As adoptive parents, we want our family–our entire family–to be welcoming and accepting of our decision to grow our family through adoption. And just as it can be normal to worry and wonder how extended family members may view your pending adoption, it can also be normal to worry and wonder how accepting your adopted child may be to having a relationship with the family they will be transitioning into.
Let’s face it, it’s one thing for you, as the excited and hopeful parent, to do whatever it takes to bond and build a loving and trusting relationship with your child. But what about all of the rest of the relatives in your life? All of the extended family who mean so much to you and who you are excited to share your adoption journey with.
It can be natural for you to want your child to embrace and be embraced by those who they will grow with and share and spend time with.
That’s why helping your adopted child to embrace their extended family may be something to think about early into the adoption process. Doing your research to understand how to best help your adopted child to thrive in their new home can sometimes be the key to building relationships that extend beyond mom and dad.
Whether your child is transitioning from an orphanage to your home or from foster care into an adoptive home, it can be important to remember that before introducing them to family and friends (no matter how excited and well meaning they may be) that the transition can feel drastic to any child no matter how smooth it goes. This is usually a time for parents and children to get to know one another, develop structure and routine, and avoid too much at once. The most critical relationships to focus on early on are parent and child. The rest can be presented at the right time in time.
Remember, joining a new family is often a life changing experience not just for you as a nervous new parent, but also, and probably even more so, for your adopted child.
Here are some ideas to consider along your journey.
Who is extended family?
First of all, you may be wondering what makes up extended family. Traditionally, the nuclear family consisted of mother, father, sister, and brother. Extended family has included grandparents, aunts and uncles, or cousins. For the most part this extended family are people who live nearby in the same neighborhood or city.
For many years, family intentionally tried to live close by so as to be sort of a support system for each other. Many families have relied on grandma or grandpa to help to babysit when mom and dad both need to work. In more recent years, families have moved away and apart from each other either due to employment opportunities, housing, schooling, and other reasons. You’ll probably hear of many young families who may struggle as a result of not having the support of extended family around and having to solely rely on strangers, services, and daycares as a result.
Why is extended family important?
Our extended family, especially our elders, can help to connect us. Members of your extended family might be the ones who typically pass on cultural and religious-held teachings, beloved family traditions, and even language. Grandparents, for instance, can be for more than just babysitting on Friday nights; rather, they can serve as our storytellers. They share stories across the dinner table. They teach us life skills like gardening, tying a tie, or how to make the perfect holiday meal. Many studies point to these important relationships as having a huge impact on children’s healthy self-esteem.
In addition to the happier, more pleasant reasons why extended relatives positively impact your child’s life, extended family offer a sort of back up to busy parents. According to the article The Importance of Extended Family, “These adults could serve as additional role models and inform parents if something seemed off with the child.”
Extended family can enrich your adoptee’s life as well
We’ve probably all heard the phrase that “blood is thicker than water,” and it can leave some feeling as if adoptees can never fit into their family due to this genetic difference. This saying is not true, say thousands of adoptive families who have wholeheartedly come together because at the end of the day, the ones we let into our homes and our hearts are our family, DNA or not.
One of the great parts about having extended family in our child’s life can be that these loving and caring folks enrich your child’s network of resources whom they can count on and learn from along the way.
What can you do to help your adopted child to embrace extended family?
Like any important relationship, building a strong relationship with extended family may not happen overnight. Before you assume that your little one will just open up to these important members of your family consider the following:
Do your research
It’s okay, especially in the complex world of adoption, to admit that you don’t know what you don’t know. It doesn’t help that no two situations in adoption are alike, which sometimes makes it difficult to know the best path to take.
Browse the articles, read the books, watch the podcasts. They are there for the benefit of you and your adopted child. Can’t find what you’re looking for? You could reach out to other adoptive families to hear how they’ve handled helping their adoptee to embrace extended family. The more networking and support you can find on your journey the better you may feel.
Don’t be pushy
Adjusting to a new family may take some time and might take a bit longer depending on age and circumstance. Don’t be in a rush to make it happen. Be patient and understanding, and recognize that your adopted child may need a little more time to make an extended family connection.
As noted in the Adoption.com article 5 Ways to Create a Strong Bond with Your Adopted Child:
There is no set timeline for bonding. And despite all attempts, you may still find your little one pulling away or not ready to open up and accept your love or to offer you his. Children who are unable to vocalize their feelings will act out, which doesn’t make it any easier! But know that it’s normal for all children. Expect that your adopted child may be shy, scared, sad, hyper, or all of the above.
