Many adoptive parents believe that once a child is placed in their home, the most difficult phase is behind them. In reality, the post-adoption phase can be where the biggest challenges arise. Many adoption related issues do not arise until long after finalization, and adoptive parents must be prepared for the lifelong process of adoption.
Post-adoption depression syndrome may occur within a few weeks of finalization as the realities of parenthood and parental responsibilities can be overwhelming. Identifying as a parent to a particular child may be a gradual process. Adoptive parents can do a number of things to help them adjust to their new status as parents and as a family. (Zosky, 2005)
- Connect with parents with a similar adoption – Learning how other parents made the adjustment can be reassuring.
- Establish family traditions or rituals – Establish daily or weekly schedules of activities. Rituals can be simplistic: movie night, family game night, reading a bed time story.
- Create a family storybook – Creating a family story helps each member feel a sense of belonging.
- Connect with your child’s birth culture – Develop a strong family identity that involves all members of the family; value family diversity.
- Prepare to respond to outsiders – Practice how to respond to questions, how much of your child’s story to share and how to inform relatives and others about adoption.
Building relationships and strengthening attachment is a crucial component for adoptive parents and in an adopted child’s emotional development. When children join families through adoption, building relationships and resiliency become very important. Attaching to a primary caregiver allows children to establish healthy relationships and form their sense of identity and provides them with a sense of safety and security. Adoptive parents are often concerned about if their child is forming a healthy attachment to them. (Beem, 2014)
Since attachment is an ongoing process, adoptive parents can help build these healthy bonds in many ways. One way to encourage these bonds to grow is by spending time with the child. Spending a significant amount of time engaging in one-on-one interaction is crucial. Intentionally take time and be with your child so you can positively focus on them. Julie Beem, executive director of the Attachment and Trauma Network, Inc., ATN, developed “do’s and don’ts” for building healthy relationships with your adopted child. They include:
- Intentionally spend time in positive interaction
- Actively focus on connecting – Find ways to connect with your child. Concentrate on finding shared interests and remain playful.
- Use touch, facial expressions and movement to communicate safety and
acceptance – dancing, snuggle time, massages, convey warmth through eye contact, tone of voice and demeanor.
- Meet children’s emotional needs at their level
- Do not underestimate the importance of attachment – Healthy attachment builds a child’s resilience to traumatic events.
- Do not assume that you and your child will instantly bond – Instant bonding is highly unlikely. Instant familiarity is not healthy attachment.
- Do not take it personally – Adopted children can have very rejecting and complex behaviors due to the abuse and neglect they suffered. Understanding the impact of this trauma will be crucial.
- Do not hesitate to seek support – Seek support sooner, rather than later. Adoption-competent professionals who focus on attachment can work with both the child and parents. Adoption support groups can provide strategies to help families build healthy relationships.
Building healthy relationships with an adopted child is a process that takes time. Adoptive parents often embark on the journey with unrealistic expectations of themselves and the adoptive child. It is impossible to undo years of trauma a child has endured simply with love. It is unrealistic to believe a child will “heal” after a short time in a safe home and will not have long term reactions to the earlier trauma often expressed through challenging behaviors. (Smalley, 2014)
When these expectations are not met, many adoptive parents are left feeling inadequate, guilty and a failure. The reality is that the adoptive parents did not create the problems their adopted child may have. Permanency is a life long journey in which adopted parents are not charged with “fixing” their adopted child’s problems but rather to provide them with safety, nurturing and commitment so the children find permanence and begin to heal themselves.