Parenting is hard. Adding adoption to the mix makes it even harder. But don’t panic! If it’s happening to you, it means that it’s happened to someone else. Which means there’s information. And resources. You are not alone. You can learn how to parent an adopted child.
And as you seek out the best ways to parent your child (or children), don’t forget your own health! It will be much easier to absorb the problems and challenges of your child if you’re emotionally and physically stable. You’re important too!
Common Topics For Parents Who Have Adopted
Even though there are many of types of adoptions and even more situations, there are also common threads that run through each parent’s mind.
When do you tell your children that they’re adopted?
Your children should know that they were adopted from day one. Even they’re just babies, coo in their tiny ears about the adoption and about how glad you are to be their parent. People often worry that this will make their children long for their birth parents. Or parents worry that the circumstances of their children’s adoption are too inappropriate for younger ages to hear.
You don’t have to tell your children everything at once, but knowing that they’re adopted from the very beginning will establish a foundation of trust. You raised them! They love you more than anything. Curiosity about their birth family is natural, but it will never override their love for you who raised them. Knowing they can trust you to answer when they have questions will lead to a closer relationship.
One mother answered a list of questions about telling children they’re adopted that you may also find helpful.
Find good support to help you.
Parenting is difficult enough without adding adoption to the list. Sometimes tears run, nerves are shot, and sleep doesn’t come. You might long for assistance from an outside source but be uncertain about where to look. After all, the problems of children can be pretty specialized.
Sometimes you’ll need to get professional help, preferably from someone who is familiar with adoption and the issues that can arise. Other times, you might just need validation and emotional support from people who can relate to your problems. There are forums online and likely local community groups that you can participate in. The key is to not hold in your frustrations. Seek help to find solutions and solace.
Click here for a more extensive description of resources.
How can I form bonds and attachments with my children?
Parental feelings of unconditional love toward the children you’ve just adopted won’t always happen immediately–not even with biological parents and their infants. Also, don’t expect your children to feel affection and love toward you either. The situation is new for everyone, and it might take some adjustment. As with all relationships, important bonds come with time and care.
You can’t force attachment and feelings, no matter how much easier life would be if they align how you want them to. Here and here are lists of things that can help, like paying attention to your children’s habits, making positive physical contact, and keeping an open line of communication.
How do I talk with my children?
Communication is important in any relationship, including parent-child. Children and adolescents aren’t always straightforward in saying what they want and how they feel–half the time, they’re still processing the feelings themselves. When adoption is added into the mix, it can be even harder to keep the line of communication running. But don’t give up! Always keep up the communication from your side. You never know when your children will open up. It’s possible they won’t even talk to you directly–they might speak louder with their actions.
You can read here more about positive language tools you can use as a parent. For example, praising specific behaviors like “Good job for making your bed” instead of using vague phrases like “Good girl” matches your good mood with a behavior. This will make each child more likely to repeat the action in the future.
On the other hand, there are things to avoid saying. Tom Andriola, an adoptee, wrote “6 Things You Should Not Say To Your Adopted Child.” Because, as important as it is to communicate, you can’t take back your words, no matter how much you don’t mean them. Other phrases might have good intentions, but can be misinterpreted and seen as condescending.
Help your child establish his or her identity.
Everyone eventually goes through the self-discovery stage: “Who am I?” This is a difficult but essential time in an adolescent’s life, and adoption can complicate the process. You children are a part of your family, but also genetically a part of someone else’s. Even though nontraditional families are becoming more common, with single parents, stepparents, stepsiblings, and half-siblings, your children may feel that adoption sets them apart from their peers.
Eventually your children will have to decide how casual they want to be about mentioning their adoption. You want them to be comfortable with it, but misconceptions about adoption and foster care may make your children hesitant to bring it up. Help your children think of responses to inconsiderate remarks, and more importantly, make sure they know that adoption doesn’t define them or the relationship with family. Hopefully your children will be able to say, “I was adopted!” as confidently as the kid who mentions, “I moved in second grade.”
