How Can I Prepare to Parent an Adopted Child?

Read books, watch movies, and talk to others with experience to truly prepare to adopt a child.

Elizabeth Curry August 18, 2019
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I’m a research junkie, so when we were deciding to adopt and then preparing to bring a new child home, I researched. A lot. When we brought our son home, and he was struggling and we were struggling, I researched a lot more, trying to find something that could help us navigate this new world in which we found ourselves. As we added children, it often meant more or different special needs or a different country, and, you guessed it, more research.

After five adoptions, from two countries, with multiple special needs over the course of 10 years, my lists for ways to prepare to adopt are extensive. I say this because they can also be overwhelming and I don’t want them to be. I will order each section with what I think are the absolute essentials and then list in order of importance. While I think they are all important, the ones lower down on the list can be read (or done) at a later date. This is the culmination of over 15 years of reading and research, after all.

I’ll also admit upfront that I am a book person. Web pages are great for quick reference and short answers, but for me, real study and in-depth learning are best done with books. This list will be book heavy, though I will include some websites that are helpful. Also, some areas, such as medical special needs research, really are done best via the internet. My lists will reflect this. Finally, when I see a list of resources, I like to know a little something about each of them before I take the time to find them and read them. There are few things better in the world to me than a good annotated book list. Thus, you will get a brief synopsis of each resource as well as my opinion of that resource.

Since every adopted child will carry at least one traumatic event from their past with them, reading about trauma and trauma’s effects on a child’s body and brain are right at the top of my list for preparation to adopt. This section will have the longest lists and the most varied resources. Trauma has been the single most difficult thing we have faced in parenting our adopted children. It has been harder than seizures, surgeries, and injecting saline into a port into my daughter’s head to do tissue expansion. I am not the only parent to find medical stuff easy in comparison. If you choose to read or do just one or two things from my list, make it the top two here.

Resources for Preparing to Parent a Child with Trauma

1.      The Connected Child by Dr. Karyn Purvis – Dr. Purvis was a game-changer in researching and learning about the effects of trauma on the brain. I credit her work and subsequent strategies for parenting for saving my relationship with my son. That said, I find her book a little hard to get through. Still, it is the single best starting point, especially if this is all new to you. If the book leaves you cold, as it did me, a better choice is her videos. One quick Google search of “Karyn Purvis videos about trauma” will get you started on finding them. These videos I found both helpful and hopeful in a time of great need. I urge you to watch them first before you are desperate to give you the tools you need ahead of time. I wish they had been around when we began our adoption journey.

2.      Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control by Heather Forbes – This is another excellent book on the basics of trauma, what it does to the brain and the body, and what is the best way to parent a child who has experienced trauma. It is an easy book to read with some great information.

If you read anything, read these two and watch some videos. But if you want more, here is what I would recommend.

3.      The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk – This is an amazing book which details exactly how trauma resides as memories in our bodies. I found it highly informative and fascinating. It is a bit technical, so not an easy read, but one definitely worth delving into, especially if you are fascinated by the brain.

4.      The Explosive Child by Ross Greene – I don’t think it is too much of an exaggeration to say that I feel this book saved our family. It gave me a new way to look at my child’s behavior and tools to address that behavior. It was a game-changer. I feel it is a little mistitled though, and that as a result, not as many people read it as could be helped by it. Really, it is about executive function and the frustration that poor executive function brings. I think it is a worthwhile book to read even if you don’t have a child who rages, and if you do, then perhaps this needs to go to the top of the list.

5.      Executive Function and Child Development by Marcie and Daniel Yeager – I wish they sold this book and the title above as a boxed set, I find them to be so complementary. Where The Explosive Child gives you more of the why, this book gives a lot of tools for how to manage and survive. Children who have experienced trauma often have difficulty with executive function and this book will give you a head start with some very good tools.

6.      Parenting from the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel – One thing that adoptive parents discover when parenting a hurt child is that the experience often leaves them dealing with their own mess as well. Trauma does trigger trauma, after all. It can be very difficult to parent when you are not in a terribly good state yourself. This book can help a parent work through past hurts while helping their hurt child to heal. Actually, any book by Daniel Siegel is highly recommended and helpful. Some of his other titles include No-Drama Discipline, The Whole-Brain Child, and The Yes Brain.

7.      The War that Saved my Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley – This is a young adult work of fiction set in England during World War II. What is it doing on my list? It’s here because I find the characterization of the main character to be the single best representation of what goes on in the head of a child who has suffered trauma. It helps to make sense of the sometimes nonsensical behavior that hurt children can evidence.

8.      Theraplay by Phyllis B. Booth – This is a big book. A big and expensive book. But it is also an incredibly useful resource for parents who are struggling with attachment with their child. It is filled with games and activities which promote attachment, not only child to parent but also parent to child. Having some of these activities up your sleeve in those early days of knowing your child is pretty darn helpful.

Resources for Preparing to Parent A Child Adopted Transculturally and/or Transracially

Alright, that’s a lot about trauma. Are you still with me? There are other things to consider and prepare for as well. Many families adopt transculturally and/or transracially. Here are some of the resources I found helpful.

1.      Parenting Your Internationally Adopted Child by Patty Cogen – This book takes you through everything… what your child may feel and do, what you may feel and do, how things work, how to address problems. It is incredibly useful. Take a look at it.

2.      Mine in China by Kelly Mayfield – For those of you interested in pursuing adoption from China, Kelly’s book is essential. She takes you through every part of the process from choosing an agency to coming home. It is indispensable.

