Helping your adoptee feel that they belong is something that can leave adoptive parents scratching their heads, wondering if they’re doing everything right. In speaking with many adoptive parents over the years, there seem to be two different camps when it comes to this very important issue. On the one hand, some adoptive parents feel that just being part of a forever family will be enough for their child. Others worry that they may not fully understand their child’s needs or miss signs that the adoptee may be struggling with confusing or uncomfortable feelings about their identity, birth family, or adoptive family.
For a child who is adopted as an infant, the transition into a family may seem much easier and less complicated than the adoption of a toddler or older child who will have experienced different circumstances before being adopted. Still, understand that most adoptees will experience feelings of loss and grief throughout their lives, leading them to feel like they do not belong, no matter how well-intended the birth or adoptive family.
At the same time, while it’s common and normal to worry that your child may not feel like they belong, it’s also most likely that they are doing better than you think. According to Psychology Today, “Adoptees often experience a wide range of emotions related to their adoption. Many report a close relationship with their adoptive families and always feeling like they ‘belonged’; some say that they feel grateful to their adoptive parents for the life they provided.”
However, making sure that your child feels a strong sense of identity as an adopted child who is a member of an adoptive family is worth the time and effort to help avoid emotional and developmental problems later in life.
The Adoption.com article Lifelong Issues in Adoption puts it this way, “Identity is defined both by what one is and what one is not. In adoption, birth parents are parents and are not. Adoptive parents who were not parents suddenly become parents. Adoptees born into one family, a family probably nameless to them now, lose an identity and then borrow one from the adopting family.”
Identity can be a lifelong struggle for an adoptee, no matter the age adopted or the reason for being adopted. Due to the complex and often mysterious nature of adoption, this can sometimes compound feelings for children struggling with how they “fit in” with their adoptive family.
So, while adoptive parents cannot possibly erase what has happened to an adoptee or the feelings of loss and grief the child may experience, parents can consider the following options before being matched with or bringing their adopted child home.
Learn About Adoption
While it sounds like a no-brainer, you might be surprised at how many people think they know more about adoption than what they actually do. Considering most parents who pursue adoption already feel as though they are fully immersed in training and paperwork for months or years leading up to presentation day, what else can you possibly need to learn? The truth is, you can never learn too much when it comes to life-changing decisions. And if every article, podcast, or blog you’re reading offers only one theme, opinion, or voice, consider tapping into other sources as well to develop a more complete picture.
One important consideration is the type of adoption that you will be pursuing.
Take the time to figure out what type of adoption will work best for your family and understand what works best for adoptees. Whereas adoption used to be mainly closed or semi-closed, the tides have turned, and open adoption is now considered to be much healthier for the adoption triad over the long term. This is because open adoption provides the opportunity for adoptees to have access to knowing the whys behind their adoption and form healthy relationships with members of their birth family.
And while some parents may wonder if this more open connection is good for an adoptee without confusing an already confusing situation, the majority of professionals are on board with it. Of course, every adoption situation is unique and different.
“Sometimes, adoptive parents feel intimidated by the relationship a child may have with their birth family, and therefore, feel hesitant to pursue open adoption. It is quite normal to have fears and insecurities. However, allowing your personal fears and insecurities to hinder relationships that may be valuable to your child is unfair to them,” explains the Adoption.org article “Is Open Adoption Good?”
Despite the transparency, adoptive parents still hold the legal rights and work with the birth parent to set trust and boundaries that work for all parties involved with the adoptee’s best interest at heart.
Even if the adoption is not open, as is the case with unsafe situations or most international adoption, it is still encouraged for adoptive families to learn how to support the ever-changing adoption story of the adoptee, who, in this case, may never have their questions answered.
Sometimes adoptive parents may feel as if their child is fine or doesn’t have any questions because they don’t speak up and ask or want to talk about it. It’s important for you, as the parent, to initiate comfortable openings for your child to ask questions or voice their thoughts and feelings on their terms. While you don’t want to push the subject, watching an adoption-themed movie or reading a book together is a great way to bring it up without bringing it up.
Sometimes adoptees aren’t sure how to talk about it or know exactly what they want to know or how to process how they feel. It’s important to let them lead the conversation even as you guide it.
It’s also helpful for adoptive parents to reach out for help and support from those closest to them. Having family and friends who are educated or somewhat knowledgeable about adoption will be helpful to all members of the adoptive family. They can certainly play a part in helping parents make sure their adoptee feels that they belong.
Talk to Family and Friends About Adoption
Take the opportunity to talk to your family and friends about adoption. Not just the process of adoption, but what an adoptive family looks like. In some cases, family and friends aren’t sure of the role they should play. You can help yourself and your child by reaching out to those closest to you to give them a “heads up” about how they can best support your adoptive family. Don’t assume those walking through the process with you are investing as much time and energy in navigating the complexities of adoption as you are.
And be patient. There are sure to be some “foot-in-mouth” situations that will arise. Inappropriate comments tend to go hand in hand with adoption. These are great opportunities to pull your person aside and let them know a better way to approach something, a better term to use, or a better way to support your adopted child in a way that feels natural and organic rather than walking on eggshells.
And as excited as your family and friends may be to rush over to meet the newest member of your family, it’s okay to put on the brakes a bit while you settle in as a family. Research has shown that pausing outside influences–no matter how well-meaning–can be a good thing for infants and older children alike. Now is the time that you and your child will come to know each other on a more intimate level. Having too many people around in the first few days or even the first few weeks may feel overwhelming for a child who is trying to figure out where they belong in their new family.
