Post-placement Adjustment: What Is Our New Normal?

The fees have been paid, the dreaded home study has been completed, the matching process, however long or slow it went, has ended. For most adoptions, there is incredible work and waiting put in prior to the placement happening. Often, there are so many hurdles involved in successfully placing a child that we don’t think too much about those early, post-placement days when we learn about how to live with a new human being in our lives who is also learning how to live with us.

Uncertainties Families Face in Post-placement

I’d like to take a moment to recognize other ways families experience post-placement adjustment. Foster families go through this process time and time again. Whereas adoptive families know they are providing a forever home, foster families often aren’t sure how long a child will truly stay with them. Some foster families may hope for their foster child to eventually be placed with them for adoption, and although it is possible, the goal of foster care is to return kids to their families of origin when attainable. Foster families may go through the post-placement adjustment phase over and over, for years at a time. This is because some foster placements can be short term, even a matter of days, and because of the uncertainty of the placement length due to a huge variety of factors (the reason why the child came into the foster family’s care, the ability of parents to overcome the challenges that brought them to a place of having their child removed from their care, and availability of extended family to step in and remove the need for foster care). Other placements may last a very long time, or even until the child reaches the age of majority in that particular state, province, or territory. 

Although post-placement adjustment becomes easier and easier with experience, new foster parents might find themselves being tossed around in a sea of uncertainty at first. Adoptive parents may only go through this post-placement phase once, which makes things very different. Sometimes grandparents, an aunt or uncle, or other extended families may take partial or full guardianship of a child in the foster care system. Sometimes, this happens quite quickly—or at least more quickly than traditional adoption proceedings, especially because there is no adoption residency period (which in Canada is six months before the final court documents finalizing the adoption are signed). This means the family might not have had time to think about post-placement at all.

What Is the Post-placement Adjustment Period? 

This is the period of time after a child is placed in a home as an adoptee, foster child, or under a guardianship order. This is a time of newness, for both the child and the family. In my experience, so much time and energy is put into getting ready to be an adoptive home or foster home that not enough thought is given to what life will be like after the placement is made. And huge spoiler alert … adoption and foster care are not fairy tales. While it might be tempting to imagine lazy days passing by while playing games and going for walks, often things look really different. Often adoptive and foster families face stress, worry, and unforeseen problems. This is never the child’s fault but rather an issue with expectations. 

The Child’s Experience

Imagine for a moment that you are a child or think about a child in your life. Imagine them packing up their bags with everything they own to leave behind their caregivers and come to live with you or another complete stranger. What do you think about that scenario? It is really important to remember that children come into placements with old memories, pains, hobbies, hopes, and dreams. Some children didn’t ask for this new foster or adoptive home. Some children may have wanted to live with their foster family forever and don’t understand why they have to move. As I have learned the hard way, not all children of adoption are happy that they were adopted. Some children fantasize immensely, and quite unrealistically, about a life with their biological parents and may push their adoptive families away. Children in foster care miss their birth families immensely and may act out in many ways to reject their new situation. Either way, the post-placement phase is something the foster and adoptive communities need to take more seriously and talk about on a whole new level.

The Importance of Success in Post-placement

Success in foster and adoptive families is paramount. Stress and concern after a placement can be mitigated by thinking ahead about the post-placement phase. What is a new normal after a placement?

Well, the good news is there is no normal. Every single family, and situation, is different. I think it is wise to remember that things will likely not go the way you expect. This is because human beings are incredibly intricate and have complicated feelings. No matter how much planning we do, we can’t predict how we or the children in our home will feel and react. Let this sink in and relax. What this means is that you have incredible freedom in your post-placement life. There is not just one right way to experience post-placement and you can make and grow a new normal for your family. Here are some tips that might help you to figure out what the new normal is for you and your family:

