Welcome, you! We wish we could chat with you over coffee about what brought you here … Maybe the journey of adoption has been on your mind since you were a child. Maybe you just started thinking about it and want to learn more. Maybe you’re already a foster parent and want to move toward adoption. Maybe you’re well on your way through the placement process. Or maybe you’ve already adopted and are looking for support.
Whatever the specifics, we know one thing for sure: You have a heart for children. We do, too. And that’s why we want to do everything we can to help you consider the adoption journey from all angles — a few of the more obvious checkboxes, yes, but also some of the hard realities that not everyone is willing to talk about. Because we don’t just care about kids; we care about you, too.
We want to prepare you for what this path might hold. Adoption isn’t simply a one-and-done decision. It’s a lifetime commitment to another person, another soul — often a wounded soul. And the choice to make that commitment will mean wrestling with your own woundedness, with unrealistic expectations, with assumptions about what family looks like, with the significance of unconditional love. In other words, adoption does not come without grief — for the birth family, the adoptive family, and the adoptee.
The struggles will be legit, but they’re not the whole picture. If you’ve been adopted into God’s family, you know His hope and joy, even on the hardest days. In a similar way, while we recognize that families may face unique challenges related to parenting children who have experienced abuse or neglect, we also believe that adoption paints a powerful picture of God’s love.
We don’t want you to decide whether to move forward with adoption based only on either feel-good stories or fear of the unknown. Instead, we want to help you find the balance — to go into the journey with an open heart and open eyes. When you know the challenges to expect and how to meet them, you’ll be able to confidently say whether adoption is the right choice for you and your family at this point.
So, let’s look at some important pieces of the adoption journey.
NOTE: Focus on the Family is here to come alongside families who choose any type of adoption. However, our primary focus is on domestic adoption from foster care. To that end, this content is geared toward a married mom and dad thinking about adopting a child in the U.S. who is in the child welfare system. While the concepts here can apply more broadly, we don’t cover unique considerations of domestic infant adoption or international/intercountry adoption. (You can read our article about the basics of each type of adoption. And for details about the journey of intercountry adoption, visit the National Council for Adoption’s website.)
Consider What Adoption Will Mean
Thinking about adoption? Here are some key things you’ll want to do before taking the next step.
Whether you’ve wanted to adopt for a long time or only recently felt a nudge, step back and take a beat. Really pause. Give yourself space to be honest about why you want to adopt and what that choice might mean.
Why slow down when you just want to get on with the good business of nurturing a family? Because you can’t bring a child into your home assuming that your love will save them and everything will be great. Whether they are 17, 7, or an infant, they have a previous life story that will always be part of their heart and mind and body. And the impact of their history — combined with your history — has the potential to turn your world upside down as much as it does theirs.
Check Your Motives
People choose to adopt for all kinds of reasons: They want to permanently welcome a child they’ve been fostering. They believe in the value of children and want to build a family but struggle with infertility or other medical conditions that make biological birth unwise. They’ve seen the positive impact of adoption in others’ lives (perhaps even their own) and are ready to make a similar sacrifice and commitment. Friends might have named them guardians in the event of death. The possibilities are endless.
Still, as much as you might resonate with one or more of those reasons — as much as you might try to convince yourself that your reasons for adoption are simple and selfless — there could be more to the story.
When you dig deeper, do you believe that you’ll be “saving” a child? That you’ll gain higher standing in your community or church? That you’ll avoid an empty nest? That you’ll relieve personal pain or guilt of some kind? These motives won’t disqualify you from becoming a successful adoptive family. However, they can make it much more difficult.
So, be honest with yourself about your true motives for wanting to adopt. Ask trusted friends who know you well to speak into your situation, and humbly consider their input. Most importantly, ask God for wisdom. People often do what they think is right because it’s what they want. But He knows their motives.
Of course, none of us is perfect; we all wrestle with wrong motives in different parts of our lives every day! But if your overriding reason to adopt is that you think you’re the only one who can spare a child from a painful life or that adoption will somehow save you, stop. Work with a licensed counselor to get to the root of any pride or hurt so you’ll be in a healthier place to reconsider adoption in the future.
Consider Your Personal History and Attachment Style
Do you have an early memory of learning that the world is broken? Whether or not you believe in God and salvation through His Son, Jesus, the truth is that humanity is not harmonious. Even the most idyllic childhoods aren’t perfect; even the happiest families have hard days.
You’ll want to be sure you’ve dealt with (or are dealing with) any wounds in your past before accepting the responsibility and privilege of helping an adopted child work through their woundedness. And having a secure attachment style is one of the biggest keys.
The Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development has spent decades researching attachment issues. They explain in a video on building attachment:
In secure individuals, we see [a] rich set of connections. When we talk about attachment, we’re talking about the dance between a parent and a child. How well we’re able to dance together determines how well they’re able to dance with other people later in life. We also know that my ability to dance with my child is determined by my past, to a large extent.— The Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development
Authors and counselors Milan and Kay Yerkovich also speak to the topic of secure attachment in adult relationships:
Secure Connectors … are comfortable with reciprocity; balanced giving and receiving in relationships. They can describe strengths and weakness in themselves and others without idealizing or devaluating. … Secure Connectors are able to clearly and easily communicate their feelings and needs. Resolving conflict was likely modeled for them growing up, so they know they’re not perfect and can apologize when wrong. Setting boundaries and saying “no” is also no problem for a Secure Connector. They are comfortable with new situations, can take risks, and delay gratification. When upset, Secure Connectors can easily seek help and comfort.Milan and Kay Yerkovich
These concepts apply to children, too, of course. Sadly, every adopted child has gone through a disrupted attachment and needs loving support and modeling to develop secure attachments. That guidance should come primarily from emotionally healthy parents.
With that in mind, you need to evaluate and work on your own attachment issues before welcoming a hurting child into your home. You and your spouse need to be able to answer this question: Are we a safe place where kids can bring their emotions and their needs and be honest about what they’re going through?
Consider the Family Already in Your Home
Maybe you and your spouse are on the same page when it comes to adoption. But maybe not. And this issue is not one you want to resolve by “winning” an argument. Be open, be honest, communicate kindly, listen well, pray together, and talk to couples who are already on the journey. As God’s Word reminds us, “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.”
And your spouse isn’t the only consideration. Do you have biological children? Be aware that bringing a traumatized child into your home means that everyone in the house will experience that trauma to some degree and will need healing. Also, depending on the ages of your biological children, bringing a hurt child into your family may affect their ability to attach to you. Parents have told us, “I didn’t know this would affect how I parented my biological kids and be available to them.”
Evaluate any clashes that wouldn’t work, for whatever reason. Don’t assume that there won’t be problems — whether because an adopted child is the same age or sex as your biological child, or because they aren’t the same age or sex. The impact of adoption on children already in your home will be real:
- They may feel they’ve become invisible to you after the arrival of an adopted child.
- They may feel traumatized by the new child’s story and their reenactment in play.
- They’ll likely be troubled by the grief, sadness, and anger they see in you when challenges come.
Ask the Experts
It’s important to consider your motives, personal history, and an adoption’s potential impact on others. At the same time, you need to sift through deeper questions about adoption. Don’t gloss over prep questions available from adoption experts; they can be a huge help.
We recommend 10 Questions for Parents Preparing to Foster or Adopt. The article is designed to help you honestly assess what the adoption journey will require. Again, our goal isn’t to scare you off — we simply want to point you toward the hope and help that you’d need to form a strong and lasting connection with an adopted child.
- Are you willing to acknowledge and fully embrace your child’s history, including what you know and what you will likely never know?
- Are you willing to accept that your child has been affected by their history, possibly in profound ways, and as a result that you will need to parent your child in a way that exhibits true compassion and promotes connection and healing?
- Are you willing to parent differently than how you were parented, how you have parented in the past, or how your friends parent their children? Are you willing to “un-learn” certain parenting strategies and approaches that may not be effective with your child, even if you have used these strategies and approaches successfully with your other children in the past?
- Are you willing to educate yourself, your parents, family, and friends on an ongoing basis to promote understanding of your child’s needs and how best to meet those needs?
- Are you willing to be misunderstood, criticized, and even judged by others who do not understand your child’s history, the impacts of that history, and how you have been called to love and connect with your child in order to help them heal and become all that God intends?
- Are you prepared to advocate for your child’s needs, including at school, church, in extracurricular settings, and otherwise, to create predictability and promote environments that help your child feel safe and foster success?
- Are you willing to sacrifice your own convenience, expectations, and desires to connect with your child and help them heal, even if that process is measured in years, not months?
- Are you willing to fully embrace your child’s holistic needs, including their physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual needs?
- Are you willing to seek ongoing support and maintain long-term connections with others who understand your journey and the challenges that you face? Are you willing to intentionally seek and accept help when you encounter challenges with your child that you are not equipped to adequately deal with?
- Are you willing to acknowledge that you as a parent bring a great deal to the equation when it comes to how your child will attach and connect? Are you willing to honestly examine (on an ongoing basis) your motivations and expectations relating to your adoption journey? Are you willing to look at your own past (including your past losses and trauma, both big and small) and consider how it may impact your interactions with your child? Are you willing to consistently examine your role as parent as you experience challenges and difficulties along the journey?
Bottom line: Choosing adoption means choosing to love, protect, and advocate for a child for the long haul. That child becomes your child, for better or worse. Are you willing to parent a child who doesn’t trust you or attach to you — and who might never do so?
Would you like to talk with one of our licensed or pastoral counselors? Call us for a free over-the-phone consultation. We welcome the chance to hear your story, answer specific questions, suggest resources, pray with you, and give you referrals to qualified therapists in your area. (You can also reach our counselors online by filling out our Counseling Request Form.)
