Tuesday, February 16, 2016

How to Help Your Adopted Children Feel a Sense of Belonging

As far back as I can remember, I have always felt a strong sense of belonging. Even in times when I felt disconnected and excluded at school, or during a brief horrible time of being bullied at work, I knew that I could always return to a familiar, nurturing place called home where I was loved and understood. Feeling that we belong is something most of us take for granted, because it develops naturally through the loving input of our family and friends. For me as a child, it also came from being a part of clubs like Guides, musical theatre and the church choir. As an adult, I have been lucky enough to extend this sense of belonging in the world through close-knit friendship circles, and the loving home I have built with my husband. Even at work (bullying episode notwithstanding), I have been lucky enough to have had supportive and inclusive colleagues who created that same sense of fitting in at work.

But for my two adopted children it is a different story. At a young age they were removed from everything familiar, and spent a long time in the no-mans land of foster care. Even the most loving and nurturing foster parents cannot compensate for the sense of disaffection triggered by such a fundamentally temporary and transient existence. The process of adoption is such a major upheaval in a child’s life, involving so much transition, grief and loss, which can all contribute to a sense of disconnectedness, that in turn leads to anxiety, unhappiness and ultimately, difficult behaviour or emotional withdrawal. Everything I have read from adoptees reflecting in later life tells me that their ongoing issues can often be put down to never feeling part of something, never quite belonging.

"Adoption is outside. You act out what it feels like to be the one who doesn’t belong. And you act it out by trying to do to others what has been done to you. It is impossible to believe that anyone loves you for yourself." Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

For adoptive families today, there is plenty of advice on dealing with the most common issues that we face -  attachment disorders, behavioural problems, developmental delays etc, but my view is that until you can help your child to psychologically integrate their life experiences, none of these other problems can be successfully resolved, either. Part of this process is of course helping children to come to terms with their early life 'before' and to fill in the gaps for them with information about their birth families, and even through contact (direct or letterbox) when this is deemed appropriate. It is hoped that having access to these resources can dispel some of the sense of disconnectedness that comes from leaving behind one family to join another, removing the uncertainty, mystery and curiosity that can be a barrier to true acceptance of the new family. But even with this support, adopted children can continue to flounder between worlds, struggling throughout their lifetime to feel genuinely part of something. I often wonder how my own kids might be feeling about this, or how it will affect them down the line. They are still very young and can't exactly articulate these feelings, but I do sense their presence sometimes, reading between the lines. Every day I ask myself what I can do to increase my children's sense of belonging in our family, to help them fully embrace the now and the future. I've looked to my own childhood and tried to replicate the things that helped me feel grounded, and I do believe it is possible to help this process along without the need for professional intervention. Here are some of the ways that seem to be working for us...

Home Sweet Home

When I visited my children in foster care at the start of our introductions, I was struck by the lack of photos of them in the home, even though they had lived there for two years. It was as if they had been treading water there, without growing any roots. I wanted them to know from the outset that their presence would be completely integrated and fondly celebrated in their new home, and made sure this was visible on the first day they came to visit.

Right from the first days of your introductions with the children, you can help them develop a connection to your home and your family. Take photos of you together during this time, print and frame them to be hung generously around the house before they move in, so that it feels like they have always been there.  Keep building this family gallery as time goes on, making a visual celebration of your lives together. The kids will come with Life Story books of their lives before, but looking forwards and having a record of the now is just as important.

Make their personal spaces feel welcoming and lived-in, too. Much as you will want to present a new and perfect environment for your child, let go a little and make sure familiar possessions are present and integrated – on the bed, floor, etc – as if the child had just left the room.



Home is not just the four walls that surround you at night, it is your neighbourhood, your community, your town. For adopted children arriving in a new and unfamiliar place, developing a connection to their surroundings is another route towards the feeling of fitting in. Share your love of special local places with your kids, and build shared memories there. Whether it is a park, favourite café, walk, beach or country house. Discovering new places together and visiting them often is also a wonderful bonding experience that allows your children to feel invested in their new lives. We were gifted a National Trust membership in the early months of the placement, and have used it frequently as a springboard for family adventures. A couple of places in particular have quickly become firm favourites that we love to go back to, and can reminisce about previous visits each time.