Even if your children were adopted as infants, they’re eventually going to wonder about their genetic heritage. They may worry that they’ll hurt your feelings if they ask you about it, so make sure to let them know that wondering is normal, that your feelings won’t be hurt, and that you’ll answer as many questions as you can. Knowing about their heritage isn’t going to lesson the love your child has for you or the family.
When it’s possible, try to keep in touch with each child’s birth family. They’ll be able to more efficiently answer some of your child’s questions. Scroll to the end of this article to read more about open adoption and keeping in contact with birth parents.
How can you help other people understand adoption?
Misconceptions about adoption continue to abound. Movies and other media misrepresent adoptive situations, often in order to make the plot more emotional and dramatic (in reality, adoption is emotional enough without the stereotypes). There’s no such thing as a perfect family. Try to help people understand that adoption doesn’t make your family better or worse than anyone else’s. Everyone is learning and growing together, and that’s what matters.
Being open about your adoption experiences might help people understand better. And while you talk about it, to keep from furthering misconceptions, use positive adoption language. Avoid the phrase “my child was given up for adoption” and instead say that your child was placed for adoption. This softens some of the negative views people have about birth parents. People often ask, “How could they give up their child? That’s irresponsible!” In reality, they placed their child for adoption, and it wasn’t easy. They picked a life for their child that they knew would be better. Also, don’t let anyone isolate your child as “the adopted one.” Your children are your children. You’re raising them, loving them, and caring for them. Being adopted was simply a step in their life; it doesn’t define them.
Special Needs Parenting
An adoption is considered “special needs” if the children have emotional, physical, or mental disabilities and are over a certain age (usually two years old). Sometimes, like Joy Lundberg (read her story here), it will take a few years to realize that one of your children has special needs. Other times, a child’s irregularities will be immediately apparent.
Most children who go through the adoption process have, in reality, experienced some form of trauma–whether through abuse, separation, or neglect. It’s your job to determine how much it’s affected your children and how you can help.
A child’s inability to bond with the adoptive parents can manifest in many ways and is known as Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). Children with this disorder might have difficulties with touch, obedience, separation, trust, and feeling guilt. Basically there are two sides of the attachment disorder: Either children with this disorder will want nothing to do with you or cling to you like you’re going to disappear. Both can be discouraging, since it’s clear that these children are missing out on true connective experiences. And so are you.
If you think that your child has RAD, talk to a clinician familiar with the disorder. A professional will be able to give you suggestions on therapy and activities that will help with the bonding process. The earlier you deal with RAD, the better.
Read one mother’s experience with attachment disorder here.
Dealing with Trauma
Many children who were adopted, even as infants, have faced some sort of trauma or Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). They might have faced it with their biological family, during the separation, or in foster care. Educate yourself about the type of problems they might have experienced. An ACE can affect someone not only during their childhood, but into adulthood as well, so it’s important to find treatment as soon as a problem is identified.
Click here for an article about signs of sexual abuse.
Handling Physical and Mental Disabilities
Whether your children are biological or adopted, dealing with disabilities can be emotionally and physically challenging–for you and them. Each case will be unique, so you’re going to have to do research about what you should do and prepare for. Along with the professional help of doctors and therapists, seek out people and groups who are dealing with similar experiences. This might not give you interesting solutions to issues you face, but it will also give you emotional support.
Sometimes the future might seem bleak. In spite of the darker moments, maintain a sense of faith that everything will come together. Problems that loom as giant thunderclouds might dwindle into innocent puffs.
Your children look different from everyone else.
Whether you adopted children from a minority race or with abnormal physical features, your family and, more notably, your children are going to face everything from cautious curiosity to outright disdain. Most people aren’t purposefully cruel, but they can certainly be tactless. You need to instill into your children feelings of self-worth so that they can be confident of themselves in spite of others’ reactions and opinions.
Read Elizabeth Curry’s experience. She’s the mother of 12 children. Two of her children are from Vietnam and three from China.
