Saturday, December 22, 2012

Supporting and Understanding the Adoptive Family

About eighteen months ago our family expanded through the adoption of two children. We have learned so much and the family and friends who love and support our family have also learned a lot. Though we had previous parenting experience, this journey has had it's own unique joys and challenges.

Many adoptive families give written advice and suggestions to friends and family prior to the new child's arrival to help ensure a smooth transition. I didn't do this because I felt like it would be too difficult to put my wishes and feelings into words without sounding too harsh or controlling and honestly I did not really even know what to say. However, after being home for almost a year and a half, it is clear that most people have great intentions but that they want and need suggestions for what they can do to help our adopted children integrate into our family and into the community. Here are a few thoughts about supporting an adoptive family. Most pertain to families who have adopted internationally and also to those who have adopted through the domestic route. It was compiled based on our experience and also on the the experiences of a few dozen other adoptive parents who contributed their ideas and suggestions.

Our children are not necessarily grateful to have been adopted.
And we don't expect them to be. It is not that our kids don't notice the stability of a family. It's not that they don't cherish the love that they are receiving or that they don't like their new life. It is because children are programmed to need, want and expect love. When we provide it we are not heroes, we are simply meeting one of their very basic needs. Expecting adopted children to be grateful for being adopted is like expecting our biological children to be grateful for being conceived. It was a choice that we, their parents, made and that they were brought into.

Please don't feed my kids. 
For children who have known hunger, food means love. We want them to learn to love us, their parents and siblings, before they bond with extended family, neighbors and friends. I know that they stare longingly at anything edible. I know that our two year old puts his head on the table and looks at you with puppy dog eyes. But since we were not there to meet their early needs (breast or bottle feeding, comforting them when they were sick, changing diapers, kissing boo boos) we need to make up for it by meeting as many of their physical and emotional needs as possible now. Many adopted children also have food insecurities. Some eat until they vomit and then start eating again. Others hoard food, needing the comfort of knowing that there is some saved for later. It is best to leave all feeding to the parents unless specifically directed otherwise.

Parenting an adopted child is hard work and we struggle.  
We may tell you that were okay when we're really falling apart. We're worried that if we are honest about how difficult it is that you won't understand and that you'll think we're nuts. Adding a child who may or may not have anything in common with us socially, culturally, biologically or even personality-wise is challenging. Though undoubtedly beautiful and worth all of the struggles, adoption certainly isn't always easy or pretty.

It is greatly appreciated if you choose your wording carefully, especially around our children. 
Yes, these are all our "real" kids (though sometimes it would be nice if all of my kids, adopted and biological, had "off" switches) and, in most situations, you probably do not need to specify whether you are talking about my "adopted kids" or my "biological kids". They are all my kids even if they joined us through different paths.

If you'd like to offer support (meal, help with house cleaning, etc) when an adopted child joins the family,  please do even if we don't reach out and ask.
Many of us won't specifically ask for help or tell you what we need. However, I don't know a single adoptive mom who would turn down an offer to have a group of friends tidy/clean her house during those first few weeks at home with a new child. Likewise, coffee and chocolate are most always welcome and might be exactly what a new adoptive mom needs to get through those challenging times of adjustment!

Please don't try to get our child to like you the most.
Attachment and bonding are challenging enough without having friends and family slip our children candy, shower them with gifts, offer seconds at meals or encouraging bending and stretching of family rules. We're already working our tails off to get them to like us. With consistency and time they will learn to like you too, I promise.

Our adopted children had lives before they joined our family. 
They had/have birth families and other relatives who are important to them and who deserve recognition and credit too. They have had life experiences that, while sometimes different than ours, are still special and valuable.

Be considerate of the types of questions that you ask about our child's background and personal history, especially in their presence and especially if they are old enough to understand.
Would it offend you if someone asked if you have AIDS, if you were abandoned, if your parents were drug users or how your parents died? If so, best not to ask these questions to someone else. We understand that it is normal to be curious and to wonder about the circumstances that led to a child's adoption. However, these are things that we discuss openly in our immediate family but not elsewhere. Our children may or may not choose to divulge more of their personal stories someday when they are older but they are THEIR stories and details to share, not mine.

