Helping a new child feel a part of the family can be hard, and much has been written and discussed about how to navigate those challenges. This is as it should be, but in the midst of the hard, it is often easy to lose sight of the enjoyable things about family life: those things that made us want to add to our families in the first place.
Having fun together, laughing, smiling, feeling a part of things, and just enjoying one another’s company can often help with attachment and transitions. Here are some ideas about how to incorporate the fun into your new family dynamic.
1. Where is mine? It is easy to remember to get your new child their own toothbrush or pajamas or shoes or any number of those necessities, but don’t forget about the more optional, fun items. I try to remember all these things, but will admit to being blindsided more than once when I realized that everyone had a certain item . . . except for the new child. The specific items will vary depending on how your family functions and the things you enjoy doing, but I will give you some ideas from my family to start you thinking.
To limit the number of glasses used throughout the day, I have laminated pieces of paper with circles drawn on them with each child’s name. The idea is the child uses the same glass throughout the day, placing it on their circle when not in use. After we had come home with our new daughters, we all realized they had no circle on which to put their glass. Emergency laminating followed.
Then there was the day everyone decided to get the painting bag out and use their assigned watercolor set. You guessed it. No watercolors for the new girls. I was lucky that time because I had bought some new sets on sale and stored them away.
Bike helmets, swim goggles, holiday items such as stockings, Easter baskets, and trick-or-treat bags, lost tooth holders, library cards, mitts, and water bottles are all things that can be child-specific and that you might not think about during adoption preparations. This is doubly true if there are items your children have that are personalized; the lack of these items for your new child will be even more obvious.
2. Where do I find it? If you’ve ever tried to help empty someone else’s dishwasher, you know how difficult it can be to figure out where things go. Our new children have this difficulty in their new home, but it is for everything. Sure, they will eventually figure out where everything lives, but why not turn it into a fun family game and make it easier for them to learn all at the same time? Take some photographs of items that a child would need to be able to find . . . band-aids, tape, glasses, silverware, scissors, things to clean up spills, sheets, towels, snacks, paper, games . . . you get the idea. Print the photos and go looking for the item in the photo. You could even hide the next photo in that location, making the game a treasure hunt that ends with a treat of some sort. You can also label drawers and cabinets with these photos to help your new child quickly find what they seek.
3. Where am I? The children who were born to me and the children who have been home a long time all have their places in the family photo albums. It takes a while before the new child starts to appear there as well. Since they had a different beginning, as soon after coming home as I can manage it, I make them a photo book with all the pictures from their adoption trip. My children have all adored these books and will often look at them either alone or with a sibling. We also have photographs of our children hanging on our walls. Adding the new child’s photo is an easy way to make them feel a part of the family. It doesn’t even have to be a great photograph to begin with. An average photo can be replaced by a great one later on.
4. Can I play, too? Part of the art of adding a child to a family is being aware of the unspoken family culture: the things everyone knows without being aware of that they know them. These can take of the form of book and movie references, inside jokes, ways of doing things, and enjoying certain things as a family. Try stepping outside your family for a while and see if you can pinpoint these things.
For instance, we all love the Frances books by Russel Hoban and every child has heard these stories since birth. As a family, we use a lot of shorthand, referencing these books. That makes it pretty important that I am purposeful in introducing these books to my new children as soon as they are able to understand them. We also have long picture wires hung in our kitchen on which I display our children’s artwork. Very soon after our newest girls came home, I started to hang some of their pictures up as well. So, what does your family enjoy? What is often referenced? Begin to share these with your new child as soon as you can.
5. Can I go, too? I know that everyone says to keep a new child’s world small at first. Staying home, limiting the number of people over, and keeping things simple is good advice. For some children this period will last longer than for others, depending on their abilities and needs. I have also found, though, that there is great benefit in doing some activities and trips as a family. We have been home for six months with our girls and we have taken them to visit some of our favorite museums in our home town and also taken a couple of road trips. Not only did this have the benefit of introducing our new girls to some of our favorite places, it also made them part of the group in a way that doesn’t happen at home. (Note that our girls were older—8 and 10—when they came home in January. Toddlers and young children? A completely different ball game, in my book.) Shared memories and shared experiences always help to create a sense of belonging.