By Eleanor Beeslaar, HRI Graduate Assistant
Adoption is a beautiful process that brings joy, hope, love, and security to the families and children who find one another through this path. However, just like any other family going through a transitional period, adoptive families may face challenges related to the changes occurring within their family.
Adoptive families may face challenges related to disruptions to childhood development. School-age children learn essential skills and develop important beliefs and values that impact them later in adolescence and adulthood, and adoption can make this process more complex. An important developmental consideration for children who have been adopted is attachment. If the attachment process was disrupted in early childhood, adoptive children may have trouble developing a secure base, which is needed to form healthy relationships and to feel safe to play, learn, and explore. Children who have had disruptions in the attachment process may exhibit anxiety, developmental delays, or traits of a younger child. Though this may seem worrying at first, it is important to understand that this is a normal developmental event considering the child’s past experiences and potential trauma (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2015a).
Parents can help children who face challenges related to attachment in many ways (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2015a):
- Provide a safe and secure environment with predictable routines.
- Commit to one-on-one parent-child time.
- Make eye contact and smile before addressing your child.
- Offer gentle words of encouragement as often as possible.
- Engage in planning future events with your child; this shows them that you plan to be together in the future.
- Make your child(ren) feel valued at every opportunity.
- Be playful and laugh together.
- Nurture them as much as possible.
Social and Emotional Impacts
Adoptive children may also experience social and emotional impacts related to adoption. Elementary school-age children may struggle with identity development, as they must incorporate two different families and histories into their understanding of who they are. They may also be wondering why they were adopted, what happened to their birth parents, or whether or not they have biological siblings (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2013). Middle school-age children may deal with issues of self-worth, self-esteem, and feeling “different” both as normal developmental experiences during this age and feelings related to being adopted. Additionally, children who did not experience relationships with emotionally healthy adults when they were younger may have difficulty understanding, controlling, and expressing their emotions (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2015a).
Parents can help children by (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2015a):
- Teaching them words for their feelings and explaining how to express their emotions in a healthy way.
- Model healthy ways to express emotions.
- Work with children to help them see someone else’s point of view to develop empathy.
Adoptive children may have experienced past trauma, which can potentially affect their health and development. Traumatic events include abuse, neglect, parental drug addiction or mental illness, or being separated from loved ones. Children who have experienced one or more traumatic events may have developed behaviors that helped them survive and cope during those traumatic events, but now present as challenges in their new home. It is important to remember that it will take time for a child to feel safe and comfortable in their new home and their behavior will adjust as these feelings of safety progress.
Parenting a child who has experienced trauma can be difficult and can potentially lead to secondary trauma in parents and place added stress on family relationships. However, parents can be prepared for these situations by educating themselves on signs of trauma, becoming informed about trauma triggers, and seeking help form a trauma-informed counselor. Once parents can recognize situations that trigger trauma memories and behaviors, parents can help their children avoid these triggers. Parents must also practice self-care to avoid secondary trauma and relationship strains within the family (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2015a). Additional measures that parents can take when dealing with trauma include:
- Building trust with their child by being available, consistent, and predictable.
- Teaching their child relaxation skills, such as slow breathing or listening to calm music.
- Encouraging self-esteem through positive experiences, such as mastering a new skill or making developmentally appropriate choices to gain a sense of control.
- Remaining positive and hopeful.
Another great resource to use with children who have experienced trauma is Sesame Street in Communities’ Traumatic Experiences tools!
Impact of Adoption on Adoptive Parents
Becoming a parent through adoption is a joyous and exciting experience; however, it also comes with stressors and challenges. Some families who choose to adopt may do so because they are unable to have a biological child. This process may result in emotional ups and downs, including feelings of loss, grief, guilt, shame, and inadequacy. These feelings are completely natural, but they must be addressed before beginning the adoption process and welcoming a child into the family. Individuals and couples can seek support groups and individual or couple counseling to help them work through these feelings and prepare for the adoption process (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2015b).
The adoption process itself can present stressors and bring up difficult emotions for individuals and couples hoping to adopt. Many important and life-changing decisions are made during this process, such as whether to adopt internationally or domestically and whether to work with an adoption service provider. Families must also go through the home study process, which can potentially be stress inducing and feel intrusive. It is normal for families to feel some anxiety related to long periods of waiting and uncertainty; however, with the help of a good agency or social worker, families can manage the adoption process with help and support (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2015b)!
After the adoption process is finalized and families have been united with their children, most adoptive parents experience tremendous joy and satisfaction. However, some parents may face some challenges during the postadoption period. Though many challenges are similar to those faced by biological parents, some are unique to adoption (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2015b).
Some parents may experience postadoption depression within a few weeks of the finalization of the adoption. This is very similar to postpartum depression and can occur due to feeling overwhelmed by a lack of sleep and the pressure of new parental responsibilities. Parents may also find it difficult to connect with their child and question their parenting abilities. Though these feelings may resolve on their own as families adjust to their new life, if these feelings persist, it is important to seek help from a professional counselor (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2015b).
Some individuals and couples may struggle with adapting to their new identity as parents and question their ability to raise their new child. They may have difficulty adjusting expectations they may have had prior to the finalization of the adoption or worry that they do not feel connected enough to their child. It is important to keep in mind that adoption is a big life change and involves a period of adjustment for the whole family. Over time, parents will begin to feel more comfortable in their new role and deepen their bond with their child. Some helpful strategies during this adjustment period include: connecting with a support system of other adoptive parents, establishing family traditions, creating a family story, and connecting with the child’s birth culture (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2015b).
Feelings about Your Child’s Background and Birth Family
Parents may also have questions or concerns regarding their child’s birth parents or background. They may worry about their child’s ability to understand the adoption process and the difference between their birth parents and adoptive parents. Parents may also fear the possibility of their child wanting to contact their birth family, especially in cases where the child has experienced abuse or neglect by the birth family. These worries are normal and can be navigated by providing ongoing and age-appropriate information about the child’s background and birth family. This can help adoptive children understand the adoption process more easily and help them resolve some of the questions or wonders they have about their birth families (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2015b).
Despite the potential challenges of adoption, it is a wonderful process that leads to warm, loving, happy, and healthy families. There are many supports that families can reach out to during this process, and one of the most important ones is family counseling with someone who is specialized in adoption-related issues. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s blog where we will talk more about the many benefits of family counseling for adoptive families!
For more information about the topics discussed in today’s blog, visit the following websites:
Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2013, August). Impact of Adoption on Adopted Persons.
Retrieved from https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/f_adimpact.pdf
Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2015a, January). Parenting Your Adopted School-Age
Child. Retrieved from https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/parent-school-age.pdf
Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2015b, August). Impact of Adoption on Adoptive Parents.
Retrieved from https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/impactparent.pdf