Having your newly adopted child home is what every adoptive parent dreams about. It’s what all the home studies and paperwork and education were all about after all—having a child join your family. For an event that is so anticipated, it is also one that feels extremely surreal. Those first few weeks at home certainly never played out as I imagined it.
This is hardly surprising since, at this point in your relationship, you are still virtually strangers to one another. Building real relationships can take time; it is natural at first to feel as if you are living with a stranger. This can be disconcerting if you are not expecting it. While becoming comfortable with each other will take time, there are things you can do to help ease the newness and awkwardness of those early days.
1. Allow your child to feel it is her house, too.
I wish I could take credit for this idea, but it is from another adoptive mom. When your child first comes home, allow her to go through the house and explore. Let her open up closets and drawers and cupboards. Take her from room to room; show her what’s there. This is now her house, too, and the fastest way to feel comfortable in a space is to know what is where. Guests don’t go through drawers; people who live in a house know what’s in those drawers. Allow your new child to feel a part of the family by knowing what’s in the closets and drawers.
2. Stock up on familiar food
Food is strongly tied to emotional comfort and security. We talk about ‘comfort food’ when we are feeling upset. For those who have lived abroad, looking forward to more familiar food to enjoy upon coming home is common. Eating unfamiliar food can be stressful and uncomfortable. Your new child is coming from a different food background than you. This is true whether your child is adopted from another country or from across the same city. Each family’s food culture is different. Take the time to try to understand what types of food will make your child feel at home. If your child came from another country, research what foods would be familiar. It might take a trip or two to a specialty market to find things that your child wants to eat, but keep trying. If your child was adopted domestically, try to find a few foods or dishes that your child enjoyed and either make them or keep them on hand.
It really doesn’t matter if it is not something you enjoy. At this moment, it is not about you, but about providing comfort for your child in a very tangible way. Some foods may make their way into your family’s food culture. It’s one reason why we have fried rice along with cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning now. Other foods may never cross over but will be something that provides you a way to give your child a treat. One of my sons adores prawn chips. I…do not. I do love being able to get them for him when I have a chance because he loves them, and they provide a small connection to his previous life.
3. Remember that your food may be unfamiliar
Conversely, the food your family eats regularly may be unfamiliar to your new child. It may be so unfamiliar that it is beyond your new child’s ability to even try it. Give it time. When a child joins a family, there is so much that is new; it can be overwhelming. Food is the last thing you want to make an issue of. Offer choices but take out the emotion. Once again, this has nothing to do with you. Try not to take offense. Remind yourself that adjustment takes time. Just because a child won’t try something one day does not mean that a child will only eat ramen for the rest of his or her life.
When my first adopted son first came home, I would routinely order him a grilled cheese sandwich when we were at a restaurant because that is what my other children enjoyed. He would pick at it, and I would get annoyed. I cringe to look back on that season now. I (much) later found out that my son despises melted cheese. It’s right up there at the top of his list of foods he hates. Here I was routinely ordering him something he just couldn’t eat and then got annoyed at him. Do not be me! Don’t make assumptions and allow your child to have likes and dislikes.
4. Don’t overwhelm them with stuff
As soon-to-be adoptive parents, we are over-the-moon excited about this new person joining our family. Sometimes, that excitement is manifested by shopping and decorating for our new child. We want to show him just how much we love him and how excited we are he is joining our family. The trouble is that sometimes this abundance meant to show love just overwhelms. This is especially true if the child is coming from an impoverished background. Too many choices of what to play with or a perfectly decorated room can feel burdensome.
Instead, pick a few toys to have available. Let your new child have a hand in picking things for his new room. Take it bit by bit; it doesn’t have to all be done at once. As you and your new child get to know each other, you will have a better sense of what he likes and enjoys.
5. Protect your other children
If you are adopting out of birth order and bringing an older child into a home with younger children, this is the item number that is both the least pleasant but most important to read about. Take the time before your new child joins your family to discuss personal safety issues: recognizing good and bad touches, always being allowed to tell mom and dad what is going on, knowing that it is okay to say no, and instituting the rule of a younger child not being alone with the new child. I know some families go ahead and install camera monitors throughout the house for extra precaution. I get it; it’s uncomfortable and scary, but it is also smart. It helps protect both the younger and older children in the house from actions that are healthy for no one. It is far, far better to have the uncomfortable conversations ahead of time, though, than it is to have them after something has happened.