Sometimes adopted children need to be parented differently than biological children. 
We are not spoiling them. We aren't making excuses for poor behavior. Rather, we are parenting a child whose background may be very dissimilar to anything we've experienced. A child who has been abandoned and who has a fear of abandonment shouldn't be sent to time out alone in another room. A child who is still attaching to their adoptive family may need to be firmly held while having loving, affirming words whispered into their ear during a full-blown tantrum. The types of consequences that work for other children might not work for a child who doesn't have the same sense of value of their possessions and who doesn't understand what it means to have privileges. As parents, we must be flexible to help meet the individual needs of our child even if it means that we do things a little differently sometimes.

If you would like to give a gift to our new child, please consider something small that the whole family can enjoy together.
A few ideas are a frozen meal, a gift card to the movies, a small ornament commemorating the adoption or art supplies for all of the kids to share. We know that you want to welcome our new additions but gifts can be overwhelming for children who have had few material possessions. Also, we want our children to learn to love you for who you are, not for the fact that they hope they'll get another gift the next time they see you again. Other siblings may also experience jealousy and resentment if the new addition suddenly receives an armory of gifts and they are excluded.

Attachment takes time and work.
It doesn't happen overnight. Even if it appears that our child is securely attached to us it may take many months or years and every child and every family bonds differently. Many times we're faking it until we make it but one day we will wake up and realize that we're not faking it anymore and that our love is deep and real.

Parents who have recently added a child through adoption need support, friendship, love and encouragement.
Even if we're somewhat withdrawn and spending a lot of time at home cocooning with our new addition we value our friendships. Please continue to check up on us and to email, text, call or stop by. If you were in our life before we still want you in our life and in the lives of our children!

Please refrain from commenting on our child's appearance (specifically relating to ethnicity/race) in front of him or her.
All children want to feel included and to fit in. Pointing out how dark they are, how differently they look from the rest of us or how unique their hair feels only makes them feel like they stand out more.

Please do not ask adopted children if they like their new parents/family.
Adopted children do not usually get to hand pick their family. Adoption is similar to an arranged marriage and unique, sometimes very different people are brought together. With hard work and patience true love may grow. However, ask ANY child, biological or adopted (especially any older child!) if they like their parents and be prepared for some interesting answers!

It takes time to help children start to heal from a difficult past.
Just because they have been with us for a certain amount of time does not mean that the are "fixed". On the other hand, just because children are adopted does not necessarily mean that they will be any more difficult, defiant, less successful or anything else as teenagers or adults.

Educating your children about adoption and diversity helps my children. 
Talking openly about adoption, children who look different than one or both parents and other "nontraditional" family structures helps our children feel accepted and secure at extracurricular activities, church, school and elsewhere in our community.

Our new additions are not celebrities.
We appreciate all of the love and support that we were shown during our adoption process and we know that everyone is excited to meet them. However, taking photos of just our adopted child or pouring attention on them while ignoring our other children is not healthy for anyone. The child who is receiving all of the attention often feels singled out and siblings quickly become resentful.

Our children may be "delayed" when they join our family but often they just need time.  
Adopted children are placed into environments that may be very different than anything they've ever experienced. They may be overstimulated, confused and sometimes there are language barriers. With time and patience most emotional, intellectual and physical delays will be overcome.

Please do not tell us how amazing we (parents) are because we have chosen to adopt. 
We know that this comment is usually intended as a compliment but our adopted kids are not burdens, charity cases or a community service project to be completed.  As parents we gladly invest the time and energy needed to ensure the happiness and well-being of any of our children.

We may discourage physical contact with our child for the first several months that they are home or until we feel like they are securely attached to us.
Please do not insist on holding them, hugging them or having them sit on your lap. Many children who have lived in orphanages and institutions learn to fight for adult attention. Often they can put on quite the show and act like the most friendly, charming child to draw attention to themselves. While it may be cute and though it gives the false impression that they are well-adjusted and confident, it is very important that initially the parents are the only adults who help fulfill these children's need for physical affection. This also teaches healthy boundaries and is a safety consideration since no child, adopted or biological, should feel obligated to have close physical contact with someone that they do not know well.