Take an Honest Look

How are things really? Take a good, honest look. If you are overwhelmed, stressed, or fatigued, own it. Don’t hide what is really happening. This will only increase the negative effects of these big emotions. Once you have taken an honest look though, you need to act. Your new normal might include the need for respite, counseling, a housekeeper, or major changes in your schedule. Try to identify where the issue is occurring and, if you can, why it is occurring. Once you know the issue, try to work out a plan of what would help. Because you have the freedom to make choices in your life, nothing is off the table. Sometimes making changes seems scary. Often, we know what we want to do but we just might be worried about what other people will think. Shake off any outside voices telling you what you should or shouldn’t do post-placement. Do what works for your family. You can hire a regular babysitter, get your nails done to give yourself time to think about yourself, order takeout every day, use paper plates, have groceries delivered, ask a friend for a favor, stop going to the gym or doing hobbies for a time, attend church online, or ask your boss for a few days off or a more flexible schedule. You can reinvent any part of your life that you want to.

It’s Nobody’s Business 

I have found that people give the most unsolicited and unhelpful advice to me regarding my foster and adoptive kids. It is like others feel that because I didn’t birth the kids, they have every right to give me their two cents. Thankfully, I have come to a place where I can smile and say, “Thanks, good idea!” or “Hmmm … no, I don’t think that works for my family” without feeling guilty. People may expect you to throw an adoption party, have them over to meet the child, send elaborate adoption announcements, have play dates, or divulge the background details of the child, but this is a time for you to bond with your child—or children if it was a sibling placement. Your new normal has to include saying no to things that don’t work for you and to people who want information without a relationship. By nature, adoption is very interesting to people. People may legitimately want to celebrate with you, which is wonderful. But never forget, this is your family and your time to bond as a family. Your new normal must include getting to know each other.

Set a Rhythm for Post-placement 

I didn’t say schedule because schedules tend to be rigid. Find a rhythm that works and listen for the tune. Rhythms can be changed at any time, which is the beautiful part of finding them. Remember, something that worked last week might abruptly stop working as your child navigates what it feels like to be in their new family. Children adopted from orphanages or internationally might be learning a new language or new customs and be experiencing new weather patterns and new foods. This can be extremely overwhelming. Look for signs that your child is overwhelmed, such as meltdowns, anxiety, aggression, or regression, and adjust your rhythm. This might mean having slower starts to the day, explaining cultural intricacies of your country, or making flashcards or photo-instructions to help explain the dynamics of your family. Your child might be completely overwhelmed when meeting all the people in your life and when going to all the places you go, such as grocery stores and other large, busy, public places. Allow yourself to make changes on the fly. Try not to hold too tightly to the way you do things and rather try to be open to new possibilities. If the transition is hard for the family, the child, or both, it can seem scary or feel impossible. Remember that not all changes to your schedule will be permanent. Just because it is too overwhelming for your child to go to family functions doesn’t mean that it always will be. Allow your new normal to flow into a rhythm that works, feels right, and is flexible as you learn to live together.

Expect Hard Days

Things won’t always go right. In fact, lots of things could go wrong. Many adoptive families are aware of and identify with the honeymoon phase. This is a time when everything does seem quite perfect, when both the parents and child tend to walk on eggshells so as to not offend each other and get along. Of course, we can’t always live this way. The honeymoon phase might be longer or hardly exist at all. Either way, expect that hard days will come. The hope is that you received all the relevant behavioral and medical information about your child from your social worker or agency—your new normal will be dealing with hard days, behavior challenges, and new discoveries about the needs of your child. 

For some families, it is incredibly hard to settle into a new normal and a new normal may never be established. Sadly, some foster and adoptive placements, despite the best intentions, are dissolved or otherwise break down. Sometimes this is for the safety of others in the home. This is always extremely sad and incredibly heartbreaking for the child who is once again displaced. While every effort should be made to avoid adoption disruption or dissolution, sometimes it still happens. Planning for post-placement success by including skilled support workers, therapy, long-term goals for the family and child, and room to grow is crucial as you learn what your new normal is. Don’t shy away from the difficult—try to see it as a chance to grow.

Be Open about Post-placement

Adoption is beautiful but no one said it is easy. Whether this is your first placement or you have some experience, every placement is different. Go into the post-placement phase with an open mind and, most important of all, an open heart.

Considering adoption? Let us help you on your journey to creating your forever family. Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98.