Remember That God Is in Control
The Bible tells us that a father to the fatherless … is God in His holy dwelling … God sets the lonely in families … You can take comfort in the truth that God is in control — of your life and the life of any child you might consider adopting. Be faithful to what God has asked you to do.
If, after praying through the decision, you decide not to move forward (at least right now), that doesn’t mean you’re a failure, and it doesn’t mean that you’re abandoning a child to an unknown fate. Instead, it means you can trust that the Lord who created that child will continue to guide their path — and you can trust Him to guide you, too. (You might not be called to foster or adopt, but you can support other families who do.)
But if you are ready to move forward with adoption, do so!
Prepare for Placement
Where to start? Learn about adoption licensing requirements in your state. You’ll complete a background check, training, and a home study to determine if you’re able to provide a safe environment. And then you wait.
The average wait for a domestic adoption is less than two years, but nearly all adoptions take at least nine months to one year to finalize. One foster care dad described the uncertainty perfectly:
Once God’s leading is clear, and the decision to move forward is made, the journey is long and involved. Filled with training classes, applications, home study visits, background checks, letters of recommendation, etc. While the outcome of the journey is uncertain at the beginning, what is certain is that God is working all things together for our good as we follow his leading. — Bob Bruder-Mattson
Waiting for a child you’ve prayed to adopt might feel never-ending, but fight against discouragement. “The adoption process is hard, but it’s good,” wrote one adoptive dad:
If you’re the kind of person who likes everything neat and predictable … you’re going to have to let that go. Almost every adoption discussion involves more questions than answers. There will be good days and bad days. Every placement is unique because every child is unique. — Paul Batura
Try not to think of this in-between season as being “on hold.” Moving through the guidelines your state has set will keep you busy enough. More importantly, though, you can use the time to build a strong connection with your caseworker and learn all you can about how to effectively parent your child.
How is that possible if you haven’t yet been matched? The reality is that most kids in foster care have a history of trauma, whether from multiple home placements, abuse, or any other hardship. And so the most important insight adoptive parents can have is to understand what trauma does to a developing child — because toxic stress affects every part of a child: their brain, their body, their biology, their behavior, and their belief system.
Learn About Therapeutic Parenting
Traditional parenting techniques don’t always work for a child who has experienced trauma — and as we’ve said, most adopted children have experienced trauma. An adopted child and their parents often need more support than they can get from only talk therapy. That’s where therapeutic parenting comes in: techniques that parent a child’s brain, not only their behaviors.
Dr. Daniel J. Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson describe the brain as having two parts: the Upstairs Brain and the Downstairs Brain.
- The Upstairs Brain thinks, reasons, and evaluates. You teach the Upstairs Brain. (And once you’ve been taught something, like reading or riding a bike, it doesn’t take much upkeep.)
- The Downstairs Brain reacts and responds. This is the fight, flight, freeze, and faint part of the brain and where our habitual memory lives. You train the Downstairs Brain. (Habitual memory is also known as procedural memory. It applies to things that we largely do without thinking but that have a use it or lose it quality — like playing an instrument. We have to keep practicing, keep training.)
Therapeutic parenting identifies reactive patterns inside a child’s brain and how those patterns influence behavior. Once you understand how your child’s brain functions, you can address concerns at that level before dealing directly with the child’s actions. Your aim is to help your child transition to a responsive mode where they make a conscious choice to engage in acceptable behavior.
As you consider the best way to connect with and help your child, look into interventions (also called modalities, tools, methods, approaches) that are available beyond talk therapy. Then proactively find a trained therapist who can help. In fact, it would be wise to meet with that counselor yourself before a child comes into your home. Having at least four sessions to learn therapeutic parenting skills can be some of the greatest prep work you can do.
We’ve posted a separate article with more information about suggested therapeutic interventions, but here’s a basic overview:
Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI®)
“TBRI is an attachment-based, trauma-informed intervention designed to meet the complex needs of vulnerable children. It uses Empowering Principles to address physical needs, Connecting Principles for attachment needs, and Correcting Principles to disarm fear-based behaviors.” (Watch an overview of these principles.)
This form of therapy addresses how a child engages with their environment — educationally, socially, and in normal activities of daily living. Occupational therapy works to improve fine motor skills, gross motor skills, motor planning, and self-regulation.
Sensory Processing Therapy
Sensory therapy helps with activities of daily living and social interactions. It helps a child organize and respond appropriately to information they get from their five senses. It also helps them balance their bodies and have spatial awareness.
Physical therapy uses exercise, massage, hydrotherapy, and other care to treat or manage physical disabilities, injuries, or pain. It can also help the body release stored trauma.
This treatment helps to improve a child’s speech when they have difficulty because of hearing loss, deafness, brain damage, or speech delays due to trauma.
