As with any transition in life, becoming a parent can be a significant challenge. The added complexity of adoption can make this transition feel overwhelming, especially during the transition phase adoptive parents know as post-placement. During this transition, you may crave normalcy for your family—to have traditions, rhythms, routines, and inside jokes together. However, it might be more beneficial to accept that your new “normal” may not be normal at all, at least in the way that you have always experienced normalcy. Through adoption, your family will be forever impacted by a combination of grief, beauty, trauma, and goodness. This mixture of grief and goodness is your new normal, and there is nothing wrong with that. Both you and your adoptee need to acknowledge both the pain and beauty that accompanies adoption and post-placement.
My husband and I started the foster care process in 2017 before we had any biological children. I had some experience working with children, but working with children is very different from parenting them. Our first placement was a 9-year-old who would likely be available for adoption in the upcoming months. Our agency only wanted us to take the placement if we were willing to adopt him, and we decided to say yes. That yes changed our entire world—and our definition of normal.
Our son came to stay with us for one weekend before he moved in with us indefinitely. One of the nights he was with us that first weekend, he tried convincing us that he was allowed to stay up later to play video games. My husband and I looked at each other, both knowing that we were already in over our heads in the parenting game. Don’t worry, we sent him to bed after a couple more minutes of video games, but this was just the beginning of our parenting journey. We ended up adopting him about nine months after he entered our home, and at about a year post-placement, we felt like we had developed a normal rhythm for our family and decided to start taking foster care placements again. When we reopened our home, we decided to extend our age range to 18 years old. Our daughter, a 13-year-old at the time, then joined our family, and our family had to readjust again. By this time, we had a couple of family traditions that we introduced her to, and we incorporated her favorite foods and hobbies into our daily and weekly routines. Since she was older when she came to us, the transition was a bit more difficult and it has taken us a long time to find what is normal for our family post-placement.
When a new child joins a family, there are growing pains—for us and them. We don’t know each other’s habits, routines, or preferences yet. We are learning who is a morning person, who is a night owl, who loves pizza, and who just tolerates it. It takes time to become a family. The first year (or two or three) of post-placement can be compared to the time a baby spends in utero, close to his or her mom. During this time, the baby is making room in his or her mother’s body, which often can lead to discomfort for the mother. In adoption, our kids are not in our womb, but there are certainly times that it feels like they are physically growing into our family, which can sometimes cause discomfort for the rest of the family. The discomfort of the post-placement period is worth it because you are making space and room for a valuable member of your family.
It takes time, intentional connection, and love to form and mold a family. And because of the trauma that accompanies adoption, it usually takes a bit more time, intentional connection, and love than it would otherwise. Although the process may be arduous, it is worth it—because our kids are worth it. They are worth every second of time, energy, and love we invest in their precious lives. As you navigate this adoption journey you have chosen, here are seven tips for finding your normal post-placement.
Seven Tips for Finding Your Normal Post-Placement
1. Incorporate Past Family Traditions
Depending on the type of adoption you pursue, your child may be coming to you with some established traditions, hobbies, food preferences, and ways of doing things. It will take time to determine what makes you a cohesive family unit. When you become a family, you are incorporating different families, pasts, and customs into one. Ask your children about their preferences, their likes, and their dislikes. Not only does this help you to develop family rhythms, routines, and customs, it also makes them feel like they have a voice in the family.
When my son and daughter first came to live with us, I asked them what their favorite meals, lunch items, and breakfast foods were. Then, we incorporated some of their favorites (even though they are not what I would have chosen) into our meal routines. We also asked them about what they were accustomed to in terms of their haircare, certain products or clothes they liked, and traditions that they had with their family before joining ours. Incorporating their past traditions helped us to find our new normal post-placement.
2. Create Your Own Family Traditions and Customs
If they don’t have any traditions and customs, begin creating your own. Creating your own family traditions doesn’t have to be extravagant. It can be as simple as starting pizza night on Friday nights. One way we did this in our family was by implementing some customary activities, games, and routines. For example, most nights we would have dinner around the table and share our high (the best part of the day), our low (the worst part of the day), and our buffalo (a silly, random, or funny part of the day). Even if we had a rough day, we always knew what to expect around the table with one another. Sometimes it went terribly, sometimes it was awesome, but most of all it just got us into the practice of talking to each other regularly. It normalized the idea that we were not just living together and sharing the same space, but knowing, loving, and caring about each other. This is one small but easy way to grow together as a family and adjust during the post-placement transition, but each family is different. Try out different ways of connecting with your adopted children until something clicks.