Children who need homes are not coming from ideal circumstances. Through no fault of their own, many children in care have witnessed abuse and/or been a victim of it. Being prepared for this possibility makes the new home safer for all parties.
6. Help protect your other childrens’ things
Having a new brother or sister can be exciting, but it can also be frustrating and possibly scary if that new brother or sister is having a difficult time with the transition. We have adopted five children, and life hasn’t always been easy as each of them healed from past trauma and adapted to life in a family. Sometimes that process took the form of raging that often involved destruction of property. If you are a child, it is disturbing enough to have your new brother or sister be out of control, but if that also involves having something you care about destroyed in the process, it is truly upsetting.
Have a place available where your other children can safely store things they feel are special to them. This serves a couple of purposes. First, it tells your other children that you care about how they are feeling, too. When a parent is heavily involved with the work of helping a new son or daughter transition to the home, it can feel to the other children that they have lost that parent just a bit. By providing for their needs, it is a tangible way to show your other children love in a stressful time. It also protects your new child from doing something that he or she will regret and which will cause them (even more) shame. By removing opportunity, it makes it easier to avoid problems in the first place.
7. Keep their world small
Your new child’s world has just been completely upended…and chances are good that you are feeling the same way. Now is not the time to do a lot of shopping or outings or have a lot of visitors or try to do a lot of anything, really. Focus on staying home, feeling comfortable with each other, and surviving. It can be exhausting adjusting to a new family, adding in outside activities could well be the thing that pushes your child past her limit. You have the rest of your lives together; you do not need to squeeze everything in right away.
For a child who has been institutionalized or has lived in impoverished circumstances, our giant western stores can be totally overwhelming. It can overload their senses even if they don’t have sensory issues. I’ve heard of more than one story of a mom with a new child having to carry the screaming and overwhelmed child out of the store because the child lost control. That kind of experience is fun for no one. Have your groceries delivered if you can’t get out by yourself. Read stories (lots and lots of stories) together. Play games. Take naps. (You’ll all need them, I promise.) Let the newness wear off before you make your child’s world larger.
8. Adjust your expectations
Sometimes, reality doesn’t match our fantasies at all. This is particularly true when it comes to adoption. As parents, we wait and imagine and imagine and wait some more until we can bring the actual child home. It can be a shock when the actual child bears little or no resemblance to the child in our fantasies. Even worse, sometimes there are things about our new child that drive us a little bit crazy if we were ever brave enough to admit that to anyone. Nothing feels right. Nothing feels like it did before this child came home. Life feels hard. To make it worse, good meaning friends and relations often want to be supportive and tell us how lucky or wonderful we are to have this new child in our family. We slap on our fake grin, agree that it’s all so wonderful, and feel like a fraud on the inside.
This is perfectly normal. More normal than anyone really wants to admit most of the time. Those first days, weeks, even months can be tough. No one is settled; life takes work. The child still feels like a stranger…or worse, like someone else’s child that was forgotten at a babysitters house (and when are they going to come and collect the child, you’d like to know).
But days roll into weeks, weeks roll into months, and somewhere along the line, life begins to feel a little less hard, a little more normal. You find yourself catching a glimpse of your child and feeling that recognition of knowing, really knowing, and caring for this person. It sneaks up on you, this ease and knowing, little bits at a time. Sooner or later, you realize that you’re not sure how you lived without this child being a part of your family.
It is a process; sometimes a long process. Normalcy doesn’t come in a few days or weeks. Months might also be too short a time frame. It may happen a little at a time over years. Don’t expect your new normal to show up immediately; understand you’re playing the long game. Also understand that relationships and love take time to grow and blossom. If you don’t feel these things right away, it’s okay. There’s time. Don’t panic and think there is something wrong with your or with your child. Don’t assume because you are just beginning to build a relationship and it is slow that one cannot be built.
Start out with appropriate expectations. Think in months and years instead of days and weeks. This will save you a lot of fear and worry when things feel rocky at the beginning.
Bringing a new child home is a huge change for everyone involved. It’s exciting and terrifying and everything in between. Do what you need to survive. Focus on the relationship and doing what you can to make life comforting for your new child. Build positive memories of these early days together, not regrets. Err on the side of kindness. Eventually, you will come to know and love this child, and they you.