It’s never too early and never too late
Families adopting newborns may not consider needing to help your adoptee to embrace their extended family or that it will ever become “a thing” or an issue they’ll ever have to face. However, it can be wise to remember that newborns grow into curious toddlers, questioning children, opinionated teens, and so on.
Acknowledge trauma and grief
Remember that your relationship with Aunt Mary will probably be different than your child’s relationship with Aunt Mary. Despite how loving Mary may be, your adopted child may have reservations about letting extended family members into their life, especially if they have experienced great trauma or loss before becoming part of your family. The very way your adopted child perceives relationships will probably impact their willingness and ability to want to have a relationship with your extended family.
The Adoption.com article How can I help my adopted child cope with loss and trauma can help parents to understand how helping our adopted children to cope with loss and trauma is an essential part of adoption.
If you suspect your child is struggling with adoption trauma at any age, consider reaching out for support. You and your child are not alone and help is available.
Communication is important
Adoptive parents can often feel as if they’re playing pickle in the middle. It can be very common to feel as if you are caught playing educator, myth breaker, and mediator between those who don’t know about adoption, think they know about adoption, or don’t want to know about adoption but do want to be part of your life.
In the early years, you may find yourself speaking for your child or on their behalf. You may want to be careful of the words you choose and how you respond to certain situations. Work to be an example for your child so that they will know how to react in similar situations.
Talking to your child early on about how to respond to questions about adoption will not only help to prepare them for conversations with family and friends, but may also help them to better understand their own adoption and help to build their self esteem in the long run. The Adoption.com article Teaching Your Child How to Answer Adoption Questions provides straightforward advice that may be able to help your child feel more comfortable in their own skin.
It is usually up to you to make sure that your child is properly introduced to extended family members in a warm and non threatening way: whether they are newborn, toddler age, or an older child. It is usually up to you to make sure that your child feels comfortable in the situation and that the extended family members are aware of the special circumstances surrounding this relationship.
Just like any other member of the family, your adopted child will probably value the relationships they will have with your relatives. It can be a good idea to make sure everyone is on the same page from the start. It can be okay to give your family the heads up that you’re working to help your adopted child to embrace their new family.
The desire to cultivate strong family relationships is usually nothing to be shy about and being proactive may lead to better opportunities earlier on.
One of the best ways to help your adopted child to embrace extended family can be to stay involved. You could start early on making sure to invite extended family into your child’s life for birthdays, holidays, and other celebrations. Familiar faces can become faces that children love to see again and again. You can also take note of things your child may have in common with certain extended family members and cash in.
Grandma Jane loves dance? Invite her to your child’s dance recital. Uncle Charlie used to play the trumpet like nobody’s business? Consider asking him to the Middle School winter concert. Cousin Cindy loves sports? What about inviting her to come watch a soccer game and grab an ice cream afterwards? Not only are you helping to develop bonds based on common interests, but you may be making great memories as well for all parties.
It takes two
As the saying goes, relationships are two way streets. In this case, because your adopted child is, after all, a child, it may really be up to the adults in their life to step up and take actions to develop strong and healthy bonds. However, as your child’s parent, it can also be important for you to speak to your child about what healthy bonds are and how to achieve them.
You may want to be your child’s eyes and ears to make sure they are being included and treated like they deserve. You should probably be your child’s support system if they feel hesitant to open up or reach you.
By serving as the bridge between your adopted child and their extended family, it’s probably only a matter of time until the two will meet in the middle.
Educate Your Extended Family
Just as you took the time to learn about what you didn’t know about adoption, you may want to consider sharing your wealth of knowledge with your family members. It’s probably not realistic to assume or expect that your family members are going to pick up a book, read articles, watch podcasts, or attend seminars about adoption. You probably didn’t either before you had a reason for doing so.
You could share what you know and offer suggestions they may be open to considering. The main message, really, can be to make sure they understand what you’re doing and the steps you are taking with your adopted child in order to help them embrace their extended family.
The Adoption.com article Inviting extended family to learn about adoption explains that sometimes misunderstanding or resistance to know more about your adoption can easily be cleared up simply by communicating with family members leading to healthier relationships with your adopted child. Also, panel members in the video Adoptive parents involve extended family adoption share specific experiences on how they involved their extended family in the joy of adoption.
There can be so many moments to be shared and memories to be made between your adoptee and their extended family. With time, care, and patience, you can help your child to embrace extended family in a way and at a pace that’s comfortable for them.
Sue Kuligowski is an author at Adoption.com. The mother of two girls through adoption, she is a proposal coordinator, freelance writer/editor, and an adoption advocate. When she’s not writing or editing, she can be found supervising sometimes successful glow-in-the-dark experiments, chasing down snails in the backyard, and attempting to make sure her girls are eating more vegetables than candy.