Many foster parents are able to eventually adopt their foster children. It’s a wonderful way to add to your family, and it’s an important step toward stability for a child. But as wonderful as adoption can be, it’s not a magic wand that resolves all of a child’s trauma. If you are considering adoption or have already adopted, I have stumbled into several principles that are important to keep in mind during the process.
Bonding Takes Time
Hopefully we adults have thought through our commitment before deciding to adopt. For us, the adoption itself is at the tail end of our decision and commitment. For our children, it’s just another step along the journey.
Yes, adoption is an important legal step, and for adults it signals the depth of the commitment that we are making to our children. For former foster children, however, we may just be saying things that they have heard before. After all, their biological families were supposed to be permanent, and other foster families may have made promises that they didn’t keep. So don’t expect your children to believe your commitment simply because a judge has pronounced them part of your family.
In fact, for children who have seen adults not be able to keep promises, words never will be enough. Early in my marriage, my youngest stepson often signaled his belief that our marriage wasn’t going to last. I realized that, in his experience, all marriages eventually broke up. He simply did not have a frame of reference for marriage as a permanent relationship. A few years ago, I asked him (now an adult) why he quit worrying that we would divorce. He thought for a moment and then shrugged, saying, “Well, you are still here.”
Children will not believe our promises to always be there until they actually see that we are always there. That proof takes time, and we have to give our children the time to test and learn to believe us.
Expect Children To Test Your Commitment
Several of my friends have mentioned that their children started testing boundaries more after an adoption than before. When we thought it through, we realized that it’s an understandable reaction. Foster children often feel as though they are walking on eggshells, with every action carrying the potential of getting them kicked out. Once they feel some stability from adoption, they often start feeling more comfortable testing their limits. It’s developmentally normal for children to test their boundaries, and the more secure they feel in our homes, the more testing we may see.
Children also will test our commitment to see if we really mean it. Again, this is a normal part of their development. Children learn by testing the boundaries of their environment, starting with their earliest days of banging toys on the wall. That trait doesn’t change just because the are emotional rather than physical. Children simply can’t believe our commitments until they have tested them.
They May Need Time To Grieve
No matter how wonderful you are, your children likely will still miss their biological family. It’s sometimes hard for us to understand why children would want to stay connected to abusive, neglectful, or addicted parents, but they have deep ties that defy logic. Our children will not switch those ties to a new family easily, no matter what any adoption orders or other court documents say. They also may worry about losing touch with siblings or extended biological family that they value. Sometimes they aren’t missing what they actually had as much as what they think they should have had, or what their biological family could have been. They will need time to work through the reality of their circumstances. So don’t take it personally if they romanticize or show signs of grieving for their “lost” family. Be supportive, such as doing what you can to help them maintain positive biological relationships, and give them time to work through how their world has changed.
They May Spend Time Searching for Their Identity
We all know what it’s like to try to find our place in the world. This sense of dislocation is particularly strong in foster and adopted children who have lost their biological families. Even if they have no memory of their biological families, adopted children tend to struggle more with a sense of identity than children who remain with a biological parent. Learning to settle into an adopted family may take some time, and developing a sense of stability definitely takes time. Again, don’t take their search for identity as any sort of comment on your parenting or how much you care about them. It stems from circumstances and psychological dynamics that neither you or they can change. All you can do is remain committed to your relationship and walk alongside them on their journey to find where they belong.
Bringing a child into your family through adoption feels like the end of a long legal process. In reality, it is only the beginning of another adventure for your family. If you prepare for the challenges, however, you will have a better chance of enjoying the wonder that unfolds along the way.