8 Practical Tips for Adoptive Parents

by Angelica Shiels
Originally Published: 
A little girl in pink clothes holding her big teddy bear on the forest road in the autumn

As a therapist who has worked with many familIes who have chosen adoption, I’d like to shed some light on one of the greatest challenges that adoptive families face, and also provide some support for these amazing people.

Studies have found that adopted children and children in foster care display behavioral, developmental, and emotional issues more commonly than children who have been raised in one environment. Prenatal exposure to drugs or alcohol, abuse, neglect, lack of structure and consistency, poor nutrition, and reduced stimulation, can all contribute to the child’s risk for ADHD, conduct disorder, attachment disorders, developmental delay, oppositional-defiance, and poor social skills.

Some of the most evident problems that adopted/foster children endure are related to early disturbances in attachment. Often times these children were not given the opportunity to form a healthy bond with a stable and responsive caregiver, or an experience with a caregiver included abuse, trauma, or neglect. As a result, these children often crave love, but lack the skills and are terrified to form vulnerable bonds with others. They feel confused, afraid, and powerless when it comes to relationships, and often lack the emotional awareness and skills to handle these feelings without acting out. Often times it appears as if–and it is true in some sense– the child is doing everything in his power to push his new caregivers away in an effort to protect himself from pain and gain a sense of predictability.

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Common attachment-related behaviors/characteristics are:

  • Control issues
  • Anger and aggressive behavior
  • Disobedience, defiance
  • Tantrum behavior
  • Manipulative or passive-aggressive behavior
  • Lack of recourse, guilt, or conscience
  • Difficulty showing genuine caring and affection
  • Being withdrawn
  • Emotional detachment
  • Overly dependent or independent
  • Pushing others away or ignoring others
  • Seeking comfort and attention from anyone

Dealing with attachment problems in a child can be especially trying for parents. The child is often behaviorally difficult, and many of the typical reactions to misbehavior (parental frustration, anger, privileges revoked, stricter limits) can actually exacerbate the child’s feelings of mistrust, anxiety, and isolation. The trick is providing discipline along with behaviors that model healthy attachment and show that the relationship is emotionally safe.

This is not easy to do. It requires the parent to practice patience, wisdom, restraint, and thoughtful choices in words and reactions, even when he or she feels powerless and fed-up. It requires truly choosing to love through the emotional pain- not just the child’s, but their own as well.

Here are some simple, practical tips for adoptive parents (and foster parents) to “chose love” despite attachment challenges:

1. Manage your expectations. Attachment wounds take a long time to heal. Make sure you aren’t attempting to get your needs for admiration, affection, and appreciation from your child. This shouldn’t be the obligation of any child, but it is unrealistic in addition to unfair to expect of an adoptive/foster child. Your anger/frustration/”need to fix” will dissipate as soon as your expectations are aligned with reality. Remember to make time for self care, relaxation, personal pursuits, and healthy adult interaction. A support group or supportive therapy may also help with surrendering to the reality that your child struggles in a way that adds great demands to your life.

2. Establish very specific expectations/rules as well as a specific consequence/reward system before-hand, not just in response to misbehavior. In other words, on day one tell the child the “house rules.” Make sure these expectations are incredibly specific and realistic. Telling a 12-year-old to “clean your room” or “empty the dishwasher” may seem age-appropriate. However, children whose frontal lobes have not adequately formed (due to neglect, lack of stimulation, stress, and prenatal substance exposure), may view these as daunting tasks. Meet your child where he is. If he needs a step-by-step drawing of each aspect of cleaning his room or emptying the dishwasher, provide him with one no matter how old he is.

3. Expect that he will disobey and test these rules, and when that happens, issue empathy with a 24-hour consequence (two week groundings just take away the child’s incentive to try to improve behavior since they have a consequence anyway.) “Awe; it’s too bad you can’t have your friend come over tonight since you broke a rule. I really hope you show good listening tomorrow so you get a change to have your playdate!” At the end of the consequence, go back to “warm, responsive, inviting parent” mode. Empathy and not holding grudges teaches the child “relationship resilience,” that just because I had to correct you does not mean I am unsafe.

4. Take opportunities to revisit developmental stages he may have missed out on. Although it may seem odd that an older child wants to be rocked, sang-to, or use a sippy-cup, indulge him as these behaviors may be his way of re-living developmental stage in safety in able to heal old wounds. Don’t worry that this will cause him to regress, and don’t worry about what others think. Your child is getting something out of engaging in that behavior, and your satisfying that need is showing him that you are a responsive caregiver.

5. Anticipate your child’s needs (not wants) as much as possible without him having to ask you to meet that need. Make sure you buy healthy foods he enjoys, establish the bed-time and meal schedule he needs, make sure he is picked up from school the day it snows instead of having to walk home, make sure he has new shoes before he grows out of the old ones, etc. The idea is to show him that you are consistently responsive to his needs completely independent of his behavior.

6. Have a weekly activity (game night, going out for pizza, movie night) that you do together, just as parent and child, that is absolutely prioritized and never cancelled due to punishment, disobedience, or something better coming up. Even if he is misbehaving, angry, etc, act neutral to pleasant during this weekly special time. This is teaching him the constant that is a parent’s love.

7. Think of your child as having never learned, seen, or practiced pro social thinking or behavior. Instead of getting frustrated and bewildered and his lack of caring and apparent selfishness, take that opportunity to model and teach appropriate communication and empathy for others. Keep your voice calm; maintain eye contact; calmly reflect back what you hear him saying (even if he is yelling), tell him how you can see how he would see it that way; dig deep to extend some words of empathy (I would imagine that if I were in your shoes I’d feel angry too.). Even when consequences are called-for, always mod,e the pro-social behaviors of making him feel heard and understood before calmly delivering the consequence.

8. When in doubt, use humor and silliness. Even if your child doesn’t crack a smile, singing badly, making a purposeful mess, dancing in the kitchen, and being an exaggerated goofball is sometimes the best medicine for yourself.

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