You adopted an older child.
If you adopted adopted a child who was at an age of comprehension, his or her feelings and understanding about adoption are going to be much more complicated than a baby’s. You’re probably seeing (or going to see) switches in behavior and motivation. One month your child can seem perfectly happy to have you as a parent, and the next want nothing to do with you. This can be frustrating and wonderful–it shows that a bonding process is occurring.
Adoptive mom Sarah M. Baker wrote an article about common stages of behavior during a child’s first year after adoption. Click here to read the article.
Establish boundaries in the beginning.
When you adopt older children, it’s possible that they aren’t going to immediately view you as “Mom” or “Dad.” In many instances, they barely know you. You’re just the adult that feeds them. Even if they want to like you, there’s going to be a lot of uncertainty in the beginning.
This is why it’s important to establish rules and expectations as soon as possible. Also let them know what you don’t expect so that they don’t constantly worry that they’re going to displease you.
No child is going to be perfectly obedient, so you’re also going to have to develop a good way to discipline them.
You can read here about how establishing routines, the cousin of boundaries, can be useful for your child.
International Adoptive Parent
If you’ve chosen international adoption, here are some unique aspects of parenting that you might want to look out for.
What’s your children’s medical history?
If you’ve already adopted children from another country, you’ve probably found that the U.S. government requires medical check-ups for these children before they can enter the U.S. Hopefully when you talked to the orphanages or agencies that cared for your children, you were able to obtain your children’s medical histories. This will come in handy during future doctor appointments.
Help your children transition to a new diet.
Food is as diverse as people. Your children have likely experienced a completely different palate from your own. To make sure your children don’t starve themselves for refusing “alien food,” you’ll probably need to do some research.
What are your children used to eating? If you got to stay in their home country, try to remember as many of the common local dishes as you can to get a sense of what your children are familiar with. Whatever it is, plan to have it around the house for a while, slowly introducing new foods for them to try. Just like most children, yours might be picky about some foods and ecstatic about others.
Also keep in mind that hunger is a daily occurrence in some countries. This may lead to different eating patterns and nutritional imbalance. Make sure your children know that they will eat three meals a day. Try to even out their portions so your children don’t overeat.
Click here to read a mother’s account of helping her daughter from Ghana transition to American food.
How are your children coping with the adoption? How can you help?
Feelings of nervousness, joy, and relief when taking your children home for the first time are normal. But you aren’t the only one with feelings. Each child, no matter what age they are, is trying to deal with leaving behind everything familiar. Fear is common response. And reactions to fear can lead to difficult behaviors under the categories of fight, flight, and freeze.
Be patient with your children. Unless they’re dealing with a disorder, they will eventually come around. Develop patterns and schedules so that your children have some level of predictability in life. Keep familiar things from their country around the house–art, food, and music. Once they realize that they can trust you and that the world around them isn’t really another planet, their fear will disappear.
How do you deal with a language barrier?
Children tend to adapt to languages very quickly, especially the younger they are. In the beginning, if you’re concerned, identify whether there’s anything in your house that would be dangerous to use without a verbal explanation, hide it away until your children are fluent enough to understand. (If you have a child who’s a toddler, then it should probably be kept out of range no matter how quickly he or she picks up English.) Really though, when bonding with the children is your priority, it’s amazing what communication will happen even without words.
Keep in mind that language developments might be slow if they were raised in an orphanage. If your children didn’t get enough one-on-one time with an adult during their development stages, then their speech abilities will need help. If this seems to be the case, look up speech therapists in the area who are familiar with these issues.
If you have any questions, you can always read or post in forums like this one.
Teach your children about their heritage.
No matter how patriotically American your children may feel growing up, eventually they’re going to wonder about their birth country. Be prepared and willing to share what you know. Love the cultures that created your children. Help them love their heritage too.