Experiential therapy is an umbrella term for several therapies that use activities to encourage a child to identify and address issues and traumas. Experiential therapies include play therapy, equine-assisted therapy, art therapy, and wilderness experience therapy. (For more details about experiential therapies, read our article “Therapeutic Interventions for an Adopted Child”.)
Understand the Importance of Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI)
Of all therapeutic parenting interventions, the most critical is TBRI. The intervention is based on years of research in attachment, sensory processing, and neuroscience, but the heart of TBRI is connection.
“It is all about relationships,” said the late TBRI pioneer Dr. Karyn Purvis. “It is all about understanding optimal development. And it is all about connecting caregivers to the heart of a child who’s been harmed.” — Dr. Karyn Purvis
With this method of intervention, you use your child’s behavior to clue you in to what’s going on in their brain, and then you address their needs to help them feel safe so they don’t have to react in negative ways. You become a trauma competent healing parent.
“It’s important to remember that this is not parenting as usual,” said Dr. Purvis:
Parenting a child from a hard place is a matter of heart and passion. It is a matter that will cost you everything that you are and everything that you have. The demands are enormous. The histories of children from hard places are staggeringly weighty. You’ll come to this type of parenting with a completely different mindset. You can be successful with any child. You can help any child heal. But it will cost you — time, attention, devotion, and all that you are. — Dr. Karyn Purvis
Make time to watch these seven short videos from Dr. Purvis. She offers honest yet hope-filled insights about how to prepare to bring your child home and how to create an environment of healing.
And when considering a counselor to work with you and your adopted child, look for a therapist who is trained in the TBRI approach. We also encourage you to watch the following TBRI videos and read Dr. Purvis’ books, The Connected Parent and The Connected Child. (You can also download a free chapter of The Connected Child: “Disarming the Fear Response With Felt Safety.”)
- Introduction to TBRI®
- TBRI® an Overview: Putting the Pieces Together
- TBRI® for Teens Preview
- What Does TBRI Parenting Look Like?
- A Self-Guided Course in Trust-Based Relationships
- Building Attachment
Prepare for Attachment Challenges
One of the most difficult parts of the adoption journey will be navigating attachment disorders.
Here you are … hopeful heart, open home, open arms, ready to shower your child with love — and then comes the agonizing moment when you realize connection isn’t happening.
Author and adoptive mom Shannon Guerra explains that we generally see reactive attachment disorder (RAD) or other attachment issues in foster and adopted children who have grown up in traumatic environments.
They were never attached to a loving adult. They don’t understand. They haven’t experienced a loving caregiver. They don’t know what it is to really love and trust someone. Shannon Guerra
That’s why parenting a child with attachment issues and parenting reactive children or teens takes extra time and intentionality. Working through your child’s tantrums or your adolescent’s emotional outbursts day after day after day might feel exhausting, maybe even pointless. But connection begins when a child feels safe in their environment and emotionally — and that takes time. You can’t demand or coerce trust; it must be earned.
Even at that, you should prepare yourself for the possibility that the child you adopt might never fully attach to you. You’ll pray they will, of course. You’ll hold on to hope and make every effort to connect with your child. And yet, even then, you may not be trusted. You’ll have to realize that painful truth, accept it, and live with it. But you don’t have to believe the lie that it’s somehow your fault.
For example, RAD is a neurological disorder; unacceptable behaviors aren’t the only issues involved. There may be some parts of your child’s brain that will take longer to heal — or might never heal to the point of being able to truly connect with you. (For a comprehensive look at RAD, we encourage you to read Inside: Understanding How Reactive Attachment Disorder Thinks and Feels.)
With any attachment issues, go back to your motives for adopting and keep loving your child. Be discerning, not discouraged. Adoption wasn’t about you in the first place, and this isn’t about you, either.
We’re just asking God for new grace every day because there’s not one perfect thing that’s going to work every single day with our kids. — Shannon Guerra
Learn All You Can About Your Child
When the happy day comes that you’re matched with a child, press the caseworker for every bit of information they have on the child. Ask about prior experiences as well as medical history, even if you’ve been fostering the child.
Don’t settle for what’s officially provided. The adoption or child welfare agency is obligated to share everything they knew and everything they suspected (some children might not share details themselves because of fear or shame). They must disclose the information in a written document or a taped presentation. (Most states list documents that a family is supposed to be given once they plan to adopt.)
When home now means a permanent family, a huge shift can happen in a child’s heart — and not always for the better. We’ll talk more about that later, but what it means at this point is that you can’t assume anything. If you’ve been fostering this child, then yes, you have a lot of expertise. Still, go through all steps as if you’re a newbie. You know what you know — but you don’t know what you don’t know.
Build Your Village
“For those of us who are on the front lines in this war, encouragement and resources are imperative,” declares Jacqui Jackson, who was adopted as a child and is now an adoptive mother.
