Part 2 Once Upon a Time…

by Tracey Turner-Keyser
Once upon a time in a not so far away land a wonderful couple decided to add to their family by adopting a child. And so many fairy tales start this way. Adoptions are not fairy tales (and biological families are not fairy tales either!) and the more you can remove yourself from the direct, indirect, subliminal, conscious, and unconscious fantasies of “family” that we latch hold of through our development from books, movies, experience, television, etc the more we are increasing the potential for our family experiences to become fairy tale like when all is said and done.

This month we attempt to help prepare the potential adoptive parent(s) by passing along some observations we have made – the good, the bad, and the ugly – in hopes of decreasing the possibility of having an exaggerated honeymoon period for the newly adoptive family. The “honeymoon” period is that time after adoption when everything seems almost fairy tale like – and then the reality of things begin to overshadow the romance of family. Below we offer some more detail on some of what we touched on in last month’s article and add some detail that may help in putting the pieces of an adoptive family together. We recognize that every situation is unique but what is offered below can work for every potential family.

The first thing we suggest in your quest for family is to find a good therapist who specializes in working with adoptive families or foster care situations. These individuals will be your life line in times of trouble and doubt and your cheerleader in times of joy and success. A good therapist should be able to take the suggestions below and tailor them (or throw them out) depending on the age of the child you are looking to adopt. A good therapist should be able to help you clearly articulate your reasons for adopting, help in building a profile of the child you are seeking, and can help in evaluation of potential children for goodness of fit into your family. A good therapist should understand the potential every child has in the adoptive system for having mild to severe psycho-trauma issues (regardless of age at adoption). They should also understand the potential for the adoption process and the act of building adoptive families to create “micro-trauma” events for the child as well as the parents and other family members. Remember that major transitions hold the power of potential trauma for all involved.
Now that we have gotten our plug in for therapists – let’s get into the specifics of preparing yourself (some of what follows is application of “The Four Agreements” by Don Miquel Ruiz that we mentioned before and we recommend this book to all who read this) (Note: the age of the child at adoption impacts the application of many of these suggestions – again, a good therapist can help in tailoring things to your specific situation).

1. Get Excited/ Have Fun: Just because you may be looking at adoption from a different perspective do not let us scare you away from it! It can and will be a rewarding experience and you are to be admired and recognized for the path you have chosen. Our suggestions will hopefully, in the long run, augment this excitement and fun. Getting excited and having fun in the moment is part of taking care of you.

2. Building Relationship = Building Adoptive Families: Try to remember your first great memory as a child and family. You were probably 3 years old or older – it took that long to build that relationship (another reason for this is that we are built with crappy memories as infants – we think this is so, in part, to protect us from remembering all the silliness and painfulness of our parents learning how to become parents!). Recall your first romantic crush on someone. The awkwardness, the anxiety, the doubt. It took time to overcome these, and time to get to know them, and time to find out what you needed to find out. Relationships need to be built and that takes time – give yourself plenty of time to build one of the most important relationships you will have – that relationship with your adopted child.

3. Set reasonable expectations and goals: Clear your mind and sit down together with your therapist and outline some clear milestones for family building.

4. Be careful in making assumptions of the adopted child: A good rule in starting out is that if you have not taught them something they probably do not know it. This applies to concrete things like the alphabet and counting and to malleable things like personal hygiene and boundaries and to abstract things like facial expressions, love, and happiness.

5. Do not overwhelm the child or yourself: This is, many times, a tough one to adhere to but a very important one to understand. The urge to shower your new daughter/son with everything from things in their room, the newest technologies, hugs and kisses, special outings, shopping sprees, special food, etc., is an urge that is best tempered with the knowledge that slowly building up to these things will have far more positive impact on the child and the health of the relationship. Starting off with too much ‘stuff’ can also overwhelm yourself and set yourself up for not being able to elicit the same ‘highs’ that come with the newness of things. Children being adopted may think that ‘stuff’ and money is what they want but what they need is a healthy relationship above anything else. Also, in children with trauma backgrounds, “stuff” can actually work to achieve the opposite of what is intended and this can make it tougher to build this primary relationship. A new child’s room should have the basics – a bed, a dresser, a mirror, a closet, and maybe a desk. Aside from this it is fine to add some special things to personalize it – a couple of basic toys, a wall hanging, a few books. That’s enough to start with. Familiarity can breed contempt – hugs and kisses delivered incessantly are not wise. Deliver hugs and kisses when appropriate and ask for hugs and kisses when appropriate. Overindulgence in anything is a potential sabotage to a relationship.
6. Don’t take things personally: Particularly if your new bundle of joy is of talking age or older know that the context of their words and the intention behind them are foreign to you. Ask questions, educate on how certain words and phrases can be interpreted, educate on how body language and other forms of non-verbal communication can alter their perceived intention. Take these opportunities but make them short and sweet – anything over 2 minutes results in system overload. Soooo many opportunities to educate and have some fun with it!

7. Communicate: Communicate with your spouse/significant other, your therapist, your adopted child, the entire family (and for specific issues this order of communication is often best too). Truth in communication is a must. Shy away from things akin to “sugar coating” or the opposite – “brutal truth”. Impeccability with your words can be applied here.

Finally, a few words on siblings. We think that the ideal situation for any child looking to be adopted is to be adopted by a couple who have no biological children or intention of having biological children. So – what if there is a biological child or the intention of having a biological child in the future? For the biological child already part of your family simply remember to consider the impact of adoption on them too. Talk to your therapist about this. We recommend checking in with your therapist at least once every three months anyway so make sure you discuss the wellbeing and relationship health of the biological child too. As for the addition of a biological child to a family with an adopted child recognize the potential for a unique sibling rivalry/reaction to the addition. Again, your therapist should be able to help you with this situation too. Lastly, what about adopting siblings? That is – adopting two or more children from the same family of different ages at the same time. We consider this situation to have high potential for problems. These problems stem from the effects that trauma has on a group of siblings experiencing similar traumas and developing a system of survival that is hard to unravel particularly when kept together. The triggers that each of them offer the others, the tightness of the bond they have made to each other (this is tightness – not necessarily healthy bonding), and the desire to maintain their developmental role in the siblinghood can, in extreme cases, be completely counterproductive to therapeutic progress and integration into an adoptive family.
We hope that you are feeling a bit more confident in your approach to building family. If you don’t treat it like a fairy tale it just might turn out to be one.

Once upon a time in a not so far away land a wonderful couple decided to add to their family by adopting a child. They decided to take it slowly; to educate themselves; to obtain professional support; to consider the potential trauma effects. They took their time in meticulously building their family. They took care of themselves so they were better at caring for others. They led with their hearts not their emotions. They nurtured relationship. They laughed, they cried, they loved. They lived happily ever after.

Remember – the health of any child in any family can only be as healthy as the health of the relationship of the parents who guide and love them.

For more information or comments please contact us,
or call 919-545-9833.
Suggested resources:

Gregory C., PhD Keck. June 2009. “Parenting Adopted Adolescents: Understanding and Appreciating Their Journeys”.

Gregory Keck and Regina M. Kupecky. April 2002. “Parenting the Hurt Child: Helping Adoptive Families Heal and Grow”.

Gregory C. Keck and Regina M. Kupecky. May 1998. “Adopting the Hurt Child: Hope for Families With Special-Needs Kids : A Guide for Parents and Professionals”

Leslie, Katherine. “When a stranger calls you Mom”, Brand New Day Consulting.

ATTACh Organization website

Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute, Dr Bessel Van der Kolk, Director