Your friend or family member has recently grown their family through adoption. So many conversations and feelings have been leading up to this moment. The child is home! This may be an infant adoption, international adoption, or a foster to adopt placement. Here are some suggestions on how to support the adoptive family.
Listen to the Family.
It is so important to listen to what the family may want and need. I know the excitement has been building, and the first instinct is to go over immediately. No matter what role you play in the family dynamics (friend, grandparent, aunt, uncle, etc.), you must honor the family. Attachment is key at the beginning and throughout. The family might want to limit who is coming in so the child can establish their base of who will meet their needs. We commonly see this in older child placement but can happen in newborn/infant adoption. A child who has experienced numerous caretakers in their early development may need more time to adjust. That said, there are ways to support the family from afar.
The family may have a registry of needed items. I did this with all three of my adoptions. My first adoptions were 5 and 6 years old. They were special needs with a lot of trauma. It didn’t feel right to have a lot of people at once. They began to know me, and about a month after slowly introducing them to my family and friends, I was thrown a welcome home shower. They were given toys and celebrated. They had a blast. I made sure they had space to sneak away if and when it became overwhelming.
My third adoption was different. I didn’t have a formal party as I knew my little one would not be able to handle it. I did, however, register items we needed and things she would like. This way, when people visited, they were able to find specific items. We were very mindful to only have a few people at a time for the first month. Once she became more acclimated, we had more people over.
We also explained our expectations early on and most honored them. There were a few family members that wanted more, but, with gentle prompting, they did eventually honor our requests. It is okay to set boundaries for your family; actually, it is necessary. Some will not understand that certain topics may not be appropriate in front of the children (adoption stories, trauma history), so you may have to decide person to person what contact to keep.
Sending Gifts or Food
This was the most helpful when I was a new mom. I had adopted a sibling group as a single mother. There was just me and then two children, ages 5 and 6, looking at me for everything. It was overwhelming and exciting at the same time. Many of my friends and family would send welcome cards with gift certificates for local restaurants or activities. This really helped me plan fun adventures to help us with attachment. During that time, I was also working full time. So having gift certificates to local restaurants also helped with quick meals. It was a balancing act for sure, and the days were long. At the end of the day, all I wanted was to hang out with my littles, nurture, and play.
I had made an adoption book with pictures of my family and friends. When they would send gifts to my children, I could open the book and show who sent them. This helped my children to associate that they cared for my support system. That said, there were times I had to politely say it was too much as it felt like a holiday for a year. My kids loved it, but I knew it would not last, and there would be disappointments. Everyone understood and scaled it back. I know they just wanted to show my children love, but I wanted to make sure they knew love was not material.
When the family decides it is okay to visit, you should go with an open heart and mind. It is important to remember that although for months or maybe years there has been waiting and talking about this little one, it is new. A lot can happen in the first few days to weeks when transitioning a child into a home. There can be mismatched expectations and a lot of repairs. Sometimes everything may seem okay, but as time goes on, problems will arise. It is important to be supportive but not judgemental.
The child may not want to be touched or held at first and this is okay. They may watch from a distance or choose not to be in the room. Regardless, you must stay present. You may feel yourself having feelings about this, and that is normal. There will be questions forming in your mind, but I urge you not to overwhelm the new parents with them. There will be plenty of time for you to get to know this child and the parents to share what they want to share. Let them set the pace as they are already dealing with so much more than they expected.
I know this sounds all doom and gloom, but it really is not. There are so many joyous moments that they will want to share. There will be struggles that they may need to vent about. Be open to all of it as there will be no other journey like it. It doesn’t matter if you have parented before; each child welcomed into a family comes with their own adventure. Attachment is often taken for granted by individuals who have had children come naturally. When the family is asking questions, it is important to check your bias. I had so many people give me advice only to find it didn’t work for my children. It took me about a year before I realized I had been asking the wrong people. I love my family and friends, but they were not raising children with attachment concerns or trauma. They just didn’t understand, and I never held that against them. I soon found other adoptive families to ask some of my more specific questions, which helped a great deal. So if your family or friend is not reaching out to you for advice, please don’t feel it necessary to share. They will seek it when they feel they need to ask.
