By Dr Tanya McDonnaugh
Dr Tanya McDonnaugh is a clinical psychologist and child and adolescent therapist. She is also a member of Motherdom‘s Editorial Board. She specialises in helping families during the adoptive process. In this piece she offers some tips on how to look after your wellbeing if you’re about to adopt a young child into your family.
THE VIEWS THAT Dr McDonnaugh EXPRESSES IN THIS PIECE ARE HER OWN, BASED ON HER PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE. THIS CONTENT IS FOR GENERAL INFORMATION PURPOSES ONLY AND IS IN NO WAY A SUBSTITUTE FOR MEDICAL ADVICE OR TREATMENT. YOU CAN VIEW OUR FULL DISCLAIMER HERE.
After a long wait, you’re about to welcome your new son or daughter into your family. This will likely be an exciting time for you and other family members, one that you’ve dreamed of for some time. You might have lots of hopes and expectations for what your new life as a family will look like, and you will no doubt be looking forward to giving this child the love, safety and security that they otherwise may not have had.
Adoption is a process by which a child becomes a full, permanent and legal member of a new family. Children are placed for adoption because their birth parents were not able to care for them. More often than not this is because they were not able to meet the child’s physical and emotional needs if they were to remain in that environment. There are other contexts in which adoption happens, but this is the most common in my professional experience.
Because of this, adopted children may have experienced at least some adverse, or traumatic, experiences. Perhaps there was an on-going failure to meet the child’s basic needs in one or more of the following areas: physical, educational, emotional or medical.
Or maybe they were physically or emotionally abused by those who were supposed to take care of them. They might have even been exposed to frightening situations like domestic violence or drug abuse. In addition to these experiences, children may have also suffered painful losses; including the loss of their birth parents and loss of subsequent foster carers if they have spent time in the care system.
As a result of experiencing these adversities, young adopted children can often have additional obstacles to overcome when they join their new family. Specialists refer to this profile of difficulties as Developmental Trauma, which describes a range of struggles that result from experiencing loss and trauma as a baby or young child. The challenges that each child faces will depend on their experiences, and their age, among other things. Not all children who are adopted will face the same issues, however it is common for them to have difficulties in at least some of these areas.
Your adopted child may:
- find it difficult to trust others in relationships;
- need extra help to learn to understand and manage their emotions (emotional regulation);
- have greater difficulty inhibiting their behaviour (behavioural regulation);
- have lower self-esteem, and need help to develop a positive sense of identity as someone who is of value to others;
- have difficulty staying present or be prone to day dreaming; or
- find it more difficult to concentrate and use their brain to its full capacity.
These difficulties can create unexpected challenges once a child is adopted into their new family, and it is important to be aware of these so that you can seek appropriate support and know how best to respond. The issues that adopted children face can be overcome with time, love, patience, and understanding.
Below are some suggestions that might help you focus on preparation, nurturing your relationship with your child, and taking care of your own mental health and wellbeing.
- Ask your child’s social worker for information about their experiences, particularly of any adverse or traumatic experiences. This will help you to make sense of any challenging behaviour, and maintain empathy in the face of this.
- If possible, prepare your child for their transition by spending time building your relationship before they move to you permanently.
- Get into the habit of checking in with yourself regularly and try to make space for all of your emotions, whether they are positive or negative.
- Support your child with their emotions by showing curiosity and acceptance for the range of emotions they might have on joining your family.
- Try to be flexible in your expectations, and in the time frames you have for these. It might take some time to see your efforts rewarded in your relationship with your child.
- Take breaks (when it’s safe to do so and you have appropriate childcare in place), making sure to create room for hobbies, friendships and other important things in your life.
- Use your support network and consider peer support within the adoption community, such as https://wearefamilyadoption.org.uk
- Consider enrolling in Therapeutic Parenting training. Therapeutic Parenting is a specific style of parenting for children who have experienced Developmental Trauma that is different to the traditional behavioural style of parenting based on reward and punishment.
- Try to provide consistency and predictability, particularly in those first few weeks. Use colourful visuals to help your child to learn about what their new home is like and what happens on a day-to-day basis. Remember, this might be very different to their previous experiences of home life.
- Make use of funding available to you through the Adoption Support Fund.
- Consider asking for professional support from a specialist therapist trained in supporting care-experienced or adopted children and families. These professionals can help you to understand and respond to your child’s needs in a way that strengthens your relationship.
- Remember to respond to yourself with kindness and compassion, particularly in the face of any self-critical thoughts.