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The Adoptive Mom Survival Guide

Being an adoptive mom is a unique journey that no one can prepare for. No one generally sees what the adoptive mom experiences.
Mom and adopted children wearing sunglasses and looking cool.

The Life of the Adoptive Mom

 “I knew when I adopted my child; it would be hard. But I’ve given everything I have. I do all the therapeutic things my child needs. I am present, I am calm, I’m responsive, I get up in the middle of the night, I drop what I’m doing and respond, I get the do-overs, we do TheraPlay, TBRI, Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, Sensory Processing, and school.

We have several medical appointments each week. My whole world focuses around these parenting activities. There is no time for anything else. Although, yes, my child is getting better, it’s been over a year.

How much longer? I can’t keep up this pace. My other children need my attention too. I’m exhausted; my body is shutting down on me.

The doctor says I have adrenal fatigue. I can’t seem to catch up on my rest, and self-care moments don’t seem to help. I’m starting to be angry and resentful about being a parent. And I’m scared that if I don’t keep doing what I’m doing, I will permanently damage my child. All our work will be lost. I feel trapped.

People tell me to use a support system and let my husband and extended family help. However, because my husband doesn’t have time to learn all the details of therapeutic parenting as I have, it usually ends up in a meltdown that I have to respond to anyways. If I take a respite and leave my child with someone, my child regresses, and I play catch up for days or weeks. It’s not even worth the break.

How long can I do this? I have nothing left! I’m sad, depressed, angry, and exhausted all the time. I don’t know how long I can do this.”

— Anonymous Parent of 3

Surviving As An Adoptive Mom

Being an adoptive mom is a unique journey that no one can prepare for. No one generally sees what the adoptive mom experiences. It is a lonely place that leaves space for self-doubt and hopelessness. Many times, not even husbands will fully understand what their wives are going through.

You Are Not Alone

Let me assure you that you are not the only woman going through this. You are not alone. Parenting a child with trauma is exceptionally challenging. Some people say, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” I say it’s more than a marathon. It’s parenting in the jungle where we built our house and now live without vacation options.

Do you feel like, if one more person says, “Are you doing self-care and using your support systems?” you will throw up? Welcome to the club.

Thankfully, you’re not the only woman to brave the adoptive mom journey. Here are a few essential survival skills to help you navigate this wild and wonderful parenting adventure.

Adoptive Mom Survival Skills

Moms who survive:

  1. Admit and accept the truth. You are on a journey of intense therapeutic parenting.
  2. Protect the need to stay internally calm. Mom is the emotional regulator for the household. Kids react to moms’ inner state of emotions.
  3. Organize a long-term routine. Parents who survive recognize routines, and personal disciplines to protect those routines are what provide stability. Include stress management recovery time.
  4. Set attainable goals. You can do anything you want, but you can’t do everything you want. Break down idealistic goals into small accomplishable tasks.
  5. Notice the good. Celebrate the things that are working and going well. Be grateful for the small daily accomplishments.
  6. Remember who you are fighting for. Remind yourself why you wanted to be a mom. Why you are fighting so hard to help your child live?
  7. Find joy in the journey. Intentionally put moments in your routine that will bring joy and make you smile. Choose a fun, playful spirit with some of your daily routine tasks.
  8. Surrender to the idea of failure. In parenting, sometimes you will get it right; sometimes you won’t, so what. You are still doing the work of being an excellent therapeutic parent.
  9. Believe that you will win this battle. At the core of your being, believe you can accomplish the goal. 
  10. Choose to believe the truth about your abilities and do what is necessary to stay grounded in reality. Using a grounding or motivation statement to repeat as a reminder is helpful.
  11. Recognize that speedbumps are not roadblocks. When something causes a setback, an adoptive mom who survives doesn’t give up.

Most people reach that moment of being overwhelmed and paralyzed in confusion and chaos without knowing how to handle it. Don’t push through it. Learn to STOP:  

S = Stop. Sit down and breathe (Exodus 14:14)

T = Think. Force yourself to think about the therapeutic parenting steps.

O = Observe your situation: What does the parent have control over? Where is the opportunity to choose a relationship? Are there any sensory processing things that you can use at this moment?

P = Plan. Organize a calm parenting response, make a TBRI step-by-step plan, and implement the plan (Note: if a plan doesn’t work, STOP again).

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There are also some free apps out there that can help you find coping skills quickly when you cannot think. My favorites are the calm app and PTSD Coach (you don’t have to have PTSD or be a veteran to use the app).

Note: App referrals are not an endorsement from Focus on the Family, and examples here are shared for informational purposes only.

Coping With Chaos

Many parents ask me, “How do I stop when my kids are screaming, fighting, and causing chaos?” My general answer is to focus on what you can control and let go of what you cannot. There are a couple of different options at this moment. 

Sit down on the floor, be still, and start doing a breathing exercise. Unless there is a safety concern, it’s ok for you to take a minute to breathe. (I encourage parents of small children to carry bubbles for just this moment.) Sitting on the floor, breathing, and blowing bubbles release tension in the air. Give it a few minutes, and your child may stop screaming long enough to be curious about why you’re sitting on the floor. 

If you know your family is in frequent chaos, I encourage people to have an “emergency drill.” Like teaching kids a fire drill, have an emergency “Turtle” drill for times of chaos. This Turtle drill can have people go to their own identified self-care spot where they can be safe, calm down, and, most importantly, wait for a parent to come and release them from their spot.

Note: this is not a punishment or time-out spot. It’s a safe spot where the child can go and wait to be found. Practice it when things are calm so you can use it when things are not.

You Are Enough

As a therapeutic parent, you don’t have to be perfect. You will have good days and bad days, just like your kids. You are enough! Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t do. One moment will turn into two moments, one hour into two hours, one day into one month, and you will find you can survive and maybe even thrive as a mom who has adopted a child. Please know there is help available if you are in a low place. Don’t hesitate to contact one of our Focus on the Family counselors, who are happy to help you during your journey. You are not alone.

© 2023 Christina Chismar, MSW, LCSW. Used with Permission.


Stepping Forward with Peace of Mind

Stepping Forward With Peace of Mind

Child Abuse Prevention Month

We Need to Talk About It: Child Abuse Prevention

If you are a parent or your life intersects with children in any way, you must think…

Help even when they don’t ask.

Kids (and families) need help, even when they don’t reach out. Wherever God is calling you, you can get involved.

Father and son play basketball