We do not advertise our child's "cost".
If you would like to know how expensive our adoption process was, please ask when our children are not present, call after our kids are in bed or send us an email. Most adoptive families are happy to share our experiences and to provide helpful information but we do not ever want our children to feel like they were bought or that they are commodities.

When the going gets tough please do not ask if we regret our decision to adopt or imply that "we asked for it".
Few people would tell a sleep-deprived mother of a colicky newborn "well, you asked for this" and it would be considered rude to ask a new mother if she regretted her decision to have a baby. Just because something is difficult does not mean that we regret it. There are bumps in the road of every journey.

Even the happiest of adoptions are a result of challenging or difficult circumstances. 
Though we like to think of adoption as a "happy ending", birth parents may have made difficult decisions, children may have faced losses and many lives were forever changed. Though most adopted children grow to be happy, well-adjusted adults and though most adoptive families are beautiful and full of love, it is important not to romanticize adoption.

And, most importantly:

No one is perfect.
If you slip and call our biological kids our "real" kids or if you've already asked "What happened to his mother?" we won't hold a grudge. We know that our family is different. We understand that it is impossible to be sensitive and politically correct in every situation all the time. These are ideas and suggestions, not commandments.

We appreciate that you care about our family. We cannot thank you enough for wanting to learn more about supporting and understanding the adoptive family and for helping make this transition as smooth as possible for all of us!

If you would like to read more about supporting adoptive families, adjustment and how you can help, "After the Airport" is a great blog post.  "I am not Super Mom: Ten things I want you to know about adoption" is another good read.


  1. Love this post and sharing widely with family and friends! Thanks :)

  2. Thank you so much for sharing these things. I know many adoptive families and this is very helpful. I will share with my friends and family too. May the Lord bless you and keep you through it all!

  3. Thanks! I just read this and we have recently started our adoption journey. We have come across lots of interesting responses from our friends and family. So I am liking the help from others who have done this and gone through this already.

  4. I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you. We are on our way to China next year and this all very excellent advice.

  5. Excellent post. Thank you for your honesty!

  6. Kathy Costley-SakonaJanuary 2, 2013 at 2:15 PM

    Thank you!!! With five homegrown and five heartgrown kids, this sums up SO much of our experience and so many of the things I say and experience on a daily basis!!!

  7. I was adopted when I was about 12 maybe younger dont really remember. I'm 19 now and my parents would have found this so helpful back then..
    Very nice. :)

  8. Excellent post. We adopted 3 siblings 12 years ago (to add to our 2 bio ones). It has been a struggle and unbelievable journey where we have an older siblings who is estranged but the younger two are finally attached after years of therapy. Long, long road but God is faithful to provide and sustain. God bless on this journey.
    Marty@Marty's Musings

  9. We received our referral last week, and sent this post on to our family and friends!

  10. EXCELLENT post!!! We just adopted a sibling group of 3 and we have 2 biological children and this could not sum up our life any better! Thank you so much for sharing!

  11. You put into words so many things I have thought over the years we have adopted our children. I know people mean well but they just don't know what to say or how to act. Thank you for putting this all so kindly. I am going to pass it on!

  12. This is fantastic. I've found myself wondering how to "prepare" friends and family... definitely an excellent resource. Found this through a link by BCS on FB, and I'm glad to have discovered your blog and your journey :)

  13. Thank you for this! We are waiting to bring our daughter home from Ethiopia (hopefully next month), so it was good to have this to go ahead and share now with our family and friends.

  14. I've adopted 3 children and yes have had many struggles but I love each and everyone and someday they will look back and say thank you mom.....many times children don't understand why you love them after they have put you through so much and they greatest words you can say because you are special to me and God wanted you to be here with me

  15. Good advice! :)

    Lauren -

  16. I couldn't have said it better myself, amazing! Thank you.

  17. Beautifully, gently, and lovingly said. Thank you. I'm sharing this for sure.

  18. This post is spot on and should be widely read and disseminated. I wish I had come across this when I was writing my book about raising an older child adopted from Russia. The advise is excellent!

