Impact of Adoption on Adoptive Parents: Impact of (Adoptive) Parenting

This information was taken directly from Child Welfare Information Gateway

Impact of (Adoptive) Parenting

For many adoptive parents, completing the adoption matching and placement process means that the most difficult phase is behind them. Most adoptive children settle in with their new family, and research shows that the great majority of adoptive parents are satisfied with their decision to adopt.1 But settling into parenthood or the “postadoption period” can present its own difficulties for parents. In some cases, adoption-related issues arise long after the adoption, and parents may be unprepared for the lifelong process of adoption. Some parental stressors are the same types of challenges that all families—biological and adoptive—face; however, there are other potential stressors unique to adoption, and adoptive parents may want to familiarize themselves with the possibilities.

Depression

After months or years of anticipating parenthood, the excitement of the actual adoption can give way to a feeling of being “let down” or sadness in some parents. Researchers have dubbed this “postadoption depression syndrome,” or PADS, and it may occur within a few weeks of the adoption finalization.2 The realities of parenthood, including the tedium, lack of sleep (for parents of infants or children with behavioral or sleep issues), and the weight of parental responsibilities can be overwhelming. Parents may have difficulty attaching to the new child and may question their parenting capabilities. They also may be hesitant to admit that there are any problems after the long-awaited adoption.

In some cases, the depression resolves on its own as the parent adjusts to the new life. In cases in which the depression lasts for more than a few weeks or interferes with the individual’s ability to parent, peer support or professional help (with an adoption- competent therapist) may help the parent to address the issues causing the depression and regain the confidence necessary to assume the parenting role.

Identity and Attachment

Adoption is a life event that changes the identity of the parties as well as the identity of the involved families. Sometimes, adoptive parents are slow to adjust to their new identity, or they wonder what expectations accompany the new identity.

Adoptive parents may worry that they don’t “feel” like parents, even after the adoption is complete. They wonder whether they are really entitled to parent their new son or daughter. Or, after years of keeping their parenting desire in check, either as foster parents or because of an uncertain legal outcome, they are reluctant to fully embrace parenthood or to believe they are truly parents like other people are. Parents may even question why they don’t immediately love their new child or wonder if they love their child enough. For these new parents, parenting may seem like a tentative status at best. Furthermore, the lack of role models for adoptive parents may give them a sense of isolation.

Identifying as a parent or as a parent of a particular child may be a more gradual process for some parents. If the parents have adopted from foster care, they may have had visits with the child, or the child may have actually lived with them before the adoption. Even so, the finalization creates a permanent family situation, and both parents and child may take some time to develop a bond and evolve into their new identity, just as a couple adjusts to marriage after dating for a long time. If the parents have adopted an infant, taken in an emergency placement, or adopted through an intercountry adoption, the suddenness of the child’s arrival may leave parents little time for becoming accustomed to their new identity. They may be so absorbed in the practical tasks of meeting the needs of their child(ren) and relationship that they have little time to dwell on their new status. The feeling of being a parent may take some time to develop but may eventually be a result of being able to meet the child’s needs and form a mutual attachment.

For some parents, there is a pivotal moment when they first feel like a parent (e.g., the first visit to the doctor, school registration, the first time the child says and means “momma”). For others, it is the day-to-day routine of caring for the child and helping the new son or daughter navigate the world that gradually leads to self-identification as the child’s parent. Identifying as the parent is generally linked to a sense of entitlement, or “claiming,” and responsibility. Parents are able to move beyond feelings of being “not worthy” or “not capable” of parenting their child; they become comfortable in their new role, accepting the responsibility and recognizing and feeling fully entitled to parent their child.

There are a number of things that adoptive parents can do to help them adjust to their new status as parents and as a family. In fact, there are strategies that may be useful right after an adoption as well as 5, 10, or 20 years later as parents and children encounter identity and adoption issues through their lives—especially around particular milestones, such as birthdays, holidays, births, and deaths. Some strategies that may be useful right after an adoption as well as many years later include the following:

Connect with parents who have completed a similar adoption. Learning how other parents have made the adjustment and have dealt with challenges can be reassuring. Parents who adopted 1 year or 10 years earlier can serve as role models to new parents. And parent support groups are meant for just that—supporting and lending a hand and a sympathetic ear to parents who need it. (Information Gateway’s National Foster Care and Adoption Directory lists regional groups: http://www.childwelfare.gov/nfcad)

Establish family traditions or rituals. Parents may want to establish daily or weekly schedules of activities. Routines can be comforting and stabilizing for children and they can help to normalize family life. Rituals can be as simple as bedtime reading or family movie night. Parents may also want to establish traditions to commemorate important days (the day of the adoption placement or finalization) or holidays. These special occasions can be a time for celebration and can reinforce parent and family identification. (Visit Information Gateway’s web section on Parenting After Adoption: http://www.childwelfare.gov/adoption/adopt_parenting/)

Create a family storybook. In their 1994 book, Real Parents, Real Children, Holly van Gulden and Lisa Bartels-Rabb suggest that writing a family storybook can help all the family members feel a sense of belonging to their family. Parents can start the book while they are awaiting the adoption; they begin with their own stories, from their own childhood through their decision to adopt. As each new member joins the family, his or her background and story are added. These books can be maintained through multiple generations. (A family’s storybook will be different from the child’s individual Lifebook, which focuses only on the child and may include information about the child before he or she joined the family.)

Connect with your child’s birth culture. Developing a strong family identity that involves all the members and makes everyone feel included may be especially important for the transracial or transcultural family or for any “conspicuous” adoptive family. Parents can choose activities, schools, friends, encounters with professionals, and neighborhoods that send a message that they value the diversity of all family members.

Prepare to respond to outsiders (including relatives, friends, and strangers) about the adoption. New adoptive parents may be caught off guard by some of the questions that generally well-meaning friends and relatives ask. (In the worst cases, the questioners may not be well-meaning.) Preparing for how to respond to questions, how much of the child’s story to share, and how to inform or educate relatives and friends about adoption can reinforce the new identity of parents and children, empower the new family, and even be a family attachment experience (if the children are old enough to be involved).3 (Visit Information Gateway’s web section on Parenting After Adoption: http://www.childwelfare.gov/adoption/adopt_parenting/)

Find an adoption-competent therapist. In many cases, parents will need to reach outside the immediate family for the first time in their lives in order to seek the help of a therapist, social worker, or other helping professional. If parents decide to see a therapist or to arrange for therapy for any family members because of the adoption, it’s important that the therapist have experience with adoption issues and with all the members of the adoption triad. While adoption may mark the end of involvement with the adoption or child welfare agency or the social worker involved with the placement, the agency or worker may be a resource for postadoption help or referral.


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Resource

Child Welfare Information Gateway. Available online at http://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/factsheets/impact_parent

Citations

1 Vandivere, S., Malm, K., & Radel, L. (2009). Adoption USA: A Chartbook Based on the 2007 National Survey of Adoptive Parents. Washington, DC: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. Retrieved from http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/09/NSAP/chartbook/chartbook.cfm?id=2.

2 Postadoption depression syndrome was named as such by J. Bond in “Post Adoption Depression Syndrome” from the Spring 1995 issue of Roots and Wings. More recent research includes K. Foli’s (2009) “Depression in Adoptive Parents: A Model of Understanding Through Grounded Theory” from the Western Journal of Nursing Research.

3 Marilyn Schoettle (2000) has written the W.I.S.E. Up Powerbook for adopted children to help them feel empowered to share information about their adoption when, if, and how they choose.