Raising an Adopted Child

Today, many families are turning to adoption to start or to expand a family. Whether due to issues with infertility or to a desire to extend love and care to a child in need, adoption is a way of enjoying the blessing of family life.

If you are thinking about adopting a child or if you have already adopted a youngster, consider the following tips:

Important Facts to Consider
When we think of having a baby in the family, we usually imagine a smiling little cherubnik cuddled in our arms. The reality of small human beings is often very different however. Children are complex, bringing a host of exhausting, painful, frightening and difficult  experiences to parents. While it is possible to find oneself raising a very easy child, it is even more likely to find oneself raising a complicated little person with a variety of issues (because that’s just how people are!). While there is no reason to expect worse case scenarios, realistic expectations of child-rearing can help adoptive parents be prepared for the journey of raising a child and be sure that this is what they want. Consider the normal and common challenges: a baby can suffer from intense colic or various health issues. Toddlers can be wild and uncontrollable. School-age children are often uncooperative or even defiant. When parents of naturally born children discover their child has developmental issues of some kind – learning disabilities, emotional problems or behavioral challenges – they handle the stress knowing that this is their child who they must raise the best they can. When their adolescent rebels, goes on drugs or gets into trouble with the law, they feel intense pain but they know that this comes with the territory of raising children. Adoptive parents can face a bit more difficulty in coming to terms with the difficulties in parenting and particularly with difficult-to-raise children. If it turns out that their adopted child has truly challenging issues, they may feel that they got a raw deal or that they could have had an easier life if only they hadn’t gone to the trouble of adopting. Just like natural parents, adoptive parents have to be psychologically prepared for everything and anything. Having or adopting a child is something like buying a piece of property “sight unseen.” As long as you are prepared for this reality, you will be able to take the challenges of child-rearing more in stride.

Biological Parents in the Picture
Whether you decide to be open about the adoption with your child, or you want to keep it a secret until the right time, your child will almost certainly want to meet his or her biological parents someday. You will eventually have to face the task of sharing what you know about them, and assisting your child in the search for them. This can sometimes be a painful process for both the child and the adoptive parents. Your child has to process issues of abandonment and feelings of not being wanted. You have to deal with the reality that being an adopted parent is a special role, one that involves forever sharing your child with the people who brought him or her to the world, whether in fact or just in your child’s mind. However, being prepared for this part of the parenting journey helps significantly. If possible, find out what this process was like for other parents – how they went about it, how it felt for them, their child and the biological parents. The internet alone is filled with group sites, blogs, and forums catering to adoptive families. Others can offer practical and emotional support to ease the way.

Family history is a critical part of a person’s identity, and your child may even struggle with the issue of why he or she is put for adoption in the first place. Your child may go through an “identity crisis” as he or she tries to work out his or her place in the world in general and in your family in particular. A child’s racial and cultural heritage will always be a significant part of his or her persona. Recognizing and honoring all parts of the child’s background helps the child to remain healthy and whole.

Relationships are Nurtured and Healed with Love
Just like their adoptive parents, adopted children have an extra set of issues to contend with in their family. They know that they come from other people and this creates a challenge for them. Children always resent their parents at some point because parents, being just regular human beings, sometimes behave poorly or make poor judgments or somehow manage to let their kids down. Naturally born children take this in stride, having the “luxury” so to speak, of resenting their folks but knowing that these are their parents. Adopted kids will also experience disappointment in or anger at their adoptive parents but they may think, “my real parents would have loved me more” or “why did I have to get adopted by these horrible people?” Expect your child to go through bad moments of feeling completely alienated. Allow for the bumpy road. But continue to do the best you can, providing consistent, unwavering love and generous doses of positive communication. In the end, this will help to ensure that your adopted child will be as close to you throughout life as any “natural born” child would be.

