Helping Kids Flourish in a New Home
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.
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.
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.
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.
Those who are adopting newborns should prioritize close physical contact, talking or singing to the baby, meeting their needs quickly and consistently (feeding them when they’re hungry, changing them when they wet themselves, comforting them when they cry, etc). Newborns, adopted or not, do best when their parents establish predictable routines; routines help infants recognize that their environment is stable, their needs will be met, and their caregivers are in control.
For older children, the process of bonding may vary slightly depending on the child’s background. In general, offering consistent affection and attention—without overdoing it—can help a child feel secure and loved. As with newborns, sticking to a consistent routine is critical for older children; in addition, establishing clear and fair house rules can help her understand the permanency of her new home and get a sense of how her family functions. Parents should keep lines of communication open at all times and let children know that they are there to talk whenever they child likes. Celebrating longstanding traditions and starting new rituals can help an adopted child feel special and help her understand her place in her new family.
Parents whose children have undergone significant trauma may find it helpful to speak to a therapist or adoption expert; he or she can help parents encourage attachment without frightening or overwhelming the child.
Adoptive sibling relationships can ultimately be close and rewarding. But they often require careful navigation, especially in the first few months, to help children cope with jealousy, mistrust, or feelings of competitiveness.
Parents can help smooth the process by preparing their child for the arrival of their new sibling long beforehand. This can be accomplished by reading books about adoption, watching adoption-themed movies, or simply by having periodic conversations in which the child is invited to ask questions about adoption and express any concerns. Let them know that while some things may feel different, they will always be loved by their parents.
Once the adopted child arrives home, parents should provide plenty of opportunities for the siblings to spend fun, low-pressure time together playing, reading, or watching TV. Alone time, too, is important—neither child should feel as if they’re being pressured to spend time with their new sibling. Both children should be given the opportunity to communicate their feelings and any potential issues to their parent(s) whenever they arise.
And though parents will understandably be preoccupied with helping their new child adjust, they should make sure they do not accidentally neglect their existing children in the process; this can create resentments between siblings that may lead to conflict. Similarly, parents should work not to prioritize their existing children over adopted ones, as this can lead the adoptee to worry that she isn't as well-loved as her siblings. Balancing time and energy between siblings is key.
Above all, as with bonding in general, parents should remind themselves that sibling bonds take time and are rarely perfect, even in biological families; it’s normal for sibling relationships to have ups and downs as children grow into adulthood.
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.
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.
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.
Talk about his culture’s customs and history openly and positively. Expose him to foods, traditions, and holidays that are representative of his birth culture. Connect him with adult role models who share his race or cultural background—through a church, school, an athletic team, or another community group. Make sure he sees his culture represented positively in the media the family consumes.
Some parents who adopted internationally decide to take children to visit their birth country, either once or several times throughout their lifetime. Parents can determine the ages at which they think this trip is most appropriate; experts caution that tweens, who are concerned with fitting in, may push back against the idea of a birth country trip because it makes them feel different from their peers. Starting trips earlier, if possible, may be advisable.
The decision on whether or not to search for birth parents is best left to an adoptee, and parents should try to respect a child’s choice, whatever it may be. In cases where the child would like to search, this may mean that parents will provide appropriate assistance when necessary—whether by supplying relevant information, helping with research, or facilitating meetings while the child is still a minor.
It’s normal for adoptive parents to feel hurt by a child’s decision to search, as they may wonder if it means their child is unhappy or that they weren’t good parents. But parents should recognize that searching is a natural part of forming an identity for many adoptees. Children who are able to maintain connections with their birth family often report reduced feelings of rejection and a greater understanding of their personal history; being supported by their adoptive parents in these efforts is a key driver of these beneficial effects.
In years past, adoption was often kept secret and many children grew up not knowing they were adopted. Now, however, most experts recommend openly discussing adoption from the moment a child arrives home. Sharing a child’s “adoption story” in a positive and age-appropriate way—and truthfully answering any questions she may have—is key for helping a child navigate complicated feelings and build trust in her family.
For parents who are unsure where to start, books, online resources, or community support groups can help them craft a script. Many experts recommend mentioning adoption semi-frequently, even if the child rarely brings it up, and gradually adding more information as the child matures.