  19. This is wonderful! Thank you for sharing!

  20. I love so much of what you have had to say. I would add that some things do depend on the age of the child that has been adopted. Also, I would rather see a suggestion of "You should consider...." and "Ask their parents if it's ok to...." rather than a list of do's and don'ts. My husband and I are both adopted (him as a baby, myself as an older child) and we are now in the process of adopting children ourselves. I will keep this list handy, revamp it some and share it with our friends and family! Thanks for having a heart for adoptive children and for those families who are willing to open heart and home.

  21. This is wonderful. When we first came home with our daughter, we tried to express many of these ideas to people and were brushed off or treated as overprotective new parents who would soon know better. With our second adoption, hopefully finalized in June, we will be more forceful, yet kind in sharing this type of information with others.

  22. As an adoptive mom of 2 and bio mom of 2, I can relate to this and love what you've said. I especially appreciate when you said "Sometimes adopted children need to be parented differently."

    I'm curious, though...I hear a lot of adoptive moms/bloggers say, "Please don't tell me I'm amazing for adopting..." I honestly don't understand why this offends/upsets adoptive parents. Not that I think I'm more amazing than any other parent because I've chosen to adopt, but why would you not want to be called amazing for ANY reason? I mean, if I get my laundry done, I would like someone to call me "amazing." It truly is a compliment coming from people with pure motives who truly admire what adoptive parents do. Not everyone sees themselves adopting, and think it's a pretty incredible thing. Take it for what it is...a compliment. And say thank you. Don't take offense a that.

    I also think it's a pretty incredible thing when someone chooses to give a child a home.

    So, I would also say, adoptive parents (all parents) are amazing.

    Just my 2 cents.

    Thanks for the great post.

    1. My thought as well!

      I appreciate the cautions about not speaking in front of the kid, holding or giving them candy/food... but a lot of this just seems overkill to me. Adoption is hard. Parenting is hard... no one's gonna "get it" fully-- so don't expect them to. People comment all the time on my bio kids, sometimes things I wish they wouldn't say, but it's ok. Just assume that most of the time, people mean well.

    2. Eowyn's Heir, if you have adopted children then I'm sure you realize that they need to learn to TRUST and that they need to HEAL. It is very difficult for children to do either if their world is filled with change, new people, inconsistency and comments that take away from the bonding with their new family during those critical first few months home. Yes, some of it may be overkill for some children and in some cases. However, for other families these types of suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg and the children require much more extreme measures for their world to feel safe and secure.

      Most people DO have good intentions- but that doesn't mean that we can't all stand to learn something if it will make a child's life a little bit easier.

  23. Thank you all so much for the feedback! I'm glad that many of you have found this to be helpful! I enjoyed writing it and collaborating with so many other adoptive parents.

    Sandy, you make a GREAT point! Accepting a compliment for what it is seems to be a lost art. When someone says "Wow, you look great for having just had a baby!" or another genuine compliment we should just give a heartfelt thanks instead of playing it off.

    I do think that most people say it sincerely and with admiration when they comment on how "amazing" we are for adopting. However, I think this specific compliment bothers me a little bit because it implies that our kids are the victims or they somehow owe us for adopting them. I may be especially sensitive to this since our daughter is older and very aware of the commentary that she hears about our family but I try to think of the reverse of this comment and how it would make me feel. If someone said to her "Wow, you're amazing for living with those people!" it would feel like they were implying that I was difficult or burdensome. I can't help but wonder if she feels the same way when people remark how "amazing" my husband and I are for choosing to adopt two of our children. Living with a child who isn't biologically ours IS challenging at times and maybe the fact that we spent time and money to bring her into our family is unusual or surprising to some but we don't ever want our kids to feel like they are undeserving of getting to grow up in a family!

    I'm not sure if this makes sense or if I articulated it well. VERY good point that you've made since I never want to sound ungracious!


    1. wow you said it all I have 5 bio children some adopted and some fostered children of whomever are all loved and special . our roads get a little bumpy but little steps .We many times are told they are so lucky having you guys as parents . I quickly respond no we are the lucky ones They have taught us so much and at the end of the day we hug and say we love them they are all Gods gifts no matter what size color genda etc. After raising children for 38yrs I can look back and say it was a heck of a journey but we are so rich.Choose your battles and every day is a new one.

