What Makes Adoptive Parenting Different From Parenting a Biological Child?

Should you parent your adopted child differently than you would a child who was born to you?

Sheyann Barger August 21, 2016
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In our family, my husband and I can often be found laughing at something insanely hilarious, quirky, or completely random that our two children have either done or said. We have come to casually refer to these moments either as “Random Parenting Moments” or “Things I Never Thought I’d Say.” We’ll comically post these moments to social media. For example, when my son was around a year old, I found an Allen wrench in his diaper. Around that stage in his life, I’d also frequently find plastic toy crocodiles, food, and/or a spare pacifier. In his diaper. Obviously, that social media post stated, “Officially adding this to the list of things I thought I’d never say: ‘Andy, how long has that Allen wrench been in your diaper?’” Parenting is an experience unlike any other.

Parenting as a Unique Experience

After eight years of parenthood, I’m convinced that “normal parenting” is a complete myth. Legend. Fairytale. All adults need to understand, before becoming a parent, that there is NO such thing as a “normal” child or “normal” parenting. Look around you. I’m sure you’ve joked about dopplegangers, but the truth is that no two people in this life are 100% exactly the same. So, it stands to reason that parenting special, individual humans will be a completely unique experience with parenting moments, challenges, and triumphs exclusively tailored to and from that child.

“Officially adding this to the list of things I thought I’d never say: ‘Andy, how long has that Allen wrench been in your diaper?’”

When a child is born, little is known about the new member of the family. As the child grows, some of the most exciting events revolve around new developments, firsts, and the development of the child’s personality: “Does that smile look more like Daddy or Mommy?” “That attitude comes from your grandpa!” “You have your grandmother’s talent for baking.” Arguments arise over which attributes are due to nature or nurture. So it is with humans that enter a family through adoption. Some attributes are known and as obvious as looking in the mirror. However, for thousands of adoptees, basic facts about their lives remain a mystery: Medical records, family history, even small areas of intrigue over a specific facial feature or characteristic’s origin . . . nature or nurture? This is the fundamental difference in adoptive parenting and parenting biological children.

Adoption and Trauma

At the very root of adoption, there is a separation of a child from their nature, their genes, their heritage and culture, their mothers and fathers. That separation that can cause intense feelings of loss, grief, uncertainty, neglect or abandonment, identity questioning, longing for belonging, and more. Some humans even experience trauma before birth in the form of prenatal exposure to stress, drugs, and malnutrition. In her book, The Primal Wound, Nancy Verrier describes her theory explaining how infants experience this trauma, stating:

“Many doctors and psychologists now understand that bonding doesn’t begin at birth, but is a continuum of physiological, psychological, and spiritual events which begin in utero and continue throughout the postnatal bonding period. When this natural evolution is interrupted by a postnatal separation from the biological mother, the resultant experience of abandonment and loss is indelibly imprinted upon the unconscious minds of these children, causing that which I call the “primal wound.” (Verrier, 1993, p. 1)

After eight years of parenthood, I’m convinced that “normal parenting” is a complete myth. Legend. Fairytale.

With that said, it is important to note that each person will process this loss differently; each person who experiences trauma reacts and responds according to their own emotions, cognitive functioning, coping abilities, and internal perspectives. New research even suggests trauma can be genetically passed on from generation to generation. Therefore, trauma and behavioral difficulties are not unique to adoption alone—many biological children are born with or develop trauma or behavioral difficulties also.

Ironically, I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve met with shock when new adoptive parents learn their new infant, just recently placed with their family, might struggle with adoption loss and trauma, if not now, then someday. I’ve been there. I’ve lived that adoptive parent moment. The key here, fellow humans, is to learn and become trauma-informed, especially regarding how it relates to adoption. And by “fellow humans,” I mean we all know a friend’s cousin’s aunt who adopted. Goodness, being trauma-informed could also help parents of children with special needs, parents of children in foster care, parents of children with mental health issues . . . Or any other unique parenting adventure. So, all of them. All parents. So, no excuses for ignorance.