We can’t take on this fight alone, nor should we. With God’s help, we can build a team to walk with us. These people are essential to the calling and are indeed blessings from God. … Every Social Worker, CPS worker, family court attorney, or judge is on the front line. So are you. … But take heart — our God is victorious, and He has a plan, and you are an important part of it! — Jacqui Jackson
You’re getting ready to have your life and heart turned upside down, inside out. It’s not a bad thing by any stretch — but it’s more than you can handle on your own. If you have a history of thinking you can do anything and everything, now’s the time to let that image go.
You’ll need the expertise of those who’ve walked the adoption journey before you, and you’ll need the loving encouragement and practical support of those who know you best. God has gifted you with a heart for adoption; allow others to use their giftedness to come alongside you. You need to build a tight-knit support system that will help you and your child intensely for at least the first two years after you bring your child home.
- Choose at least three people you prepare ahead of the adoption to be your cheerleaders. Teach them some basics about challenges most adopted children face, and give them an overview of therapeutic parenting. Choose friends who you can be honest with at every turn along the path about frustrations and uncertainties. Choose those who will celebrate wins with you and who will keep you grounded, focused, and encouraged when things get tough.
- Enlist people willing to care for your child during a block of time or even a weekend (once an initial window of bonding is complete). Again, these friends should have a basic understanding of therapeutic parenting and be willing to maintain the same love and limits you’ve established in your home. Adopted children often behave better for other adults than they do for their parents. So don’t be afraid to set regular play dates and call on these friends for some crisis management babysitting to help stabilize the household.
- Plan self-care. We’ll look at details of self-care in the next chapter. For now, though, proactively put in place times and activities to help you recover from the chaos that will enter your home.
- Develop a relationship with a Christian therapist who is skilled in supporting adoptive families (and work with your child’s original therapist if possible). We’ll talk more about connecting with a counselor in the next chapter, but the main thing to know is that it’s better to start building a relationship now, before a crisis happens. Therapy doesn’t mean something is “wrong”; it’s simply a proactive way to get ahead of the curve.
Make the most of your time while you prepare and wait to be matched with a child. Everything you can do before a child comes into your home will help the transition of welcoming them be more successful — and easier on everyone in the household.
Help Your Family Make a Healthy Transition
All the goodness and beauty and care and nurture that you’ve prepared for a child (and are prepared to offer forever!) doesn’t erase the trauma they’ve endured. The damage is deep. Give yourself grace to take a step back as your family transitions — don’t rush anything, don’t push anything. In fact, the best thing you can do when your child first arrives is to drastically simplify your life:
Plan to have someone bring food in or go to the grocery store for you. Plan to stay home from work for a minimum of 30 days — 90 days, 180 days is better. But in the beginning, don’t go out of the house. Don’t have strangers come in. Don’t have a block party. Don’t have a celebration. Don’t have a “Gotcha Day” party. These are times for your child to discover what a family is; many children from hard places don’t know. And even if they had a family, that family has been torn from them; they need to learn that you will be a family. — Dr. Karyn Purvis
“Underneath everything we do with children,” said Dr. Purvis, we need to reduce their fears and convey the fundamental message that that we are safe.” She and her team developed that strategy around three basic points:
- Offer consistent care so your child gets the message that A safe adult will take care of me and protect me. My needs matter to this adult.
- Offer warm interaction so your child gets the message that I do not need to be afraid of this adult. I am a person of value to this person.
- Be responsive so your child gets the message that This adult understands what I feel. I am safe here.
Take a few minutes to watch these seven short videos from Dr. Purvis about the unique gifts you can give your adopted child:
Help Your Adopted Child Understand Their Story
Offering consistent care, warm interaction, and responsiveness starts even before a child walks through your door. It means caring about their history, about their hurts and losses and hopes.
It means not being afraid of their story, not glossing over life’s beginnings, not trying to hide away biological family. It means making sure your child is never surprised to learn that they’re adopted. It means helping them come to a strength-based understanding of their story:
The adults in the lives of children growing up in foster care and adoption are genuinely in charge of keeping ahold of their children’s stories to the degree they can. We are the ones that have access to critical information that will help a child grow up with an understanding of his life story. — Jayne Schooler
Your child knows more than you think, so always tell the truth about their adoption in developmentally appropriate ways.
- Say, We chose you! (Never say, We rescued you.)
- Never make up stories or try to guess why a child’s biological family gave them up for adoption. (And no matter what darker details you do know, always affirm for your child that their biological parents made the brave and loving choice of adoption.)
- Help your child understand the people who make up their story. They have a biological mother and father; that’s biologically accurate. They also have a mom and dad; that’s relationally accurate.
- If your adopted child is a different ethnicity than you, honor their roots by learning all you can and incorporating their cultural traditions into the heart language of your home.
- Start a life book for your child. Even if you don’t give it to them for several years, it will help them connect their story points — where they came from, their permanent home with you, and the story unfolding for their future. (One good option is Before You Were Mine: Discovering Your Adopted Child’s Lifestory.)
