Creating “Home Sweet Home” for Foster and Adopted Children
Bringing home a new child is an exciting experience. It can also be overwhelming, especially when the child comes to you through foster care or adoption. The child has already been through the trauma of at least one move and separation from familiar caregivers. They are likely scared and confused. The same is often true for the new parents and any children already in the home.
My daughter entered foster care at age 4 and lived in a dozen places before my husband and I adopted her when she was 9 years old. We met her on a Monday, and she moved in with us that Friday. This included flying halfway across the country with us.
We had anxiously been preparing to bring her home for six months while we waited for interstate placement paperwork to clear. However, she wasn’t given nearly the same amount of time to process the change. We weren’t allowed any contact with her before our first meeting, and she didn’t even know we existed until days before our arrival. She had a new state, home, school and parents to adjust to with very little preparation.
It was a difficult transition for our family. We understood each home has a different set of rules, expectations and dynamics and that our daughter would need time to adjust. However, my husband and I underestimated how challenging it would be for us to settle into our new life as parents of a traumatized 9-year-old.
Therapist Nancy Mehesy has worked with many foster and adoptive families. She offers the following advice.
Have reasonable expectations.
Mehesy says, “Foster and adoptive families have a delightful desire to care and love but are often surprised when the child is not responsive and appreciative. Expectations are usually unrealistic.” She suggests parents consider what the situation is like for the child. “Children are usually very scared and have no idea what to expect when they enter a new home. It’s like arriving in a foreign country in which you do not know the language or customs until you step on the land mine and are corrected.”
She encourages those starting this journey to talk to experienced foster or adoptive families and caseworkers who can guide them towards more realistic expectations. She also emphasizes that the family will never be the same. “Adding a child to the home through foster care or adoption changes the dynamics, priorities and daily operations of the home and impacts every member of the family.”
Work to ease the child’s fear and anxiety
Mehesy says there are several steps foster and adoptive families can take to make the transition easier. She suggests:
- Allow the children to have choices when appropriate.
- Respect items they bring with them from previous homes, such as books, toys, clothing and photos.
- Give the child plenty of notice and time to adjust to the family’s expectations and schedules.
- Help the child find words to express their feelings.
- Provide a safe and quiet space for when the child is overwhelmed.
- Grant permission for the child to continue caring about their biological family or previous foster parents.
She adds parents shouldn’t expect bonding to occur quickly or to try to force it. Attachment takes time for everyone involved. She urges, “Be honest with yourself about all your feelings, hopes and fears, even if you think they are unacceptable.”
Prepare for challenging behavior.
Mehesy explains that the child may never have experienced structure or adult responsiveness. Instead, they’ve learned that the world isn’t a safe place and they can only depend upon themselves. They may act out in an effort to keep themselves closed off to the new family for fear that they will be rejected yet again. Each move is very traumatic and often results in the child building stronger internal walls in an effort to protect themselves.
She says challenging behaviors – including defiance, tantrums, aggressiveness and destruction – are common in foster and adopted children. “Their wounds are silent and often misunderstood. Their behavior, which may be unusual, has a much deeper meaning than trying to rebel against authority.”
Mehesy offers three warnings:
- The child may go through a honeymoon period of “good” behavior at first.
- Traditional parenting methods are often ineffective with traumatized children. A therapist experienced in trauma and adoption issues can help you explore alternatives.
- Friends and family may pull away because they don’t understand the situation or know how to respond.
She adds, “A commitment to love even when children behave in an unlovable manner is vital.”
Foster and adoptive mothers share their experiences:
Kelly Martin received an emergency call from her agency last year. A 4-year-old boy and his 9-year-old sister were in need of a home immediately. The family had never fostered school-age children and had previously only been open to one child at a time. However, they felt compelled to step up to the need and are pleased the children have become part of their family permanently.
Their biological daughter was 10 at the time, and Kelly wishes there would have been time to prepare her more. She explains, “The transition was harder for my bio family than I thought it would be. This impacts everyone in the home, not just the foster children moving in. We have really struggled making sure everyone knows how special they are as individuals.”
Danielle Stevens-Fasnacht treats any child that enters her home as a member of the family right away. She says, “Every child deserves to truly feel part of the family regardless of if they are with you for one night, a year or forever.”
Danielle tries to make the transition less painful
By purchasing the same shampoo, laundry detergent and food items used at the previous home whenever the information is available. She also works hard to honor the people who were part of the child’s life before her. She says, “Just because a child is an infant when they are placed in a new home doesn’t mean they don’t long for their biological parents. If I can love more than one child, then my child can love more than one mommy.” She continues contact with biological families whenever it is safe and appropriate.
This isn’t possible for the siblings placed with the Martin family due to a history of extensive abuse. The trauma the children endured has made forming a parent-child relationship difficult, but Kelly is confident “time and persistence will pay off in the end. They just need time to understand that we are not going to harm them, will love them no matter what, and we will be there for them for the rest of their lives.”
Our daughter has been home for nearly three years now. The first year was frightening, exhausting and frustrating for all of us. We got some things right and missed the mark on others. It’s hard to believe in “forever” when you’ve had a dozen sets of parent figures in nine years, but she’s finally beginning to feel confident that our commitment to her is genuine. The abuse, trauma, abandonment and instability she suffered before us left her with scars we’re all working hard to heal. It’s a tough road, but so worth it. She summed it up best while both celebrating me and grieving for her biological family on Mother’s Day by saying, “Adoption is complicated.”