Adoptive Parenting is Different

Adoptive parenting is different. So, yes, adoptive parenting LOOKS different than parenting biological children. And, of course, due to the individually of each human, our parenting styles look different with each of our children. (Remember, normal is a myth.) In my family, one child seems to struggle with their adoption and appears to have adoption-related trauma. One child is still very young, but as of now, doesn’t seem to have complex feelings related to adoption.

My kiddos’ experiences aren’t mine, so it is up to me to learn as much as I can. Our experience won’t be yours, but may be similar, so please allow me to share what we’ve learned in hope that something might relate to another’s situation. Generally speaking, here are a few things to consider and remember about the parenting differences that may arise with children who were adopted:

  • Humans who were adopted have two sets of parents. They were given life by one set of parents, who are never forgotten. And they were raised by another set of parents. Typically, biological children have one set of parents who give them life, then raise them.
  • Biological children will have a sense of identity and belonging with their family due to shared genetics, characteristics, mannerisms, and talents. Commonly, adopted children will live with family with whom they share, perhaps, a few things in common, but as they are not genetically related, they may not share any of the same characteristics or physical attributes, and may feel disconnected as a result.
  • Just as a biological child can connect with shared genetics, they also have shared heritage, culture, and race within their family. Adopted children often have a different race and culture than their adoptive family and no connection to stories about their heritage, if the adoption is closed.
  • Biological families are able to bond and attach with the biological child before birth. That connection isn’t broken after birth. Children placed in adoptive families have had their biological parent’s ties and rights relinquished. They then enter another family, new to them. Adoptive parents and the adopted child must then attach and bond to each other. This can sometimes take weeks, months, or years. In extreme cases (ie, Reactive Attachment Disorder), it might prove very, very difficult to maintain that connection and attachment. Some adoptees will feel an intense loss and grieve that severed connection to their biological families, some may not deeply feel or dwell on that loss.

Focusing on Connection and Attachment  

Considering these events that may or may not be floating around in my children’s conscious and subconscious, when I parent, I must parent differently. I try to focus on disciplining through connection and attachment rather than automatically sending my children to time out. When absolutely needed, we take calm down time. Sometimes, in order for me to pull my tantruming child closer to teach and attach, I need to take a moment to calm MYSELF, regroup, try a different approach, and then reconvene with my child.

I also try to be more in tune with my children during periods of intense behaviors. (Note: Doing so is freaking hard!) There are times when my child is acting like every other 8-year-old around, but then, I notice small, subtle changes (or even HUGE changes in attitude) and I have to peel back the layers my child has built around himself to protect his heart from scary terribles.

 I try to focus on disciplining through connection and attachment rather than automatically sending my children to time out.

I recently spent two weeks wondering if my child was acting bored with summer and annoying like every other kid during summer break, or if he was internalizing something and lashing out to protect his vulnerable feelings and emotions. After days of attitude and frustration, a moment of extreme, raw vulnerability let me see what was honestly happening and the truth came out after connection: Our child had found a note we’d written to his birth mother offering an open adoptive relationship then or at any point in the future . . . and he was reliving the loss from his birth/placement and the compounded loss when we found her a few years ago and she forcefully reaffirmed that there was to be NO contact, ever. His words: “You adopt ugly kids so you can torture them, you hate me,” weren’t a personal attack against me for not purchasing an expensive item he’d requested at the store (the torture). They were a reflection of how he felt . . . ugly, unwanted, unloved.

Grief and loss are so mean to little kids. He needed to feel love and connection instead of having privileges taken away or punishments and consequences set. However, until he left the irrational rage-stage, nothing I did or said could help him. So, we took some calm down time, I stayed close but gave space, and when he chose to come close and talk calmly, we addressed the issue and the truth came out. After addressing challenging behaviors, we always pull close and reaffirm our commitment to them by that proximity, which helps keeps the focus on the issue.

