Because we all have different personalities and lifestyles, it stands to reason that we would each develop a different parenting style. We’re all trying to raise kids that grow up to be happy, functional adults, and we hope to pass on our values to our children. The methods of getting there can be night-and-day different, but that doesn’t mean that one parent’s choices are wrong and another’s are right. For the most part, my experience is that parents do what they do and respect one another, as long as no one is being harmed or making life hard on others. But as an adoptive parent, I’ve found that there are additional challenges that parents of biological children never need to address. The more people understand about how my children’s needs are different, the more they are able to understand why my husband and I use the methods we do.
Adoption is traumatic, and trauma changes brain chemistry. Often there are additional traumatic events that lead up to the need for adoption, and this can significantly impact a child’s abilities and behaviors. The specific behaviors and disorders that can occur as a result of trauma must be understood and addressed so that children can be given the tools to heal and move forward.
Adopted kids need to grieve. What is a happy time for the new parents can be a time of deep sadness for the child. Adopted children have been taken from everything they’ve known and placed in a brand new situation with people they barely know. They must be supported as they grieve and given space to become comfortable with their new families. No one should expect a child to be happy about their new situation right away or to be willing and capable of following the rules of the new family right away.
Adopted kids need to learn what it means to be in their new family. For children who spent their entire lives, whether it be months or years, in group care, there is no concept of what it means to have a parent or siblings. If they were raised in another culture, there may also be significant differences between what family life is like in their home culture and in their new culture. Helping a child adjust to being in a family must be approached with patience and understanding while still teaching appropriate parent/child roles.
Adoptive families need to pursue attachment to one another. Forming a secure attachment takes years of intentional parenting and work on the part of both parent and child. Adoptive families must be mindful of signs of attachment strain and do everything they can to promote healthy, secure attachment. When our children come to us, we are strangers to one another. We must build the bonds that occur naturally within biological families.
The ways in which we, as adoptive parents, parent differently to meet the needs of our children are not always obvious, but there are a few things that stand out. I cannot speak for every adoptive family, but the following are some ways that we do things differently than the norm.
First, we allow regression and don’t force independence. What this looks like in a practical sense is that sometimes I carry my five-year-old when she could easily walk. It means that from time to time she’ll ask for a bottle, and I’ll give it to her. It means that I often help her put on her shoes or use the bathroom, even though she is capable of doing both tasks herself. What it doesn’t mean is that she runs the show in our family. Sometimes I have to say no to a request, and I remind her to “respect my no.” What regression does is allow my daughter to have needs that went unmet in the past be met in the present, assuring her that she has a parent who will nurture her.
Second, we never send her away from us as discipline. Discipline is done in close proximity, usually in a pair of arms or on a lap. Proximity assures her that we will be there for her no matter what. It keeps the focus on the issue at hand and doesn’t allow an abandonment trigger to take center stage.
Third, we work hard to avoid overly stressful situations and instead give our daughter a chance to experience small successes as she is ready. For our family, this has meant avoiding overstimulation and accepting the blame for poor behavior when we have put our daughter in a situation that is clearly more than she can handle. We know now, for example, that one day of sightseeing with visiting family members is plenty, and on the second day we will have to calm our screaming, flailing child while exiting a very nice restaurant.
Fourth, when a challenge comes up, we just keep researching and trying new things until something works for our daughter. I was a nanny for many years and had tried and true methods that always worked, but when your child has been through hard times, those tried and true methods will fail. I have learned to keep trying, to keep working, and to keep fighting for my daughter to have the best life she can possibly have.