Adoption Therapist Brooklyn
The Unique Needs of Adoptive Families
Children and their adoptive families have a special set of circumstances that often affect the approaches taken in therapy. As with anyone working through issues in a clinical setting, there may be a focus on communication skills or emotional and social connection, but there are certain considerations specific to working with children who may have experienced loss, abuse, or neglect. Whether a child was adopted at an early age or has spent many years in the foster care system, it’s important to acknowledge the entirety of their experience and help them have all the available tools to adjust and adapt in a healthy way. Parents can help make sure their children know they have a supportive, loving environment in which to grow.
For many children coming into a new home, it’s important to realize that they do not simply leave their past behind them. They may bring with them a sense of loss, uncertainty, or fear, along with whatever hopes they hold. We know that little ones coming from the foster care system are more likely to have mental health challenges, due to the instability during early development. They may have disrupted attachments that negatively impact their sense of security. Chaotic situations early on can lead to serious behavioral and emotional issues like depression, aggression, stealing, or lying. This is particularly true for those that have spent more time in unstable or threatening environments.
There are many positive outcomes for families that have worked together to address these types of issues, as well as individuals who have dealt with less severe symptoms, but felt that they needed to process a past that involves their adopted family. It’s important to acknowledge the complicated feelings of being in a blended and/or adoptive family and explore how that impacts other areas of love and life. As is often the case with psychodynamic therapy it’s important to take a look at the past to move forward.
If this will be your first experience working with a psychologist, therapist, or clinical social worker, I can help walk you through how the process will look. But before that, I just want to say, welcome. Some people may feel like they shouldn’t need to ask for help when it comes to working through challenging situations, family frustrations, or mental health issues, but there’s no need to go it alone. I am here to support children and families as they explore the myriad emotions and issues that arise in the context of adoption. Whether it's working through the initial phase of adoption, welcoming a child into your blended family, or experiencing some setbacks down the road, I have tools to help.
I have years of experience working with clients that are connected to the adoption, foster care, and family support systems. This includes providing services to children who are adoptees, parents of families with both foster and biological children, as well as adults whose childhood homes were unstable and frequently changing. As an adoptee myself in a family with both biological and adopted children, I find that working with clients in this context allows me to draw from my own understanding of these unique family systems.
Children may participate in therapy reluctantly, still not sure which - if any - adults can be trusted. Seeking help through family therapy can provide you with an opportunity for reflection, and tools you need to lay a firm foundation for healthy attachments to be established. It's important to work with a therapist who has experience in this area and understands adoptive issues and some of the associated family dynamics.
An intake session may involve an initial consultation to understand the history and relevant relationships for the client and family. This may include some form of play, with art or puppets, in order to better understand the situation and communication styles. Your efforts to focus on past and present relationship issues shows you care about the whole child as well as their future self. We can work together to determine the course of action. There is hope, especially when parents take an active role and work with a therapist who is competent in adoption-specific strategies.
Attachment-Based Strategies and Interventions
Humans adapt their behaviors depending on the environment as life unfolds. In secure and nurturing environments, we tend to develop adaptive behaviors that are healthy and will serve us well in the future. We learn who to trust, when to open up, and a whole host of social and emotional skills. However, when there is not a stable and supportive home, sometimes maladaptive behaviors emerge. That can include lying, violence, stealing, or hoarding resources. We all do what we need to survive, and some children have developed coping skills from having to deal with chaotic or dangerous situations, and neither the situations nor the subsequent behaviors are sustainable or healthy.
If a child seems unable to stop lying, it can be helpful to look at the child’s circumstances prior to adoption to see how this behavioral pattern might have emerged. If the child admitted to a wrongdoing in the past and was abused because of it, they may have learned to lie as a way to avoid such severe consequences. Even if a new adoptive parent implores the child to “just tell the truth,” that may not be enough to erase the visceral memory of a beating. Instead of focusing on stopping the lying and routing out the bad behavior by shaming or scolding, it may be better to remain calm and reassure the child that they are loved no matter what. Still, there can and should be appropriate and timely consequences. Rather than confronting them about the lie, the focus can be shifted to repairing whatever damage has been done, whether it be a broken vase or the hurt feelings of a sibling.
Helping a child develop appropriate and healthy emotional boundaries can also come into play with adopted children. If they’ve moved frequently between group homes or foster homes, their attachments may be insecure, and they may have developed some keen people pleasing skills. For the child, being exceptionally friendly and open served as an adaptive behavior, if they perceived it could increase their chances of being able to remain in one home. However, parents may have the reasonable worry that it will open them up to additional harm. In this case, it’s again about establishing a home where they feel safe, not necessarily making micro behavioral corrections. Ultimately it’s about acceptance, safety, and survival.
In cases where a child is acting out violently, they may be reverting to what served them in the past, but is not the best choice for the future. They developed adaptive and protective behaviors based on problematic attachments. Change is hard for everyone, especially those who haven’t had the benefit of growing within a secure, nurturing environment. It’s important for parents, along with the help of a therapist, to facilitate improvement in a child’s sense of safety and security, so they can then grow into their fullest potential.
