Adopting A Toddler: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

As with everything in life, there are ups and downs. When it comes to toddlers, there are many ups and downs. But they sure teach us a lot about life.

Susan Kuligowski March 15, 2018
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Toddlers are incredible people. They open our eyes to so many of life’s wonders long forgotten about since stepping across the serious doormat of adulthood. They show us the beauty of a plain green leaf clinging to the sewer grate at the end of the drive (together, you will rescue this leaf and probably some stones and a few bugs, too); the need to make friends with every passing dog (and dog owner) during a walk around the block that should’ve taken 15 minutes rather than 45; impromptu dance parties to law firm tv jingles; and the importance of sharing squeals and bear hugs after a long day of being apart at work/daycare/grandma’s house. Toddlers also know just what buttons to push and can make dinnertime feel more like an Olympic sport rigged against parents innocently attempting to introduce fruits and vegetables. Little ones are expert at adding in as many bedtime rituals as possible to stretch a simple goodnight kiss into a near sleepover experience. And they’re great at announcing very loudly and for the benefit of complete strangers in restaurants, malls, churches, and the doctor’s office all the things you try to teach them are not polite to say (or do) in public.

Toddlerhood is a magical and trying time for everyone involved. Add in the element of adoption, and you’ve got yourself double the fun.

Whereas, in other cases, you can attribute your niece’s mischievous mannerisms to her mom’s, saying things like “She’s a chip off the old block” or know that your child has been taught since infancy that stovetop burners are “hot hot hot ouch” and to stay away, or that your child knows her schedule because it’s been “The Law” since day 1. With an adopted toddler, you will start from square 1—piecing together the puzzle that is your child who, unlike an infant unable to lunge for the hot stovetop, makes a b-line for it every chance she gets.

Without having been in her life until now, it’s nearly impossible to know what sort of schedule she’s accustomed to, if any. You have limited knowledge of what the rules were or whether or not they were enforced. You’ll be lucky to receive much of a family/social history to know who she may take after or any medical issues that may directly influence her behavior other than the fact of potentially (and most likely) having experienced an unstable situation up until now.

Much of what you’ll experience with your toddler may feel like an impossible and frustrating mystery to be solved. Maybe she will be able to communicate some of these answers to you, helping you to be able to better navigate through the getting to know you stage. However, maybe she will have a speech delay, and you’ll have no way of knowing if her potato was too hot or if she downright can’t stand spuds with butter for dinner. Or maybe she doesn’t know how to use a utensil yet. Or maybe she doesn’t want you to help her to take a bite because she’s used to doing it on her own. Or maybe like most toddlers, she just wanted to let the potato drop to the ground to see what would happen next.

And although some people seem to think that toddlers are empty sponges waiting patiently to be molded to our whim, when we were matched with our then 18-month-old daughter, I can tell you her personality was well intact, and she knew her mind oh so well. Perhaps it was growing up outside of a family environment that forced her to be more independent than our two and a half year old who was all too happy to let mommy and daddy take the lead. And although she was strong in so many ways, entering a home situation for the first time was in every way foreign to her. Everything was a first—riding in a car, having her own things, living in a house full of items she’d never seen before. Forget the fact that she’d never had a mom or dad or sister or extended family in her world until we came along.

She was grabby, destructive (not on purpose), and very set in how she thought things should go down. This included anything from her daily schedule, to her dress, to her refusal to do anything I asked. Tack on the fact she didn’t speak, and up until then, had heard limited English and well, you do the math. She felt like an impossible and frustrating mystery to be solved.

Despite the negative sounding descriptions (which could mostly be attributed to any toddler), she was also amazingly loving, smart, curious, generous, and oh so funny! My nickname for her soon became “my smile” as either she had one to share or she was putting one on my face.

 We found ourselves being extra cautious with her as she transitioned into her new home. Every object suddenly looked like a potential murder weapon in a horror show, and we found ourselves moving things, hiding things, setting things out of reach—way above a step beyond baby proofing. Despite our efforts to declutter, she had a gift for walking into any given room and leaving it looking like a hurricane had gone through just seconds later. She had a talent for finding bees in the backyard and carrying them over to me for show and tell. She took control issues to a new level, and her temper tantrum cries were so loud. I fully expected CPS to be called on more than one occasion. She was a great eater, but we soon found that she wanted to eat everything and then some. Some folks found this to be a great quality and in fact, her habits prompted our other picky eater to up her game a bit.

All of the small quirks seemed toddler normal to be honest—amped up a bit—until you pieced them all together. And after a bit of research, I realized she was exhibiting lots of normal similarities to other children adopted as toddlers. Her impulsiveness, ability to clutter a room in seconds, food hoarding, control issues, and acting out were all normal for a child who had spent any amount of time in an institution. Pair that with her inability to verbally communicate, which hindered our ability to figure each other out and properly bond, and it was the recipe for a future disaster waiting to happen.

We worked hard on all angles. Communication being the big one. As soon as she was eligible for a speech evaluation, we had one done and discovered what we already suspected: she was well behind in that arena. Therapy started soon after, and it was the start of a huge change.

Disciplining an adopted toddler is no easy feat. You’ll read so many contradictory things about timeouts (some say ok, while others advise against sending an already fragile child away, which can send off the wrong message). As with most exhausted parents of toddlers, we lived most moments as we went and tried our best to figure out the best responses to the situation at hand. Some worked. Some didn’t. You live. You learn.

We did, however, declutter her bedroom of excess toys. We did begin to monitor her food helpings. We never withheld, of course, but made sure well-meaning family and friends weren’t providing unhealthy seconds and thirds because they thought it was so cute. We did constantly try our best to model what a mom and dad and sister are. Even in the thick of things and not knowing for sure whether or not she understood what I was saying, I would oftentimes find myself whispering in her ear that I loved her and would never give up. Even when she was pressing all those buttons, I’d remind her that she was my daughter, and even if we didn’t quite understand each other yet, nothing in the world was going to change that fact.

Despite my many fears as she struggled to fit into her new surroundings, she was resilient, as are most small children. She found creative ways to work around and through difficulties. It soon became clear that she was smart and capable. She found her way into everyone’s hearts. She found her place in our family and soon found her way around outside our family as well. Upon entering preschool, she impressed everyone with her abilities and her talents. She showed signs of being a helper and a leader. She did not shy away from interaction despite her speech issue.

Like most parents, adoptive or not, you’ll find yourself worrying about all of the ins and outs of your toddler and milestones and life in general. But with love, patience, and time, you may just find that the things you feared most will be the fuel that pushes her to become the child she is meant to be. There will be good days and bad. Just stay the course. Remember that she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know, and that oftentimes, bad habits and bad behaviors are a cry for understanding. Remember, too, to cut yourself some slack as you live and learn together.

As a pre-tween, my daughter continues to find her way in the world and to impress those who know her with her kindness, caring nature, and independence. And yes, she still knows how to bring a smile to my face. Despite the many button-pushing moments we experienced together, I know now that these moments—the good, the bad, and the ugly—have all played a part to shape her, as well as our family, into an incredible one full of rescued leaves (and stones and bugs), new furry friends (and neighbor friends too), dance parties, and (thankfully even in her near tweens) kisses, and bear hugs.

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Susan Kuligowski

Sue Kuligowski is a staff storyteller at Adoption.com. The mother of two girls through adoption, she is a proposal coordinator, freelance writer/editor, and an adoption advocate. When she's not writing or editing, she can be found supervising sometimes successful glow-in-the-dark experiments, chasing down snails in the backyard, and attempting to make sure her girls are eating more vegetables than candy.


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