You can start at home. Be bold about including art, food, traditions, and music from their countries in your family’s life. If your children want to do research, the internet can be a great resource to look at photos, stories, and videos about their country. Turn it into a bonding exercise and research with them. If they spoke another language when they arrived, offer to learn it with them. Your children might remember some of their native tongue, or they might have forgotten everything. Still, the opportunity might excite them.
Try to also find more personal sources that your children can interact with. If you become acquainted with someone from your children’s country, befriend them! They might be able to direct you to restaurants or local cultural events that your family can attend. If you were able to visit your children’s countries, share the experiences you had and the photos you took. Write down all the details you can recall about the place where each child was staying.
Eventually they’ll want to know why they look different.
Not every international adoption deals with multiple ethnicities, but when they do, a whole new set of considerations need to be taken. Make sure that you are prepared to deal with the challenges of having a transracial family.
Transracial Adoptive Parent
Having multiple ethnicities in the same family comes with a unique set of challenges. Historically, transracial adoption has been criticized by all sides. Even though the government passed laws against racial discrimination in adoption in 1994, that was barely over twenty years ago. Even now, depending on who you talk to, you might come out hearing extremely different opinions.
Accept the differences.
Accept the differences. Don’t ignore them. Of course you will love and care for your children no matter what, but this won’t solve all of the problems that you’ll face. Racism exists, and your children will confront it. You need to help them accept themselves for who they are.
Your children are going to hear about race and racial issues in school, even as early as first grade, whether it’s in the curriculum or from a peer. Like most children who hear strange and unnerving things, they’re probably going to question a parent, you, first.
Read the advice of one adoptive mother here.
People are going to ask awkward questions.
Whether it’s a preschooler in one of your children’s classes or a stranger in the grocery store, there’s always going to be someone who bluntly points out that your children are different from you.
One mother wrote a list of undiplomatic questions she’s heard people ask.
Live in a multi-cultural area.
No matter how nice your community members are, if 95 percent of them are white, then your children of a different ethnicity are going to feel isolated at some point. If you live in an area with very few minorities, then strongly consider moving. It’s important for your children to have role models and playmates that they can identify with physically.
For a more personal touch, click here to read the experience of an African American adopted into a Caucasian family. The pressure is real.
Different Hair and Skin = Different Grooming
Your children might not have to deal with your easily burned skin and thin hair, but they might have to deal with other physical traits that require special care. They might have frizzy hair, dry skin, easily pockmarked skin, sensitive eyes, a propensity for bloody noses, and the list goes on. Watch YouTube tutorials, do research, and ask other parents about what to expect.
As a foster parent, there’s no way to be completely prepared for the good, bad, and amazing experiences you’ll face, but the more research you do, the less stress you’ll face.
Understand why children get put into foster care.
Understanding the situations that put children into foster care can help you know what to expect and prepare for.
People often assume that foster children have been physically or sexually abused. This isn’t the most common reason children are taken out of their parents’ home, but unfortunately it still happens. Instead, some foster children’s parents are simply unable to care for their children because of incarceration, drug abuse, or debilitating illness. Also, children whose birth parents have died are placed into the foster care system until they’re adopted.
Once in a blue moon, children are the cause of their foster care placement. If they make it continually difficult for their parents to help them, the court may decide that foster care would be better for them.
Become sympathetic to each child’s situation. Read about Paul Knowlton’s foster care experience. Unfortunate circumstances put him into foster care at age five. Now he’s a lawyer and advocate for foster care youths.
Getting attached is normal and needed.
People worry about becoming foster parents because they fear forming attachments to children who will be taken away. The automatic response is of course you’re going to get attached! You’re not a robot. You’ll be caring for these children every hour of the day. Foster care is probably going to break your heart. But really, what kind of parenting doesn’t do this?
You care for children who probably feel abandoned, have trust issues, and feel as if they have no one to confide in. You may only have them in your home for a short time, it’s possible that you’ll end up becoming one of the solid foundations they need. Even if they never warm up to you, as children they deserve the availability of the love you can offer them.
You need to prepare for everything.
