All families face struggles, but families formed through adoption often face challenges of their own. In this article we are going to focus on children who are adopted and some common struggles they may face.
Adoption is a lifelong journey. All adopted children will think at some point about their birth parents: “Why did they give me up for adoption?”, “What kind of people were they?”, “Would I have been happier with them?”, and “Do I have siblings?” are frequent questions. However, it is important that we do not generalise and think that all adopted children are the same. Some may have hardly any issues whereas others may find it more difficult. Adoption issues can affect adoptees at any age and at any point in their lives. It depends on their circumstances before adoption, their genetics, the age of adoption, the circumstances of their adoptive family… However, it is important to remember that all adopted children have experienced trauma or at least serious challenges, and these won’t go away just by being adopted.
Here are some common issues faced by adopted children:
Loss: Whatever the reason explaining why a child ends up being adopted, that child has been separated from their birth parents. Some children may have lived with many foster families and so have lost multiple families.
Rejection: Adopted children may feel rejected by their birth parents as they did not want them or could not take care of them.
Guilt or shame: Some children may feel that there is something wrong with them that explains why their birth parents didn’t keep them.
Grief: Adopted children may grieve over their lost parents and family.
Identity and Self-esteem: We all develop a narrative of our life. We start to create our narrative based on the stories that our carers tell us (e.g., the story of your birth, your first day of school…). As we grow up, we continue developing our personal narrative adding our own experiences. Adopted children may have issues developing an identity because they are likely to have gaps in their narrative that they cannot fill. Questions about identity are particularly important during adolescence.
Intimacy: Adopted children may find difficult to establish intimate relationships with family members, especially if they have lived with a few different families or if they have been victim of abuse.
Mastery and control: Depending on the age of the adoption and on the circumstances leading to it, some children may feel that they have lost all control over their lives.
Here are some suggestions to deal with these issues for parents of adopted children:
Be honest and open
Adopted children may have identity issues, so it is very important that you help them create a solid identity and personal narrative. Make adoption a normal topic of conversation. If they have questions that you don’t have the answers to, just say so. When possible, have as much information about their birth family as you can. Don’t lie to your child about the fact that they are adopted or the circumstances of the adoption. Amanda Baden who has been examining adoption for 25 years, published a study a few years ago suggesting that it is best to disclose the information before the child is three. Baden found that those children who could remember being told (aged 3 and older) reported higher levels of distress than those children who did not remember ever having ‘the conversation’. One of the hardest things about being told later in life is realising that everyone else (grandparents, uncles, friends) knew the truth and didn’t tell you.
Some people may argue that it is best to wait until the child is old enough so they can really understand the ins and outs of the adoption process, but the reality is that we talk all the time with young children about things they cannot fully understand (e.g., space, the extinction of the dinosaurs). When they are little, they understand the basics of the adoption and as they grow, they will understand it fully, while knowing all the way that they were never lied to. If you lie to your child and they find out, say when they are 14, they will have to rebuild their own identity, which will damage their self-esteem and their relationship with you. If they find out that you lied to them about something so important, they will find it difficult to trust you again and they will question everything they have ever been told.
Consider keeping in touch with the birth family
A growing body of research shows that having some contact with the birth family can help children deal with the feelings of loss and grief associated with leaving them, as well as to develop their sense of identity. In addition, being in touch may help your child access important medical information, have more supportive adults in their lives, understand their cultural and ethnic heritage, and relate to the birth family as real people rather than denigrating or idealising them. Of course, each family is different, and you need to consider what works best for your child. This can range from talking about their birth parents to spending time with them.
Provide a loving home with a consistent routine and positive discipline
Research shows that all children do better in warm, affectionate, and stable households. This does not mean being lax or not having rules. The idea is to be very loving and caring but at the same time establishing clear limits. This will provide the child with a sense of safety.
Having a consistent routine is key for all children but even more for adopted children who have often experienced unstable and unsafe environments. Depending on the child’s age, they may have experienced a loss of control, so allowing them to make some decisions (e.g., which extracurricular activities to take, how to decorate their bedroom) will help them to build confidence and gain some sense of control.
Being too punitive in how you discipline your child may not be a good idea because it may deepen their low self-esteem. Instead, try to use praise (e.g., ‘You have tidied up so well!”) and rewards (e.g., “If you have a bath now, you can watch some tv later”) rather than punishments.
Work hand-in-hand with your child’s school
Children spend around 15,000 hours at school, so it is so very important that your school knows the circumstances of your child otherwise they won’t be able to support them effectively. Adopted children are more likely to experience school exclusions and leave school with lower-than-average educational attainment. However, provided children are well supported by their adoptive families and their schools, there is no reason why they cannot thrive academically. It is important that school staff undergo specific training, so they can support adopted children effectively.
Be careful with praise and avoid comparing your child to others
Some adopted children have low self-esteem and a deep sense of shame. If your praise is too exaggerated (e.g., “You are the cleverest boy ever!”), they may not believe you. Further, it is always better to praise their behaviours (e.g., “Look at how much effort you put in that test, you got an A!”) rather than their personality (e.g., “You got an A, how clever are you!”). In addition, try not to compare your child with their biological siblings or other family members as it can make them feel out of place.
Focus on your child’s mental health
Adopted children are more likely to experience significant emotional, social, and mental health difficulties than children who are not adopted. Most adopted children have experienced trauma, and they need time and support to work on it. Early negative experiences such as neglect and abuse alter the child’s brain structure and functioning, as well as the systems that deal with responses to stress. You can help your child by providing them with a stable and predictable environment both at home and school, so they start seeing the world as a safe place. Some children may need professional support at some points in their life.
Know what support is available to you
Some families may need a lot of support whereas others need little. Or they may need different support at particular life stages. Whatever your case, it is good to know what support is available out there in case you need it. Services like one-to-one support, mental health services, support groups, parenting classes, and mentoring can be helpful.
We hope you find this article useful. If you have any questions or would like to suggest topics for us to write about, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you need one-to-one support, do not forget to contact your REC Parenting therapist. They are waiting for you!
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