Knowing how to support your adopted child is paramount to helping them to feel a sense of self and self-worth. As parents, it’s up to us to make sure our children feel loved, secure, and valued members of the family. From the day they come into our lives–it should be your goal to provide a foundation that will lead them to figure out who they are and who they want to become–aka their identity–both as a part of your family and as an individual. As with any healthy relationship, this journey begins by establishing and growing trust.
This process looks different for every family. Why? Because no two adopted children are the same, nor are families, nor are your adoption journeys. It’s up to you to be present in your child’s life to determine what works best for you. And yet, there are certain things that most adoptive families will tell you are critical to building a strong family.
Here are three ways you can support your adopted child.
We Are Family | Sense of Belonging
Everyone likes to feel as if they belong to something–be it family, friend groups, sports teams, or clubs. The need to feel accepted is natural and normal. Adoption can leave some children feeling as if they are on the outside looking in—an outsider who doesn’t quite fit in.
This may be less likely for children adopted at birth or early on, it’s still more common than you may think. And for children who were adopted at an older age–making sure to address the need to feel wanted is a crucial part of their transition into their adopted families.
It’s been said over and over again that it’s never too early to talk about adoption. You should plan to talk about adoption right from the start. Be honest in an age-appropriate way. Do more listening than talking if your child has questions or concerns. You don’t have to have all the answers, but knowing that they have someone who will listen, who will understand–someone to come to–someone who not only accepts them but considers them family will go a long way in healthy development.
Safe and Secure
While this may seem a given, for many children who have spent time in foster care or in an orphanage the feelings of safety and security are foreign. In some cases, children who have been in the system for any amount of time may have left an unsafe, hostile, or even abusive environment. Their idea of a family may be skewed. Despite what they may have endured, they may feel loss and insecurity having been removed from biological family or caregivers who they had grown to love and trust.
Children who have spent time in orphanages may be used to a different type of interaction and structure. Some may never have known a biological parent or sibling. To be transitioned from a sterile environment such as this into a home with parents and relatives they do not yet feel a connection to can be understandably upsetting and overwhelming.
You can help your adopted child by being patient, understanding, and willing to wait while they feel more comfortable in their new surroundings. You can help them through this process by communicating openly and working together to build a strong bond.
In some cases, foster children who may have had a rough start to life, seen or experienced emotions beyond their years, and been forced to move on without having had an opportunity to work through their loss or grief and subsequent worries and anxiety may show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s unrealistic to assume a child coming from a volatile situation will be able to adjust just like that.
It’s important to work with your child’s former caregiver to determine what life looked like before adoption in order to develop a schedule and structure that will be healthy without being too much too soon. For example, adoptive parents should ask for daily routines–what time your child woke up, bath time, their diet–favorites and least favorites–and nighttime routines. Some orphanages have lights on and/or music playing during the nighttime. You can imagine a child going from that to a quiet, dark, unfamiliar bedroom can be a big adjustment. No matter how well-intended you may be in setting up the “perfect” room, knowing your child’s past may help them to feel better about moving forward with you. In some cases, it will be hit and miss while you learn.
Give yourself grace and give your child grace. Adoption is not always easy.
Identity is Everything
Something all parents want for their children–adopted or not–is to help them to form a real sense of identity. Not a label, not a stereotype. Not an expectation.
Identity is formed when you help your child to figure out who they are–not on your terms but on theirs. Identity or sense of self or purpose is what will help your child to establish strong and healthy relationships into adulthood–both personal and professional.
Identity is discovered by encouraging your child to explore what’s important to them, what interests them, and what motivates them. You can do this by giving your child small challenges, teaching them the value of work ethic versus being handed everything for nothing, encouraging them to try out different sports or activities, and helping them to find their voice. In other words, while your instinct may be to protect and shield them from the big, bad world, your goal should be to prepare them for when they eventually have to go it on their own.
Oftentimes adoptees feel different from their peers and no matter how well-intentioned you are as a loving parent, they may need additional support. It’s never a bad idea to look for resources and help on behalf of your adopted child. There are many adoption support groups both virtual and in real life. There’s also nothing wrong with seeking the support and help of important figures in your child’s life from school to church to social workers and therapists who are trained to do just that.
“Adoptees create an identity based on the information they are given about themselves. Because many adoptees grow up without the knowledge that most people have access to (family history), identities are built on the influence of adoptive families,” according to adoptee Morgan Bailee Boggess in her article, Adoption & Identity: Dealing with Abandonment. She points out that it’s important for adoptive parents to understand the types of abandonment, ties to identity, and recognizing a child may navigate their feelings toward and relationship with the birth family differently. Respecting these influences goes a long way toward supporting your adopted child at any age.
No matter how you came to be a family or what path you’re currently on, it’s never too late to learn about how to support your adopted child or change your course of action based on current needs. Just because something worked before doesn’t mean that will continue to be the case. Life is messy. Being flexible and willing to continue to learn and grow with your child through the different stages of development very well may be the most important lesson of all: letting them know how loved and valued they are as a member of the family.