“Here’s How You Can Support Us”

Friends and family who don’t know much about adoption may welcome education about sensitive language, understanding attachment, and helping a child adjust. In hindsight, here’s what I wish I’d said.

Supporting Adoptive Parents: A How-To Guide

Before the arrival of my children through adoption, I didn’t give advice to or make requests of friends and family because I worried about sounding controlling and, honestly, I didn’t even know what to say. Now that we’ve been home for nearly two years, it is clear that most people have great intentions, but that they want and need some adoption education. For those in the process or just home, I’ve compiled ideas for requesting the kind of support your family needs, based on my experience and with input from dozens of other adoptive families:

We don’t expect gratitude from our children, and we are not amazing for adopting them.

It is not that our kids don’t notice the stability of a family. It’s not that they don’t cherish the love they are receiving or that they don’t like their new life. It is because children are programmed to want and expect love. When we provide it we are not heroes, we are simply meeting one of their very basic needs. Expecting children to be grateful for being adopted is like expecting biological children to be grateful for being conceived. It was a choice that we, their parents, made and that they were brought into.

We know that comments about how “amazing” we are for adopting are intended as compliments, but our adopted kids are not burdens, charity cases, or community service projects. As parents, we gladly invest the time and energy needed to ensure the happiness and well-being of any of our children.

We need support, friendship, love and encouragement.

Even if we’re temporarily withdrawn and spending a lot of time at home cocooning with our new addition, we value our friendships. Please continue to check up on us and to e-mail, text, call, or stop by. If you were in our life before, we still want you in our life and in the lives of our children!

Adopted children may need to be parented differently than biological children.

We are not spoiling them. We aren’t making excuses for poor behavior. Rather, we are parenting a child whose background may be very dissimilar to anything we’ve experienced. A child who has a fear of abandonment shouldn’t be sent to another room alone for a time-out. The types of consequences that work for other children might not work for a child who doesn’t have the same sense of value of her possessions and who doesn’t understand what it means to have privileges. As parents, we must be flexible to help meet the individual needs of our child, even if it means that we do things a little differently.

Please don’t feed my kids.

For children who have known hunger, food means love. We want them to learn to love us, their parents and siblings, before they bond with extended family, neighbors, and friends. I know that they stare longingly at anything edible. I know that our two-year-old puts his head on the table and looks at you with puppy dog eyes. But, since we were not there to meet his early needs (breast or bottle feeding, comforting him when he was sick, changing diapers, kissing boo boos), we need to make up for it by meeting as many of his physical and emotional needs as possible now.

Many children who were adopted also have food insecurities. Some eat until they vomit and then start eating again. Others hoard food, needing the comfort of knowing that there is some saved for later. It is best to leave all feeding to the parents unless specifically directed otherwise.

This request encompasses any sort of “treat.” Attachment and bonding are challenging enough without having friends and family slip our children candy, shower them with gifts, offer seconds at meals, or stretch family rules. We’re already working our tails off to get them to like us, so please don’t try to get them to like you the most.

We may also discourage physical contact at first.

Please do not insist on holding our children, hugging them, or having them sit on your lap. Many children who have lived in orphanages and institutions have learned to fight for adult attention, and can give the false impression of being confident and well-adjusted. It is very important that, initially, the parents are the only adults who help fulfill these children’s need for physical affection. This also teaches healthy boundaries, since no child, adopted or biological, should feel obligated to have physical contact with someone he or she doesn’t know well.

Support and thoughtful gifts are welcome.

Many of us won’t specifically ask for help or tell you what we need. However, I don’t know any adoptive mom who would turn down an offer to tidy/clean her house during those first few weeks at home with a new child. Likewise, coffee and chocolate are always welcome, and may be just what we need to get through the challenging adjustment!

If you would like to give a gift to our new child, please consider something small that the family can enjoy together, such as a frozen meal, a gift card to the movies, or art supplies for all of the kids to share. We know that you want to welcome our new additions, but gifts can be overwhelming for children who have had few material possessions. Also, we want our children to learn to love you for who you are, not because they hope they’ll get another gift the next time they see you. Other siblings may also experience jealousy and resentment if the new addition suddenly receives an armload of gifts and they are excluded.

Attachment and healing take time and work.

Every child and every family bonds differently, and it may take months or even years for that attachment to become secure. Many times we’re “faking it until we make it” but, one day, we will wake up and realize that we’re not faking it anymore and that our love is deep and real.

Though we like to think of adoption as a “happy ending,” it’s important not to romanticize it. Every adoption is the result of some degree of difficult circumstances—birth parents may have made difficult decisions, children may have faced losses, and many lives were forever changed. It will take the child time to heal from this trauma. On the other hand, that fact that a child was adopted does not necessarily mean that she will be more difficult or defiant, less successful, or anything else as a teenager or adult.

Our children had lives before they joined our family.

They had/have birth families and other relatives who are important to them and who deserve recognition and credit too. They have had life experiences that may be different from ours, but are still special and valuable.

Please choose your words and questions carefully, especially around our children.

Yes, these are all our “real” kids and, in most situations, you probably do not need to specify whether you are talking about my “adopted kids” or my “biological kids.” They are all my kids, even if they joined us through different paths.

Before you ask a question, consider whether it would sadden or offend you. (For example, think about how you’d feel if someone asked if you have AIDS, if you were abandoned, if your parents were drug users, or how your parents died.) If so, best not to ask it. We understand that it is normal to be curious about the circumstances that led to a child’s adoption, and these are things that we discuss openly in our immediate family—but not anywhere else. Our children may or may not choose to divulge details when they are older, but they will always be their stories to share, not ours.

If you would like to know how expensive the adoption process was, please don’t ask, “How much did your child cost?” and save any questions on this topic until our child is not present or send us an e-mail. Most adoptive families are happy to share our experiences and to provide helpful information, but we do not ever want our children to feel like they were bought or that they are commodities.

Our children are not celebrities.

We know that everyone is excited to meet our new additions. However, taking photos of just our adopted child or pouring attention on them while ignoring our other children is not healthy for anyone. The child who is receiving all of the attention often feels singled out and siblings quickly become resentful.

Rather, we hope you can help to normalize our family, especially in your children’s eyes. Talking openly about adoption, children who look different than one or both parents, and other “nontraditional” family structures helps our children feel accepted and secure at extracurricular activities, church, school, and elsewhere in our community.

If we confide our struggles, please don’t ask if we regret our decision to adopt or imply that “we asked for it.”

We may tell you that we are OK when we’re really falling apart. We’re worried that, if we are honest about how difficult parenting through the transition is, you won’t understand and that you’ll think we’re nuts. Adding a child who may or may not have anything in common with us socially, culturally, biologically, or even personality-wise is challenging. Though undoubtedly beautiful and worth all of the struggles, adoption certainly isn’t always easy or pretty.

Few people would tell a sleep-deprived mother of a colicky newborn that she “asked for it,” so please don’t say something like that if we do share how much we’re struggling. Just because something is difficult does not mean that we regret it. There are bumps in the road of every journey.

Finally: No one is perfect.

If you slip and call our biological kids our “real” kids or if you’ve already asked “What happened to his mother?” we won’t hold a grudge. We know that our family is different. We understand that it is impossible to be sensitive all the time. These are ideas and suggestions, not commandments.

We appreciate that you care so deeply about our family and that you want to help make this transition as smooth as possible for all of us!


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