Parenting an Adopted Child

On the whole, there are more similarities than differences between raising an adopted child and raising a birth child. Yet, it is vital that adoptive parents know how to handle the issues that are a part of every adoption.

The similarities between raising an adopted child and raising a birth child are most evident in the everyday activities of a family. On a day-to-day basis, the emphasis is on parenting a child, "a child who happens to be adopted." Parents need to provide an environment that supports and encourages any child, no matter how they joined the family. Every child needs acceptance and love, a sense of security, limits and structure, basic skills, a sense of responsibility, self-esteem, the ability to handle emotions, an education, and much more. Adoptive parents will spend much more time over the years dealing with needs that all children have than they will dealing with issues that are specific to raising a child who is adopted.

The discussions adoptive parents have with their children are crucial to the relationship that develops between parent and child, and to how the child processes the adoption experience. These factors affect the adoptive family no matter what age the child is when adopted and regardless of whether they knew their birth parents or not. Major issues affecting adoptees and adoptive parents include the following:

Adoption is a Life-long Process

Just like parenting, adoption is a life-long process. A child who has been adopted becomes an adult who has been adopted. When a child turns 18 or 21, adoption questions, feelings or issues do not disappear.

Adoption issues can become especially important when adoptees are about to or become parents themselves. At this time, the possible lack of background medical information may cause some anxiety. For example, adoptees may wonder if there is some genetic condition they don't know about that could be passed on to a child. Adoptees may also find that they want to search for their birth parents at this time. A critical element of adoptees becoming parents is that, for perhaps the first time, they will have someone in their lives to whom they are related.

Grief, Separation and Loss

It is imperative that adoptive parents understand how grief, separation and loss affect all members of the adoption triangle. Birth parents experience the loss of their children, whether those children are voluntarily or involuntarily placed for adoption. Adoptees often lose contact with their birth families forever, or for a significant portion of their lives. And if adoptive parents have experienced infertility, they may feel loss and grief for the children never born to them.

There is a great amount of written material available regarding the grieving process (including separation and loss). Adoptive parents should read and study this material for their own benefit and for the benefit of their adopted children. Children grieve differently than adults, so parents should read about this process and provide age-appropriate books for their children. Books can provide an excellent opportunity for parents and children to discuss this important issue and to express their feelings. Books written by adopted children and adults can help children realize they are not alone in their experience. Discussing grief and loss should not be a one-time event. It, too, is a life-long process that needs to be revisited by parents and children as the children age and their understanding of their life situation grows.

Talking About Adoption and the Birth Family

One of the main issues for adoptive parents is accepting the existence of their children's birth parents and being at ease with discussing the birth family with their children. Adoptive parents cannot deny that birth parents exist or hope that their child will never bring up the topic. Birth parents will always be part of adopted children's lives, whether they ever knew them or not.

It is vital for adoptive parents to convey to their children that it is all right to talk about their adoption and their birth family. In the past, many adoptive parents either overtly or covertly led their adoptive children to feel that their adoption was not to be openly discussed. Adoptees often express sadness when discussing how they wished they could have talked more openly to their adoptive parents. The open, honest and caring discussion of a child's adoption helps parents and children bond, and brings them closer together. Children who learn they are adopted when they are older (or as adults) often experience feelings of insecurity, mistrust and alienation from their adoptive parents.

Information about the birth family can be shared with children according to their age, level of understanding and age at which they were adopted. Children adopted at a very young age will not develop a full understanding of adoption until about age seven. Parents should talk about adoption from the time their child can walk and talk so he or she will become accustomed to hearing the word, even though understanding of the word will be limited. Parents can tell and repeat the story of how the child joined the family, explaining that some children are born to a family and some children join a family through adoption. Pictures of the day the child joined the family and other adoption-related events can help tell the story. There are also books that parents can use in talking about adoption with their child. Watching a television show or movie about adoption together can also provide a good opportunity for discussion.

Adoptive parents should convey a positive image of the birth parents to their child, even in instances of abuse and neglect. The birth parents and their behavior need to be separated so that the child does not feel that he or she is bad because the birth parents did "bad" things. It can be explained to the child that parenting is a very difficult job, and that many people do not learn how to parent well.

law requires that certain information, if known, be provided to adoptive parents prior to the date of placement (see Adoption Act, Section 18.4). Adoptive parents should receive as much information as possible about their child and his or her birth family. Receiving medical and psychological information is particularly important.

The Right to Parent

Adoptive parents who have experienced infertility often feel a loss of self-esteem. This, in turn, can affect how they view their ability to parent. While all parents feel insecure in their parenting abilities to some extent, adoptive parents must give themselves the right to parent their adopted children. Adoptive parents have to overcome any feeling that, since they did not give birth to a child, they shouldn't act like a parent to that child. The law gives adoptive parents all the rights and responsibilities of birth parents.

A related issue for many adoptive parents is the term children use when talking about their birth parents. Some adoptive parents can feel threatened when a child says, "my real parents" when referring to his or her birth parents. This issue also relates to self-esteem and confidence issues brought on by how adoptive parents feel about their parenting rights. Children will use whatever words pop into their heads, and will also use words and terms they have heard in the past. It is the adoptive parents who have to process their feelings and allow a child to use whatever term he or she wants.

If a child realizes that certain terms (such as "my real parent") make an adoptive parent upset, then the child could use that term as a psychological tool to challenge an adoptive parent's authority or hurt an adoptive parent's feelings. Such an exchange could occur when the child is upset or angry. Remember, if a parent can love more than one child, then a child can love more than one parent.

Adopting an Older Child

Adopting an older child can be very different than adopting a child as a newborn or as an infant, especially when it comes to issues of attachment. Attachment between parent and child is one of the most important elements in a child's development. Children who are loved, nurtured, well-fed and cared for develop a sense of trust and security in the world and an attachment to their caregivers.

Children who have experienced abuse and neglect usually do not feel secure, and their social development may not be age-appropriate. Being placed in foster care (and especially having multiple placements) can further impact a child's ability to attach. Problems with attachment can even be evident in pre-school age
children. It is important that prospective adoptive parents receive education about the behaviors and feelings of older children who are available for adoption. This training can provide adoptive parents with realistic expectations about the child's overall behavior and expressions of affection, and impart effective parenting techniques. Individual and family counseling may also be needed to assist the child and family.

Some behaviors exhibited by pre-school or older children who are adopted may include:

  • a constant need for attention and close physical contact with the parents
  • being uncomfortable with close physical contact
  • acting out to determine if the new parents will reject them and want them to leave, as may have happened in the past
  • inability to easily adapt to a change in family routine
  • problem behaviors in school
  • behaving like a child several years younger
  • low academic achievement

Older children bring their past to their new adoptive family, and this is why parents should request complete background information about their child. Every bit of information can help adoptive parents be more effective advocates for their adopted children, both at home and in school. Medical information about children and their birth families will be valuable to the children throughout their lifetime.

Online Adoption Education Courses

To learn more about talking to your child about adoption, you may want to visit the Adoption Learning Partners website, This site offers online education courses on topics including attachment, adoption tax credits, discussing adoption issues with family members, and race and culture in relation to adoption.

Enrollment is free for parents who are fostering or adopting an Illinois waiting child, and the DCFS Training Division is automatically notified when you complete a course. Taking classes online is easy and can be done any time, day or night. Interactive learning activities can help you practice your parenting skills.

For more information, visit the Adoption Learning Partners website, e-mail or call 800-566-3995.

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