Cheryl and Leonard Sokoloski adopted an eight-year-old boy in 1990. Eight years later, their son returned to his birth mother’s home. Cheryl started attending a local support group shortly thereafter, and found that many in the group—all of whom adopted through the child welfare system—had experienced similar difficult situations. Below, Cheryl shares what group members learned about parenting children who were adopted, and letting go.

When a new child comes home, whether through birth or adoption, the family weaves a blanket of dreams around the new arrival. Dreams of a family, dreams of the child’s future, dreams of loving a child and being loved in return. More often than not, those dreams change with time, especially for parents of older adoptees. But what happens when the dream becomes a nightmare? Sometimes there is an outcome we never anticipated to which we must adjust.

This article is woven from many families’ dreams, nightmares, and the common experience of “letting go” when children leave home under less-than-ideal conditions. These families are part of an ongoing support group. Here, they share their stories and tell how they have coped.

The Situations

Parent support group members have grappled with these letting-go situations:

The Maddys initially hoped to adopt the girl they brought home more than five years ago. They finally realized, however, that her problems and behaviors were destroying the family. Within the past year, they placed her into a residential treatment center. The Kimseys also felt compelled to place their 13-year-old daughter into a group home. After spending a year there, the teen is back home, but the family is still struggling.

The Kyles have experienced several difficult leave-takings. One son entered an out-of-home drug rehab program at age 12. Since then he has had six years of drug and alcohol treatment, and landed in jail more than once. A daughter’s behaviors finally proved too destructive to handle, and she was placed in residential treatment this past year. Last fall, another son opted not to finish high school at home, but to live with friends in another state. He is doing well there in his senior year, but his early departure was hard on his mother.

Parents of six adopted children, the Frikkens experienced these letting-go experiences: They asked one daughter to leave at age 18 when she refused to follow any rules. She is back home now, and recently placed her baby for adoption. A son had to be placed outside the home at age 12 and remains in treatment. He is nearly 18 and will soon be on his own. Another higg school age son moved out recently to live with friends; however, he has stayed in school.

The Schmidts’ son did well in school and activities until the end of his junior year. He then dropped out of school and left home, opting to live with friends. He tried returning home more than once, but was never willing to follow the rules. He joined the Job Corps, dropped out of that program, and has been living a transient life on welfare. He is still in contact with his adoptive parents.

In our family, our son became increasingly difficult at age 16, trying to get kicked out so he could return to his birth mother. In 1998, just after his 17th birthday, we could stand no more and let him go. For awhile, he made regular visits, but he has not been back now for more than a year. Our son and his birth sister are out on their own and work most of the time. Neither has a high school diploma, and both have been in some trouble with the law. While our son seems to appreciate that we stay in regular contact with him, he still wants to stay close to his birth family.

One of the Egans’ two adopted sons left home for college last fall, after several years of acting out and having a negative attitude. The transition was a rocky one, and he didn’t last long in the unstructured campus environment. Nearly at the end of their rope, the parents persuaded him to join the Navy. Happily, the son has done well in the Navy and his attitude toward his adoptive family has become very positive.

The Feelings

How did we feel when our dreams came tumbling down around us? Often the out-of-home placement or move came after months or even years of difficulty, during which the family experienced great stress and discord. In some cases, the safety of other family members was threatened. When the leave-taking happened, we felt a wide array of emotions.

About Ourselves and the Situations

Most group members felt a sense of failure or inadequacy as parents. We felt unsure about the way we handled or were handling the situation. We experienced guilt, relief, and guilt about being relieved. Almost all of us felt a great sense of grief and loss, especially over the loss of a dream. As one parent said, “There’s the ideal picture in your mind that you buy into, and your bubble gets popped.” Sometimes, the leave-taking seemed to mean losing one’s only chance at parenting.

About the Children

As parents, we felt fear for our children and their futures. We felt that, out of our protective households, they might fail or get into serious trouble. In some cases where residential treatment was the outcome, we felt torn by their neediness and dependence on the adoptive family, and by their aloneness. There was also sadness in cases where a child had a great deal of potential but chose a destructive lifestyle.

About the Community’s Response

For more than one set of parents, there was a sense of shame and embarrassment both from the child’s actions and the eventual out-of-home placement. There was also a sense that others didn’t understand—especially family members. One mother said people in the community had put a halo around her head and said, “You’re doing such a wonderful thing,” when she and her husband adopted an older child. Then, when the placement didn’t work out, as another parent said, “They pull that halo down around your ankles.” More than one parent felt they lived in a fishbowl.

Two families, however, felt they received a good deal of support from both friends and family. They were assured that they had done the best they could, and that their children did benefit from their years with these families.

Learning to Cope

In the face of these losses, our group members have found different ways of adjusting, understanding, growing, and healing. This is an ongoing process, and the road to healing has been different for everyone. Below are some of the attitudes and concepts that we have found helpful.

Realizing New Truths, Accepting New Realities

First, we had to realize we were going through a grieving process, and allow ourselves to experience all the normal feelings of grief. One mom said, “We tend to feel guilty about normal reactions to tough situations. When my son was acting out, before he left home, I let myself cry in front of him. That showed him that I loved him. It also let him see how his behavior affects others.”

We learned to adjust our expectations of the outcome, given the tremendous challenges and obstacles that early abuse and neglect gave to our children. “We can only provide so much,” said one parent, “and the children—whether biological or adopted—must take that and run with it. Unfortunately, sometimes the kids who were adopted can’t work with the tools given them.” In addition, some have severe genetic limitations.

We had to accept the fact that our children might have to fail, or “hit the wall,” before they learned important life lessons. Many of us had to give up the expectation that our children would love us as much as we love them.

Getting Support

For all of us, support from others was very important. Since the ill-timed departure of a child—and all the stress leading up to it—can be very tough on a marriage, it’s important to take time alone as a couple to talk out all the feelings involved and to support each other. Parents commonly blame one another for a sad outcome, and the couples in our group felt it was very important to focus on their commitment to one another as a top priority. “Get over being angry at your spouse,” advised one parent.

The single parent in our group emphasized that it was crucial to find people who had had similar experiences; otherwise it was too easy to accept all the blame herself. And, another parent suggested being open about the problems facing the family to receive support from friends and co-workers.

Other support can come from professional counselors, and sometimes parents need anti-depressants to assist during the roughest times. One parent in our group has received healing by reaching out to other adoptive families in her community, and offering support to them during difficult times.

Exploring Beliefs, Philosophies, Hope

For many in our group, religious faith and prayer help in the healing process. For one parent, the belief that “we are the children’s caretakers, but they belong to God” helped him to give up ownership of the outcome, and just keep offering unconditional love. Another parent relied on the Buddhist principal of being committed to the effort, but not tied to the result.

It helps to realize that love does not cure all. Although the outcome is not always ideal, that does not make the parents failures, nor does it mean the child was short changed.

Within our group and without, we know of numerous situations that have improved once children have gotten past the difficult teen years. So, it is helpful in these stressful times to hold out some hope for the future, hope that our children will in fact learn that it’s okay to trust and to love, and that it works better to live within the basic rules of society. Hope can be difficult to come by, and offering it is one important way a support group can help parents let go, at least for the time being.

The most important thing for parents to remember in times of difficult transitions is that each must let go at his or her own pace, in his or her own way. Accept that your path will be different as you listen to others and their own personal solutions. Some will work for you, too.