Everyone has developmental milestones throughout life that fosters their physical, emotional, psychological, social and spiritual growth. Throughout our early years, we learn to trust that our parents will meet our needs and help us walk, talk, make friends, define our identity, choose a career, establish an independent life and more—all while remaining connected to those around us.
Our success in new stages of life and in accomplishing developmental milestones is influenced by how well we have navigated earlier stages. Sometimes adopted children—due to previous experiences—need help to filling in gaps. If this is something your child faces, you can provide her with appropriate stimulation, challenge and praise to help her advance. Looking at your child’s adoption awareness in stages can be helpful.
As you read this information, keep in mind that—depending on their earlier experiences—some children may deal with delays in development or they may have adaptive behaviors that helped them deal with past trauma. These children will likely need specialized support as they transition into a new life with a stable and loving family.
Whether adoptive or biological, one of the key developmental tasks in parenting an infant is building trust. Ensuring your baby understands that her needs for safety and nurturance will be met consistently by one or a few loving caregivers is one way to do this. When parents or caregivers meet those needs, your baby can form secure attachments. As you meet your baby’s needs for stimulation and for soothing, her ability to regulate her emotions also begins to develop. The baby learns that interaction with people is enjoyable. There are many ways that parents can encourage their baby to trust and attach to them. Zero to Three and Born Learning both provide suggestions and guidelines for understanding your babies’ needs and developmental stages.
Infants can exhibit signs of distress, such as difficulty sleeping or eating, uncontrollable crying, withdrawal, and sadness, when moved to a new environment, even at very young ages. Around the age of 6 months, attachment between the baby and caregiver becomes especially important. Disruptions in placement (for example, if your baby was moved to a new home) can result in behavioral reactions that are more intense.
Parents should be particularly aware of their baby’s need for their consistent presence and soothing during this time. Calm, structured environments and lots of touch and holding can help your baby adjust to her new home. Even babies who are not adopted can be fussy during infancy, especially when colicky or teething. You can take comfort in knowing that all parents—adoptive and biological—struggle with many of the same issues. Continue with her regular well-baby visits and talk to your pediatrician about any concerns.
Helping Children Understand Their Adoption
You may be both joyful and fearful at the thought of talking to your child about his adoption. Understanding how children at different ages comprehend the issues of adoption will be helpful as you as your child explore how they came to be part of your family.
Talking to Infants About Adoption
Many adoption experts recommend that parents begin talking about adoption early in a child’s life, even during infancy. Opportunities to do this include visits with birthparents or looking at books and pictures. You may have difficulty talking about your child’s adoption because it brings up lingering feelings of loss and sadness about infertility or the lack of a biological connection to your child. This is normal, understandable and okay.
Infancy provides a gift of time in this regard. As an adoptive parent, you can process your own feelings and practice talking about adoption while your baby is still too young to cognitively understand it. Doing so will help you feel more comfortable, relaxed, and confident by the time your child is old enough to understand what you are saying, verbally and non-verbally.
Toddlers and preschoolers are very adept at identifying physical differences—especially in those with whom they interact most. So, it’s not surprising that this is the age when children adopted transracially or transculturally become aware of the ways in which they do not look like mom or dad. Because of this, it is crucial to incorporate racial and ethnic diversity into your family’s lifestyle and through her books, videos, and toys.
In the world of adoption, we’ve learned many good lessons and have been able to adapt to those. For example, in the past, parents were encouraged to have a “color blind” approach to race and ethnicity. Today we understand that it is important for families to acknowledge differences and affirm them in positive ways. It is also important for a child to not always be singled out as “the other” in terms of his or her culture of birth.
Family Activity: Make a dinner using recipes from each person’s ethnic background, such as Dad’s German heritage, Mom’s French background, and Daughter’s Guatemalan history. It is important to recognize that the entire family is diverse and multiracial/multicultural.
Children at this age are typically proud of their adoption journey. They love to hear about it and tell their story. Your child may respond enthusiastically to the idea of having you talk about her adoption to others. When you do talk about her adoption, it is important to remember that it is still your child’s story.
Any details you have not shared with her should not be shared with others unless there is a compelling medical or educational reason to do so. Even in those cases, it not always necessary to share all of the details. When working with your child’s healthcare team, be sure to tell them what you have and have not shared with your child and remind them to keep her information private.
Also, when telling your child’s adoption story, always be sure to start with her birth, not the adoption. Even if you do not know many details about her birthday, it is important to include it. Some adoptees describe a sense of feeling disconnected from their birth—as though they just appeared when this information is not part of the story. Including her birth will assure her that she was born, just like every other child.
At this age, children typically feel positive about adoption. They rarely understand that in joining a new family, their birthfamily had to say goodbye to them. Your child may be also starting to understand basic information about birth and reproduction. She may begin to ask questions about where babies come from and may express a desire to have grown in her adoptive mother’s tummy—if she has been told that she grew in another mommy’s tummy.
