Common Adoption Fears

Here are five common fears of adoptive parents and how to handle them.
mother and child

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Few things in life fill your heart like the idea of bringing home a new child to love. The flip side: Few things fill you with such fear. Adoptive parents often experience distinct anxieties as they wait for their bundle of joy. If this is you, take heart. These thoughts are normal, and there's a wealth of resources that offer help.

What if the child doesn't feel a strong attachment to me and we struggle to bond?

Parents preparing for the birth of a child expect an instant, magical, world-moving connection with that baby. Will your love be the same? The short answer is yes. "Adoption looks different -- you're thinking, 'We weren't pregnant for nine months,'" says Bobbi J. Miller, Ph.D., a licensed family therapist who specializes in adoption and an assistant professor of family and community medicine at Saint Louis University. "The attachment process is about building a relationship. That takes time, and that's okay." In fact, many biological parents say they don't feel the immediate bond they thought they would. It often takes days or weeks of caring for the child -- feeding, clothing, changing diapers -- for that everlasting tie to form.

In rare cases, adopted kids truly struggle with attachment, a problem often rooted in having been placed for adoption and the worry that it could happen again. This can manifest as low self-esteem, anxiety, or difficulty regulating emotions. Factors raising the risk of attachment issues include significant trauma such as sexual abuse, multiple moves, time in an orphanage, and being older at the time of adoption.

Adoptive parents can help kids feel more secure by establishing consistent one-on-one time and talking to the child about plans for the future, according to a fact sheet from the Child Welfare Information Gateway.

What if I don't know how to talk to my child about his adoption?

As adopted children grow, they may experience feelings of grief and loss about their family, country, or culture of origin, regardless of how old they were when they were adopted and whether or not they have a memory of where they were born. While these feelings often don't kick in until age 7 or 8, when kids start using their "thinking brain," you'll find it much easier to talk about them if you've been open about the adoption from the very beginning. Develop a family narrative, emphasizing that some people become part of a family through marriage, others through birth, and others through being adopted. As your kid gets older, or if she is older when you adopt, talk about her birth family and culture. Tell her, for instance, "You have an amazing singing voice, you must get that from your birth mom." The parent's job is to make the adoption and birth parents part of the conversation so that the child has the opportunity to voice feelings, according to Rita Taddonio, a licensed social worker and head clinician at Spence-Chapin, a private, not-for-profit adoption agency in New York. "Normalizing the topic helps them understand that when they're a little sad about their story, they can talk about it," Taddonio says.

How do you know if your adopted child needs help? "First of all, if they're not talking about it at all, be a little concerned," Taddonio says. "Change of behavior -- like an easygoing kid who now seems angry and is fighting with friends -- is also a red flag, especially from ages 7 to 12, when they could be stuck somewhere in their feelings about adoption."

What if people in my community aren't accepting of our transracial family?

American families adopted 8,668 children from other countries in 2012, and the Child Welfare Information Gateway estimates that roughly 14 percent of all adoptions are transracial or trancultural. Even if you live in what you believe to be an accepting family and community, be prepared to counteract prejudiced or racist questions or comments that your adopted child might hear, such as, "Where's the real parent?"

"Whether a remark is racially motivated or coming out of ignorance, what's important is that your answer convey the message you want your child to hear," Taddonio says. "Validate by saying, 'I'm the real parent -- you must mean his birth family." Seeing you take a stand and be proactive signals that you understand the gravity of what your child might be feeling, and helps him or her develop the tools needed to problem-solve.

"The best thing we did while we were waiting was to join a membership organization for families who adopt from China," says Tricia Corcoran, 49, of Kings Park, New York, who adopted her daughter from China two years ago when the little girl was 1 year old. "I wanted Charlotte to grow up around families like hers, and she's been around them her whole life."

Spending time with people of the child's ethnic group helps instill a sense of belonging. The group Corcoran is a part of, Families With Children From China, has chapters all over the U.S., and they organize events like picnics, parades, and culture camps to help families keep the kids connected to their heritage. Adoption agencies and the Child Welfare Information Gateway offer more ideas for honoring your child's birth culture.

Will the child have special needs?

A paper by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that 37 percent of adopted children had special health-care needs, compared with 17 percent of biological children. And while 16 to 20 percent of adopted children have learning disabilities, compared with 8 to 10 percent of children in the general population, that still leaves a vast majority who do not, Taddonio points out.

At the beginning of the adoption process, you'll be asked whether you're open to adopting a child with special needs. You can prepare yourself to answer this by researching what?s involved in caring for these children (the Child Welfare Information Gateway, the U.S. Department of Education, and your adoption agency are good resources). If you've been chosen by a birth mother to adopt an infant, think about how you'll move forward if the child turns out to have special needs, whether at birth or later in life. "Even when you give birth to a baby, you don't know what the child's exact needs will be," Taddonio says. "Every parent should have some exposure to the learning-disabilities spectrum."

The Child Welfare Information Gateway offers links to financial assistance, including tax credits, for adopted children's health-care needs.

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