Adopting or fostering an older child can be quite intimidating. Not only does this person not know you, but they’re expected to jump into your life as if you were mom or dad. They are expected to become a new member of this family they barely know. Imagine being put in those shoes. We do our best to try to make these kids feel as if they belong in our family just as if we had given birth to them, but there has to be some recognition that this doesn’t necessarily feel comfortable for them immediately. There has to be some recognition that things are not going to feel “normal” when starting out. It is going to take a time of adjustment.
This adjustment time frame can vary drastically. For some, it will be much longer than others. For others, it can feel like the adjustment never happens or takes forever. However, a lot of this will depend on how you interact with your child. There has to be understanding and an acknowledgment that your new child is not expected to acclimate immediately. You have to understand that part of them not bonding with you may simply be that they are not in a place where they feel comfortable yet. A lot of the issues that they may be having may stem from discomfort. If they are seeming standoffish, a lot of this stems from not yet feeling comfortable in a brand new environment. This is not their normal. This is not what they have always known.
Some of these children may not know how to interact in a family. Imagine this: You go to a professional baseball game and the coach comes up to you to let you know that they are down a man and need you to play. You have never watched a baseball game nor played in a baseball game before. You know what baseball is. You’ve heard other people talk about playing baseball. However, this is your first major league game and your first game altogether. How uncomfortable would you feel going out on that field? It would certainly be exciting but absolutely nerve-wracking. You might try to look at the other players and do what they are doing, but your first instinct would be to proclaim, “Whoa! You have the wrong man! I can’t do this! I don’t know how to do this!”
That is likely how your new child feels. This is something new for them. They will have to learn the rules and regulations. They will have to learn the ins and outs of being a part of the family and what that means. This is going to take a lot of grace and patience on your part. There will also likely be a lot of growing pains as you journey through. Understand that bonding will come with time, understanding, and continual effort.
Immediate Quality Time
If you are finding it difficult or if you are even just concerned about how to bond with your new child, there are multiple ways in which you can attempt to bond. One such way is to space out some immediate bonding time with your child that is uninterrupted. When you bring an older child into your home, it is, of course, normal that you would want all of your family and friends to meet them. It may even seem intuitive that having all these people meet them and treat them like a part of the family and welcome them will help in the bonding process. However, this can be quite overwhelming, for a child especially. Imagine having to meet all of these new people at once and them treating you like they’ve known you forever. We have to recognize that the situation is just weird. It’s going to feel weird. It’s going to feel uncomfortable. The way we are taught to approach this and the way we are taught to embrace these children with open arms can sometimes backfire. Of course, we embrace them, but we recognize how weird that might feel for a child.
With this, it is advisable to take some time in the beginning right after the adoption or placement has occurred to bond with the child alone. Hold off on meeting family and friends so that you have some time with the child to get used to you as a family unit. Have your immediate family spend time with that child doing things that you would do as a family. This can even be special things like a vacation or just a few weeks of one-on-one. Of course, you can still have Grandpa and Grandma and other family meet them, but avoid that big welcome-home party until later on. Spend some time getting to know your child and allowing them to get to know you. This time will be crucial. This will open up the lines of communication with you and your child and also help them to understand what it means to be a part of your family in the long-term.
While life is going to continue to happen and some distractions are unavoidable, try to take some time that is relatively distraction-free to bond with your child. Whether your child has just been placed with you or your child has been with you for a while and you are experiencing some difficulty and bonding, taking the time to remove distractions and just be with your child will be crucial to develop this bond. With my children, I bond with them much better when I put my phone down. We live in a technological world. We always have some sort of screen on. If your phone or computer or work is a problem for you, try to schedule some time off and some time away from those devices. It is hard to realize what might be getting in the way until we back away from those things. If I am feeling some sort of disconnect with my children, I do a self-reflection and see if there’s anything distracting me. Is work crazy right now? Am I on my phone all the time? Do I have my computer open when we could be having one-on-one time? It is amazing what we realize when we self-reflect. Take those distractions away, take some time off work if possible, and just be with your child.