Unsettled After Death, Divorce or Other Trauma

Although most of us wish that children could be sheltered from the pain in life, the reality is that many youngsters endure real trauma during their developmental years. One of the more common forms of modern trauma is the breakup of the family. Divorce is certainly hard for the adults who go through it but it can actually be traumatic for children – because of the loss of contact with a beloved parent, because of conflict that accompanies it, or because of life changes such as moving away from friends and family, acquiring a “step family” and so on. Death of a parent is another, usually traumatizing, experience that many children endure. But many children endure all kinds of other traumas that are less spoken about such as the serious illness and/or death of a sibling, family violence or chronic, intense conflict, addictions or mental illness within the family and much, much more. Children react to these kinds of intense stresses differently from adults. In fact, parents may not even realize that the child is suffering, since one of the common ways that kids handle overwhelming stress is to “act normal!”

If there has been intense stress in your child’s life, consider the following tips:

No Reaction is a Reaction
Suppose your friend was a passenger in a car that experienced a serious collision. The driver and two other passengers were instantly killed. The car was demolished, blood was everywhere, four firetrucks, 3 ambulances and 5 police vehicles were on the scene within minutes. Your friend miraculously escaped unharmed. Over the next days, weeks and months, this friend went about his or her business as if nothing at all had happened. He or she ate well, continued to joke around and enjoy life, never spoke about the accident and just went on very much “as normal.” Wouldn’t you find that a bit strange?

This is exactly the way many children respond to traumatic events in their lives. Instead of registering the pain and acting it out, they appear on the outside to be completely fine. What has probably happened, however, is that the overwhelming pain has been dissociated – cut off from the child’s conscious awareness. It is stored somewhere where the child can’t feel it just yet. It may surface years or even decades later, as more life stress builds up and eventually triggers it. Sometimes, it remains mentally dissociated for a lifetime, but expresses itself through the body in various forms of physical disease. The reason that children dissociate in this way is that they don’t have the emotional or intellectual resources to assimilate the experience. In other words, they just can’t handle it at the time it is happening.

If it appears that your child is not affected by a traumatic event, in reality he is quite likely affected! However, you can help. First of all, make sure that YOU are talking about the events. Some parents think, “why rock the boat? If my kid isn’t bothered by the tragedy, I’m sure not going to mention it!” Or, parents think to themselves, “the child is too young to understand or care about what is happening. There is no need to discuss it with him or her.” This is exactly the opposite of a helpful response. The child is likely to assume that the incident or events CANNOT be spoken about because they are way too terrible. On the other hand, when parents talk about what is happening and name their own feelings about it, they help children to take in the experience as a legitimate part of life and they help the child learn that his or her feelings about it are normal, expected, healthy and welcome. For instance, suppose a family suffers a crib death of their new baby. The mother can approach their children aged 4 and 6 and say something like, “It is so sad for all of us that our baby died. Daddy and I are so sad right now. You might be feeling that way too. We’re also confused. It’s hard to understand how this happened so suddenly; the baby was healthy just yesterday! You must also be feeling confused. We will all be thinking about this for quite awhile. Eventually, the pain will go away and we’ll all be happy again.” Parents can include any spiritual beliefs that they hold and want to provide their kids with at times of tremendous stress and upheaval.

Physical Reactions
While children may not be able to express their shock and pain in words, they may be able to feel it in their bodies. Headaches, tummy aches, colds and flu’s can all increase as an aftermath of intense stress. Play therapy can help children who are “somatizing” (sending emotions through their physical bodies) and talking therapies can help older kids and teens in the same way. Once emotions are acknowledged, physical complaints often subside.

Sleep Issues May be a Reaction
A child may have trouble sleeping through the night or sleeping alone in his or her bed. Or, the child may have trouble falling asleep or may suffer from nightmares. This may be part of a larger syndrome of Acute Stress Disorder (that happens as a trauma is occurring or within the month following) or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (that happens more than a month after traumatic events have ended) or Chronic Stress Disorder (the effects of ongoing stress such as living with family violence or addiction or other deeply disturbing issues).

Psychotherapy will help the child clear out the feelings of stress. This will allow him or her to have restful, normal sleep.

Anxiety and Mood Issues may be a Reaction
A child or teen may experience panic attacks, separation anxiety (always wanting to be in the presence of loved ones), increased irritability or chronic sadness. Again, when parents are able to talk about what is happening in the family, children experience fewer emotional symptoms. Sometimes, however, the child or teen may benefit most from personal counseling in order to process the events and lift the burden of stress from the mind oand body.

