Many of us are familiar with the question, posed jokingly, “Where’s the instruction manual?” when it comes to a newborn baby, and first-time parenting. I can relate to this question myself, many times over. I used to think that things got easier as kids got older, and to some degree, this is true: Kids learn to dress themselves, feed themselves, and communicate with others. I also know now, 13 years into parenting, that it doesn’t really get easy past the newborn, baby, and toddler stages; it just gets different. Different demands on your time, different challenges, and different ways you’ll be stretched as you grow on this parenting journey.
Parenting a child of adoption is, in some ways, very similar to any other form of parenting–at least, at the base level. All children need love, nourishment of both the soul and body, protection, shelter, clothing, and, less tangibly but no less importantly, to be understood, challenged, championed, upheld, listened to, guided, taught, etc. I’m not sure there is just one simple parenting formula, but there is a general consensus of what children need and what helps them grow into kind, stable adults that are able to contribute to their culture and their community. What about adopted kids? It might be easy to loop them into the same, saying that to treat them differently would make them feel odd or different. While we don’t want to ostracize children of adoption, we do need to know that they have some special needs.
I read a handbook once, called Special Delivery. It was a caregiver’s guide to caring for a newborn baby prenatally exposed to drugs and alcohol. Like any other infant, neonatal withdrawal babies require feeding, changing, cuddling, swaddling, sleep, and warmth of care from the caregiver. They also require a more vigilant eye, watching for signs of anything amiss. I think of children of adoption this way as well. While they are “just” kids and will laugh, play, run, yell, and sing like any other child, there are some things these children need, some things to watch for, and some things that make them a “special delivery” as well.
Children of adoption need to feel safe. Kids that have been adopted may struggle with wondering if this “new, forever family” will last–and for good reason. Some children may have moved through many foster homes, they may have had to move out of a long-term foster home for any number of reasons, or maybe are so used to moving around that the idea of having a permanent family feels foreign. Or, a child may have had the devastating experience of a disrupted or dissolved adoption, where the adoptive family was unable to uphold their commitment to adopt. From the outside, it can be hard to understand why anyone would allow this to happen to a child they committed to. It is an extremely challenging situation, and I can say as a person that has spoken to many families that have made the painful decision to end an adoption that it is NEVER done lightly. The safety of the family, the safety of the child, and intense family struggle are usually at the root. Adoption disruption and dissolution usually invoke anger from many sides, and I understand that. For the child it happened to, it causes deep, deep pain, bewilderment, and can worsen or create attachment issues. Even children that were adopted as newborns, infants, or very young children can struggle with the idea of being adopted forever. This can be due to fantasy thinking, wondering if their families of origin will one day swoop back in to “save” or even “take” them back home. Sometimes, even the ‘primal wound’ of a child having their attachment to their biological parents severed in those initial days can create attachment issues. We now know that experiences within the womb (birth mother stress, physical abuse of the pregnant mother, etc.) can have long-lasting effects on a developing baby. For these many reasons, children of adoption need to know without a doubt that you are there for them. They need to know that when you adopted them and said “forever”, you meant it, even when they push back, rail against you, test you, whatever it is. Some kids don’t do this, others really do, but they NEED you, and are asking you to stand firm and tell them that they are safe. Adopted kids need to know that you are safe by your loving and consistent behaviors, and they need to know that they are not at risk of being “returned”, rejected, or sent away.
Children of adoption need you to be honest, even about the tough stuff. Sometimes, our special deliveries come with really hard, even horrific, backgrounds. Sometimes, it feels easier, and maybe kinder, not to share those things. But, when we share edited truths or even lies in the name of kindness, we run the risk of appearing untrustworthy down the road. A lie to protect the feelings of a child today can become a wall between you in the future. It is very important to share age-appropriate information, and it is wise to not overwhelm your child with information that they cannot process. Withholding facts for a time is acceptable if you are slowly working toward your child having their whole story by the time they are an adult–yes, even the hard parts. Failing to tell your child that they were adopted and refusing to answer questions about their biological family is not being honest with your child. It is different if you don’t have answers to the hard questions–and there, you can be honest and say that. Some adoptive parents have a hard time talking about the circumstances of the adoption. There is some evidence that adoptive mothers who endured long years of infertility may find speaking about the birth families of their adoptive children quite painful. If this is the case, it is no cause for shame; it just means a helping person (counselor, pastor, psychologist, therapist, etc.) may need to be involved to help work through the hurt. It is very important to the lasting relationship with your child of adoption that you can be honest in an age-appropriate way. There are many tools out there now, and many books to help. A favorite of mine is Telling the Truth to Your Adopted or Foster Child: Making Sense of the Past, by Betsy Keefer and Jayne E. Schooler. If talking about the past does not come easy to you, it’s okay. Sometimes we adults feel strange about getting choked up or crying. Your child, especially at a young age, has no such control or thoughts of control over these types of reactions and certainly won’t be judging you. Let go of airs, and allow yourself to be humble, full of grace, and real with your child.