- Above all, says Jayne Schooler, “Don’t forget; it is the child’s story. The history belongs to the child, not to the adoptive parents. If friends or extended family members ask about sensitive information, tell them the information belongs to the child. Encourage family members to wait until the child is old enough to decide what questions he wants to answer.”
Now that your child is home, it’s time to start putting the pieces of therapeutic parenting into place. And how you move forward will depend on your child’s age.
Counseling for Children Under 8
For a child under 8, the most healing relationship they can have is the one they develop with their parents. For that reason, if you have concerns, consider seeing the counselor yourself instead of sending your child. A counselor can give you insight into your child’s behaviors and help you put therapeutic parenting tools into practice.
But if you do decide to take your child to a counselor, look for one trained in TBRI or Theraplay. Aside from other insights and healing to be gained from a therapeutic relationship, the counselor can help you understand your child’s attachment style and identify any issues. (Specifically, a Theraplay-licensed therapist can conduct an assessment called the Marschak Interaction Method — MIM. It’s used with kids from birth through their teen years to observe and assess the connection between parents and child.)
Counseling for Children Over 8
Children over 8 might argue against the idea of seeing a counselor. However, if you believe they need to see a therapist, don’t give your child a choice; that just sets you up for a power struggle. Instead, say something like, You need to see a therapist for six sessions, and then you can decide whether you want to keep going.
Moreover, if your child is traumatized, we strongly recommend that you be part of the therapeutic process. Most kids under 18 aren’t going to feel like they have a problem, so having them go to a counselor by themselves won’t be as productive as parents and teens going together to identify and resolve concerns. Ask the therapist to include you in your child’s treatment plan — even if that means your child has two sessions a month without you and two sessions when you join in.
A Special Note for Families in Rural Areas
Parents in rural areas can have a hard time accessing resources for their adopted children, but don’t give up!
If your child needs an evaluation that’s only offered in a larger city, let your therapist know about the driving distance. Ask them if they can consolidate the primary evaluation and any other assessments for the same day or over consecutive days so you only have to make one trip.
Also, don’t discount online connections. Many clinicians and support groups offer web-based services for ongoing therapy.
Navigate Educational Challenges
Being able to homeschool an adopted child for at least one year to focus on therapeutic parenting can lead to greater educational success in the long run. That’s a nice thought, but let’s be real: It’s not an option for most families. The question then becomes, How do we merge idealism with realism? How do we hold out hope for our child while accepting the limitations of the school system?
The school environment can easily overwhelm any child — but for an adopted child who’s suffered trauma, it can be unbearable. These kids are usually whip-smart, so they’re not impaired enough to qualify for special services. Unfortunately, their wounds run so deep that they struggle in many ways and often slip through the cracks. Their brain is still in survival mode, so it’s unfair for school staff to expect that a child will be a functioning, engaged student.
At the same time, it’s unfair for parents to assume that school staff know how to meet the unique needs of an adopted child. It’s also unfair for parents to put the burden of a child’s healing squarely on school staff. Most people in the educational system sincerely care about the children they serve, yet they must deal with unrelenting administrative expectations as well as find ways to meet the complex needs of every student.
The better, balanced approach? Be an advocate for your child and an ally with the school.
Find ways to partner with your child’s teachers. Ask if they’d be willing to sit down and have a conversation about your child’s journey, about the effects of trauma on a child’s development, and about what, specifically, works best with your child right now. Be gracious, be a team player, be humble. It’s up to you to learn what rights you and your child have in the educational system, but you don’t want to alienate the people caring for your child during the day.
One of the most important things to let school staff know about is if your child has a sensory processing disorder (SPD). SPD is the inability to use sensory information to function normally in everyday life. It has a physiological as well as a psychological basis and may be caused by early childhood trauma. Although common among adopted children who come from hard places, SPD is frequently misunderstood and misdiagnosed (often mistaken for ADHD).
If your child struggles with sensory overload, for example, even simple sensations of sight, sound, and touch can overwhelm or terrify them. Add in the happy commotion of a classroom with 20 to 30 children, and they might be headed for a meltdown.
To help everyone be successful, collaborate with your child’s teachers to recognize and respond to sensory processing issues. How will your child be allowed to work out their wiggles when hanging upside down isn’t acceptable? Where can your child find quiet and calm when the environment around them becomes too much? Is there an option within the school district that allows for more experiential, kinesthetic, movement-oriented learning?
Favorably navigating educational challenges comes down to consistent communication. How should teachers let you know when something needs to be adjusted or when new behavior shows up? And how can you best support and encourage the teachers’ efforts?
