Sunday, August 17, 2014

What Can I Do To Help? A Guide to Supporting Adoptive Families

Last week I wrote about my journey to adoptive parenthood, in Expecting Without a Bump. I was deeply touched by all the encouraging messages and comments it inspired – from family, friends, and complete strangers who picked up on it via Twitter and elsewhere. Many friends expressed their desire to support us through the next stage of the adventure, when our children actually come to live with us, and asked what they could do to help. As we’re now only two sleeps away from moving in day, I took advantage of a quiet house this evening compose a follow up piece with some thoughts on this very subject. I hope it will be useful to my nearest and dearest, and to anyone else out there who is supporting an adoptive family in the early days.

It will be a challenging time for the kids and for us, as they leave behind their foster carers and get used to their ‘forever family’, and we adjust to being ‘Mummy and Daddy’ to two walking-talking beings after 15 years of DINKY freedom. As well as the obvious basics of feeding, clothing, entertaining and protecting our children, we also need to help them process everything that’s happened to them so that they can move forward and flourish, and to instill in them a tangible sense of feeling properly claimed into their ‘forever family’. A lot of this will come down to love, patience and instinct, but thankfully there is also a wealth of accepted wisdom on attachment theory as well as many useful resources available on child development specifically relating to adopted families.

We’ve used the past year and a half in the lead up to the adoption to take advantage of these, and have done a lot of reading up and thinking about different approaches, to try and identify strategies that resonate with our own values and will fit naturally into our parenting style. Of course we won’t get it right all the time, but we hope that with the help of our support network, we can in turn give our little ones all that they need to thrive. If you are one of our loved ones reading this, or indeed a friend to someone else who is adopting, here are some fairly simple ways you can help…

Be there, but don’t be there

Please don’t be offended if we don’t invite you to visit in the first few weeks or months. It’s really important that we spend most of our time just with the children, bonding with them on their own, and forming the all-important attachment with them. We still need your help, though – so do drop us a line or call us (in the evenings!) to see how we’re doing. We may feel very isolated during this time. If we happen to bump into you in the park or supermarket, it's fine to say "hi" casually, so don't feel you have to scamper past.

Cuddles and Comfort

When you do eventually come to visit, or we arrange to meet up with you, we’d ask you not to be overly affectionate with the kids. To begin with, things like sitting on laps and comforting cuddles is reserved for Mummy and Daddy. This may seem strange (especially for close family), but this is to help them understand that we are the most important adults in their lives. In the nicest possible way, please re-direct them back to us if they seek you out for comfort and affection.

The Etiquette of Gifts and Treats

We know that you’ll be excited to meet our new kids and might want to help them feel loved with welcoming gifts, but we’d ask that you check with us before handing over treats. Too many new things can be overwhelming for children who have never had many possessions of their own, and it’s important that they value love and security in the home over material items. Appropriate gifts are small things that can be enjoyed by all the family together and can help with our bonding.

Support our parenting style

Because of their backgrounds and the things that have happened to our kids in their short lives, the way we parent them may seem different to how you might approach parenting a birth child. For example, we won’t use the naughty step or time out, because these methods can be traumatic for a child who has experienced neglect and abandonment. We’ve decided not to use reward charts either, as they can reinforce poor self-esteem if never ticked. You can help by accepting and supporting the way we parent and discipline our kids, even if it seems a bit alien.

Help build their self-esteem

These children have suffered loss and will need a lot of re-assurance. We've been reading up on ways to reinforce children’s self-confidence, and these are some of the key things we've discovered:
  • Be specific with praise, and praise effort over skill (e.g. instead of saying “hey, that’s a great picture you drew”, say “wow – look how carefully you chose the colours for those flowers” or “I can see how much effort you put into making those lines so neat”). Children accept this type of praise more readily, they trust that you mean it, and it encourages them.
  • Engage with their intellect over their physical appearance. In particular, please try and resist the temptation to say to girls when you greet them “you’re so pretty” or “look at your lovely dress/hair/shoes”. We’d like our daughter to grow up valuing herself by more than looks. Ask her what book she’s reading or what crafty things she’s made lately instead.
  • Try not to label them – Our kids will have already attracted labels just by virtue of their situation in life, but we will try our best not to add to or reinforce these. This means never saying in front of them things like “oh, aren’t you the bossy one” or “wow, you’re such a fussy eater”. Kids with low self-esteem particularly will take on board such statements and model their view of themselves on this. Better instead to adopt a positive model that states what you want them to be: “It’s great that you’re so confident, and because you are kind and caring as well, I am sure you’ll let your friend have a say” or “It’s good that you ate all of your peas tonight…you’re an enthusiastic eater!”.

