of intercountry adoptions, and, as in the foster-to-adopt situations, children’s reunification with their birth families. Even if the adoptive family knows that these contingencies may occur, it can still catch you off guard and leave you in a tailspin. If you enter a placement with these anxieties not reconciled in your mind, the adjustment period may take longer and be much more difficult.
2.) Post-Adoption Identity
Adoption changes lives, but it also changes the identities of all involved. Adoptive parents become mom and dad; adoptive children become sons or daughters and, often, brothers and sisters. Depending on how long the adoptive parents were in process to adopt and how long the child waited for a forever family, as well as the trauma that the child may have seen/endured, it may be difficult to transition to the new rolls.
Building a family via adoption is similar to what happens when a marriage takes place. A couple goes from dating to marriage to building a life together. Separate identities must learn to live together and be willing to “give and take” to make the new home a peaceful place. The same is true of building a family via adoption. Families will need to be patient as they shift into their new roles. No matter how much preparation is taken, traumas and influences of the past play a great part in the way an individual reacts when they are placed in a new family situation and given a new role and identity.
3.) Post-Adoption Depression
While most adoptive parents do not experience post-adoption depression, some do. It is easy for those unaffected to brush it off as a “mental situation” or categorize it as a made-up diagnosis, especially if one parent experiences it and the other does not. It is hard to admit that there may be something legitimately wrong and that help must be sought. It has already been medically proven that some women who physically give birth experience postpartum depression.
This article on post-adoption depression states, “A new parent, whether by birth or adoption, can have seasons of depression because life as you knew it is no longer the same. Lack of sleep and new responsibilities can leave us empty, uncertain, and overwhelmed. Feelings of guilt, along with doubting our abilities, can cause us to withdraw. Adoptive parents need to be able to vent their frustrations just like biological parents. Venting allows for a release of pent-up emotions, and shared experiences remind parents that they are not alone. So many times, though, the adoptive parent is left to struggle alone because perception is that their depression isn’t real because they did not give birth, and they asked for their situation. However, this is simply untrue. …
“Adoption adds another spoke to the wheel in the depression cycle. Symptoms for post-adoption depression differ very little from those of clinical depression: chronic fatigue, mood swings, unexplained sadness, increased/decreased appetite, weight gain/loss, difficulty focusing/articulating, withdrawal, and suicidal thoughts. Stress and fatigue are usually triggers for depression. Post-adoption depression stems from the same, but there is also more. Adoptive parents have had to go through a grueling process to prove they are ‘fit’ to be parents. Every aspect of their lives has been turned inside out and inspected thoroughly and almost embarrassingly. Additionally, there have been wait times, governmental bureaucracies, financial strain, and possibly unfulfilled expectations. It is no wonder that adoptive parents can struggle with post-adoption depression.”
After months or maybe years of constantly proving themselves and their ability to be parents and anticipating parenthood, Child welfare reminds us that “the excitement of the actual adoption can give way to a feeling of “let down” or sadness in a small percentage of parents. … Much like postpartum depression, and occurring at about the same rate, post-adoption depression may occur within a few weeks of adoption finalization. The realities of parenthood, including lack of sleep (for parents of infants or children with behavioral or sleep issues) and the weight of parental responsibilities can be overwhelming. Parents may have difficulty attaching to the new child and may question their parenting capabilities. They also may be hesitant to admit that there are any problems after a long-awaited adoption. In some cases, these feelings resolve on their own as parents adjust to their new life.”
4.) Unmet or Unreasonable Expectations
Adoption is different than giving birth biologically. When a woman carries a child and gives birth, the only expectation is that the child is a new life with a clean slate and their whole life ahead of them. Adoption differs in that many times the adoptive families had little or no say in the adoptive child’s history prior to coming into their family. Adoptionworld.net states that adoptive parents often “quickly learn that the child they fell in love with is different than the one that came home with them. … [They must] adjust their expectations and learn to love the ‘real’ child over time. … Fantasies are just that—fantasies—they are not real life. How many of us thought we were marrying a knight in shining armor, only to find out that he has annoying habits that drive us crazy. We also naively think we can change our partners after the wedding. … Adoptive parents often have the same beliefs about adoption. They believe that Johnnie will change over time as he becomes used to their family and believes he is loved. The truth is that change will be needed more from the parents than the child to make the placement work. … The parents [may need to] adjust to the reality that the family system may have to change to accommodate the child’s needs.”
