There’s a myth in the world of adoption that love is all you need. If you love your child enough, your adoptive family will thrive. Part of the reason could be that often adoption is written on our hearts and our hearts have a tendency to romanticize stories, even adoption ones. But for a child, their adoption story starts with loss. Healing from that trauma requires more than love.
If only it were as easy as calculating the number of hugs your child missed out on and making them up in full. Trauma is not an equation we can balance with “I love yous.” The idea that love is enough to heal those wounds is as misguided as kissing better a broken bone. Broken bones need treatment and time to mend. And even after they heal, they don’t become unbroken, they remain healed broken bones.
The truth is that we can love the ocean to its deepest depths, but we still need skills and resources to navigate it. Adoptive families have a desire to offer an abundance of love to a child in need, but they must also be equipped to recognize and meet their child’s needs. There is a lot of work to do before and after a child arrives home to cultivate an environment in which they can thrive.
The nature of adoption makes surprises inevitable. Adoptive families often have incomplete medical histories about their child or their child’s birth parents. Their hereditary predisposition to increased risk of physical or mental illness is unknown. It’s likely there is no information pertaining to their fetal development and exposure to tobacco, alcohol or other drugs is also unknown. No matter how much you love your child, unless you are informed about common medical conditions, you may misinterpret their behavior or miss important signs to seek professional help.
A child’s experience with their birth family is a big question mark and the nature of institutional care further complicates things. Adoptive families often have only partial information about their child’s care. Their development milestones may not be marked and cultural differences in approaches to childcare, such as whether a baby should be left to cry itself to sleep or a misbehaving toddler should be spanked, exist. Adoptive families should develop an understanding of the impacts of trauma and children’s brain development. Otherwise, you can love your child to the moon and back and misunderstand their fear responses as tantrums at meal or bed time, for example; food and separation anxiety are common fears for adopted children that present oddly to adoptive parents but indicate a lack of felt safety.
A child’s integration with their forever family also poses challenges. Adoptive families need to accept that they may share their child’s affection with their birth family, despite what led to their adoption. And until a child is ready to take ownership of their adoption story, adoptive families need to safeguard this story. You can beam with pride for your child’s journey, but it doesn’t mean it’s your story to share. Honoring your child means the careful and intentional sharing of their story only when it’s appropriate and with your child’s permission.
If a family becomes transracial through adoption, love won’t make everybody match. Adoptive families need to build cultural awareness and aid their child in understanding and honoring their heritage and birth family. Adoptive families need to recognize and celebrate differences in many ways such as seeking out friends and mentors that share racial traits with your child and diversity in your neighborhoods, schools, and church. You need to assume responsibility for seeing color because love won’t negate the effects of a colorblind mentality which can lead your child to question their identity and struggle with low self-esteem.
The romantic notions of new beginnings for adopted children are just that. As much as we may want to change it, their story begins without us. Their story begins with loss. Love does not erase your child’s story before they joined your family. Love does not erase trauma. And love, alone, won’t be enough for them to heal and thrive, but it’s a great place to start.
Early childhood experiences can impact an adoptive child’s behavior, brain, biology, body and belief systems. But, while these experiences may explain their past, they don’t have to define their future. Adoptive families who walk this journey with humility, seeking to continuously prepare and educate themselves on the needs of their adoptive child, will find that there is so much hope and healing. Families Are Forever offers dozens of classes specific to strengthening adoptive families at different stages of their journey. Learn more today!