Foster parents receive a stipend for the children that come into their home, sure. But making a profit off of it is pretty futile. This money should help provide for the cost of caring for the children, but there are also mental and emotional costs that money won’t be able to touch.
First, you’ll need to prepare your home for every circumstance. Sometimes the social worker will only give you a few hours’ notice that children will be arriving. You’ll need beds, blankets, pillows, and new bathroom supplies. Not every child gets to take possessions with them, which means that you might even have to make a quick trip to the store to grab clothes. And remember, unless you’ve requested a certain age group of children, you might have to prepare for infants as well as school-aged children.
Aside from the essentials, keep some comfort items around like blankets and stuffed animals. When you give them to the child, make sure they know that it’s theirs. Even if they’re moved suddenly, they can take it with them.
Preparing for everything can be difficult. So, absorb as much information as you can from experienced sources like books, blogs, online forums, and community events run by professionals and other foster parents. They more you know, the more experiences you’ll be able to face with confidence.
How can I make the children feel at home?
Stability and routine have been ripped out of these children’s lives. Your job is to transition them into your home as smoothly as possible.
Give them time to adjust. Show them where everything is. Ask them about their routines, how and when they’re used to doing things. They shouldn’t have to immediately jump right into your everyday life. Allow them some transition room.
Get to know each other. Find out their favorite color, favorite food, and bucket list items (maybe you can accomplish some during family outings). Tell them what names you’re comfortable being called by.
Clearly define your rules. Don’t leave children second-guessing as to what you want. But when you make rules, understand that they’ve probably come from an extremely different environment. If it’s not obvious, give them reasons for the rules. When they break rules, it can be difficult to decide which form of discipline would be appropriate. This can depend on many factors, but some people suggest calling a time-in instead of a time-out. This is a form of discipline that brings them to you instead of putting them in the corner by themselves. Many foster children have different levels of attachment issues. Calling them in closer can help them to form bonds with you.
What if they’re changing schools?
Sometimes children will have to change schools on top of changing homes. This might be hard on them. See what you can do to ease their burdens. Go on a school tour with them. Meet the teachers and people they’ll be interacting with.
If your foster child has special needs, there are guidelines and protocols in place that the school must follow. Many school-aged foster care children have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), but if they don’t and you think they need one, you can apply for one with a referral letter.
Whether reunification or adoption is the goal, there may be times when you’ll have to schedule in visits with the child’s birth family–parents, siblings, grandparents, etc. Depending on the situation, visits can be as frequent as three times a week or as little as never. Sometimes special occasions like doctor’s visits will require the birth parent’s presence.
Family visits are as likely to brighten a child as they are to frustrate them. Memories and desires that had been smoothed might return. Visits can absolutely be a good thing, but they have the potential to be difficult as well, so just keep watch.
Open Adoption Plan
Amazing benefits arise from having an open adoption, which is when you keep in contact with your children’s birth parents. Here are a few tips to keep these relationships as stress-free as possible.
What are the benefits of open adoption?
Most fears about open adoption are based on myths rather than facts. In reality, there are usually more benefits from keeping in contact with birth families than ignoring them.
For you, the parent, keeping in contact with each child’s birth parents will give you easy access to medical information and ethnic history. These benefits extend to your child by default, along with others.
Many children will, at some point or another, wonder about their birth parents. They’ll wonder why they aren’t living with them. Did their birth parents not like them? And if they’re currently rebelling against their parents, then they might wonder whether their birth parents would have done a better job. Having the birth parents, or even one of the birth parents, in the picture sates your child’s curiosity and can establish a sense of self-worth. Now your child has even more people to love and support them!
Make a plan from the beginning.
In some states, parents have to plan their open adoption through a legal contract. In others, the agreement to let the birth parents be involved is much less formal. Still, there should be an agreement of some kind. Set boundaries and allowances from the very beginning. How often can the birth parents visit? Where will visits and reunions happen? Will we share photos? Answering questions like these will help prevent future misunderstandings.