Adapting is hard stuff. New parenting techniques and behavior management strategies may need to be learned. Schedules may need to be adjusted to provide the kind of supervision the child needs. A child who was sexually abused may not be able to share a bedroom with a sibling as they had planned. Plans are great places to start, but they are only meant to be guidelines. Flexibility and unwavering love will go a long way. Adoptionworld.net aptly states that “attachment develops over time and must come from the parents first. The child will keep a tight hold on her heart until she is sure this is where she belongs, and that may take many years. Even then, the child’s version of attachment may look different than what the family expects.”
In her article about her adoption experiences, Donna Barnes writes that “bonding, to be truly effective, is the linking of two or more hearts in such a way that no matter what, the bond cannot be broken. For a variety of reasons, your child may not want, or be able to link emotionally with you. Since you cannot make it happen, you may need to adjust your expectations.”
5.) Past Trauma and Experiences
Adoption was created because we live in a fallen world. Every adoptive child’s story contains some manner of hard situation regardless of at what age the child was adopted. Unfortunately, some children have experienced more hard stuff in their young lives than most adults ever will. The author of this uwm.edu article states, “Childhood trauma can be understood as a reaction to a traumatic event or situation that overwhelms a child’s ability to cope. Traumatic events can include physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, removal from birth parents or other attachment figures, or witnessing domestic violence.”
Removal from their homes and being shuffled between placements can also cause trauma that can affect the physical, emotional, and mental development of some children. “Behavioral indicators include changes in appetite, sleep problems, and aggression. … Social indicators include withdrawal, irritability, and clinging. Many children in foster care experience traumatic grief, where the trauma symptoms impact their ability to move through the typical bereavement process—resulting in emotional, behavioral, social, and/or cognitive problems. Traumatic grief can also impact the child’s ability to form healthy attachments. Foster parents must understand the grieving process of the children in their care, and how to help them through this process.”
6.) Cultural Clash
Raising a family is never an easy task. Whether you adopt from another country or foster care, raising a multi-cultural or transracial family will add a few more bumps in the road. You must consider that your child’s heritage is very important to who they are and should be retained and celebrated. The child will need to learn their second culture and get used to their new environment. Adoptive parents will need to be patient with their child. Change is never easy.
Adjustment is not an easy road. It takes time, patience, and tenacity, in addition to unwavering and unconditional love. It is perfectly normal for there to be a period of time where the adoptive family and newly adopted child need to get used to their new, and now permanent, roles. Just because you are experiencing difficulty adjusting does not mean that you made a bad decision. Realize that adjustment will occur in its own time. It cannot be rushed or forced.
This article on post-adoption adjustment gives some fabulous advice to help you cope during the adjustment period:
“SLOW DOWN. You need down time, both with your feelings and to readjust to taking care of another human being. Allow yourself the same time frame to adjust as a birth parent. Take a sabbatical from many of your less-pressing responsibilities for six weeks and learn to love your child. Most of all, accept your feelings; try not to run from them. The ironic thing about acceptance is that once you relax, accept, and let go, these feelings change, and the real bonding with your child can begin.
“BREATHE. Bringing your child home is one of the high points of your life. If you need help, learn to ask for it. Get a sitter. Plan some time to be alone. We call that ‘processing time.’ Being away from your new child allows you to reflect on what is going on. It is the space you need to move on to a productive, happy, life-long relationship. Press on! Be persistent in your dream, adjust the sails as needed, and remember that adoption is a life-long process—a journey, not a destination.”
Virginia Spence and her husband Eric are parents to two awesome little boys who joined their family via domestic infant adoption. When she is not playing referee or engaged in tickle wars, Virginia can be found cleaning, reading, or drinking giant mugs of coffee. Virginia is passionate about advocating for life at all ages/stages and educating about adoption.