There are great places to go for a vacation that are even good for people with low budgets that will allow you some bonding time. Rent a cabin somewhere and get off the grid. Spend some time fishing or hiking or swimming. Have some time where your family can just be together. Removing those distractions from both you and your child can help that bond immensely. The cellphone and screens may also be an issue for your child. While you shouldn’t take those away like it’s a punishment, going somewhere where you will be distraction-free and possibly cell service-free might be a benefit for all of you. I remember the time I bonded the most with my family is when we had a horrible ice storm and the power went out. Those are the three days I remember most about my childhood. We cooked by an open fire and sat around and played guitar and cards for days. It is one of my most cherished memories. What distractions can you remove from your life right now to spend some time bonding with your child?
While talking about a normal schedule may seem contradictory to what I just talked about, a normal schedule will be vital at the beginning of an adoption or placement as it helps your child ease into life within your family. So, after you have finished taking that vacation and spent that one-on-one time, make sure that you are showing your child what normal life with your family will be. The vacation and the one-on-one time will be more for someone who is experiencing difficulty bonding with their child who is already been in their house for some time. If your child is new to your home, getting into a normal everyday schedule or normal school schedule will help your child to find their place within your family. This helps in bonding as your child knows what to expect and can start to get comfortable.
The more comfortable that your child is the better foundation you will have for bonding. When you do take that vacation or when you do spend that one on one time, it will take the comfort of your child in order to interact with you in those settings. Having that normal schedule having that sense of normalcy, especially for a child who has not been consistently within a family unit, will be everything. Just as you would not know how to play Major League Baseball, your child may have to learn from the beginning how to live normal everyday life within a family unit. Your child may be extremely independent and not know how this coexisting and working in a family unit thing will play out. Give them the time to learn and settle in and be comfortable. Within your normal schedule make sure that you have that quality time, but try to keep a sense of their importance within the family and how they play into the family unit working together. This means giving your child chores, give them a schedule, let them know your expectations for them. Have them be a part of your family unit just as any other child or any other person in your family.
With a normal schedule, it is important to check yourself to make sure that you are also providing your child with normal interactions. It is easy and understandable that we might walk on eggshells with a child who has been adopted. This is really sort of second nature to want to try to make a child’s life easier or better when they have been through some sort of trauma. Understanding that this child has been through something, we may try to make life easy or fun all the time. While this can be great and this is good for vacation, it is not realistic for everyday life.
Treat your child as if they were born to you biologically. Of course, we have to take steps in the bonding process and spend that one-on-one time with each other. You may have to give this child more attention. However, that does not mean that you should not act normal. If your child does something that warrants punishment, provide your child with that punishment. If there are any sort of interactions that you would have with a child who was born in your home, focus on those. Give your child the opportunity to play team sports and interact with friends in a normal manner. Try to find ways to make everyday life normal and interactions normal. Try to self-reflect, and make sure that you are not trying to make your child feel as though you are so hyper-focused on their adoption.
It is important that we recognize that bonding is an ongoing process. There will be times where you feel close to your child whom you have adopted and times that you may feel light-years away. This is normal, especially when it comes to teenagers. It would be normal if this was your biological child. There is a genuine level of discomfort as a child grows and tries to find their identity. Imagine trying to find your identity in a new home with new parents. Make sure to keep communication with your child ongoing. Check-in with them and spend that one-on-one time to make sure that you are aware of how they might be feeling and what’s going on. Encourage honesty and communication. If you feel it would benefit your child to speak with a counselor, do so. Regardless, it is often beneficial to have someone for your child to speak to who is not you, and who can give them advice and give them an ear when they’re going through this process. If there is someone who is an older adoptee who might mentor them, that would be incredibly beneficial. Do not stress so much about trying to force the bond. It will come with time. Try to keep things normal and try to provide opportunities for growth. Let your child know that they are part of the family, but do not force them to feel comfortable before they are ready.
Lita Jordan is a master of all things “home.” A work-from-home, stay-at-home, homeschooling mother of five. She has a BA in Youth Ministry from Spring Arbor University. She is married to the “other Michael Jordan” and lives on coffee and its unrealistic promises of productivity. Lita enjoys playing guitar and long trips to Target. Follow her on www.facebook.com/halfemptymom/.