This is a healthy expression of your child’s connection to her adoptive mother. It is also a foundational understanding of some of the differences and losses associated with adoption. At this stage, it is helpful for parents to simply affirm that wish and state that they wish for the same thing. For your child, a reaffirming hug and expression of love doesn’t hurt either. Acknowledging her losses is important and may avoid difficulties later on.
At this age, it is important for adoptive parents to understand that children are beginning to explore their world more and develop some independence, which may include lots of expressions of “no!,” temper tantrums and efforts to exercise some control over their environment. Adoptive parents need to be careful not to view these normal behaviors as attachment problems. If you have a concern, consult a mental health practicioner experienced in adoption issues, who should be able to tell the difference between normal developmental challenges and those that indicate a disorder.
If your child joined your family during these years, she will have the work of adjustment and attachment to do. If your child was adopted at this age after a history of abuse, neglect or life in an orphanage, she is likely to show some behaviors related to the trauma, such as: fear trusting adults, difficulty regulating emotions, hyper vigilance, etc. These behaviors need to be assessed and diagnosed early to help her develop healthy habits.
Prior to age three, children adopted internationally and children adopted domestically from foster care should be assessed to determine whether early intervention services are needed to ensure healthy development. After age three, children may be eligible for special education services. Information about the benefits of early intervention and special education services for children who have experienced extreme stress, abuse, or neglect prior to adoption can be found by reading “Factsheet: Vulnerable Young Children” by Evelyn Shaw and Sue Goode and published online by the National Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center (NECTAC).
Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self by Dr. David Brodzinsky, Dr. Marshall Schechter, and Robin Marantz Henig,
Telling the Truth to Your Adopted or Foster Child: Making Sense of the Past, by Betsy Keefer and Jayne E. Schooler,
As children enter the school-age years, finding acceptance from their friends becomes very important to them. Typically, kids at this age want to be like their friends—they do not want to stand out. Adopted children may struggle with feelings of being different simply because they are adopted. Children adopted transracially may struggle even more because they do not look like their adoptive parents or siblings.
Understanding Relinquishment for the First Time
You may be surprised to find that your child—who, at age four, was delighted when you told her adoption story—does not seem to want to talk about it anymore. This does not mean, that she is not thinking about her adoption. Often around age seven or eight, children first grasp that relinquishment led to their being adopted. A child’s normal response to learning about what relinquishment entails is often sadness—sometimes even intense grief—over the loss of their birthparents, feelings of rejection and a desire to understand the reasons for being “given up.”
Remember your child’s feelings are not about you. Sadness over these losses is not about rejecting her adoptive family. In fact, being able to come cry on your lap is an indication that your child feels secure and loved enough to trust you to help her make sense of what she are going through.
As difficult as it is for you to watch your child grieve, imagine what it feels like to be her. More than anything else, she needs you to hold her and listen to her.
If the adoption is open, it may be possible for your child to write her birthparents a letter asking questions about the relinquishment or to talk to them. In such a case, you will need to prepare the birthparents in advance so that they will be prepared to talk about what was—and may still be—a painful topic for them. Working with the birthparents, you will want to talk about how to best support your child’s need for reassurance and security.
Remember not to force your child to talk about her adoption if she does not want to; but you can—and should–send signals affirming that it is okay to talk about it. For example, you could say, “Jenny, you played a really great soccer game today. You are a good athlete. I wonder if your birthmom was good at sports too.”
There are times in your child’s life when she may be more sensitive about her relinquishment or adoption. Birthdays can be reminders of these topics. While everyone else around her is celebrating and happy, she may be sad or pensive.
School can create additional obstacles for an adopted child at this age. For the first time, she may face attitudes about adoption and questions from classmates that are not as accepting as she is accustomed. Some school assignments, like creating a family tree, may create anxiety for her. As she enters school, it may be helpful to create a plan for how to respond to comments, questions and assignments that may be insensitive and equip her to handle these moments.
Like other children—adopted or not—school may also be the setting in which developmental delays or learning problems first become evident. A psycho-educational assessment may be helpful in determining what your child is struggling with and how to succeed academically in spite of it. For suggestions on helping your child in the school setting, read Your Child’s Education.
Creating a Fantasy Family
Children in biological and adopted families often create “fantasy parents” around this age. It is a normal part of their development as they come to understand that their parents are real people who have both strengths and weaknesses, and who can make them happy and upset. However, the “fantasy family” can create complexities for adopted children because they do have biological parents somewhere out in the world.
