In many ways, adoptive parenting is not much different from parenting a biological child — all children, adopted or not, have the same needs for a safe, nurturing home and loving, supportive family. But parenting adopted children is also a special and unique experience that often comes with its own challenges and rewards.
Whether your child came into your life as an infant or when they were older, and whether you adopted internationally or domestically, privately or through the foster care system, adoption is a lifelong process. Adopted people are shaped by their adoption story, and it is something that will always be a part of your child’s life. In many adoption situations, that means there are some important factors to take into consideration as you parent your child.
1. Adoption and racial or cultural identity
Transracial or interracial adoption refers to any adoption in which the child is of a different race than the adoptive parents. Today’s families are more diverse than ever, and transracial adoption is increasingly common.
If you have adopted or are considering adopting a child of a different race or culture, it’s important to teach him or her about their ethnicity and be prepared to answer questions about their cultural identity. Adoptive families should strive to interact with a wide variety of adults and children, including those who share your child’s ethnic, racial or cultural background, and create a home environment that is accepting and loving of all races and cultures. As you parent your adopted child, consider the following suggestions:
- Make playdates or join a play group of culturally diverse families and children
- Provide your child with culturally diverse dolls and other toys
- Be prepared to confront racism openly
- Read books with your child about his or her culture and transracial adoption
- Celebrate your child’s culture or ethnicity by attending cultural festivals or events, cooking traditional dishes, learning your child’s native language or participating in cultural traditions and holidays
2. Blending adopted and biological children
You love your biological and adopted children the same — they are all your children, regardless of how they came into your family. But it is a common concern to wonder how adoption might impact your biological children, or how having biological children in your home might impact your adopted children.
Any time you add a child to your home, whether it’s by birth or adoption, it can be an adjustment for your other children. Here are some things to keep in mind as you integrate biological and adopted children into your family:
- If you already have biological children, one factor to consider prior to adopting and as you parent is birth order. You may want to consider how adopting an older child might impact the oldest child in your family. Adopting out of birth order can sometimes make children feel displaced and potentially lead to behavioral issues. Consider the needs of your children, the attention that each requires and the possibility of sibling rivalry. Adopting out of birth order works for some families and not for others, so do your research as you decide what age to adopt.
- Explain to your children that they are getting a sibling and they may not get as much one-on-one attention as they had in the past. Let them know that they can always ask for more attention and that you will always be there when they need you. Also explain to your children why a new child may need extra special attention — either as an infant or as an adopted child that will need help adjusting to your family or overcoming difficult behaviors like anxiety, clinging, hoarding or control issues.
- Be prepared to combat favoritism — and perceptions of favoritism. Always treat all of your children fairly and ensure that their individual needs are being met. If extended family members begin exhibiting favoritism, gently share your concerns with them, ask whether there is a reason why they seem to be favoring one child over another, and let them know how important their role is to all of your children, biological and adopted. Consider sharing adoption information and research with them, and if necessary, consider limiting contact with them.
3. Managing birth parent relationships
Today, most adoptions involve some level of openness with the child’s birth family. If your child has an open or semi-open adoption, maintaining a relationship with your child’s birth parents will be an important part of parenting your child.
Open and semi-open adoptions are beneficial for everyone in the adoption triad and for a variety of reasons — continued contact can help ease birth parents’ feelings of grief and loss, help give the adopted child a stronger sense of identity and provide adoptive parents with important medical information that may impact their child.
Research shows that most adoptive and birth families are happy with their open or semi-open adoptions, but there are potential challenges involved in the adoptive family-birth parent relationship. You should work with your adoption professional and openly discuss your hopes for post-placement contact prior to the adoption. As you establish relationships, overcome differences and navigate changes in your relationship with your child’s birth parents, keep the following guidelines in mind:
- Always focus on the child’s best interest as your relationship evolves
- Communicate openly and honestly about your expectations for the relationship
- Consult an adoption counselor when necessary to overcome challenges
- Empathize with your child’s birth parents and consider their perspective
- Allow your relationship to grow and change organically over time
4. Responding to negative or inappropriate questions and comments
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for adoptive families to face uninformed, insensitive and sometimes offensive comments from friends, family members and strangers who aren’t familiar with adoption. Often, people ask questions and make comments out of curiosity and don’t intend to cause harm, but their words can be difficult to tolerate nevertheless.
The information you choose to share with others is entirely up to you. You may choose to develop a standard response for questions that you find inappropriate, change the subject or simply smile and walk away. If you do choose to verbally respond to questions or comments, one of the best way to educate others about adoption is by using positive adoption language to correct their use of negative adoption terms (for example, reminding someone that you are your child’s “real” parents, but their birth parents are also an important part of your child’s life).
Because you can’t always be with your child, you should also teach them how to respond. Let them know that they own their adoption story and they can share as much or as little information as they want — they never have to answer questions that make them feel uncomfortable. When they do talk about adoption, teach them to use positive adoption language and give them some simple responses they can use when someone makes a negative or offensive comment.
5. Adjusting to parenthood
Finally, parenting doesn’t only impact your children — it will also affect you. Adding a child to your family is a major life event, and it can be overwhelming and stressful at times. In adoption, there will likely be a period of adjustment for both you and your child. Just as biological mothers may experience post-partum depression, you may experience symptoms of post-adoption depression syndrome (PADS).
It is normal to struggle with the intense emotional rollercoaster that is adoption and parenthood. Remember to take care of yourself, lean on your support system, and ask for help from your adoption worker, counselor, friends or family when you need it.