3. Build a Routine
Routine is healthy for adults and children alike, but it is even more important for children who are new to family life and rhythms. We can easily build routines into our everyday lives that will make children (especially children who have experienced trauma) feel safe in our homes. With a routine, they will know what to expect and when to expect it. There are many ways that we parents can do this. For younger children, you can place a daily routine with times and activities in the main area of the home. Every member of the family would benefit from a family calendar with daily, weekly, and monthly events displayed. You can even incorporate fun family days or nights into your routines such as a game night, pizza night, or taco night. Having a calendar is also a great way to give your child a delayed yes when they ask for something but cannot have it right then. You can write it on the calendar, which gives them an expectation and simultaneously makes it easier for them to accept the answer no. Routine is a simple but important way that we can start finding our normal post-placement as a family.
4. Recognize That Love Is a Choice
When you attend a wedding, the officiant almost always says something along the lines of, “Love is not a feeling; love is a choice.” The officiant says this because it’s true; at some point, you will need to choose love because the feeling will escape you. Instead of feeling love, irritation, frustration, anger, or sadness could overtake your emotions, but you can still choose to love. When you promise to marry someone, you promise to choose love even when you don’t want to or it isn’t easy. This is true in parenting as well.
When our children entered our home, we chose to love them, even before it felt normal. We told them we loved them because it was true, especially when they were having a hard time. We may not have felt the feeling of love, but we chose to act in love. Reaching out with this kind of love is what leads to healing in our children who have experienced trauma. Choosing to love eventually leads to the feeling of love, but it takes intentional time and connection to do so.
5. Invest Time in Connection and Attachment
When a baby is in his or her mother’s womb, he or she is building a physical and emotional attachment with the mother. When the baby is born, the parents continue to build attachment with their baby when they respond to the baby’s needs. If the baby cries, the father or mother gently rocks him or her back to sleep. If the baby is hungry, the mother feeds her. If the baby has a need, the parents meet the need.
The same is true in adoption, but the child has been separated from his or her biological mother, making attachment more difficult for the adoptive parents and adopted children. We can form successful, post-placement attachments with our children in a myriad of ways, including loving physical touch, eye contact, and spending intentional time with them. Many times, adopted children struggle with challenging behaviors, but many of these behaviors are the manifestation of the trauma of separation from their birth families. They need time, love, attention, therapy, and connection to heal from this trauma. It is essential that we, as adoptive parents, prioritize connection and attachment in our relationship with our children. Connection and attachment through relationships supersede any form of behavior management. The only thing that will cause a behavior change will be the connection and attachment of a loving parent.
6. Patience is key
When your family is formed through adoption, time is your best friend. Your family will form over time, but it will take a lot of patience, consistency, and dedication. The reality of adoption is that it may take years to form a real attachment with your child post-placement. It will take time for your children to feel safe, secure, and loved in your family. And it will take time for you, as the parent, to feel like your child is part of your family. It may even take time for you to feel love for your child. These are all normal parts of the adoption process. Love and attachment take time. Although it may not be biologically normal, it is normal for adoptive families. Be encouraged that you are doing good and important work while choosing to love, even when the feeling isn’t there.
7. Become Trauma-Informed
With an understanding of attachment also comes the necessary understanding of trauma. All adoption results in varying degrees of trauma to the child. Firstly, the child undergoes trauma when he or she is separated from his or her biological mother. Then, foster care, abuse, neglect, and multiple placements can tack on more trauma. A child who has experienced this kind of start to life must have parents who are willing to rewire their brains through loving attachment. But without an understanding of trauma, there is not an understanding of attachment. This helps us to have compassion for our children as they act out or shut down. With an understanding of trauma comes an understanding of what is happening underneath the behavior so that we can help our children heal. If you are an adoptive parent, let trauma-informed become part of your new normal post-placement.
As parents, we desire for our families to be united, to be together, and to be cohesive. These are all good and healthy desires. We fight for the normal we grew up with or the normal we envisioned for our future family. However, when a family is formed by adoption, we must recognize that grief and loss are also involved, causing us to redefine what is normal post-placement. Normal may not look the way we thought it would, but we chase after our version of normal, knowing that it takes time, love, connection, and intention to form a family.