By Fraser Permanency & Adoptive Family Support Program Lead Elana Schuster • June 25, 2020
Adopting a child is a joyful time for families. But adoption also presents unique challenges. While each family is different, many encounter similar issues. Fraser Permanency & Adoptive Family Support Program Lead Elana Schuster shares four common issues adoptive families face.
Grief and loss
Grief and loss are naturally a part of the adoption process. That’s true for the birth parents, adoptive parents and the child.
“For an adoption to happen, there has to be a goodbye of sorts,” Schuster says.
For children, they are leaving a parent, foster caregivers, extended families and familiar surroundings behind. Their grief may not come out in words, like saying, “I’m feeling sad.” Children may manifest their feelings of loss by internalizing sadness, throwing tantrums or expressing their anger through other behaviors.
Adopted parents may feel a loss because they had certain expectations coming into adoption that are not being met. They may also be grieving losses due to infertility or be facing issues within their extended family that led to adopting a relative’s child.
Struggling with attachment is also common. Adopted children have experienced at least one significant attachment disruption with their birth parents. Many have learned when they signal their needs that those might not be met consistently. So children won’t express their needs or wants clearly. An adopted parent has to learn how to navigate these signals.
Schuster says parents should ask themselves questions like, “What does it mean when my child is pushing me away? What does my child really need in this moment?”
It’s up to the adopted parents to build a child’s sense of safety and security. Schuster recommends providing children with consistency and predictability to help with attachment.
Issues of identity also frequently come up. If adopted children don’t know much about their past, they may wonder about their previous family, racial and cultural identity and where they fit in the world.
As more families opt for an open adoption, children have to navigate what family means. Schuster says adoptive parents should make sure their child knows that it’s okay to love all these different people.
If a child is a different race, there are other layers to navigate. For example, if white parents adopt a child of color, they must recognize they have a family of color. They need to learn about their child’s culture, seek out spaces and role models that reflect their heritage and talk about racism and privilege to support identity development.
Adopted children have been exposed to stress or trauma. They were separated from their families, and many have faced neglect, abuse or another type of trauma.
According to Schuster, children who have faced trauma often express it through their behavior. His or her body may have learned to protect itself by jumping into fight, flight or freeze mode. Children then can behave in ways that look manipulative, like lying or tantrums, but are actually part of learned survival skills. They may have negative beliefs about themselves and negative expectations for their caregivers.
“Trauma affects our brains, bodies, hearts and the way we see the world,” Schuster said. “It disrupts a child’s ability to feel secure or safe.”
Adoptive parents should celebrate their child’s resiliency. They also need to create a sense of security and safety, so a child can rewire his or her instinctive reaction of survival mode. It’s also important to remember the trauma didn’t happen overnight, so a child’s healing won’t happen right away either.
If you’re struggling with adoption issues, Schuster encourages adoptive parents to reach out for help.
“It’s such a strength to reach out for help as a caregiver — whether you reach out to a professional, a teacher or family and friends. It shows your children that it’s okay for them to ask for help too. You have to learn to care for yourself so that you can care for your child too.”