A special note: Children from foster care can access their file from the government upon reaching the age of majority. I do not advise putting off their questions and telling them they will find answers there as adults. Without any lead-up in their story, this could be quite a shock. I am an advocate of a gentle, progressive–and I cannot stress it enough, age-appropriate–leading up to the full story by the adoptive parents. This builds trust and relationship and is a kind, loving way to walk a child through hard facts over years and years rather than them having them all come at one time some hard day in the future. However you do it, search your heart and make a plan in love, something you would see yourself as having wanted if roles were reversed.
Children of adoption need to be affirmed. Adopted kids need to know that they are loved, respected, and wanted BOTH as an adoptee and just as a regular kid. The two are intertwined yet separate. Children of adoption need to know that their “adoptedness” is not wrong or bad and is nothing to be ashamed of. They also need to know that you don’t just see them as an adopted child–you see them for who they are. Your child needs to know that they are also just that, a child, like every other child on the planet, with hopes and dreams, fears and wishes. Children of adoption may need to be able to speak openly and often about their adoptions, but would also like to be seen as regular kids without an “ADOPTED” label on them. Parents give their children from hard places a gift when they affirm their child as a whole and in each part of their background as well.
Adopted kids need to have fun. And don’t we all! While everyone has hard days and bad days, it can be said that adoptive families and children of adoption might have more. Why? Well, there are complexities. There might be openness, supervised visits, an abusive past with triggers–all of which can interfere with self-esteem and thoughts of the future. Children of adoption may have more appointments than their peers (therapy, counseling, medical), and might feel different or weighed down. One of our adopted children was on a feeding tube for 6.5 years, had multiple surgeries, and required frequent hospitalization. She became fearful of medical procedures and often wanted to camp out in her room where she felt safe and happy. My husband and I realized she needed a good dose of FUN. Kids that have big things happening in their lives need to be able to let go and let loose in the safety net of their loving family. Plan something as big or as simple as you can, but let fun be the main goal.
Adopted kids need to hear, “I love you.” We all do! It brings a smile to the heart. Don’t worry about whether they reciprocate these essential words; that isn’t a requirement. Your job is to say, “I love you,” as often as you can. Affirm with hugs (if your child permits–sometimes kids with attachment-related issues and teens would rather you didn’t). Everyone has a love language; what is your child’s? If you don’t know, find out. When you tune in on their frequency, it makes their heart sing.
Adopted kids need…you. Really, it boils down to that. You are the glue! You, the parent, are the recipe and the curriculum. You are the teacher and the guide. Children are created to look up to you and learn from you. Are you ready? Willing? Present? Your time and attention are so important. Life is busy–carve out the time that is required to do life together. Make a difference, and be the parent that cuts out things that take away from family life. There will always be more things you can do, but should you? What do you want the feel of your home to be? What about the flow? Some people naturally keep busier, and that is okay if your child can keep up. Some children and parents need a slower schedule to feel rested and relaxed. Find the groove in which you thrive, and when you are thriving, your child is getting lots of you at your best.
Children of adoption hold a special place in my heart. Their stories and their journeys are deeply interesting and moving. Children of adoption are special deliveries. Like a sapling transplanted, look for the signs of thriving upon replanting in your home. If they aren’t there, step back and look for instructions. There might not be a manual, but there are the things we can lean on that have been there for all parents to give from the beginning of time: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. That, in itself, is all the manual you need.