L. Gianforte, co-author of Keeping Your Adoptive Family Strong: Strategies for Success, addresses the critical importance of reviewing whether or not you’re ready to adopt.
As difficult as it is to acknowledge and accept, not everyone is a good candidate for being an adoptive parent. Some folks have more patience, stamina, and resilience than others, and the presence or absence of these qualities must be factored in before proceeding with an adoption plan. At the very least, parents must be willing to face the full spectrum of negative possibilities—however distressing and depressing they may be—before they move forward. A willingness to look at the realities of taking in a bruised and broken child is a fundamental requirement if successful integration is going to take place.
A traumatized child, no matter how young, is not a tabula rasa just waiting for a new mommy and daddy to imprint him with positive experiences. Instead, he has already been marked by abuse and/or neglect that can cause a host of difficult-to-deal-with behaviors. This history must be acknowledged and addressed by prospective parents if there is to be any hope of building a functional family, and there is absolutely no room for denial.
To maximize their chances of success, adoptive parents must see themselves as agents of change. It’s perfectly fine to hold on to preconceived expectations of what parenthood will be like (as long as you don’t come crashing down if the fantasies fall apart), but you must also acknowledge and address the child’s negative experiences. While it might be difficult and seem nonsensical to keep the past in the present, it remains the most effective way to rise to the challenges that seem to suddenly pop up out of nowhere, again and again and again.
IS ADOPTION RIGHT FOR YOU?
So—who’s good at this and who’s not? Providing honest answers to the following questions is a good start toward finding out.
Do you take a child’s bad behavior or acting out as a personal affront?
In many cases, children who have been abandoned by their birth parents believe they are not worthy of being loved. This belief can be so firmly imprinted that a child will do everything he can to prove that it’s true. He will behave badly to reinforce the notion, testing the limits at every possibility. His goal is to generate parental anger, which is either equated with love or used to reinforce his belief that he is, in fact, unlovable.
When a child does something horrid and it appears to be intentional, it’s human nature to take such offenses personally. But keep in mind that treating people well is a learned behavior. When parents do it, their children mimic it. When they don’t do it, neither do their offspring. When a child who has not witnessed or experienced basic respect is uprooted and deposited in a nice home with kind parents, he will not automatically become a kind person. He will push and test and act out just because he can.
You will suffer needlessly if you take his acting out to heart, because the slaps in the face will be far too frequent and much too painful. It is therefore important to remove yourself from the equation—emotionally, at least—and be sensitive to what motivates the child. This is about him, not you.
Do you believe that love conquers all?
Real life is not a romance novel. It is not a fairy tale. The good guys don’t always win, and bad things happen to good people. When the sun sets on a particularly horrendous day, a hug from a loved one may feel pretty terrific, but it doesn’t necessarily ease all the pain. While love is an essential component of a healthy life, it isn’t an all-encompassing solution to every problem.
When prospective parents think about adopting a child, they often see variations of the same scenario. A sad, abused child sits alone—his eyes huge and pleading, his sweet little face etched with misery. His family has been mean to him, people who are supposed to love him have hurt him, and all he wishes for is a loving mommy and daddy to come along and save him from his wretched plight. Sigh. Won’t you come soon and save me? And so he waits.
In fact, the phrase “waiting child” is often used by foster and adoption agencies, because these two simple words tug at the heartstrings. But the truth is, the child isn’t waiting. Not for you, not for anyone. He’s more likely trying to figure out what he can do simply to make it through one more day.
Cameron’s birth mother was a practicing drug addict who frequently chose getting high over caring for her children. He vividly recalls watching her tie a piece of rubber tubing around her upper arm to prepare for an injection. He had witnessed this ritual enough times to know that once the needle hit the vein, he would lose his mother for hours—even days.
Does it appear that this child had even the remotest opportunity to fantasize about getting a new, loving family? Did he have the luxury of wandering off into a quiet corner to wish and wait? For Cameron and other children like him, it’s all about survival.
Are you anti-meds?
Some parents simply do not believe in medicating children. Citing instances of inaccurate diagnoses and physicians who are quick to overprescribe, they draw a definitive line in the sand. No drugs. Not for my kid. Ever.
While their accusations often have merit, they are not universally true. What about the 7-year-old boy who cannot focus long enough to complete a homework assignment or finish a meal? What about the 4-year-old girl whose rage is so out of control that she screams most of her waking hours?
Prescription drugs often provide solutions that make a world of difference. To be sure, it’s a tough choice to make, but it’s often the right choice.
At the suggestion of a therapist, Sally started her adopted daughter on medication. Eliza was born addicted to cocaine, and she was constantly restless, irritable, and filled with rage. From the moment she gave Eliza her first pill, Sally diligently watched her child for signs of change. Three days later, Eliza walked into Sally’s study with a beaming smile on her face. As she flung herself into her mother’s arms, the three words she uttered said it all: “I happy, Mommy.”
Have you thought about the effect adoption will have on all members of your family?
If there are no other children in your home, feel free to skip this section. But if you are planning to bring a hurt child into a family with children already in place, you might want to linger here awhile.
The addition of an adopted child affects everyone. It makes no difference if the other children in the family are birth kids or adoptees, if they’re healthy and adjusted or fragile and struggling. The new child does not discriminate, and he shares his pain and dysfunction with parents and with siblings, with the weak and with the strong.
If there are other children in your home, you must carefully consider the answers to these questions before adopting:
- What, if anything, will they gain by the addition of a new child?
- What might they lose?
- How will they react to the anger directed at their parents by the newcomer?
- What will their friends think, and how will they handle any criticism?
- If the birth order is changed by adoption, how might the kids feel about losing their position in the family hierarchy?
It’s not just about you and the new kid. There are other lives to consider.
Really—what are your expectations?
It is important to carefully examine your intentions when you decide to adopt. If you are trying to fill some sort of personal void, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. You should not adopt so your only son or daughter can have a playmate. You should not adopt because you have three girls and would love to add a little boy. Your expectations will likely go unmet, and it is not the adopted child’s role to meet your needs in the first place. He can barely be who he is, much less become the manifestation of a pre-conceived fantasy.
As critical as what you expect from your adopted child is what you expect from yourself. Do you assume you will parent him in the same way that you parented your birth children? Do you think he will respond to you just like they have? Do you believe you can spontaneously jump into parenting without taking into consideration how your behaviors and interactions will be received by the adopted child?
We cannot stress enough the importance of looking deep inside yourself and providing honest answers. Trust us when we say that any adopted child will be better served by parents who truly know what they’re getting into and are fully prepared to face the challenges.
If you’re not there now, it does not necessarily follow that adoption is out of the question for you. With some focused work, you may be able to make the personal and attitudinal changes that can better equip you for the undertaking. You can’t force it, but it just might happen. After all, the human spirit is powerful, and determination is a mighty dynamic.