How to Help Your Adoptee Embrace Extended Family

As adoptive parents, we want our family (our entire family) to be welcoming and accepting of our decision to grow our family through adoption. Just as it’s normal to worry and wonder how extended family members may view your pending adoption, it’s also normal to worry about how accepting your adopted child may be to a relationship with his or her adoptive family. This situation leads you to wanting to know how to help your adoptee embrace extended family.

Let’s face it. It’s one thing for you, as the excited and hopeful parent, to do whatever it takes to bond and build a loving and trusting relationship with your child. But what about all of the rest of the relatives in your life, all of the extended family who mean so much to you and who you are excited to share your adoption journey with? 

It’s natural for you to want your child to embrace and be embraced by those who the adopted child will grow and spend time with. 

That’s why helping your adopted child to embrace his or her extended family is something to think about early on in the adoption process. Doing your research to understand how to best help your adopted child to thrive in his or her new home is key to building relationships that extend beyond mom and dad.

Whether your child is transitioning from an orphanage to your home or from foster care into an adoptive home, it’s important to remember that before introducing him or her to family and friends (no matter how excited and well-meaning you may be) transition can feel drastic to any child. He or she may appear to be experiencing a smooth transition, but looks are deceiving. This is a time for parents and children in the immediate family to get to know one another, develop structure and routine, and avoid too much at once. The most critical relationships to focus on first are the parent and child relationships. The rest can be presented at the right time eventually.

Remember, joining a new family is a life-changing experience not just for you as a nervous new parent but also and more so, for your adopted child.

Here are some ideas to consider along your journey.

Who is the extended family?

First of all, you may be wondering what makes up an extended family. Traditionally, the nuclear family consisted of a mother, father, sister, and brother. Extended family has included grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. For the most part, this extended family is people who live nearby in the same neighborhood or city. 

For many years, the family intentionally tried to live close by to be a support system for each other. Many families have relied on grandma or grandpa to help babysit when mom and dad both need to work. In more recent years, families have moved away and apart from each other either due to employment opportunities, housing, schooling, and other reasons. You’ll hear many young families who struggle as a result of not having the support of extended family around and having to solely rely on strangers, services, and daycares as a result.

Why is Extended Family Important?

Our extended family, especially our elders, help to connect us. Members of your extended family are the ones who typically pass on cultural and religious-held teachings, beloved family traditions, and even language. Grandparents, for instance, do more than just babysitting on Friday nights, they serve as our storytellers. They share stories across the dinner table. They teach us life skills like gardening, tying a tie, or making the perfect holiday meal. Many studies point to these important relationships as having a huge impact on children’s healthy self-esteem.

In addition to the happier more pleasant reasons why extended relatives positively impact your child’s life, extended family offers a sort of back up to busy parents. According to the article The Importance of Extended Family, “These adults could serve as additional role models and inform parents if something seemed off with the child.”

Extended Family Can Enrich Your Adoptee’s Life as Well

We’ve all heard the phrase that “blood is thicker than water.” And it can leave some feeling as if adoptees can never fit into their family due to this genetic difference. Not true say thousands of adoptive families who have wholeheartedly come together. Because at the end of the day the people we let into our homes and our hearts are our family, DNA or not.

The great part about having extended family in our child’s life is that these loving and caring folks increase your child’s network of resources whom he or she can count on and learn from along the way.

What Can You do to Help Your Adopted Child to Embrace Extended Family?

Like any important relationship, building a strong relationship with extended family may not happen overnight. Before you assume that your little one will just open up to these important members of your family consider the following:

Do your research. It’s okay, especially in the complex world of adoption, to admit that you don’t know something. It doesn’t help that no two situations in adoption are alike, which sometimes makes it difficult to know the best path to take. 

You can browse articles, read books, listen to podcasts, or watch shows to help. They are there for the benefit of you and your adopted child. Can’t find what you’re looking for? Reach out to other adoptive families to hear how they’ve helped their adoptee to embrace extended family. The more networking and support you can find on your journey the better.

Don’t be pushy. Adjusting to a new family may take some time and might take a bit longer depending on the child’s age and circumstance. Don’t be in a rush to make it happen. Be patient, understanding, and recognize that your adopted child may need a little more time to make an extended family connection.

