A lot of people expect parenting skills to come naturally, and magically kick-in once you have kids. To a certain extent, all parents learn as they go and do the best with what they have.
Whether you are the parent of a child you birthed with your own body or an adopted child, there is always more to learn. And if you are parenting an adopted child (or adopted children), there are certain considerations to keep in mind to make sure that child feels welcome, supported, and loved.
Below you’ll find a variety of insightful tips for parenting an adopted child. You might want to read and even revisit these adoption-related tips from time to time when you encounter more challenging moments in life. Just remember that adoptive families like yours add to the wonderful mix of the many forms a family can take, and also…you got this!
In no particular order, here are 20 tips for parents to consider while preparing for adoption, or as they are parenting an adopted child:
See Related: 7 Must Reads for Adoptees and Their Parents
Unless your adopted child is a newborn, there will be a lot to learn about their early life. Even when you are welcoming in a brand new baby through an open adoption, there will be information that the birth parents might want to share with the adoptive family prior to the actual adoption.
People at the group home or foster care home where your child lived would know a lot about the child’s preferences and potential issues. This sharing of information may already be a built-in part of the adoption process.
The birth family or other adult in the know can give their insights and experience to make things easier during the transition period. You can ask about their favorite books or games, and if they’re attached to certain toys, or what things or activities bring them joy.
Consistency can be really important for children. You want an adopted child to feel safe and secure in their new environment. One way you can help them adjust to a new home with different people is to provide some sort of routine.
Now, we’re not talking about a strict and rigid schedule that has zero flexibility, but a bit of predictability can always be helpful. A child needs to have a sense of boundaries and expectations, and parents need to set them. Children are great at identifying patterns, and gain a sense of security when they can make sense of things.
While we’re on the subject of kids and routine, one thing that all children want and need every day is time together with the ones they love. For an adopted child, this sense of security and belonging can be extra important in order to establish a secure attachment with adoptive parents. If it’s hard for the family to make it to dinner together, maybe aim for family breakfast, or another time when you can carve out an opportunity to connect.
If your adopted child is coming from a large group home, a big foster family, or another situation with lots of people around, you will want to make sure they continue to experience physical closeness and connection. Again, their birth parents, a birth family, or foster parents may be able to convey to you if there are any issues or sensitivities with physical contact or touch that you should be aware of.
Even though children and adolescents may have different needs or preferences when it comes to physicality, the adoptive parents will get to know their child and find many meaningful ways to connect. A hug or helping hand can make a world of difference in a difficult moment.
Even though I just mentioned physical contact, it’s worth noting that children who are born to you have the time in utero to gain a sense of the patterns and sounds of their birth parent (or birth parents). If you are adopting a one-year-old or a two-year-old toddler, it’s important to establish a close physical bond right away. You may want to carry the child around more or snuggle a little extra to establish a sense of familiarity and closeness.
Many new parents tend to go overboard with buying things. When decorating a nursery or room for an adopted child, it’s good to remember that your relationship with them is much more important than the individual material things you may be tempted to buy. If your adopted child is coming from a frantic, unpredictable environment or has experienced trauma, it may be adding to certain issues or problems if the environment is overstimulating.
An adoptive parent can help by being the calm after the storm, and creating a simple, relaxing space. Then, as time goes by, the child can make their mark (sometimes literally, with permanent markers, so be prepared for that as well).
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This tip is similar to the adoption guideline above. When welcoming a child into your home, you may be tempted to celebrate the new addition to the family with a big party to commemorate the moment.
However, adopted children may be dealing with a whole host of issues and emotions and an over-stimulating event may give rise to even more. Help them feel the love and security in their new home before bringing out all the balloons and having people shout “surprise!”
Adoptive parents may experience guilt or sadness if they don’t immediately feel a deep connection or overwhelming love for an adopted child. However, a parent who has given birth to a child could also feel those things. It’s an experience that a lot of parents don’t like to admit publicly, but it’s not an infrequent experience.
You are not alone if it takes some time to learn to love your child, however they came to you. You are not faulty or broken. You are a parent in a new relationship, and what you feel for your adopted child will change over the years, just like it is with every parent, whether an adoptive parent, or biological parent. The parent-child relationship is one of the most beautiful, messy, and marvelous things.
With an open adoption, the adoptive family has some level of contact or communication with the birth parents (or birth parent). What it looks like for each family and each adoption process may be different. Open adoption is open to interpretation, and issues may arise down the road.
Even though you may agree on a plan initially, you might have to work with changing desires on the part of the birth parents. At the end of the day, you want to do what’s right for your child and your child’s well-being.
Even well-meaning parents make missteps. Sometimes adoptive parents want to give their child everything, but the thing is, children don’t need all the things.
