Adoptive Parenting

Parenting an adopted child can be a wonderful experience, but it is almost always more difficult than parenting one's own biological children. In addition to the problems, challenges, and stresses inherent in raising a child, there are additional potential complications such as unknown genetic influences, the reality of the biological parents' existence, grief and loss related to the adoptive experience for both the child (over losing his biological parents) and the parents (over giving up the dreams of a biological child), and loyalty concerns.

Two key factors in the degree of difficulty in parenting an adopted child are the child's age at adoption and the environment and quality of his attachment to prior caregivers. Adopted children

(particularly those with a history of contentious or late removal from the biological parents, a long stay in an orphanage, or a history of many prior living situations) comprise a large percentage of children, adolescents, and adults with subsequent psychiatric illnesses. Among the most common of these illnesses are Reactive Attachment Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Conduct Disorder, serious mood disorders, and addictive disorders.

Each year, Americans adopt nearly 20,000 children from a variety of countries around the world. Many of these children have spent their early weeks, months, and years in orphanages. These children are more likely to have suffered varying degrees of emotional deprivation, poor health and nutritional care, neglect, trauma, and loss. Research clearly shows that there is a strong correlation between the length of stay in an orphanage and subsequent developmental delays and mental health problems.

Clearly, parenting under these circumstances requires extra diligence. Adoptive parents should:

□ UTILIZE PRINCIPLE #1 INTENSELY AND CONSISTENTLY. Holding, touching, and eye contact are critical in these situations. Newly adopted toddlers and preschoolers frequently show signs of withdrawal from affection, intense anger or rage, fear, and sadness. When you see these signs, hold your child gently but firmly through his intense emotion until he quiets down. Do this without interruption even if it takes an hour or more. He needs to know that he can express his intense emotions and that you will still be there for him. Don't stop holding him even though he may wail and thrash against you—he is actually testing you to be certain you will stay with him no matter how horrid he acts. Once his rage passes, he will settle down into your arms, in a love-filled snuggle. Your patience will be rewarded, as this time is one of the sweetest feelings you will have. If your child's rages never seem to stop and he has been in an orphanage or foster home or has a history of abuse, you may need to obtain professional help to assist you in this attachment process.


Adoption can trigger feelings of abandonment in a child—after all, from his perspective his first parents, regardless of the reason, abandoned him. No matter how little time your child spent with his biological parents, he still has had to sever his primary connection. All parents of newborn adoptees must anticipate that their infant needs to "grieve" the loss of the mother within whose body he spent his first nine months. If you permit some of the early signs of grieving (more intense crying, listlessness, etc.), you can minimize the disruption that comes from changing parents. Your child, regardless of his age, may go through stages of shock, anger, withdrawal, sadness, and despair before finally achieving a sense of acceptance of his new environment.

□ TALK TO YOUR CHILD ABOUT ADOPTION—never keep it a secret. Secrets destroy his trust in you because he will either sense something (no matter how deep and unconscious) or he will discover this secret from someone else. In either situation, he will feel betrayed. Don't let this happen. Tell him the moment he is in your arms, even if you think he is too young to understand. Say something like, "Honey, though you didn't grow in my tummy you grew in my heart. You have different biological parents, but we will always be your real parents because we will love you and raise you. Your biological parents loved you too in their own way, and we are so thrilled they gave you life so you can continue to grow in our hearts and home. We will love you forever." If you adopt a child in infancy, he should never be able to remember when he learned he was adopted—it should simply be something he has always known.

□ READ TO YOUR CHILD ABOUT ADOPTION. There are many wonderful books about adoption available for young children. Choose books that most clearly match your child's history and past. As you read the book, you can add your child's information among the pages to personalize the story for him. This can become a treasured memory.

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