Prepare Your Home
If you’re adopting an infant, there are plenty of “What to Expect” type books out there to help you navigate the new family waters. Bringing an adopted child home is a bit of a different experience. Don’t feel obligated to do all the same traditional things as, say, a family bringing a newborn home from the hospital would.
While it may seem as though you are walking off the beaten path–note that adoption is walking off the beaten path. It’s okay to do things a different way. It’s okay to create new norms and new traditions in your home that work for your adopted family.
For children who may have spent time in foster care or an institution, take the time to learn about what they like and don’t like. What are their interests? What makes them feel comfortable – from color schemes to art to music to what’s on the dinner menu. What would you like to possibly introduce them to as a way of bonding together as they transition into their new family and new home?
Learn About Your Adopted Child from Their Caregiver
Whether your child is coming to you from the hospital, an orphanage, or foster care, it’s crucial for you to reach out to their caregiver if you have the opportunity.
Learning where they came from and what they’ve experienced before they come home with you will help you best prepare their home for them, from the environment to their schedule, eating habits, and abilities. The less mystery and the more answers you have early on will mean that you can focus on beginning to build your lives together in a healthy way.
In some cases, it’s even recommended that the caregiver be present to say goodbye–to let the child know that they are on board with the adjustment and not abandoning them, but to support them as they begin their new life with their forever family.
Be Open and Honest
Your adoptee is going to have questions, lots of questions. And they will either come to you with these questions or search elsewhere for the answers.
While you are certainly not expected to have all of the answers, you should be open, honest, supportive, and understanding in helping your child to find what they are looking for.
It’s typical for adoptees to question who they are, where they came from, who their birth parents and family are, and why you chose to adopt them. Put yourself in their place, whether you were adopted or not. It’s typical for children to ask where they came from. It’s typical for children to want to know all of the hows and whys, especially once they become school age, and begin to notice all of the similarities and differences among their friends and their families.
In some cases, creating a Lifebook has proven to be helpful to fill in some of the blanks and answer questions a child may have about their adoption. It is a sort of fingerprint or tracking system of their life leading up to and following a life-changing moment.
“Love is patient, love is kind.”
In her article “How Can I Help My Adopted Child Know They are Loved?” Lita Jordan writes, “It may seem strange to talk about normalcy right after I just got finished talking about spending one-on-one time with your child. However, getting things to normal will be important in showing your child that you love them. Much of showing love to your child will be treating them as part of the family. It will take a while for your child to get comfortable, especially if they are older. Doing normal things and getting back to normal life will help your child acclimate to their new surroundings alongside the bonding time.”
It’s also important to understand and differentiate between love and feelings of identity and belonging. Adoptive parents should know that no matter how much you love your adoptee, they may still experience feelings of insecurity. They may push back. They may not reciprocate. Part of being an adoptive parent is understanding that while your child may struggle with accepting their situation, this confusion and uncertainty is not a slight. They are not intentionally telling you to go take a hike.
You should not withhold your feelings of love but remain focused on helping your child feel loved, build trust, and bond. The hope is that receiving unconditional love will provide them with a sense of relief they may not have known in a while or, perhaps, ever.
As an example for this next topic, we’ll say your grandmother loved to bake. Your mom loved to bake. You love to bake. It’s only assumed that your adoptee will carry on that love of baking, too. That generational pass-down is so revered and celebrated at birthdays, holidays, and other celebrations.
There is a chance that your adoptee may not feel the same way about baking. And while your knack for baking the best bread ever seems to have come from that old family recipe that you longed to get your hands on as a small child, perhaps your adoptee may not share this same connection. It may be a genetic thing. It may not. Maybe they actually loathe being in a kitchen. Maybe they hate (gasp) bread. Maybe they’d prefer to do something else instead that you have no interest or connection to.
It’s more than okay to want your child to love the same things that you love–that make your family feel like family. And by all means, it should be encouraged! However, just in case your adoptee can’t seem to make sense of measuring cups or understand the intricacies of the kitchen, that’s okay, too.
You can help them to feel like a valued and important member of the family by making them feel valued and important for the things that make them special.
Make sure to notice your child’s strengths. Praise their accomplishments. Encourage their passions. Nobody in your family ever went out for a certain club or school before? What an excellent opportunity to start new traditions and adventures in your family gatherings.
As prepared as we’d like to feel for adoption, nobody is ever truly prepared for all that it means and all that it encompasses, not just during that first day or year but for the rest of our lives together.
What you can do is learn as much as you can about adoption from professionals, as well as finding support from other adoptive families who have been where you’re heading. Seek support. Be okay with finding out that every day is not going to be a picnic. Know that you’re going to have beautiful and loving moments but that you will experience sadness and hurt as well.
Family is not easy–adoptive or not. It is knowing that you have a lot to learn, knowing that you may have to adjust and pivot as you go. Knowing that it’s okay to feel frustrated and unsure about how to be there for your adoptee will help you form an authentic relationship with your adoptee—a relationship where you will both feel comfortable growing into rather than living up to.Are you and your partner ready to start the adoption process? Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98 to begin your adoption journey. We have 130+ years of adoption experience and would love to help you.
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.