It’s important for children to form new bonds with each parent and family member. Giving them attention and having an interest in their hobbies shows love. It’s about consistency, affection, and care, much of which may have been missing or inconsistent in their life due to various circumstances. Echoing what they say and understanding how they might feel can help build trust. Also, developing a sense of how their early attachment styles inform their current behavior will make for better, more empathic, parenting decisions. If they seem reluctant to be affectionate, it could stem from a fear of attachment because of the continual loss, change, or rejection they’ve experienced in their life.
Some of these issues can seem more pronounced in children that were adopted later on in life, but there can still be feelings of insecurity or ambivalence experienced by those who were adopted as infants or toddlers, yet have an awareness of this additional identity. Whatever the specific scenario, having empathy for their situation will help.
Acknowledging the Past
As much as adoptive parents may want to move on and not focus on a child’s abusive past, sometimes it’s necessary to understand the present. With children, and people in general, we can just “start with a clean slate” and assume that good intentions will clear all hurt from the past. As parents, even if we think we would never use violence, a child who is new to the home has no way to know this or trust that promise. The longer a child has lived in uncertain circumstances, the more adjustments they may have to make in order to feel at home.
It’s important to know there may be a period of transition, and often, right before major life moments (such as finalizing the adoption or the birth or adoption of another child) there can be outbursts of especially challenging behaviors. Current behaviors reflect their lived experience. Their history often interjects in the present. Violence can lead to fear of attachment or the perpetuation of further violence. Scarcity might create overcompensation such as hoarding food or stealing money. There may be triggers that set off some of these survival skills from the past. It’s important to have empathy when we see these maladaptive behaviors, and work to offer support.
Another important aspect of acknowledging the past is understanding that curiosities about one’s history don’t necessarily fade as years pass. There can be a mix of emotions when an adopted child wants to know more about their birth family. The adoptive parents may feel hurt or unappreciated and think that they somehow aren’t enough. The child could feel guilty, but still have a deep yearning to know more about their biological parents or connect with their biological family. Even if they never met their birth mother, or there was abuse and dysfunction in the original home, they could still long for connection or more information. All of these emotions are natural and common, and it helps to work through them with a therapist, and assure the child they are safe to express these wants and needs.
Cultural Competence and other Considerations
When adopting transracially, or transculturally, you may find there are additional challenges that arise. It can be helpful for the adoptive family to work on their cultural competency and understanding so they have another avenue to develop trust and attachments in their relationships. With transracial adoption, families may find it important to include customs, games, and foods that are familiar, especially early on.
If the child is learning a new language in their adoptive home, caregivers could choose to gain some competency in the child’s first language in order to show empathy and interest. It also models the process of learning a new language and lets the child know it’s okay to make mistakes. Having a sense of continuity also helps care for the whole child and respects the story of their life thus far.
Adoptees in Adulthood
While not every mental health issue that emerges in adulthood can be traced directly to one's adoption, foster care, or childhood experiences, it's important to acknowledge that relationship issues are often affected by the attachments made early in life. Any trauma, loss, or grief from years ago has a way of reappearing when we attempt to form a new attachment or bond. A confrontation or perceived rejection can trigger anxiety or depression if we don't feel safe in a relationship.
Adoption can have a life-long impact on individuals, particularly if frustrations from early childhood have not been examined thoroughly, and there are lingering feelings of abandonment that haven't healed with time. If you have relationship patterns where trust continues to be lacking, or fear of rejection pushes potential romantic partners away, it could be helpful to seek support from a therapist with a clinical social work background who has experience working with adoptees. While couples therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy can be helpful, it may also be important as an adoptee to seek a therapist who has an attachment-based psychodynamic approach that takes into consideration your adoption story.
Children, adolescents, and even adults can carry questions or insecurities with them beyond the immediate experience of trauma or loss. Even with all the love a new and forever home may provide, it's okay to acknowledge and process pain, rather than just try to put it away or "get over it." Time can heal wounds, but it usually involves work. Seeking support and counseling with a therapist is an admirable choice that can help you grow in awareness, release what you no longer need, and accept the love you definitely deserve.
Reach out with questions or to start sessions
I look forward to hearing from you and discussing what it might look like to work together. Though my in-person practice was based in Brooklyn, NY, I am currently conducting all sessions online via Telehealth. I am able to work with clients from anywhere in New York, or across the country. Just know that treatment with me is a safe space, wherever it is.
I have a Master of Social Work from New York University. Additionally, I was trained in Art and Dance Therapy at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. I’m now working on a Post Graduate Certificate in Attachment Focused Trauma Therapy, and have extensive experience working with those connected to adoption and foster care systems. Together we can continue the work of understanding and healing from the past in order to better welcome the future. Let’s talk.
Becca Leitman's lens and therapeutic approach are rooted in Attachment Therapy. I believe there is great importance in developing healthy, emotionally-fulfilling connections with yourself and those closest to you. I am currently conducting all sessions online via Telehealth. I am able to work with clients from anywhere in New York, or across the country. Just know that treatment with me is a safe and confidential space, wherever it is. Let’s talk. Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest , Psychology Today and LinkedIn for mental health guidance, stress and anxiety tips, therapy resources and more.