I belong to an amazing book club that is made up of women who have adopted children internationally- many of whom are also parents of biological children as well. And so often we find that our discussions turn into conversations about parenting an adopted child vs. parenting a biological child- whether or not there are differences, and the reasons why it's not the same thing (even in our large family).
Is Parenting an Adopted Child the Same As Parenting a Biological Child?
This is such a complicated question- because in many ways- it is very much the same thing. All kids need structure, routine, rules, limits, rewards, and consequences. And love and hugs and kisses and cuddles. And yummy food, and cool clothes, and toothbrushes, and clean sheets on their bed, and an iPhone (at least my tweens think so!)
But truly, so many of the basic things a parent provides to a child are the same.
Kids need to feel connected to their family and their school and their friends. They need to know what to expect in their daily lives- that they will have a safe clean place to call home, nourishing food, and parents that they can trust to provide this for them.
But in Some Ways- Parenting an Adopted Child is Completely Different
Actions and Responses Don't Always Line Up (in the beginning)
Especially at the beginning when that child has first joined your family, and especially if that child has joined your family older than a newborn.
From the get-go babies are programmed to act in a way which causes a response- the baby cries, the parent tries to soothe the baby by offering food, a clean diaper, by rocking and singing, and comforting the baby. And the baby eventually learns- “act and then a response will come”.
But a child that has joined your family through adoption may not have learned that an action brings a consistent and desired response, or any response at all, and for a variety of reasons.
Some of it depends on the child’s previous environment- some of it may depend on cultural norms that are different from our own. But the bottom line is, the child may not act in the way that you are expecting, in order to gain the desired response from you. And you may not be responding to their action in the way that your adopted child has come to expect.
Other Reasons Why Beginnings Can Be Rough
Layer on top of all of that, an initial language barrier if you have brought that child into your family from another country- which can be very frustrating for both you and for the child.
And if you have traveled a long way to bring that child home, you are both also dealing with jet lag, and adjusting your sleep schedules, and you are likely feeling bone-numbing exhaustion.
Right from the beginning, you have to be a very patient, understanding, and tolerant parent.
Remembering that Your Adopted Child is Experiencing Loss
When an adopted child first comes into their new home, they are certainly experiencing issues of loss- they have just left everyone and everything that they have known, and have come to a new place that looks, feels, and smells different than what they are used to.
And the way that your child will deal with this loss is unique to them- so while you can (and should!) seek out advice and resources to help you understand and deal with this transition- just know that your child may not exactly follow the stages as outlined in the adoption literature you have read.
You need to know when to trust your parenting instincts, and when to seek some outside help.
Feelings of Loss Can Come and Go Over Time
Many adoptees will experience issues surrounding loss at different stages of their lives, as they grow and gain an understanding of the circumstances that may have contributed to their loss of their birth family.
If you study and read the stories of adult adoptees, you will see a wide spectrum of feelings about this loss and how it has affected them over the course of their lives. Some adult adoptees feel this at the core of their very being, and it defines them and how they feel about their lives, and others don't think much about it at all and it isn't a part of their day-to-day life. And many adult adoptees fall somewhere in between.
As an adoptive parent, you have to be prepared to handle how your child feels about the loss of their birth family and their adoption- and how they choose to feel about it during different stages throughout their lives. And you have to remember- it is their loss, not yours, and they have the right to feel about it however they do.
Make the Effort to Connect Your Adopted Child to Their Birth Culture and Customs
Another way that parenting an adopted child can be different is that you will likely have to work harder to teach your children about their birth culture and customs.
For example, my great-grandmother was Danish, and my father was brought up leaning many of her Danish customs surrounding holiday baking. When I grew up, my father shared these stories with me, and learning about Danish traditions were just part of our life.
I have to work a lot harder to share with my children the customs and traditions of China, because I did not grow up with them, so they are not “my own”. It has taken several years of reading about traditions and holidays, participating in local events surrounding the Chinese New Year and Autumn Moon Festival, and attending a weekly Chinese language school for these things to feel a part of who our family is, and how we live our life.
The first year I made dumplings and talked with our children about the New Year's customs, it felt forced and unnatural. Now it feels comfortable and part of who we are, but that took practice and effort.
Adopted or Biological- You Still Have to Parent!
In a broader sense, kids, in general, will act out, act up, and do crazy things all of the time when they are young (or even teens for that matter!) but when your child is adopted and spent some amount of time in their early years living in an orphanage- it causes you to examine this behavior in a different light.
Many times my fellow adoptive Mom friends and I compare notes and ask ourselves “is this an adoption issue or a regular issue”? And I am not talking about “big stuff” here, I am talking about things like tantrums over not getting his or her own way, asking for snacks constantly, sneaking around and getting into things that they know that they shouldn't get into. Normal kid stuff- that can take on a bigger meaning in an adoptive parent's mind- and cause us to overly-examine the situation (at times).
And so after we turn it over and analyze it from every angle and mull over the possibilities that have led to this current unacceptable behavior- my husband will sweetly remind me, “It doesn't matter where this behavior comes from. If we have an issue with how our child is behaving, let's figure out how to handle it.”
And then we do.
Looking for some posts on Adoption Parenting?
- Why We Decided to Grow Our Family Through Adoption
- How to Explain Adoption to Your Friends and Family
- 8 Great Books on Adoption Parenting
- Finding the Right Adoption Language for Your Family
- Things I Wish People Didn't Feel Compelled to Ask