Avoid play that involves pretend abandonment or rejection

It may seem like a harmless tease to run away from a child or enact putting them in a bin, but games like this can unhelpfully reinforce feelings of being unwanted and unsafe. Being a big scary baddie may not go down too well either for kids who have been exposed to domestic violence or chaotic households.

Acknowledge inner truth and show empathy

Sometimes our kids may get overly upset about things that seem trivial (as indeed all kids do), but it’s really important not to dismiss their feelings or say things like “it’s nothing to be upset about”. Every opportunity to explore what’s on their minds is valuable as part of processing what they have been through, and their tears may be about something other than whatever actually happened in the moment. So if they seem distressed by something little, ask them “I can see you’re upset. I’m wondering what that’s about?”.

What not to say

Please don’t tell our kids ‘you’re so lucky’ or ask them how they like their new family – it may seem to you that they are fortunate to get adopted by us, but actually none of what has happened to them is at all lucky, and it’s OK to accept and acknowledge that. You can help them to accept and trust us by demonstrating that you do.

Never introduce them to other people as our ‘adopted kids’ or refer to them as such – they are just ‘our kids’. It’s OK to talk about being adopted with them if they bring it up (as they will always know they are adopted), but we’d like to avoid them being labelled and feeling stigmatised because of it. Likewise, don’t refer to their birth family as their ‘real family’. They will always have two families – a ‘birth family’ and us, their ‘forever family. Both are very real.

Social Media and sharing

Sorry, but however cute they are being, we won’t be putting photos of our kids on Facebook, and for fairly obvious reasons, we need to ask the same of you. Please don’t ever share any details or photos of our kids online, talk about them by their actual names to people we don’t know, or discuss with anyone else information about their history and circumstances that we may share with you in confidence.
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It’s also important to say that just because we’ve suggested some specific steers around the needs of adopted children, it doesn’t mean you have to treat our kids any differently to any other kids in your life for most of the time. Above all they are amazing little people who want to have fun and feel safe and loved.

If you’re interested to dig a little deeper into some of the above theories, I can recommend some really accessible books on the subject that we’ve found particularly useful:

Attaching in Adoption by Deborah Grey
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber (all parents should read this – it’s genius!)
Creating Loving Attachments by Kim Golding & Daniel Hughes

And some good articles:
10 Things Adoptees Want You To Know
10 things adoptive parents wish their friends and family understood
Adoption in the UK: 9 common misconceptions
17 Things Never to Say to An Adopted Person 

Finally, to anyone from our social circle and extended family who is reading this, THANK YOU. You have all already been so supportive and wonderful through our journey to adoption, and we are truly grateful for this and for all that is still to come in the biggest adventure of our lives. Bring it on.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Expecting Without A Bump

About a year ago, I asked my eight year old nephew how he’d feel about getting another cousin. His eyes lit up, and instinctively flicked to my tummy, then back to my face, with a questioning smile. Having witnessed his other auntie pregnant twice, and been fascinated by the development of each bump, and the little friends that eventually materialised, I could see in his beaming face the excitement of what he assumed would be about to happen again. I almost felt sad to have to break the spell in order to tell him that this time it would be a bit different; there would be no bump.

I had picked my moment carefully to talk to him about this, because he’s incredibly important to me, and I wanted him to feel completely involved and comfortable with my journey to parenthood. “Do you know what adoption means?” was my next question; there was less recognition in his expression, but his inquisitive nature kept the impetus of the moment alive, and I began to explain. He was remarkably relaxed and accepting of what he was being told: that Auntie RoRo and Uncle Ant would give a home to a child or children whose parents couldn’t look after them anymore.  His inevitable concerns were: “will it be a boy?” and “will they be older than me?”. Since then, we have talked about it in an open and matter of fact way, and he seems to be looking forward to the event.

The day I told Isaac we were adopting.