Take Care of Yourself
With the challenges and demands on your heart, mind, and time as you make this transition, you’ll be tempted to set aside your needs. Don’t fall for the lie that taking care of yourself is selfish. One of the most important things you can do to make a healthy transition is to give your child healthy parents with good self-care:
Find support groups that understand your journey. Find safe friends and neighbors who will give you voice for the journey. Find others who understand the unique challenges — the unique types of loneliness — you may experience. Find people who won’t judge you if you have periods of depression or angst. …
In small ways that you nurture yourself, you’ll have gifts to give to your child that are fresh and authentic. … There’s no way for you to continue this journey — there’s no way for you to be fresh — there’s no way for you to have love and affection to give to a child — if you haven’t given some care and nurture to yourself. It is not being selfish; it is being wise. — Dr. Karyn Purvis
Self-care is intentional. Pay attention to your physical, emotional, mental, relational, and spiritual well-being. What refreshes you might not refresh someone else, so don’t get stuck looking for a “perfect” way to recharge. Adoptive parents Mike and Kristin Berry point out,
When Jesus called His disciples, He didn’t tell ‘em, “Hey, by the way, here’s where we’re goin’. Here’s the home we’re gonna live in.” He didn’t say any of that. He said, “Come, follow Me.” — Mike and Kristin Berry
You won’t have everything figured out at once. You can’t have everything figured out at once. So just start. Find small ways to nurture yourself, because in doing so you’ll be nurturing your family, too. Here are some suggestions to get you started.
- Make time daily for a few minutes of quiet reflection and calm.
- Stay nourished and hydrated.
- Call the cheerleaders you identified when you prepared for this adoption.
- Reserve your energy. Don’t commit to many (or any!) activities outside the needs of your immediate family — at least for the first couple of years.
- Ask a member of your support team to come care for the kids so you can step out for an extended walk or cup of coffee.
- Before getting out of the shower, turn the water a little hotter and let your body relax.
- Before leaving the bathroom, wash your face with a warm washcloth, look yourself in the mirror, and remind yourself to take it one hour at a time (or one minute at a time!).
- Every hour or so, take five deep breathes and relax your shoulders before moving to the next task.
With every person you invite to support your adoption journey, with every tool you gain that helps you advocate for your child, with every small way you care for yourself and your family, you add another foundational block toward building a hope-filled future.
Parent with Confident Hope
Sharri Black, a licensed social worker, sees adoption as more of a pilgrimage than a journey — “an act of devotion and leads to a sacred place.” She didn’t come to that conclusion lightly; she was adopted, and she’s an adoptive mother who’s been through incredibly challenging situations. But, she says, there’s blessing in the hard.
The Hard is when you find yourself challenged beyond your means, facing circumstances beyond your control. The Hard can be difficult, painful, and overwhelming, and can last for a brief time, a season, or years. Perhaps all of us will be called to some form of the Hard sometime during our life on earth. It is not reserved just for adoptive parents.
However, I think with respect to God’s call to adopt, it can make the Hard seem harder. When asked about their motivation to adopt, most will express some version of “being called by God” to do so. Somehow, we think being called and chosen by God should exempt us from the Hard.— Sharri Black
Remember, too, that your child is figuring out who they are, who you are, and what the meaning of this adoption journey is for them. Even positive emotions can be overwhelming. And even though your child has been given the good gift of family with you, it’s going to take time for their own hard things to heal.
That’s when you recommit to love in action every day, every moment — even when you don’t feel that love.
Don’t Be Surprised if Your Child Pushes You Away
When home now means a permanent family, a huge shift can happen in a child’s heart — and not always for the better. Transitions tend to push all the buttons, and even if you fostered your child before adoption, behaviors might crop up that you never saw before. Wounds might come to light that not even your child’s caseworker knew about previously.
When most children get hurt or become afraid, they go to a parent. After all, parents are the ones who protect children and comfort them. For these children, it’s a simple equation: Mom and Dad are safe, and I can trust them to help me.
But things aren’t always that simple for children with histories of early harm such as trauma, abuse, or neglect. … Instead of going to their parents for help or comfort, these children often run from them, push them away, or shut them out. — Michael Monroe
It’s part of their survival kit. If you assure your child, There’s nothing you could do to push me away, they might take that as a challenge. In effect, they’ll pull all kinds of things out of their emotional suitcase and test you: This is the real me, the rest of me, the ugly side of me. Are you going to accept ALL of me?
A forever home can sound wonderful, but hopefulness can be scary to a child. They might be afraid to get too excited or relax because, What if this whole family thing doesn’t work out? The letdown will be devasting. I’ve been hurt too many times to get my hopes up. Better to sabotage it now so there’s no disappointment.
That’s how young Boone was feeling when he learned that someone wanted to adopt him out of the foster care system. He thought it was a trick:
It was like I’d been run over by a truck so many times I figured it wasn’t worth standing up because I’d just be run over again. — Boone Stokes, adopted from foster care
On the flip side, just because you don’t notice any tension doesn’t mean that all is well with your child. It’s possible that their chosen survival tactic has been to go along with everything and “be invisible” so they don’t get hurt.