Misbehavior or “Acting Out” may be a Reaction
Sometimes children become rebellious, disrespectful, impulsive or otherwise poorly behaved at home and/or school in response to stress that is happening at home. Particularly if the poor behavior is a change from previous functioning, parents should consider the possibility of this being a reaction to stress. Counseling for the parents may help reduce the stress in the home and the child’s behavior may simply improve by itself as a consequence. However, some of the stress that may trigger poor behavior are not remediable by parent counseling (for instance, the death of a family member). Nonetheless, parents may benefit from counseling that can address specific behavior and emotional interventions that THEY can provide for their child at home. If these are insufficient, the child him or herself, may need some sort of counseling or behavior therapy.

New Life with a New Baby

Now that there is a baby in the picture, your life will never be the same. The freedom and carefree days of youth are behind and the days of responsibility have taken their place. No matter how eager one has been to start a family or how mature or ready one is for this happy time, there will still be many challenging adjustments. Understanding and accepting the challenges of new parenting can make the adjustment to parenthood easier and less stressful.

Sleep, Mood and Functioning
Part of what makes new parenthood difficult is sleep deprivation and/or interruption. A baby needs 24 hour care; it does not “shut down” for the night – at least not at first. Parents may have their sleep interrupted every couple of hours. What is the result of this on mood and functioning? Sleep research indicates that insufficient or poor quality sleep can lower mood, increase irritability and lead to making more errors. Bleary-eyed parents have increased feelings of stress along with their exhaustion. While this is all so normal, it is not so pleasant.

Some couples find helpful solutions for this sleep crunch. For instance, in some homes, only the mother handles night-time parenting while the father gets uninterrupted sleep. The mother then takes one or more naps in the daytime while Dad is at work. This can work out well as long as the baby is a good daytime sleeper and Mom is willing to use daytime hours for sleeping or as long as their is a good babysitter available and Mom is willing to use daytime hours for sleeping. Some moms seem to think that they should get all their errands and household tasks done while a baby sleeps. This is fine as long as the mother has slept well in the evening; it is not fine if she only had a few hours of nightime sleep or constantly interrupted sleep.

Some couples hire a baby nurse for the evening care of the infant for a few weeks after birth. Of course, this doesn’t work well if the mother wants to nurse the infant. Some couples supplement nursing with bottle-feeding during the night so that Mom and Dad can give each other relief as one sleeps and the other does baby care.

Any system is fine as long as both mother and father end up having a decent amount of rest. Realistically, sleep will not look much like pre-baby sleep for weeks, often months and sometimes years after a baby is born. However, minimizing sleep loss is a reasonable goal.

Endless Responsibility
Another change that occurs is that a young couple cannot as easily and spontaneously go out and have fun. A babysitter must be arranged or the baby and all its paraphernalia (diaper bag, stroller, car seat and so on) must be packed. This slows things down, sometimes to a halt. It is important not to allow the baby to make a parent housebound. This can increase isolation and depressed mood. Although it is necessary to plan better and take longer, being active is better for everyone’s mental health.

New Marital Challenges
Division of labor normally has to be renegotiated after the birth of a baby. Finding a respectful way to divide tasks is essential. Husband and wife have to reduce self-centered ways of functioning and be prepared to give to each other and their baby. Both mothers and fathers have a lot to learn in the first year of childcare. They must be supportive of each other as this learning occurs and trust each other’s love for their child. When the marital adjustment to life with a baby doesn’t go smoothly, accessing professional help early can prevent suffering and marital trauma (unhappy periods that haunt the rest of the marriage). Usually a professional counselor can help young couples find healthy ways to take care of themselves, each other and their infant.

Coming Out Happier and Stronger
Parenthood can enhance a marriage when it is done consciously with a focus on increasing love all around. Reading parenting books, joining online communities, taking parenting classes and so on can help provide more options than one would have thought of on one’s own. Other people have gone down this road before – tap their collective wisdom to make your own parenting journey as healthy and happy as it can be.