    2. I agree with you about the compliment. We adopted internationally - a sibling group of 5 - and people stop us (strangers, too) and tell us how amazing we are and tell our kids that they should feel lucky and aren't they happy we are so amazing. I have prepared my kids for this, but it is not a fun conversation! We wanted a family - they wanted a family and here we are. Day to day - chores, discipline, failures, mistakes - we are no more amazing than any other parent. I love the list you made - wish we had it when we first adopted - however I am a firm believer in helping others learn the truth about adoption! THANK YOU!

  24. Wow, Ashlee, this was an excellent post. I'm an adoption-focused social worker, and I loved it. I'll be sharing it broadly :)

  25. THANK YOU! We will be fostering-to-adopt a precious little 3 year old over the next couple months and I haven't even thought about many of the topics you posted. So helpful and I will be passing along to my supportive friends and family.

  26. Excellent post! I'll be sharing this a LOT!

    Lisa H.

  27. I'm praying & learning about adoption right now & this was excellent. thank you

  28. Sharing this with my friend who recently adopted from Hong Kong. I know many things you wrote will be so helpful for her and her family as they welcome their daughter into their family.

  29. Excellent advise. Thank you. I often feel like I am crazy when Im out shopping and someone asks me "are they all your children? Every one of them? Like you gave birth to them all?" or "where does she get her red hair? No one else in the family has red hair." I feel backed into a corner and frustrated. I HATE it when I get asked "what did the parents do to have him taken away?" or make comments about how the parent should be "beat themselves". Seriously? Right in front of him? Adoption is not as easy or as wonderful as I thought it would be. Bonding is extremely tough especially when people are uneducated or inconsiderate about adoption. Those are all excellent bullet points, and very helpful.

  30. You have put so well...i am a (biological) mother of a 6 year old and (adoptive) mother of 3 year old who has been with us for 7 months now....this is exactly our experience too...

    Lakshmi (Chennai, India)

  31. Great post!!!

    I wish I had this list of ideas and requests when we first began to adopt. I'd have had printed copies with me all the time to just pass out to family and well-meaning friends.

    Some of the things you wrote I understand why some things others did irritated me :)

    God's Blessings

  32. This is great! We will be adopting teenagers from foster care and although some of this won't apply. I think I will make nice little fliers more suited to our situation to send to family and friends and keep some to hand out! :) Thanks for writing this! My husband and I had never even thought about some of these things! This is GREAT!

  33. I really love this post. My kids look like me so we don't often get questions from random strangers, but friends and family are still curious. This is very helpful and kind and so concise. Do you mind if I link back to this post from my blog and copy it there as well? I have several people who receive the posts by email and probably won't click on a link. I really want to share this well-written information with my friends, family, and readers.
    Instant Mama

    1. Thanks for the kind words! You are welcome to share!

  34. What a wonderful post. We have been blessed to be adoptive parents for 16 years. As a matter of fact our youngest son's GOTCHA day is today. Thanks for sharing your wisdom on paper, as it's not always easy to get those messages across to well-meaning friends and family. I thank God everyday for my family. And it's all due to adoption.

  35. Love this! Thanks for sharing :)

  36. Thank you for sharing this post. I came across this yesterday as I was trying to put into words the very same thoughts. :) We just came home 3 weeks ago with our daughter. I shared this on our blog and also on facebook - several of my friends also shared it as there are a number of us who have recently come home with our children and truly appreciate the sentiments shared here. I have already received positive feedback about what you have written here. So thank you!!!

  37. Also, at the end of the day, kids will be kids.."Sometimes a tantrum is simply a tantrum and has nothing to do w/adoption. It is simply growing up", says an intl adoptee friend of mine. So much of our family dynamics continue to be typical family stuff. For me, the more difficult was being the Pastor's kid and living in a fishbowl.

  38. Great post! Been reading a lot about different aspects of adoption. Thanks for the info!

  39. Very nice article! We are a adoption community( Texas. I would suggest adoptive parents and my team to go through the article. Good Job. Such blogs will really help our children to stay happy.

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