Updated: Apr 30
Like any expectant parents, adoptive moms and dads worry that they don’t know enough. They wonder what they need to learn to take care of their child. But while most others can read books like What to Expect When You’re Expecting, an equivalent all-purpose manual that prepares parents to raise adopted children doesn’t really exist.
As I reflect on my own journey into parenthood, I’ve identified a list of things that I wish I knew before I adopted.
Here are 8 things I believe parents should know before they adopt a child:
1. The child is YOURS. Let people know it.
This is an obvious one but requires attention. Despite how the child enters your family, it’s you who’ll get up in the middle of the night. You will dry your child’s tears, kiss boo-boos, and help your child study for tests. You would step in front of a train for this kid. So don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not a “real” parent. You’re as real as they come.
When my oldest son was in first grade, I volunteered to do face painting for a Halloween party. As my son waited in line with another boy, I overheard this conversation: Other boy: “Didn’t you say that your mom was coming?” My son: “Yeah, that’s her doing the face painting.” Other boy: “How come she doesn’t look like you?” My son: “Duh. Cuz I’m adopted” Other boy: “Where’s your REAL MOM?” My son: “Oh, she’s REAL. You can touch her if you want…” Made my heart swell with pride. Of course, we did spend a lot of time on positive adoption language…something I wish I had learned about BEFORE our adoption. It could’ve saved some heartache early on.
2. Sometimes love is not enough.
When we adopted, we thought love and positive discipline could overcome any hardships our children endured before us. This worked great for my first son. But his early circumstances were ideal. He had a birth mother who had good nutrition and a foster family who cared immensely for him. And he came to us with an easy-going personality. We thought it was our stellar parenting skills. And then we adopted another child…
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Our second son was irritable and cranky from day one. His tantrums lasted up to four hours at a time. He dove across the table for food which I attributed to a “good appetite” back then. I later learned it was a sign of neglect. His birth mother was from an area of Guatemala that leads us to suspect malnourishment during her pregnancy. She was a young teenager and most likely under great stress. And we highly suspect his foster mom neglected him.
Abuse or neglect in the first three years of life dramatically rewires the brain, leading to developmental trauma (commonly diagnosed as reactive attachment disorder). And a clinician eventually diagnosed our second son with reactive attachment disorder. The disorder is far more common for adopted or foster children than in the general population.
No amount of love will "fix" developmental trauma. In fact, love and attachment can make things worse. These serious issues require appropriate intervention by professionals. The earlier in life, the better. The disorder only grows more advanced with time when untreated. Time, love, and the right family can’t “undo” this serious disorder. Which leads me to my next tip…
3. You need to plan and budget for therapy or other necessary interventions.
No matter how well-adjusted your child appears, adoption includes loss. An adopted child suffers from the “primal wound” of losing biological parents that can lead to feelings of unworthiness. You’ll want to find your child a therapist who understands. If you have a child with reactive attachment disorder, you’ll want to find a particular therapist to help your child.
4. Surround yourself with people who “get it”.
If your friends and family aren’t shouting about your adoption from the rooftops, look elsewhere for support. It’s vital for you to have an encouraging group--people who will throw you a baby shower, trek out to the airport or come to your house to welcome your new baby. When we adopted, we were lucky to have three friends who threw showers for us. Our best friends Mike and Nicole actually went over the top and researched Guatemala, our son’s birthplace. They served all Guatemalan cuisine, including an amazing tres leches cake. We played trivia games about Guatemala in addition to the silly “guess what candy bar is smeared in the diaper” or “guess the flavor of baby food” shower games. They decorated the party with Guatemalan flags and bought a piñata filled with pacifiers and rattles. We felt special and celebrated, as all expectant parents should.
For those of you who realize you've adopted a child with reactive attachment disorder as we did, your people will really need to "get it". They don't need to understand the disorder—it's incredibly confusing. But they need to "get" you. Reactive attachment disorder can quickly tear apart friendships and family ties. You'll need people who will truly listen without judgment and believe in you as a person and a parent without a shadow of a doubt.