You may want to help by offering to watch the child. It is very common that, in the beginning, the parents may not want to leave their child. This is definitely not about you! There is a lot of attachment work to do in the first year to assist your child in making healthy relationships. Also, I know that I wanted to be a mom for so long I was selfish when I finally was one. I wanted to experience everything with my children. With time this feeling did ease up, but, man, some of the family had to beg to watch them. I would find myself going places and then coming back early. It is okay to keep asking because I now know, looking back, I should have taken more time for myself. My world was wrapped up in providers, attachment, and children. I had lost myself, but slowly over the years have found a newer and improved me because of my children.
You may want to take pictures, but I caution doing this without asking. When the child is foster-to-adopt, there may be limits on pictures or posting. In this digital world, it is so easy to take a picture and upload it in seconds. This could put the family at risk with the foster or adoptive agreement. There are families who do not post their children online for other safety reasons. Just ask and follow what the family is okay with, so there will not be anything to worry about.
As the Months Go On……
In the beginning, I had a lot of support and visitors. That has consistently shifted and changed. I know that some have not been able to handle my youngest’s reaction to trauma. The family and friends need to understand that a child’s adjustment to their new adoptive family can take time. Some children are able to cope and move forward easier than others. As the months turn into years, family and friends need to stay present. If they cannot, the family needs an explanation; being ghosted due to your adoptive child hurts. It’s completely okay to say that this is not for you. Some have in my life, and I have been grateful for their honesty. The true people who have my back have stayed. It means constant communication around needs and expectations. Unspoken expectations can ruin relationships.
Children who have experienced adoption have had significant losses that others cannot understand. They do not need people coming in and out of their lives. When you commit to being a part of the family, it is important to stay consistent. In the beginning, it was easy to spoil this new child and celebrate with them. The real work comes with day-to-day, year-to-year mindful intentions to help this family grow.
This Is a Magical Time!
There will be so much joy around the child coming to their family. Listening and allowing the family to celebrate every accomplishment is key. Some may seem like such small things to celebrate, but I can assure you they are not. When the family reaches out to talk to you, this is an honor. They are trusting you to come along on their adoption journey. This should not be taken lightly. You will become a keeper of their story and should not spread it without permission. Infertility, adoption, and attachment are often seen in a negative light. There is a stigma surrounding all of these words emphasized by the media.
I remember laughing and crying so much that first year. My friends and family helped build me up as a mother. Some of my greatest gifts were not material. It was the kind words of wisdom when I felt I was failing. There were times when we lived vicariously through my children and saw the world in a new light. Some of my friends gave up their nights out to play board games and eat fun snacks. There were days when things were so hard that I found solace in someone just listening or even crying with me.
The biggest answer I can give to the question “How do I support a newly adoptive family?” is to just be present in the moment. There will be so many ways to show your love and commitment. It may be bringing dinner or providing gift cards. They may need a supportive ear or advice. The children will appreciate acknowledgment such as presents but moreover time. When the family expresses their needs, respect them. You may be surprised how much you may feel around watching your friend/family partake in this journey. All of the feelings are valid. I have seen many friends go on this journey, and it definitely is a roller coaster. You want it all to work and go smoothly, but sometimes it doesn’t go that way. Be present in the moment with them. If you are not sure how to support them, ask them. Seriously, communication is the key. They may have ways to help that you haven’t thought of and would be forever grateful. In the end, just remember, there is no material item that can replace the human experience.Do you feel there is a hole in your heart that can only be filled by a child? We’ve helped complete 32,000+ adoptions. We would love to help you through your adoption journey. Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98.
Heather Pietras-Gladu has over 20 years in the human services and social worker community. The need for education around adoption and trauma was evident when she worked as a social worker for the Department of Children and Families in Massachusetts. She would use this passion in a most intimate way when she adopted her 3 children from foster care. As long as there is a continued need for education with humor and truth she will continue to be one of the biggest advocates within the adoption community.