By Jennifer Anton, LPC
This fall, I launched my son off to college, a milestone I wasn’t always so sure we would achieve. As I reflect on the joys and challenges of the past 18 years, here are six things I’ve learned from the front lines of adoptive parenting that have made me a more thoughtful, patient, flexible and gracious parent:
1. Acknowledge the trauma.
All adopted kids have experienced disruption in attachment, the emotional bond between child and parent. Some may remember this separation, but for others, they may have been too young. My son was separated from his first family within a day of his birth. Although he does not remember the details, this early experience set in motion automatic responses in his brain and body designed to help him survive. Some of these strategies were helpful and others, over time, got in the way of his learning, relationships and behavior.
“Trauma-focused” adoptive parenting is a way of parenting that promotes safety, supportive relationships and healing. It is trust-based, relational and sensory-focused. There is no “ideal” or “best-case scenario” adoption. No matter the age you adopt your child, whether it’s been years, months, or you took them home from the hospital the day they were born, your child has experienced separation from their first primary caregivers.
Here are some suggestions to help:
- Find a therapist who practices somatic or sensory approaches. These therapies emphasize the role that the body, our five senses and movement play in healing. Occupational therapy is a good place to start.
- Sign up for Trust-Based Relational Intervention Caregiver Training through the Adoption Exchange in Denver.
- Practice yoga and mindfulness activities with your child to build connections between brain and body and increase “attunement” between you and your child. Attunement is how responsive you are to your child’s emotional needs and moods. When we attune with another person, we allow our inner state to shift and respond to the inner world of that person.
- Read about the brain, regulation and trauma: Leah Kuypers, Zones of Regulation, Dan Siegel, The Whole-Brain Child, Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score.
2. Your attachment style matters.
In the years since I started parenting, there have been huge advances in research on attachment theory. We now fully understand that infants create a special bond with their caregiver, using them as a secure “home base” to feel safe and explore the world. These “attachments” formed with caregivers are models for building future relationships.
Not all attachments, however, are secure. Research has shown that attachment style with our parents is the biggest predictor of the attachment style we’ll have with our own child. How does your own history influence the type of behaviors that “push your buttons”? For me, toddler and teenage tantrums would trigger a desire to run away and avoid conflict. Learning engagement strategies to nurture a healthy connection was key to becoming a more effective parent.
To learn more about attachment theory check out:
- Dan Siegel, Parenting from the Inside Out
- Amir Levine & Rachel Heller, Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love
- John Bowlby, A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development
3. There’s no single diagnosis or miracle cure.
Complex developmental trauma can look like many different conditions. Persistence, not labels, is key. Learn a new parenting strategy, implement, adjust and move to the next approach when it stops working. Kids develop and their needs change.
When my younger son was 6, playing in the occupational therapy room was incredibly effective, but when he was 15, the soccer field or basketball court became his sensory playground. We once tried biofeedback; it worked for a while and then it didn’t. So did Collaborative Problem Solving, a cognitive skill-building technique. Deep breathing and a therapy dog have stayed the course, but yoga and mindfulness were no longer cool after age 12. Adoptive parenting requires you to be observant, responsive, flexible and nimble.
4. Adopted kids usually have lagging social-emotional development skills, but most of them catch up.
That’s because “kids do well if they can,” according to Ross Green, founder of the Collaborative Problem-Solving model. Knowing that adopted kids can lag two to three years in emotional development due to issues with self-regulation has helped me adjust expectations and focus on skill-building, while supporting my kids’ strengths.
So, when teachers would say “He’s just not trying hard enough,” I would say, “The problem isn’t that he’s not trying, it’s that he needs to build skills. Let’s help him do that.” Supporting and celebrating what kids do well, such as playing an instrument, creating art or excelling in a sport, is the best way to build self-esteem. And, here’s the good news: Most kids do catch up emotionally in their own time. Patience is required.
5. The looming question: Is this a developmental issue or an adoption issue?
The answer is: likely both. It’s normal to ask this question because adoptive parenting includes an extra layer of complexity, often with multiple relationships, competing interests and interrupted attachment. Teasing out whether a behavior is related to adoption or to typical development can be tough and may not be as important as creating the space and time to nurture development of specific skills. Consistency, structure, practice and emotional support are a good recipe for any challenging behavior.
6. Lean into support systems.
Find adoptive parent support groups and adoptive family camps, organizations and events. These are the places you and your child will feel most at home and understood. Every summer since my kids were babies, our family has traveled to the mountains for a weekend to attend Latin American Heritage Camp, a culturally-relevant family camp for domestic and international adoptees and their families.
Through deep friendships developed over the years, we have shared successes, failures, hopes and dreams for our children. In fact, this blog represents not just my own reflections and experiences, but a compilation of the wisdom from all the adoptive families within my support network.
Two of my favorite supports:
Whether you are new to this path or a seasoned traveler, the journey of adoption is filled with joy, pain, laughter and love. The gift of adoptive parenting is not in how much your give or receive but in how you grow. What have you learned along your journey of adoptive parenting?
Jennifer Anton is a Licensed Professional Counselor and mother of two boys adopted from Guatemala. She works for Jefferson County Public Health as a project coordinator with the LAUNCH Together initiative.