We Do Real

This brings me to the next parenting technique I do differently. In our home, we focus on real and authentic feelings. We spent years and years trying to pretend we were perfect, happy, and “normal.” We aren’t. We are infertile. We are flawed. We are unique. We are real. We are humans! So, we allow, promote, and demonstrate that it is okay to FEEL REAL, like all humans do. If someone is mad, okay, be mad. When Kiddo found the letter, we felt and shared sad together. Nobody feels deliriously happy all of the time; even the happiest person I know and adore, Leslie Knope, gets angry from time to time. As adoptive parents we should not—and cannot—expect our children to always be happy about their adoptions; we need to acknowledge when they miss birth family, and we need to do and allow REAL and authentic feelings and emotions in our homes. Giving that complex feeling a name, definition, and freedom of expression ensures that the pressure built by repressing hard things doesn’t blow the house down.

Preparing for Holidays

Guess what? Holidays trigger stress. Holiday season means spending time with family. Holidays are special times. What if you aren’t or weren’t able to spend the holidays (or even a big, special event) with ALL of your loved ones? Including biological family? That’d be incredibly sad, no matter how much you love getting presents or Christmas or your adoptive family. Someone is missing, so a piece of you just might feel lonely for them. Or even the idea of them.

Now, imagine you’re a child feeling those complex feelings! Trigger alert! Stress+Sadness=Complex Feelings Which Young Children Might Not Be Able to Cope With. So, bring on the sabotaging, meltdowns, and hyper, over-stimulated child.

It isn’t just holiday seasons or “special events” either. Starting school? Through experience, we now know to expect a week to a month of roughness. A week of high-energy activities at a family reunion? We’ll have lots of hyperness, lots of over-sensitivity, lack of sleep, attitudes, sassiness, projecting on others, and rages/meltdowns. How about the anniversary of a the date they entered foster care . . . or left the orphanage . . . or what some adoptive parents call “Gotcha Day?” All potential trauma triggers. We have learned to either expect these real, authentic reactions to complex emotions and feelings to any change, and we prepare to either deal with it or limit the activities in which we choose to participate.

Learning How to Do It

Lastly, where did we learn these parenting styles or methods or techniques? Three answers: 1. A friggin’ steep learning curve, 2. After honestly acknowledging our children might feel loss and trauma, we learned from copious amounts of research (including seeking help from qualified professionals, asking other parents we knew who might have faced the same situations, researching online, reading books, reading, talking to, and listening to adoptees, attending therapeutic parenting classes, and webinars), and 3. Practicing them over and over and over…. . . Adjusting something based on parenting instinct, our knowledge of ourselves or our children, and then striving for consistency. It is hard sometimes—and we aren’t perfect parents.

It’s Just Going to Be Hard Sometimes

No matter how your family comes to you, parenting is hard. You’ll face poopy diapers, bumps, breaks, and bruises, sibling squabbles, power struggles, defiance, frustration, and seemingly endless exhaustion. I guarantee you’ll cry (often) and worry even more. You’ll experience days and days where you feel lonely, feel that you can’t possibly doing this parenting thing right, and you’ll be so frustrated, you’ll want to walk out the door . . . or drink yourself into a stupor (and I don’t even drink!)

Then, in the quickest, fleeting moment, a moment more powerful than the strongest magic, this maddening child will completely charm you with a smile or a silly comment or even a kiss on your leg with a “I yuuuuv you, Mama.” Those moments make parenting worth the effort, difficulty, tears, and pain . . . and all the feels come rushing in.

It’s kind of like how you feel when the roller coaster pulls back into the station and you let all that puke out . . . then for a moment, everything feels slightly better and much more manageable.

Until the kids are quiet again . . . Dun, Dun. Duuuuunnnnnn.

If you’re an adoptee, what are some other things you’d like the general public, hopeful adoptive parents, adoptive parents, and the masses to know about adoption and parenting?

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Sheyann Barger

A country girl through and through, Sheyann was born and raised in Southeast Idaho. Sheyann is married to her college sweetheart, has two highly energetic children, and is currently learning how enjoy life in Utah--in the "city." Adoption has always been a part of Sheyann's life, and when her children came to her family through adoption, adoption became an enduring passion. Her other passions include photography, reading, motherhood, her faith, camping, spending time with family, and, right now, completing insane amounts of paperwork to bring one last child into her family.


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