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Helping Kids Flourish in a New Home

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

The first days or months that an adopted child lives in their new home can feel strange or overwhelming for all involved. But these feelings are often temporary. Indeed, with support, love, and patience, most adopted children will adapt to life in their new home; many even flourish there.

Many of the milestones, challenges, and successes adoptees face are universal markers of childhood: finding friends, succeeding at school, and developing a sense of self. There are, however, some parenting questions that are unique to adoptive families, and adopted children do best when their parents acknowledge the reality of adoption and are honest with a child about his or her past and identity. Learning about adoption and making a continuous effort to help a child navigate the ups and downs of growing up adopted are the best ways to help him grow into a secure, adjusted adult.

The First Months Home

Some parents who have waited months or years for the arrival of their adopted child—often paying thousands of dollars and navigating numerous bureaucratic hoops along the way—may feel disheartened or anxious when they don’t feel as if they’ve bonded with their child immediately. They may also worry that they've done something wrong if their child seems mistrustful, tense, or otherwise uncomfortable in her new home.

But after a child arrives home, a slow adjustment process is not abnormal in the slightest; indeed, many parents, particularly those who adopted older children, report that it took months for their child to appear secure and to build trust in them. Parents of both newborns and older children often feel out of their depth at first—but with time, find that parenting starts to come naturally. Learning about bonding and attachment—and taking steps to help a child feel reassured and safe in his new home—can help parents stay positive and maintain trust in the process. A strong support system, too, can be critical for navigating obstacles that may arise along the way.

How can I help my adopted child feel at home?

Older children and those who were adopted from foster care may feel overwhelmed or even frightened in their new home; those who have moved frequently may worry that this home is temporary, too. To help them adjust, the first step is to make the physical environment as comfortable and welcoming as possible. This can be done in a number of different ways—including setting up a designated room or space for them (putting their name on the door, if possible, can help them start to think of the room as “theirs” from the moment they arrive); decorating it according to their interest; or including toys, blankets, or other mementos from previous homes. 

Parents who are adopting internationally often find it is helpful to study their child’s native language, at least a little, before their arrival. Being spoken to in a language they can understand, even if it’s just a few words or phrases, can help them feel more comfortable and less overwhelmed. Similarly, parents adopting from a different country or culture often find that it’s helpful to learn how to make dishes common to that culture or locate places from which they can order them. Adopted children—particularly those who are adopted into cultures that are vastly different from their own—may take a while to physically and mentally adjust to the local diet and are often happier starting with foods that are familiar. 

Parents should make an effort not to overwhelm the child with new people or places right away. Instead, set up consistent, simple routines that closely mimic what day-to-day life will be like, prioritize quiet time with his immediate family, and let the child know that his new environment is stable. Start to discuss family traditions and incorporate the child into them as early as possible. If the child is from a different location or culture, it’s often helpful to celebrate important holidays or incorporate elements of common cultural traditions into family rituals; this both helps the child adjust and helps her maintain a sense of pride in her cultural identity.

Most of all, parents should be patient and remember that children adjust at different rates.

I’m worried that my child won’t attach to me. Is that normal?

It’s extremely common for adoptive parents to fear that their child will not bond with them or will never be happy in his or her new family. But while attachment can certainly be slow-going, fortunately, it’s rarely the case for a child to fail to bond altogether. Learning about bonding and attachment can be beneficial, but it can also help immensely simply for parents to remind themselves that bonding isn’t a race—there’s no specific timeline that bonding must take, and children form attachments to caregivers at different rates. 

Maintaining Close Connections

As an adopted child grows and comes to feel secure in her new family, adoptive parents will also need to take steps to help her feel comfortable with her identity—both as an adoptee and as a member of her racial, cultural, and/or ethnic group. Parents may also be called upon to help children search for birth parents or facilitate communication with them if they’re already involved in a child’s life.

Both tasks—guiding identity formation and offering support in birth parent relationships—will require that parents cultivate an atmosphere of trust, honesty, and humility. Adoptees who feel that their parent(s) listen to them, respect and celebrate their differences, and are supportive of any relationships they might have with their birth family often report feeling happier and more secure in their families.

How can we best maintain a relationship with our child’s birth family?

Most experts agree that open adoptions—in which adoptive parents and birth parents are both present in the child’s life as she grows—are generally beneficial for a child’s mental health and sense of self. But many adoptive parents are unsure of the best way to navigate the relationship with birth families, which may be complex or challenging at times. 

Many parents, both birth and adoptive, find it helpful to work with a counselor to establish guidelines for meetings and communication at the time of the adoption (or upon meeting each other, if the adoption was not open from the start). Both parties should aim to be honest with each other, even about delicate or painful subjects, and do their best to stick to the terms of the agreement. 

Since adoptive parents are the ones raising the child, they have much greater say in how the child spends his or her time—thus, they will likely need to take steps to make sure he is given plenty of opportunity to communicate with and spend time with his birth family if he chooses. Doing so can be complicated by feelings of jealousy, since some adoptive parents may feel envious or anxious when they witness their adopted child form a close bond with her birth parent(s). But adoptive parents should remember that adoptees tend to feel more secure in their identities when they have knowledge of or connection to their birth family; the idea that open adoption “confuses” children or makes them unsure of who their parents are is also thought to be a myth.

Should we celebrate our child’s adoption day?

The decision to celebrate a child’s “adoption day” (also known as “gotcha day” in some adoption circles) is a personal one. Some families find that an annual celebration, much like a birthday, helps their child feel loved and connected; some children take comfort in hearing a retelling of their adoption story and how they came to join their “forever family.” 

On the other hand, some adoptive parents report that making a fuss over the day their child's adoption was finalized makes their child feel different from their biological siblings or from non-adopted friends; for some children, celebrating the day may trigger sadness about their birth families and/or feelings of loss. Understanding an individual child’s needs and personality—and asking what they would prefer to do, in some cases—can help families decide if a celebration is right for them.

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