I have had the same, if slightly more sophisticated, version of this conversation, with many of my friends, family and colleagues over the past few months. All of them have been excited and encouraging, too, but I sometimes get the sense that their initial well-wishes are couched in an underlying sadness on my behalf. I suppose it is (and rightly) assumed that if you are coming to adoption, there must be a sad reason that you could not conceive naturally, and that adoption is somehow second best. This is not at all how I feel about it.

At this moment in time, just weeks away from becoming a mum, I am as joyful and expectant as any parent-to-be. I am nesting, putting child-proof catches on cupboard doors, making regular trips to Mothercare, and all the other usual things that pregnant women do. The only differences are that I am also preparing myself for the unique challenges of being a parent to an adopted child, I don’t have to pick out names, and I’m not carrying round an ever-growing bump for all to admire. I am bursting with love for my two almost-children, and grateful to fate, karma, or whatever you believe in, for bringing them into my lives. This pregnancy is of the heart.


Several of my colleagues at work have also been expecting over the past year, and have been very considerate in including me in their conversations about imminent parenthood. But it has thrown into contrast again the differences in reaction between physical pregnancy and adoption. When one of the girls announces they are pregnant to the rest of the office, there is group merriment and a surge of shared emotion. The words “congratulations” and “wow” are used a lot. This usually happens just after the 12 week scan, once they are into the “safe” stage, but with adoption, there is no such milestone around which to stage a big announcement. We have been filling in forms, meeting social workers and swotting up on child psychology for months, and the process of telling people has been very gradual during that time. It’s only in the last few weeks, when we’ve known who our actual children would be, that the real excitement has been evident. I suppose until then, with no bump, it is just not as tangible an event.

As we approached our panel date recently (the moment when we were officially approved to become parents to the children with whom we’d been matched), I’d been pondering on how to celebrate the (hopefully) good news. Like any expectant parent, I wanted to be able to share my excitement with friends and family, and to involve them in my children’s lives before their arrival. It felt much like that 12 week scan moment, only much closer to the arrival, and there’s no picture of a foetus to put on Facebook. So I started looking around for ideas – perhaps other people had come up with a way to share the news – but everything I found was from the US, and largely to do with international adoption. I found photos of couples holding a globe or map showing the country from which they were adopting, but nothing from this country by parents who’d adopted from here. It seems people are reluctant to shout about the fact that they’re adopting, like it’s a dark secret they have to conceal from the world. I find it hard to accept this, and I think the lack of open celebration about adoption probably contributes to the ongoing mystery surrounding it.


Increasingly I get the sense that the very concept of adoption is intimidating to most people. As a nation, we are remarkably ignorant about it – and I’d have included myself in that up until recently. I have begun to think that if there was less mystique about the whole process, and if we knew more about the children waiting for new families, we would be less inclined to produce more of our own biological offspring,  and more likely to embrace the idea of bringing up someone else’s. And if it were more commonplace, maybe we would celebrate news of an adoption in the same way that we swoon over a pregnancy. But we are afraid because we know that adopted children can be difficult. We know that they might reject us, might not look or behave like us, worried that we won’t be able to love them. 

I know it won’t be simple or straightforward, but I am filled with conviction for the task ahead. I have been given the opportunity to turn two little lives around, and I mean to embrace it wholeheartedly. Alongside this determination is a growing need to enlighten others about adoption and to make them feel more open to the idea. My nephew’s unaffected reaction was the right one – if someone’s parent can’t look after them then it makes sense that another adult would naturally want to help them.  In some cultures this is the case, and there is no concept of children waiting perhaps years to find a new home. Having had the urge myself at some point, I can completely understand the need to produce at least one biological offspring, but why have two or three more when there are children already out there without parents?  In 2013, there were over 65,000 ‘looked after’ children in the UK, and only 4,000 or so adoptions. If only a fraction of the 700,000 people who had given birth that year had adopted instead, all of those children in care could have found new homes.  To me these are startling, even shocking, statistics.


Perhaps the main reason more people don’t come to adoption proactively, and that there aren’t any common customs for celebrating with those who do adopt, is that we don’t talk, or even think, about it enough in society. It’s an uncomfortable truth; something other people do. We teach children about safe sex and the responsibilities of parenthood, but many of them will never come across adoption unless they happen to know someone who is adopted, or have friends who are adopters. And even then, there are no accepted conventions for exploring the subject.