Remember that there is no set timeline for bonding. And despite all attempts, you may still find your little one pulling away or not ready to open up and accept your love or to offer you his or hers. Children who are unable to vocalize their feelings will act out which doesn’t make it any easier. But, know that this behavior is normal for all children. Expect that your adopted child may be shy, scared, sad, hyper, or all of the above.

It’s never too early and never too late. Families adopting newborns may not consider that helping your adoptee to embrace his or her extended family will ever become a thing or an issue they’ll ever have to face. However, it’s wise to remember that newborns grow into curious toddlers, questioning children, opinionated teens, and so on. 

Acknowledge trauma and grief. Remember that your relationship with Aunt Mary will be different than your child’s relationship with Aunt Mary. Despite how loving Mary may be, your adopted child may have reservations about letting extended family members into his or her life. Especially, if he or she has experienced great trauma or loss before becoming part of your family. The way your adopted child perceives relationships will impact his or her willingness and ability to form a relationship with his or her extended family. 

The Adoption.com article here teaches how trauma can impact children of all ages. Helping our adopted children to cope with loss and trauma is an essential part of adoption.

Except in very rare cases where a child has experienced extreme abuse or neglect, adopted children, like all children, want to love and be loved by their extended family. If you suspect your child is struggling with adoption trauma, consider reaching out for support. You and your child are not alone and help is available.

Communication is important. Adoptive parents often feel as if they’re playing pickle in the middle. It’s very common to feel as if you are caught playing educator, myth breaker, and mediator between the various types of people you meet. Some people don’t know about adoption, think they know about adoption, or don’t want to know about adoption. These same people may still want to be part of your life, and you will have to navigate these tricky relationships.

In the early years, you may find yourself speaking for your child or on his or her behalf. Be careful of the words you choose and how you respond to certain situations. Work to be an example for your child so that he or she will know how to react in similar situations.

Talking to your child early on about how to respond to questions about adoption will not only help to prepare him or her for conversations with family and friends, but he or she will better understand his or her own adoption. It will also improve his or her self-esteem in the long run. 

It is up to you to make sure that your child is properly introduced to extended family members in a warm and nonthreatening way, whether he or she is a newborn, a toddler, or an older child. It is up to you to make sure that your child feels comfortable in the situation and that the extended family members are aware of the special circumstances surrounding this relationship.

Be proactive. Just like any other member of the family, your adopted child will value the relationships he or she will have with your relatives. It’s a good idea to make sure everyone is on the same page from the start. It’s okay to give your family the heads up that you’re working to help your adopted child to embrace his or her new family. 

The desire to cultivate strong family relationships is nothing to be shy about and being proactive will lead to better opportunities earlier on.

Stay involved. One of the best ways to help your adopted child to embrace extended family is to stay involved. Start early inviting extended family into your child’s life for birthdays, holidays, and other celebrations. Familiar faces become faces that children love to see again and again. You can also take note of things your child may have in common with certain extended family members to develop better relationships.

Grandma Jane loves to dance? Invite her to your child’s dance recital. Uncle Charlie used to play the trumpet like nobody’s business? Consider asking him to the Middle School winter concert. Cousin Cindy loves sports? What about inviting her to come watch a soccer game and grab an ice cream afterward? Not only are you helping to develop bonds based on common interests, but you’ll be making great memories as well.

It takes two. As the saying goes, relationships are two-way streets. Because your adopted child is a child, it is up to the adults in his or her life to step-up and take actions to develop strong and healthy bonds. However, as your child’s parent, it’s also important for you to speak to your child about what healthy bonds are and how to achieve them. 

Be your child’s eyes and ears to make sure he or she is included and treated well. Be your child’s support system. By serving as the bridge between your adopted child and your extended family, it’s only a matter of time until the two will meet in the middle. 

Educate Your Extended Family. Just as you took the time to learn about what you didn’t know about adoption, you may want to consider sharing your wealth of knowledge with your family members. It’s not realistic to assume or expect that your family members are going to pick up a book, read articles, watch podcasts, or attend seminars about adoption. You probably didn’t either before you had a reason for doing so.

Share what you know and offer suggestions they may be open to considering. The main message, really, is to make sure they understand what you’re doing and the steps you are taking with your adopted child in order to help him or her embrace his or her extended family. Clearing up misunderstandings about or resistance to adoption through communication with family members is vital. This communication will lead to healthier relationships.

There are so many moments to be shared and memories to be made between your adoptee and your extended family. With time, care, and patience you can help your child to embrace extended family in a way and at a pace that’s comfortable for him or her.