When other parents really do exist, children may idealize them and—at the same time—assign all of their negative feelings to their adoptive parents. The reverse may also happen. The direction of the idealization and anger often depends on how children interpret their relinquishment. If your child believes her birthparents rejected her, she may look to direct anger toward them. If she believes that her adoptive parents took her away, she is more likely to focus her anger on her adoptive parents.
Children are usually able to resolve this conflict by adolescence and develop realistic perceptions of both their birthparents and adoptive parents. But for some children, resolving this conflict continues into adolescence or even adulthood. And sometimes, it is one of the reasons why your child might begin a search for her birthparents—to clarify what is fact and fantasy.
Talking to Children Ages 12-21 About Adoption (Adolescence And Young Adulthood)
Most adolescents are focused on developing their sense of identity and exploring who they are and what they want to become. Adopted teens are no different, but their process can be more complex. They must integrate the influences of their adoptive and birth families without always knowing fully what those influences are.
Your teenager may associate her relinquishment with a loss of part of her identity, which she is trying to discover and express. Anger may resurface, particularly in early adolescence, as she reprocesses the impact of relinquishment on her self-worth and belonging. Because of this, she may struggle with the very natural desire for greater independence while also feeling anxiety about her ability to separate from her adoptive family and succeed on her own. Most importantly, she needs to be reassured more often that you love her, you are committed to her, and that she holds an important place in your family.
As adoptees establish their own identities and homes, they may experience issues with intimate relationships. They may avoid close relationships, stay in unhealthy relationships or be devastated when a relationship ends. Of course, this is normal for most teenagers as they invest a lot of their self-worth and emotional energy in romantic relationships.
As adoptees marry and have children, they may uncover new insight about their adoption experience, or adoption and relinquishment in general. Having a child may introduce the adoptee to the first biological relative she has ever known. It can be a tremendously emotional and powerful time.
Adolescence and young adulthood may be a time when connecting with adopted peers and older adults who have successfully established their independence—while remaining connected to their adoptive families—is particularly helpful. This is also a customary time when adoptees express a desire to search for their medical and social history, for information from their adoption file or for members of their birth family.
You may find that your child’s desire to search for her birthparents triggers painful emotions related to your infertility or fears that your child will reject you. It can be helpful to join a support group to talk to other adoptive parents about their experiences. Acknowledging these feelings with other adoptive parents—and realizing you’re not the only one feeling this way—may bring support and encouragement during unsettling times. More information on supporting your adult child’s search for her birthparents while also taking care of yourself can be found in Nurturing Connections on the navigation bar above.
Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self by Dr. David Brodzinsky, Dr. Marshall Schechter, and Robin Marantz Henig
Telling the Truth to Your Adopted or Foster Child: Making Sense of the Past, by Betsy Keefer and Jayne E. Schooler
Tips for Parents of Adopted Teens
Adolescence is a time of turmoil for most kids, and kids who joined their families through adoption are no exception. They usually have extra work to do. Along with figuring out who they are and who they want to be, adopted kids have to integrate the histories and experiences that occurred before their adoption into their new experiences with their adoptive families. The process can be complicated and stressful, but there are some easy, practical actions that can help both parents and kids not only survive, but thrive.
- Keep communication open. Teens need to know that the subjects of birth families and adoption are safe for discussion. Plan on kids bringing up these subjects whenthey are ready, not necessarily when you think it’s a good time. Be available to them and be willing to listen, listen, listen.
- Consult books or online resources. Knowing that you are not the only one with questions or concerns can be helpful for parents and kids. There are a number of resources for families touched by adoption, including Bethany Christian Services’ online bookstore, where all of the books have been read and recommended by Bethany staff. They can be educational and offer fresh perspectives.
- Join support groups or online forums. Along with support groups in your community, visit the online forum for post-adoption issues at www.bethany.org. There are posts by adoptees and for adoptees available 24/7 from the privacy of your own computer.
- If you have particular concerns, call your agency. Ask about counselors who have expertise with adoption issues. Agencies may either have therapists on staff who specialize in adoption-related issues or they know therapists in the community with special expertise.
- Remember that each child is an individual. Accept your child as he or she is. One adult adoptee recently commented that there is a lot of pressure on adoptees to respond to their adoptions in a certain way, usually someone else’s way. Give your child permission to be him- or herself, especially when it comes to your child’s interests, goals, and feelings.
- Online training on talking to children about adoption is available through Adoption Learning Partners.
Talking About Adoption in Mid-Life and Late Adulthood
Mid-Life (40s and 50s): As adoptees enter mid-life, they often reexamine the role adoption has had in their life. They begin to think about the legacy they want to leave behind but sometimes struggle choosing a path because they are unsure of the heritage and legacy left by members of their birthfamily. If they have not already searched for information or biological family members, they may do so now.
Late Adulthood (60s and up): If they haven’t yet searched for their biological family, there may be a renewed and final interest in learning about their full, personal history.