The More We Get Together, The Happier We Feel

The adoption authorities will hammer home how important it is to keep your kids focused on you – the adoptive parents – for the first weeks and months of the placement, and to avoid overwhelming them with new people. There are good reasons behind this theory, but it should not be at the expense of developing the children’s sense of belonging as soon as possible. I quickly realised how much my kids craved friendship with peers and enjoyed being a part of other people’s lives. Our eldest especially had left behind meaningful friendships and was grieving these as well as the loss of everything else she’d known.

I wanted my children to understand that their lives would be rich with love and support not just from us, but from our friends and family, too. After a few weeks of ‘hunkering down’ we carefully opened up our social life to a few close friends, mainly those with kids of a similar age and who could be a regular and reliable presence in our kids’ lives. We have been fortunate enough to include in this a couple of other adoptive families, which dilutes some of the sense of difference our kids may feel and gives them peers with whom they can share a unique affinity. Having this extended support network on hand was a complete life-saver for me in difficult times, and helping the kids to make friends quickly does seem to have boosted their confidence, and acceptance of their new lives.

Although it has been awkward at times, we’ve avoided introductions with long-distance friends and family, or those who cannot make a regular commitment to seeing the kids. We want the people in whom they invest to be consistent and familiar, not scattered and unpredictable. I'm thankful that the friends who’ve been involved have been very sensitive about the particular etiquette needed around newly adopted kids, so that their presence in no way compromises the attachment between us and the children.


Photo by John D, Flickr

Remember That Time We…

...So goes the familiar refrain of family gatherings around the world. The ability to recall and celebrate shared memories is something that keeps families feeling connected, and the same goes for those little traditions that are unique to your own family, often borne out of such memorable times. The sooner you can establish special family traditions with your adopted kids, the better. In our house we have the weekly ritual of family pizza night on a Friday, when we all sit down to eat together and get excited about the weekend to come. The kids burst with excitement every week when they are allowed to delve into the near-mythical sweetie tin after dinner and pick a little treat. Even small things like inventing your own silly lyrics to songs, or making up games for car journeys, can all act like little anchors to the family unit. Kick start the sense of a shared history by reminiscing about shared events, even if they only happened a week ago, and encourage the children to tell these stories themselves.

Space to Reflect

Giving your kids space to explore issues of belonging through books and films is a healthy way to tap into any repressed feelings they may be having, without confronting them directly. We have discovered many wonderful books that touch on the issue without being preachy, or overtly about adoption. I have included my favourites in the reading list below.



Ask for Their Help

The feeling of being needed is a big part of fitting in to any dynamic – whether it be with family, friends or at work. Being given responsibility is also a signal that you are trusted and valued, so giving kids tasks like feeding the cat, sorting the odd socks, laying the table, or putting away toys lets them know they have a valid role in the household and are contributing to it in visible, practical ways.

Tell Them They Matter

To a person who has never experienced Love before, the words ‘I Love You’ can feel empty, unless validated with reasons why. More than Those Three Little Words, adopted kids want to hear that they are wanted and welcome. Don’t take it for granted that they feel this, tell them every day, every night at bedtime “I’m so happy you are here. Our family feels complete with you in it" or “I had a great time with you today. You are wonderful company to be around.” I hope that by telling my children what it feels like to have them around, I am helping them believe in their very significant place in our little world.

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At eighteen months in, I am a relatively new adoptive parent, and I know I have a lot still left to learn. We face many challenges every day, and no doubt these will only get more complex as the children grow, but most days it feels like we are at least getting something right. I have watched my kids grow in confidence, become loyal friends and loving family members, relish their beautiful surroundings, and relax into our home. I think, I hope, they already have some sense of belonging here, and I trust that this will keep them grounded in the years to come.


I’d love to hear from other adoptive families on this subject. How have you helped your kids to feel they belong? Leave me a comment, or tweet @Rowstar with your stories.
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