You want to help a child grow into an adult by providing them with love, structure, and support. When you replace care with cash, it’s easy to veer into Veruca Salt territory, and the “I want it now!” attitude takes over.
There are many parenting books you can read to help you strike a balance between being overbearing and too hands-off, between having patience and being a pushover. You can find a place where you don’t always give way too much or give way too little. Believe me, this is not just an issue for adoptive parents, but one of the problems that all kinds of parents encounter.
When you’re going through the adoption process, there are lots of things that can help you prepare to be a parent. As mentioned above, there are several books that I can recommend that might make the transition easier. However, no book is going to come hold your baby in the middle of the night.
No book will watch your child or babysit your children when you feel sick and your partner is at work. Books and podcasts aren’t people. Take the time prior to the adoption to secure your circle of support – the friends and family that you can count on in a time of need. A network of support could include your own parents or family friends that have always been there throughout the years and love you just like family.
Many families have a birth child (or children) as well as an adopted child (or children). It’s not uncommon that there will be problems in family dynamics that pertain to these different relationships. The older kids may be jealous of a more recent arrival, or an adopted child may perceive that they receive a different kind of love than the birth children.
Sometimes adoptive parents try to shower an adopted child with more outward affection than other children to make sure they are adequately demonstrating their love. The way to address problems that arise from adoption or birth status is much like how we approach other problems parents and children encounter at home. Communication and connection are key. A therapist can also help adoptive parents navigate these waters.
While there isn’t a surefire way to ensure an adopted child feels welcomed into an adoptive family, there are certain practices that may help. If you have birth children in the home already, you can have your kids help prepare the adopted child’s room, and get a gift that’s from them.
Let your birth children know that it’s okay to ask questions about the adoption process, and help them talk about the adoption in a way that would not alienate the adopted child. How might they refer to the adopted child’s birth parents, for example? You’ll want to foster open dialogue and make sure all your children know they have your love, support, and attention.
Just like flight attendants tell you, put the oxygen mask over your own mouth before assisting children or others who need your help. This is also great parenting advice.
If you’re gasping for air (metaphorically – or sometimes even literally), you won’t be of much service to your children. Parenting is hard. Parents need help, too. Call upon that support network when you need.
Years ago, seeking out mental health care was much more taboo. Even these days, some parents are still reluctant to ask for professional help when it comes to parenting. People think they should know how to parent just because they have kids, whether through birth or adoption.
However, just about every relationship can benefit from some reflection and intention. Luckily there are a lot of resources for adoptive parents. Other people have been through adoption and situations similar to yours, and mental health specialists have identified helpful approaches.
Many children who go through adoption have experienced trauma or Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) of some sort. There may have been physical or mental abuse at the hands of the child’s birth parents, traumatic events in foster care, or the untimely death of a close relative. For any major negative life event like this, it’s important to know how this can affect your child, and what you can do to help.
There is a lot of information out there about how trauma can impact all areas of a child’s life, and there are treatment options that help children work through related issues. Make sure you are speaking with a therapist or other professional to help you navigate this difficult reality.
Many times, when adopted children are coming into their own and forming an identity, distancing from their parents, and figuring out who they are, they will express the desire to meet their birth parents. Something that may have not have come up over several years can surface during the tumultuous teen years.
The bottom line is that children need to feel love, supported, and secure, so it’s generally a good idea to make sure children know they always have their home with you, but that it’s okay to be curious about their previous experiences and relations.
Because your adopted children are bound to bear less of a family resemblance than your birth children would, it’s important to address this before it comes up in an uncomfortable way. You could talk about differences in appearance with your adopted child, but also note how you both love musicals, or remark how you and your adopted daughter can still dress alike or do your hair like twins.
Children seek connection, and while similarities may not be seen as much with outward appearance, you can still build up their self-confidence and connect on various levels.
If your adopted child comes from an ethnic or cultural background different from yours, you should acknowledge it and not try to avoid the subject. As with most relationship advice, open communication is critical.
You can seek out other children with similar backgrounds, and even connect them with other adopted children who may be in a similar situation. You can help normalize the identity and experience of your child so they don’t feel alone.
Parenting is a journey full of frustrating moments and heartwarming rewards. Having a child means many tears of joy, sadness, and sometimes what feels like utter madness.
Children bring loads of laughter and life lessons as well. Children are little humans, after all, and we’re all complex creatures with a wide range of emotional needs and gifts. There will inevitably be ups and downs, so hang on tight and try to enjoy the ride. Like Grandma tells Gil in the Steve Martin movie Parenthood, “I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it.”
If you want to hear first hand from adoptees, here’s one video that explores the wide range of experiences:
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My 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.