By Andrea Bushala
While parents should start talking about their child’s adoption story as soon as their child joins the family, this narrative mostly helps the parents create and refine the story. However, as toddlers and preschoolers, children really begin to understand that this is their story:
- Tell your child his/her adoption story again and again. Children love repetition and they need it as they begin to understand new and more sophisticated concepts. Revisiting their story is an important way to help adoptees build their personal narrative, a critical element in the development of good mental health.
- Listen to the questions your child asks over time – this gives you a gauge of what details are important to include in the retelling of your child’s story. Over time, you can begin to incorporate developmentally appropriate details. Being attuned and attentive to your child’s needs and responding in a sensitive way validates the child’s story and his/her place in your life.
It is not uncommon for adopted children to feel abandoned by their birth family, no matter how much their adoptive family loves them or at what age they were adopted. This loss of the child’s birth family will involve some sense of grief and will probably surface and resurface as that child’s level of understanding about adoption changes during his/her growth and development.
- Educate yourself on basic child development so that you can be prepared for the type of behaviors and questions your child may have. A great reference website is http://www.pbs.org/parents/child-development/baby-and-toddler/. Some children experience grief when they start school and see — or other young children point out — that their family is different from others’ families (same-sex parents, children who are a different race than their parents, etc.). Some children don’t grieve until they start a family of their own. At any stage, be prepared and willing to help your child with grief.
- Understand that your child needs to grieve, and that the painful loss of a child’s birth family is no reflection on their adoptive family. By allowing your child the space to experience all their emotions, both negative and positive, and by not taking your child’s grief personally, you will be providing them a very important tool they can use to become an emotionally balanced adult.
Discipline techniques that work well for other families often do not work well with adopted children, especially those children that joined a family later.
- Punishments such as time outs or being sent to their room may be experienced by adopted children as a parent rejecting them instead of just rejecting their behavior. This could trigger a shame response that makes it nearly impossible for a child to learn from their mistakes and often leads to anger (and in some cases, rage). The goal when dealing with a child who is raging is simply to help them calm down. The learning must come later.
- Trying to rationally talk through an issue with an angry child can be futile. When children are angry, only the emotional side of their brain is able to engage. Rely on nonverbal calming techniques including holding, rocking, humming, sucking drinks through a straw or having a chewy and sweet candy. These are good ways to settle a child down. Once a child is calm, it is more effective to offer a re-do of the bad behavior than to verbally rebuke or shame a child.
Adopted children may experience attachment difficulties, even those adopted at birth.
- All adopted children arrive with a history. Neuroscience tells us that a fetus’ brain starts responding to experiences at 12 weeks of pregnancy. If the pregnancy was fraught with fear, violence or substance abuse, it is likely that the baby experienced these stressors, too. For children who had multiple foster care placements or who were placed in orphanages until being adopted, becoming attached can be a scary proposition, as well, as they have learned not to trust that adults will meet their needs. Remember that these behaviors arose from a biological drive to survive and have little to do with you or their current situation.
- Work on building attachment every day. Get down low and make eye contact with your child. Be predictable and have a life that is full of routine. Be in control of your own emotions so that you can help your child control his emotions. Most importantly, remember that when you make mistakes (and all good parents do), you should take time to repair the relationship and reconnect with your child.