The past year and a half has been an incredible learning journey, during which I have become increasingly enlightened about adoption; I have found the process to be in equal parts fascinating and emotional. I’m academically stimulated by the books on child psychology and therapeutic parenting techniques, but constantly affected by the shocking case studies of real children who have been neglected, abused and un-cared for.  Having known a few adoptive families throughout my life, I considered myself fairly well informed, but I now realise there was so much I never knew, or even considered, about adoption. I find myself eagerly sharing my recently gained knowledge with anyone who shows an interest, wanting to spread more understanding. My friends and family have readily engaged with this, and the questions that people ask, and the assumptions they make about adoption, have made for interesting discussions. I've welcomed the opportunity to dispel a few myths along the way, for example:

They’re only babies – surely they won’t remember anything from before? Firstly, there are very few babies available for domestic adoption these days. Since the stigma of unwed mothers and underage pregnancies has become less intense, hardly anyone relinquishes babies any more. And as for not remembering, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that even children who are adopted at a very young age carry baggage from their life before – whether that be fully formed memories or primal, sensory ones. Nancy Verrier argues in her book, The Primal Wound, that children separated from their mothers will always bear the scars created by that fundamental, life-changing rift. On top this, most adopted children have also been exposed to some form of neglect or abuse which will have affected their very blueprint for operating in life. To try and sweep that history under the carpet is like ignoring a lump – it may seem easier not to confront it, but you know deep down that it will be worse in the long term if you don’t. Everything I have been learning is about unpicking the past for these children, while helping them to survive and thrive in the future.

Why does the adoption process take so long? People don’t have to go through all that to have birth children – it’s ridiculous. No, but birth children come to you fresh and unsullied. You can rely on your instincts to parent them, protect them from harm in the world, and raise them with your own values and habits. Adopted children have already been imprinted with tragedy and loss, and your job in parenting them is more challenging, less intuitive. I have been grateful for the time to prepare, and do not in the least resent having been subject to a thorough screening process that is entirely in the interests of both parents and child. And in fact it doesn’t take that long these days – at least it shouldn’t if things go smoothly. It only took us six months to get approved, and a further nine to find the right match – which is about the same as an average physical pregnancy if you count the time of trying to conceive.

When will you tell the child he or she is adopted? There is no big reveal - it will be something we always talk openly about. We’ll create a life story book for the child, so that they can learn about their birth parents as well as us, their ‘forever family’. We’ll try our best to answer their questions and proactively help them to come to terms with their unique journey.

What will you do if your child tries to find its birth parents later? Most adoptions these days have some form of ‘contact’, which means their birth parents will be present in some capacity all along. Usually this is in the form of annual letterbox contact between birth parents and adoptive parents, although sometimes there is direct contact, if this is deemed in the best interests of the child. I welcome this, because it takes some of the mystery out of it for the child. I don’t want them - like Orphan Annie singing “maybe far away, or maybe real nearby” - day dreaming about the fantasy mum and dad who will one day come and sweep them up. Better that they should have a realistic picture of their birth parents, and that they come to understand why they needed to be adopted. If one day they decide they want to get to know their birth parents better, I will do all I can to support them, and be there to help them through the likely emotional fall-out.

You’ll probably get pregnant as soon as you’re placed with a child – that always happens. I find this a difficult one to respond to, because I know people mean well in saying it, but this belief undermines my own acceptance of the journey to parenthood that I have chosen. If you are struggling to know what to say in response to someone’s adoption news, the best thing you could ask is “what can I do to help?”.  More than any cursory encouragement you’d offer a new mum, extend your sincere promise of practical and emotional support for the person who will be facing the daily, perhaps all-consuming, challenges of parenting an adopted child.

For me, the journey of adoptive parenthood is just beginning, and I’m sure there’ll be many more outpourings of words, opinions and emotions to come. This is a moment, a standing-on-the-edge-of-something moment, where I cannot help but reflect on all that brought me here and all that lies ahead. If in sharing my thoughts I have inspired even one other person to open their eyes to the realities of adoption, and to feel more comfortable about celebrating it, I am content.

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Should you be interested in learning more about adoption in the 21st century, there are some useful resources on Adoption UK’s website, and I would highly recommend the book 20 Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew by Sherrie Eldridge, which gives a voice to the great unheard.