When most people think about adoption, they picture bringing home an infant.
But the reality is often very different, according to Cathy Murphy, the executive director of the Adoption Council of Canada and the parent of two adopted children. In fact, most of the 30,000 Canadian children and youth who are up for adoption are between the ages of eight and 18.
“That means that when adopted children or older youth are joining families, they’re joining them at a much older age, and have likely lived with developmental trauma,” Murphy told HuffPost Canada. As a result, they have pretty specific needs that will have to be met by their adoptive families.
All kids are different, and there’s no one singular rule that will apply to all adopted children. But Murphy shared some advice to make your adopted child feel loved.
Have realistic expectations
Being adopted into a loving family when they’re older means it’s likely that child has spent a large part of their younger childhood with caregivers who were inconsistent, neglectful or even abusive. It’s only natural your child will have a hard time trusting you at first.
“Many youths who join their families don’t trust, and don’t feel safe in the world,” Murphy said. Sometimes, that manifests in disruptive behaviours, or in difficulty with emotional regulation. Some older kids will even have self-harming tendencies, she said.
“We really have to be aware of some of the mental health issues that our kids are going to have, that need to be supported,” she said. “Everyone has challenges parenting, but we know that because of the childhood trauma that our kids have experienced, these are areas that we are gonna have to work on. It’s not a maybe, it’s a definite.”
Watch: Simple ways to make sure you’re fostering mental health at home. Story continues after video.
That doesn’t mean adopted children don’t go on to be happy and successful. But it could be a lifelong process to rebuild their trust, which has likely been eroded over many years.
“Social and emotional [stability] might be a little bit delayed for them, because they’ve learned in this world that they can’t trust,” she said. “Our job is to over and over and over again show them that they can trust us.”
Be flexible with your time if possible
Many adoptive parents adjust their work schedules so that they can work part-time, or will work from home so that they can be more available to their children. It’s not possible for everyone, but if it’s something that’s within a parent’s reach, it can really help the child adapt to their new environment.
“Ideally we would be home for at least a year, if not longer, with the children, even if they are older,” Murphy said. “In many cases, the attachment and bond will take even longer with older children than younger ones.”
Parental leave policies differ by province, but biological parents typically get more leave time than adoptive parents. Advocates and researchers are lobbying for more parental leave for parents who adopt.
“Kids take a long time to trust.”
Showing your child a regular, constant routine can help them feel safe, because they know what to expect.
“Kids will take a long time to trust,” Murphy said. “In order to build that, you’re building in fun, consistent routines over and over again.”
Establishing consistency can be as simple as making sure your child knows that when they get home from school they do homework, then have dinner, then play until bedtime. Or maybe every Friday night, there’s a family movie night. Once they get into that pattern, they’ll start seeing that they’re getting steady, stable care in a reliable environment.
“Those are our goals as a parent, to make sure that they feel safe and that they can trust,” Murphy said. “Once they feel that, we’re a safe base for them to explore the rest of the world.”
Nurture their interests and talents
Some kids or teens may never have been given the opportunity to spend time on things they love doing or are good at. Identifying their interests and talents shows you care, and giving them the opportunity to nurture those is an act of love.
If your child likes art, for example, encourage them to draw. Make crafts with them, and show them books about art, and go on family outings to galleries.
“Really embrace what their interests are, and really support that and build on that interest as a way to build attachment in your family,” Murphy said.
Provide extra care around transitions
Change is usually very difficult for adopted children, particularly when it involves a loss of some kind, Murphy explained. “There are some things in our day-to-day lives that a lot of us take for granted, that our children and youth who are joining our families through adoption are going to take longer to build.”
Friendships ending can reinforce children’s ideas that they aren’t loved or that they shouldn’t trust new people, for instance, so it’s a good idea to make sure your child feels cared for in other ways.
“If someone in the extended family like a grandparent or a great-auntie dies, those are losses our children are going to feel a lot more acutely,” Murphy said.
“Everyone feels losses, but our kids have already experienced so many losses that those can be triggered. ”
The end of the school year can also lead to hard feelings. Many adopted children will have a very difficult time saying goodbye to a teacher at the end of a school year, because it can bring to mind all of the other painful goodbyes they’ve experienced.
Moving, too, can be a challenge, because of how many times the child has likely already moved.
“Everybody asks, ‘What do I need to do in that first year?’” Murphy said. “It’s not the first year. This is lifelong, and our children will test us at different times and transitions.”
Avoid too much travel away from your child
Likewise, a parent leaving on long business trips will probably be harder for an adopted child, Murphy said, because they’ve already experienced a lot of loss.
It’s likely that “they’re going to be worried about the[ir parent] crashing on a plane,” Murphy said. “Things that other kids probably wouldn’t even be thinking about, they’ll be thinking about.”
If travel is unavoidable, the parent should spend a lot of time and energy reinforcing the fact that they’re coming back.
Don’t make overt comparisons
B.C.-based blogger Jamie Lundstrom, who’s adopted, wrote that it was sometimes hard, as a child, when people would comment on physical or social similarities between her parents and her sister, who was their biological child. Not only did this make her feel left out, but it also struck her as silly, since many kids are totally different from their biological parents.
Overall, it’s never really helpful to compare adopted kids either to their families or to non-adopted kids. It’s a much better idea to focus on your child for who they are.
Let them get to independence when it makes sense for them
We generally expect kids to become independent by their late teens or early 20s. But people who didn’t find a loving family until their teens aren’t likely to fit into that timeline — and that’s totally normal, Murphy said.
“It may take our kids a little bit longer to separate from us and become independent, and that’s OK,” she said. For so long, “it was our job to make them feel dependent upon us.”
There’s nothing wrong with adopted kids waiting a little longer to move out of the house, or deciding they don’t want to go away to university. They’re still relying on the stability their parents have provided them, which is a testament to how helpful that’s been for their development.
“If your kids need a little bit more time, that’s OK. They were without you for a really long time.”
Just show up
No parent is perfect, and the process of making a child feel safe and comfortable after years of instability can be a difficult one. But being consistently available to your child, and offering love and support, are the best and most important parts of parenting an adopted child.
“Show them they can count on you,” Murphy said. “Our kids can thrive if they have parents who are really consistent and can give them routine and can always show up.”
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