In this article Sophie Ashton, author of The Secrets of Successful Adoptive Parenting, talks reassuringly about the emotional challenges of adopting a child.
It is quite common for adopters to feel emotionally overwhelmed soon after their child moves in
In the early weeks post-placement many adopters feel a mix of emotions in response to their child. For some adoptive parents the challenging and negative emotions seem more prevalent than the positive ones, and can on occasion lead to them starting to question their reasons for wanting to adopt. Sometimes these challenging emotions can put the adoption placement at risk of breaking down. I know this – because it almost happened to us.
After four years in the adoption process we were very ready for the arrival of our daughter. Although emotionally exhausting, the eight-day introduction period went well. We warmed to her – she warmed to us; she and our birth son seemed to get on well. We were all beyond excited when she moved in – we adored her. Happy days! Our dream of a perfect family was coming true!
Our honeymoon period didn’t last long
Unbeknown to us, however, just the other side of a brief two-day honeymoon period were some pretty challenging and debilitating emotions lying in wait for us to experience in full. These emotions turned our excitement into panic, our hope into despair and our happiness into gloom. We felt heavy and weighed down by the mixed emotions we felt in response to the placement of this little girl in to our family.
Our daughter’s emotional and behavioural challenges were bigger than we were led to believe they would be. We felt ourselves sinking and not knowing if we or the adoption placement would survive.
These unresourceful emotions took us by surprise and we felt guilty for feeling them, and felt like we were failing this little girl, our son and ourselves if we mentioned them to anyone.
But little by little we made progress
We kept reminding ourselves of the reasons we wanted to adopt; we clung on to all that we believed and we focused on understanding and getting to know our daughter. Slowly, the most miraculous changes started to happen – our daughter started to transform and flourish – and over time we transitioned from frustration to compassion and from failing as a family, to thriving. This process took several months – not days.
As with all parents, adoptive and biological, we still have emotional and practical challenges along the way but this is now balanced by many positive emotions including joy, hope and fulfillment.
Apparently these challenging emotions are quite common!
When we were through the worst of our challenging emotions, we contacted other adopters and were surprised and relieved to find that we were not alone as many of them had felt intensely mixed emotions in the early weeks and months as well! Why hadn’t we anticipated this? Why had we been so naive and not realised it would be like that? Maybe we were told but we didn’t have the capacity to understand or the willingness to hear? Or maybe no one told us.
Some of the adoptive families that had experienced the emotional turmoil survived and others did not and their adoption placement disrupted. Having survived the confusing and debilitating emotions myself, and having spoken to other adoptive parents, I realise these challenging emotions can be a normal part of the adoption process. The more adopters are aware that they may feel these negative emotions, the less panicked they may be if they do experience them and the more prepared they will be to manage and move through them.
Sadly, not all adoption placements work out
I know adoption placements break down for many reasons, most of them beyond the control of the adoptive parents. However, I know that some do break down due to the overwhelming, confusing and debilitating feelings experienced by the emotionally unprepared adoptive parents. I believe that forewarned is forearmed.
Adoption support is vital
The importance of timely adoption support is becoming more widely recognised; thanks largely to the great work of Adoption UK. Adoption support should include making it normal for new adoptive parents to talk openly about the emotional challenges they are experiencing without fearing that having these discussions may lead to them being judged by others, or worse – feeling that broaching the subject may kick off events that lead to their child being taken away.
The more we can help potential adopters prepare emotionally as well as practically and have strategies to manage their own emotions, as well as their child’s, then therapeutic parenting stands a chance; and maybe, just maybe, fewer children will be handed back into care.
Sophie Ashton is a mother of two wonderful children, one adopted and one not. Professionally she has spent 25 years working with individuals and teams, helping people better understand themselves and each other, and the impact they can and do unknowingly have on each other. She has worked with a wide variety of people from senior executives in the corporate world to young offenders and prison inmates. Click here to find out more about The Secrets of Successful Adoptive Parenting