With all that in mind, even if you fostered your child before adopting them, make time to talk together about what their adoption means: how things will change from a formal and legal standpoint, and how things will change on a relational and emotional level.
And for teens, especially, be careful with what you say. This age group is already highly skeptical. If you say they can have a forever home with you, they might feel like they have no escape plan and be tempted to act out beyond anything you’re prepared for. It’s better to not say it than to not follow through.
Instead, go into the relationship with healthy, accurate expectations. For instance, if a teen only wants room and board until they’re 18 and you’re okay with that, everyone can still experience a good outcome. Adoption might not be the answer.
Learn Not to Take Things Personally
You are parenting a child whose brain has been badly hurt. They haven’t yet learned to make sense of their emotions much less express those feelings in healthy ways. So when they act out, realize that they’re not simply being stubborn or defiant.
Take a breath and learn not to take it personally. Do everything you can to be present with your child, to learn their story, to hear their fears, to restore hope — to become a secure connector and understand your child’s love style.
The secure connector [has] learned to take their pain and their difficult emotions into relationship. There’s a wide range of emotions. Every emotion is okay and they’re taught to manage those emotions appropriately. …
So, when you become a secure connector, you’re gonna be able to really emotionally engage with your kids. Their feelings aren’t gonna overwhelm you. You’re going to be able to help them learn what to do with those difficult emotions that we all face. — Kay Yerkovich
Another point of pain for adoptive parents can be a child’s biological history. Even though you’re making a better life for your adopted child — sometimes a lot better — they might still wish that they were with their biological family. And it’s likely that your child will direct any hostilities toward you, their adoptive mom and dad.
If you have an open adoption, do your best to maintain a positive relationship with your child’s biological family. But if not, start thinking early on about how you’ll respond if your child wants to find their birth parents.
Take Advantage of Post-Adoption Services
Bringing your child home doesn’t mean you’re now cut off from formal help. AdoptUSKids lists subsidies, services, and training that are available during your entire journey. Find support for parents who adopt from foster care, including:
- State-specific post-adoption services
- Finding parent and youth support groups
- Obtaining financial assistance
- Meeting medical and mental health needs
- Accessing college assistance
- Other post-adoption resources
Don’t be afraid to ask for help!
Remember That Fractures Are Worthy of Gold
Have you heard of kintsugi? The word translates to “golden joinery,” and it’s a Japanese art of mending broken pottery with gold-infused adhesive. The finished product is a restored vessel with cracks of gold on full display. Kintsugi doesn’t try to conceal what’s been broken; it highlights what’s been cracked. The pottery’s brokenness becomes part of its beauty, strength, and value. Fractures are worthy of gold.
Fractures are worthy of gold.
When you begin the journey of adoption, you might have some idea of the brokenness you’ll encounter — in your own life and in the life of your child. But once you’re immersed in the pilgrimage, you realize there are levels of fracture and despair beyond imagining. Don’t ignore them, disguise them, sweep them under the rug. No … Hold them up to the Light.
Because fractures are worthy of gold.
Lift up every one of your child’s busted-up moments to our Heavenly Father. Every cracked, shattered, crushed, severed, crumpled, tear-stained, bruised, hopeless moment. Look up. Look ahead. Keep a long-term perspective. You are helping to mend your child’s fractures. You are helping them make sense of their story. You are positively impacting your child’s life for good — even though it may not feel like it to you, even though your child may not recognize or acknowledge it.
You are helping them to see that their fractures are worthy of gold.
It’s not just about taking these children in and giving them a family and loving them. It’s showing them who Jesus is because that is the only thing that’s eternal. — Cecil Stokes
As you consider everything we’ve shared in this article, may you be encouraged to pursue God’s leading for your family about adoption. May you not turn a blind eye to potential challenges, but may you not let those potential challenges scare you away.
Above all, may you take your stress and uncertainty to God. He is your safe place. “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)
Find More Resources for Support
So much more can be said — has been said! — about the journey of adoption than we have space to cover here. Think of our words as a jumping-off point; now you need to find out more yourself. Use the titles listed here to help you along each step of the way. And remember that if you’d like to talk through something specific, you can call our Counseling department for a free over-the-phone consultation.
If a title is currently unavailable through Focus on the Family, we encourage you to use another retailer.
The Connected Child: Bring Hope and Healing to Your Adoptive Family (and free download of chapter four: Disarming the Fear Response With Felt Safety)
Focus on the Family Counseling Consultation Line
Call 1-855-771-HELP (4357), Monday through Friday, 6:00 AM to 8:00 PM (MT).
Focus on the Family’s Christian Counselor Network
Search for licensed Christian counselors in your area.
Hope Restored® marriage intensives — a ministry of Focus on the Family
Our intensive programs are held in a retreat setting and are designed to rebuild and restore marriages experiencing significant hurt.