5. Prepare for questions. And thicken your skin.
Plenty of strangers will ask dumb questions about your child’s “real” parents, where he or she came from, the cost of your child, and plenty of other stuff that isn’t any of their business. Ask other adoptive parents about the questions they’ve been asked and come up with answers you’re comfortable with ahead of time.
If you’ve adopted a child with reactive attachment disorder, you’ll need to prepare yourself for other sorts of questions (ones that’ll probably annoy the heck out of you). Friends and family will likely pepper you with “well-meaning” questions and advice such as, “Have you tried sticker charts?” or “You should XYX. It worked for my kid.” Most people assume that parenting a neurotypical child is the same as parenting a child with a trauma-wired brain. It’s not. Education goes a long way. However, you won’t have time to teach everyone you meet about the disorder. You’ll want some back-pocket answers to keep you calm in those moments.
6. Find an adoption community.
This is important for many reasons. First of all, you need parents who’ve “been there, done that” to let you know what is ahead for you. Since my cousin was adopted, I thought I understood that she’s just my cousin. No different from any other relative. No matter where she came from, she was my cousin. And these would be my children. But there are things I wasn’t prepared for and didn’t know. In kindergarten, my oldest son freaked out over an art project at his mostly white school. All the kids used the peach marker to do a self-portrait. He felt so anxious about using the brown marker because it was too dark. No one could see his eyes and mouth. I had no idea multicultural skin markers existed until this happened. A heads-up would’ve helped immensely. At puberty, kids typically form more individual identities and that’s a time when birth family curiosities come to surface. By this time, we had already regularly attended a Latin American Heritage Camp – a weekend camp for families who’ve adopted kids from Latin America or Latino kids from the USA – over almost a decade. I had heard stories and attended lectures on adoption issues and was prepared. I can’t tell you how important it was to know what happened with other families and how they responded.
7. Look for role models who share your child’s identity and experiences.
Studies show that adopted children need role models who’ve also been adopted even more than those who share their skin colors. Ideally, however, you’ll want to find people - a mentor or group of children, for example, who share both of these identities with your child. The counselors at our camp are an invaluable resource for our family.
It’s sometimes hard to hear that your child wonders about his or her biological family. But it’s not at all a reflection on your parenting. Rather, the curiosity is a natural part of forming self-identity. Your child might not want to express these feelings out of fear of offending you. Keep that line of communication open but give your child other alternatives as well.
8. Respect and celebrate your child’s birth culture and heritage.
Look for camps and other opportunities to help learn more about your child's birth culture and heritage. This mostly applies to interracial families with obvious physical differences. But it couldn’t hurt for a child of any heritage to attend events and cook foods that reflect his or her birth family or place, even if it's a different state within your own country.
We were thrilled when we discovered Latin American Heritage camp where I learned to cook some Latin American foods and we all learned Latin games, dances, and other ways to celebrate Latin American culture. Our camp also prepared us for how to deal with racial bias and discrimination and even taught our teenagers how to properly react if they get pulled over by the police.
A particularly crass man at a New Year’s Eve party once asked me if I wanted “my own kids”.
I told him my kids ARE my “own kids”. And it’s true. I couldn’t possibly love my boys more than I do if I had squeezed them out myself. But I also know that my parenting experiences have been MUCH different from my friends with birth children. Parts of it are better. We have a community of adoptive parents and adult adoptees. We’re able to celebrate a different culture and explore the beautiful country where our kids were born.
Parts of our parenting journey have proven considerably more challenging than that of our friends too. While I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world, there are things I’d like to have known beforehand.
Congratulations to you, new or expecting adoptive parents. No matter how challenging the journey at times, know that you are not alone. There’s a whole community of other adoptive parents who celebrate you and your family and share your experiences. Find them. Enjoy the good times. Seek the resources you'll need before potential bad times. If those times strike, reach out for help. And always remember, you and your family are so worth it.
Gina Heumann is a mom of a child with reactive attachment disorder, TEDx speaker, and author of the Amazon best-selling book Love Never Quits: Surviving and Thriving After Infertility, Adoption, and Reactive Attachment Disorder and GOLD recipient of the prestigious Mom's Choice Award.