What to Expect When You’re Expecting…an Older Child?
This post was written by AdoptionWorks Family Specialist, Pam Hoehler, LCSW-C. Pam’s work with the AdoptionWorks program sees dozens of families each year go through the complex steps of the older child adoption process. Pam has been a vital part of the Adoptions Together family for many years. To ask Pam a question about the older child adoption process, send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resources and information for new parents of infants are everywhere. There are countless books, blogs, magazines, even a Bravo TV show, focusing on the latest research and trends to make the first few months of baby’s life with you meaningful and healthy. But what if you are adopting an older child from foster care? Your child will also have needs that must be nurtured and shaped to help him/her adjust to the new world around them. Undoubtedly, your child will have experienced loss, trauma, and multiple transitions, causing emotional dysregulation and behavioral challenges. These can make for a rough transition. So, what exactly can you expect when you child first comes home, and what can you do to do to ease the transition for everyone?
1. It’s OK to say No.
During the first few weeks, you may have friends and family who want to meet your child and welcome them into the fold. While this is endearing, the first few weeks are a time for you and your nuclear family to lay the foundation for bonding. Allow the child time to calmly adjust to his/her new home and routine, without the added stimulation of greetings and parties. Define family schedules and expectations, and keep outside events to a minimum. Enjoy simple activities together, such as taking the dog for a walk, playing board games or puzzles, and preparing meals. It’s OK to tell your friends and family that these early days for needed to bond as a nuclear family, and you look forward to introducing your child in the coming weeks.
2. It’s OK to also say Yes.
Your primary focus during these early weeks will be on your child and his/her adjustment. You may feel physically and emotionally drained tending to your child’s constant needs. Because of this, ask for and accept help when it’s offered, for daily tasks. When a friend or family member suggests, “Just let me know what you need,” respond with a request for a cooked meal that can be easily reheated. Or, ask for an errand to be run, such as a trip to the post office or dry cleaner. This may also be a time to splurge on a cleaning service or grocery delivery. Your primary responsibility during this time is to bond with your child, who might be rejecting that notion. Only you can complete this task, so use your support system to help care for you.
3. Structure and Routine is a Must….
It might be tempting, during this time of family hibernation, to clear your calendar and dream of days lounging around the house with your child. Your child is in a new, uncertain environment, and his/her anxiety will be running high. To help your child develop a feeling of safety, provide a predictable, visible schedule for each day. List your expectations for routines, such as brushing teeth, washing face, and getting dressed before come downstairs in the morning. Keep schedules simple, possibly using pictures to represent each activity. Display the schedule in a central location so that your child can refer to it throughout the day. Your child will find comfort in the consistency of this routine as they acclimate to their new home.
4. …Flexibility is Key.
Use your schedule as scaffolding for the family’s basic routine. There are times when your child will test your will and love for them, possibly through their refusal to brush teeth or wash his/her face. When these conflicts emerge, do not engage in power struggles. Know when to flexibly alter the schedule to keep your relationship-building the focus of the interaction. Use humor and patience to acknowledge the refusal while continuing your efforts to bond.
5. Kids are Weird and Parenting is Tough
No one said this would be easy. Children often engage in behaviors that appear strange to adults, but are developmentally appropriate for the child. I could not imagine leaving the house in the morning without brushing my teeth, but my children need several reminders to do this every day! Eating crusts on my sandwich is not a big deal, but to my children, this might evolve into World War III. It is important to remember that children act in ways different from adults, and while you are getting to know your child, it is helpful to reflect on their developmental stage to find meaning in their behavior. Are they asserting control in an otherwise uncertain time? Are sensory issues interfering with their desire to eat? All behaviors have meaning, and are linked to a developmental task. Keep your handouts from training close by and refer to them often!
All families will have bumps in the road when their child first comes home. Building a secure, trusting relationship is not easy, but necessary, for your child to thrive in your care. Maintain this as your focus, and seek help when needed. In a few years, you’ll be able to write the book, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting an Older Child!”