3.      Inside Transracial Adoption by Beth Hall and Gail Steinberg – Consider this your primer on the issues that confront families as they navigate the waters of transracial adoption. Parts of it may make you uncomfortable, but that, too, is part of the learning process.

4.      In Their Own Voices: Transracial Adoptees Tell Their Own Stories by Rita Simon and Rhonda Roorda – Some of the most important voices we as adoptive parents can listen to are those of the adoptees themselves. It is only by listening carefully to this diverse group of experiences that we can hope to know better so we can do better. Once again, we may not always enjoy the process, but we become better parents to our children when we do.

Research isn’t all just books. For many adoptions, there are special needs involved as well. Most agencies will want to know what special needs you are open to and will give you some sort of medical conditions checklist for you to complete. It can be overwhelming to be confronted with columns and columns of special needs, many of which you probably haven’t heard of, and know whether it is something you can take on or not. Here is where the internet is your friend.

There are a couple of different ways you can make your way through this list and become informed. The first is to take it to your pediatrician and ask what each really entails. It would be best to make a special appointment to do this because it will take some time. This is not always possible to manage, though. Short of a real, live medical person to answer your questions, Google is your next best option. By doing a quick search of each condition, you will at least become familiar with what that term means. From there you can decide if it looks manageable and then look for further information. Finding people who are parenting children with that need are the best source of what day-to-day life really looks like. There are Facebook groups for investigating and learning about special needs and very often each special need itself will have at least one Facebook group dedicated to it. Ask to join and then ask your questions. I have found parents to be very willing to share what any special need entails. I think you will also find that the reality is often less intimidating than what you imagine.

Movie Resources to Prepare to Parent an Adopted Child

The other non-book research you can do is to watch movies. (Why didn’t I mention that first, you are probably wondering.) There are a lot of great movies and documentaries about adoption, many of which deal honestly on the subject. These will help you prepare to parent and prepare for your own adoption journey. This is hardly a complete list, but some of the ones I have watched and enjoyed include:

1.      Instant Family – This is a recent movie and I loved it. I think the writers did a great job of portraying what adopting older children can really look like. I identified with so very much of the movie, often laughing in complete and utter sympathy. I also loved that the struggling parents continued to do their best to connect with their new children, even when it wasn’t easy. I think it should be required watching for all prospective adoptive parents.

2.      Who are the DeBolts and Where Did They Get 19 Kids? – I’ll be dating myself here. This movie is old, like Henry Winkler and the 1970s old. I watched this as a child and became utterly fascinated with the family. In some way, I’m sure it spurred my desire for a large family and for my openness to special needs. What I love most about it is how each of the children is presented as a human being and not just a special need, and the family just accepts them for who they are and makes life work.

3.      Daughter From DaNang – I watched this before we brought our first son home from Vietnam as a part of my own preparation. It follows the story of an adoptee who returns to Vietnam and finds her birth parents. This film highlights the incredibly complicated emotions that can surround a person with regard to both birth and adoptive parents and families. It is not an easy film to watch, but I’m glad I did so.

4.      Operation Babylift: The Lost Children of Vietnam – This is another rather difficult film to watch. Both because of the initial tragedy of children losing so much as a result of war, but then because of the outcomes for some of these children in their adoptive families. If anything, it will make you think about how you relate to your adopted child. Parts of it were extremely painful to watch. Watch it anyway if you can find it.

5.      Somewhere Between – A film that focuses on several Chinese adoptees, how they see themselves, how they function in their families, and how they navigate life being not wholly Chinese but not their adoptive family’s ethnicity, either. It was very well done and I found it thought-provoking.

Finally, and maybe this should go at the top of the entire list and not the bottom, there is one last bit of research and preparation you should really do. Find actual adoptive parents and ask to talk with them. Ask them what a typical day is like; what they find challenging, surprising, joyful; ask what it was like those first hours, days, weeks with their new child; what had they wished they’d known. Ask them for the hard. I guarantee that whatever hard they share, you can magnify that hard by at least double. I know when I am sharing with potential adopters, I share the hard, but I hold back, worried that I will scare them away if I share the brutal truth.

So why am I telling you this, which does have the potential to scare you away? Because I am also going to tell you that so very often with the incredible hard parts of adoptive parenting comes incredible joy. Joy that would not be possible without the hard that came side by side with it. It is as though the hard parts act as a magnifier, making the joyful parts that much sweeter.

Finally, don’t make my mistake and assume that because you have done a dissertation’s worth of research that you know it all and are ready. I had done as much research as a person could do, yet on the day we met our new son, I realized I wasn’t prepared at all. I forgot everything I had read and instead had a minor panic attack (inside my head) that this was not what I wanted to do at all. If someone had offered me a plane ticket home right at that moment, I would have taken it and run. I thought I was prepared to deal with a child who didn’t like me at first, but what I wasn’t prepared for was discovering that I didn’t much like him. I learned that no book in the world, no helpful mentor, no internet research can prepare you for your own emotions. I was blindsided and that was possibly as difficult as trying to parent my terrified and raging son.

Prepare, but hold that preparation lightly. Read the books, but have real-life people who have walked this path ahead of you in the wings. Become educated but be teachable if new information and better parenting methods come along.

 

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Elizabeth Curry

Elizabeth Curry is mother to 12 children, five of whom were adopted: two from Vietnam and three from China. She hopes that by sharing the experiences of her family she can encourage others in the trenches. When she is not taking care of children, Elizabeth writes, home schools, sews, teaches piano, and loves reading. You can follow along with her loud and crazy life at her blog, Ordinary Time.


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