Becoming a new parent is both exhausting and terrifying. I remember being pregnant with my first child and being horrified that I would somehow screw him up before even giving birth to him. When we adopted our first child, there were a whole host of other fears that we had to worry about based purely on the unknowns of adoption. Fears are common for any new parent, and fears just show the love parents already have for their child. They want to do this parenting thing right!
Parenting a child who was adopted is not generally that different than parenting a biological child. There will be factors affected by adoption that do come into play, however, much of the parenting that will be done will be similar to any other parental experience. Parenting very much involves balancing the tried and true tips from those who have come before, like your parents and friends, and then simply learning as you go along. Much of this will be a mixture of common sense and trial and error. It is important for any parent to understand that all children are different and that you will not likely parent any two children the same. However, there are a few guidelines to remember as a new adoptive parent that will help you to gain a sense of confidence in your parenting abilities.
One subject that you may have touched on in your adoption education is adoption trauma. Adoption trauma is very real and can affect children from infancy. This will be much more prevalent in children who were older when they were adopted simply because they have experienced more life before the adoption. If a child is coming from an abusive situation or a situation where they very much wanted to stay with their birth parents, this can definitely add to the trauma. It is only natural for there to be some sort of trauma that exists in their world with being taken from one home and placed in another. Oftentimes, their entire life changes once they have been adopted and they’re expected just to adjust.
It is important that all new adoptive parents understand trauma and understand that it is a possibility for their child even if the child is adopted as an infant. This trauma may not manifest itself until the child is older and it may not always look the same. Trauma, in a child who has been adopted, can manifest itself in everything from behavioral issues to mental health struggles. The main parenting tip here is to recognize that trauma is real and that it is also a great possibility for your child. It is important to continue your education in trauma and to understand what trauma is. Here is a great article that talks about adoption trauma and why it is important. Adoptive parents understand and sympathize with their child. Trauma can affect many children and will affect the way that we parent. The way that we parent situations will have to be different than we would in a situation where the child did not experience adoption. How we respond will greatly impact how the child is able to begin to heal from trauma and move forward. The response will also impact the amount of trust a child has for their adoptive parents.
While it is important to understand and remain educated on trauma, it is very easy to slip into worrying that every action or symptom your child has stems from trauma. It is great to be looking out for signs of trauma, however, it can sometimes make us a little paranoid about it. Not every behavioral or mental health issue your child has is necessarily a result of trauma. If we treat every event as such, we may not respond in the correct manner. This is a very gray area, and it can often be difficult to differentiate what is trauma and what is not. Do not hesitate to contact a medical professional, adoption professional, or therapist when there are concerns that you are not sure how to address. In the meantime, try not to overanalyze the small stuff. Sometimes kids are just being kids. Children who are not adopted experience many issues that children who are adopted will experience.
While this is a very gray area, it is usually safe to assume that small issues are simply a result of growing up. It is okay not to jump directly to trauma if your child is having small issues, such as some small behavioral problems, sleeping issues, and just general stuff that children experience. Even if it is a result of trauma, the response to this will often be very much the same across the board. It is easy to assume that something is trauma and then either sympathize to a point where we do not feel comfortable parenting the situation or correcting the behavior. It is also easy to be fearful that we will make the wrong move. In these situations, it is important to stand your ground and to parent in the way that you would parent in any situation. If the behavior does not get better, then you definitely would want to reach out to a professional about the issue to see if there’s something more. There have been times where I’ve had to reach out to a professional with both my children who are adopted and my biological children. Sometimes we just need a little more assistance and a little more insight from someone who is not on the inside.
If you are on the fence about open adoption, it is important to understand the ins-and-outs of open adoption and why it matters. I preface this by saying that I completely understand that open adoption is not always an option. Sometimes there are safety issues that do not allow for openness or there may be a situation where birth parents have chosen to have a closed adoption. If you are not in a situation where closed adoption is the only option, please consider some openness. It is easy to only think of open adoption from the perspective of having to “share” your child. However, this is not the point of open adoption in the least.
Open adoption takes the mystery out of adoption while preventing some of the loss that is inevitable when a family dynamic shifts. It allows your child to maintain familial connections and have a secure sense of identity as they grow. Part of parenting is making the best decisions for your child’s well-being, even if those decisions or actions are hard. I am not saying that open adoption is easy. However, when it is possible, it is usually the best course to take for your child. Placing your child’s needs before your own will be the foundation for good parenting and will also require a lot of strength and humbleness.
It is important, also, to remember that open adoption does not look the same in every situation. Open adoption does not always mean regular visits or contact. If there are reasons that you are unable to support a fully open adoption, just having an adoption where the child has access to their birth family, even sees them once a year, will matter. If the child has the ability to contact them and has access to the information pertaining to their adoption and birth family, it will matter. If you are able to do visits, that’s wonderful. However open adoption allows for and understands the fact that situations do not always allow for complete openness. If any kind of openness can be a starting point for you and your adoption, then that will mean the world to your child as they grow. My children have very different relationships with each of their birth parents. We also understand that this may ebb and flow as they grow. However, they will always know where to go if they have questions and will not grow up worried to ask us about their birth family or wondering who they are.
Adoptive parents are real people too. That may sound really silly to say or hear, but it’s often ourselves who are our own worst enemy. I have spoken to many adoptive parents throughout the years and many new adoptive parents who feel that they are just not equipped to parent or feel less than because they did not create their child. For any of you who are reading this who are seasoned adoptive parents, you know how silly that might sound. Adoptive parents are in no way less than parents who have children who are biological. That should go without saying, but sometimes there are some new adoptive parents who need to hear it. There are also many people who just do not know when to shut their mouth when giving tips to new adoptive parents. I had a very wonderful well-meaning friend recently say that they were waiting to have children and would not choose adoption because they want to be able to be their child’s “only parent” and could not imagine having children who “weren’t theirs.” I held up my son who was adopted and hugged him and said, “I mean, he pretty much seems like he’s mine but I’ll take your word for it.” My friend got very red in the face. They didn’t say it from a place of malice, but there seems to be a myth or generalization in the public that adoption is the unicorn of parenting where the kids aren’t real and the parents don’t matter.
Listen. When it comes down to it, none of us really know what we are doing in this parenting thing. You can learn how to keep them alive, feed them the right foods, keep them generally safe, and handle the small stuff. Yet, each kid you have is going to be a totally different human than the one before them. Nosey Nancy’s kid is not going to be the same as your kid no matter what tips she tries to force on you. Take tips with a grain of salt. Listen to it and use it if you feel it might work, but understand that it very well may not work on your child. That is okay. If you feel like you need more help, do not hesitate to reach out to a professional. There have been many times I have called my pediatrician in the wee hours of the night, desperate for the magic tips that would be the answer to all of my problems. Do not be afraid to ask for help. Seek out those in your community who you trust and are more apt to guide than judge. Whether it be a doctor, a sister, or a mom, we all need a little help from time to time!
We are on kid number 5 and still don’t feel like we have it figured out. Just as Forrest Gump said of life, kids are also like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get. One may be sweet, and one may be dark and broody. One may be a delicious caramel, and one may sneak up on you with the orange filling you weren’t expecting. When you finally feel like you have it figured out, your child grows out of one phase and is onto the next! I know I am making it sound terrifying, but I am just trying to get the point across that we are all figuring it out as we go. There is simply not an exact science to parenting because kids are not exact. Currently, my 2-year-old is essentially Animal from The Muppets and we are pretty confident that our 5-year-old is a honey badger. It’s life. You learn to adapt to the kid you have and you learn what works for them. Be confident in your ability to learn your child and know what to do when the time comes. You got this!
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/.