The other day I ran into a neighbor who had just started the process of adopting two little ones who’ve been living with her and her family for two months. She seemed overwhelmed, scared, and above all just worn out by the constant and unrelenting needs of her two new children. In thinking about all the advice I wanted to convey to her, I was surprised to realize how much I’d learned over the past six years. So, here’s some information I wish I’d had (or had taken to heart) when we began our own adoption journey.

Choose Your Battles

When our four kids moved in at ages 6, 7, 9, and 10, my husband and I were completely overwhelmed by the challenges we faced. There were the big issues like sexualized behavior, violent outbursts, and medical problems. But there were so many other things that—while taken alone weren’t so scary—sure added up. Compounded each day, they made us feel like we were constantly taking one step forward and two steps back. One kid would hoard and hide food until we discovered rotten sandwiches by smell. Another made loud nonsense noises night and day until we wanted to cry. Personal hygiene was impossible. Meals were a nightmare. All the kids refused to eat anything but the worst junk food. They’d never used a napkin. After a few months of being exhausted by the enormity of what we’d taken on, we finally learned to choose our battles wisely. And to choose one struggle at a time. Or, more correctly, we let the kids choose the challenge they wanted to work on.

So the first summer the kids were with us we invented “summer challenges.” Each kid got a personalized list of areas to work on during the summer such as:

  • I will eat 10 new foods.
  • I will put my clothes away neat and tidy.
  • I will walk (not run) in the house.
  • I will say “I’ll try” instead of “I can’t.”
  • I will take a shower all by myself.

The more they mastered, the more rewards they earned. They could start with any challenge on their list, but they would concentrate on just that one area before moving onto the next one. Rewards started out small (an ice cream sundae) and got bigger the more challenges they accomplished. Examples included a book of their choice, a trip to the movies with a friend, a $30 shopping spree at Target, and a day at a local amusement park.

By the end of the summer, the kids had accomplished anywhere from 7 to 10 of their challenges, and our house was so much calmer and our life seemed far more survivable. The kids loved it and begged to do it again the following summer. They felt so proud of the new skills they were learning. By the third summer, we had run out of basic family functioning skills and used summer challenges for things like learning multiplication tables or reading a certain number of books. We had come so far in a short amount of time, and I credit much of that to our decision to focus on one skill at a time and ignore the rest.

The First Year Is (Probably) the Hardest

There are a few families for whom the road does not get easier as the years go by, and I certainly don’t want to overlook their pain. But I want you to know as an adoptive parent at the beginning of your own journey that—for the vast majority of families—things do get better. Love alone won’t fix everything (or anything) but most kids will improve given a safe environment, professional support, and lots of structure. You will also improve. You will see that your job is not to fix your kids, but rather to accept them where they’re at. You’ll learn to embrace the new normal.

Probably at least a hundred times during that first 12 months, my husband and I said to each other, “It has to get easier from here.” I don’t know if we really believed it then but we were right! My grandmother’s favorite saying was “This too shall pass.” So true. For better or worse, nothing lasts forever. You can get through this month by getting through this week. And you can get through this week by getting through today. And you can get through today by getting through the next hour. Take a deep breath. Count to 10. Or count to 100. Lock yourself in the bathroom for five minutes. Take a walk around the block while your spouse watches the kids. If you and your kids have managed to survive the day alive and with all your limbs attached, count it a success. Have that glass of wine or piece of chocolate. You are far stronger than you know. Your kids are stronger than you realize. You will all get through this.

Make Time to Be a Family

It is so easy to get caught up in our culture of constant busyness. My husband and I both work. My kids—who’d never had the opportunity before—love to sign up for every sport, club, and activity they can. For the average family, the weekday pattern of school – day care – dinner on the run – activities – bed might be exhausting and stressful, but for adoptive families it can actually work against your most important job—building connection.

All kids who’ve lost their birth family are going to struggle with attachment issues. If you’re a foster or adoptive parent, I’m sure you’ve already learned so much about this through training and licensing. But once the adoption papers are signed and you’re officially a family, it’s easy to forget. You want to feel normal. You want to jump ahead to doing what you see all the other families in your neighborhood doing—driving in circles every night from one activity to the next. Too often, family dinner comes through a drive-through window or from grabbing a granola bar out of a backpack between soccer and dance.

Don’t fall into this trap. Your kids do not need to learn lacrosse or taekwondo nearly as much as they need to learn what it means to be a family. The most important team they can be a part of is the one that has daily huddles around the kitchen table. This isn’t to say kids shouldn’t do any outside activities, but one activity per kid is a reasonable limit to set. And make sure you plan time every week for family time. We schedule family time on everyone’s calendars and take turns picking an activity such as playing board games or charades, putting on a play, writing stories, having a water fight, walking by the creek, blowing bubbles, or playing sports.

For years in our family, Friday nights were Family Movie Night, and no one was allowed to (or wanted to) schedule anything to conflict with it. Everyone looked forward to piling onto the futon with a giant bowl of popcorn with our own secret family popcorn seasoning.

Don’t Do It Alone

It has been the experience of many an adoptive parent that after the initial outpouring of support and love when the kids move in, over time friends, family, churches, co-workers all seem to drift farther and farther away. Even those who stay in the picture may keep trying to compare the problems of your children to those of a more typical childhood. Such seemingly helpful advice like “It’s just a phase” “Let them cry it out” “It’s normal for kids to…” is not really going to help you or your kids who are facing the overwhelming fallout from trauma and grief.

If you’ve got an adoption support group in your area, join it! Your local adoption worker can probably point you in the right direction. If you don’t have an in-person group, join one online. Or join three! The very best resource you’ll find as an adoptive parent is other adoptive parents. These are the folks that will make you feel like you haven’t lost your mind. They’ll validate the worst feelings you have on your darkest days and help you move past them. (NACAC has a database of parent support groups. Your local social services department is another source of resources.)

Take advantage of every professional resource you need. It’s not unusual for an adopted child to have a psychiatrist for meds, play therapist for weekly support, skills worker for in-home support, and even an aide for extra help at home and school. If your kid does not already have an individualized education plan (IEP) that qualifies them for special education services at school, this is something worth putting your time and effort into obtaining. Even for a kid who is otherwise neurotypical, the stresses of abuse, trauma, grief, and attachment issues can have profound ramifications on a child’s ability to learn and process information. You will most certainly end up educating your child’s teachers about the effect of trauma. This is rarely well covered in the curriculum for teacher development. Getting help for your child and your family is never a sign of weakness. It’s one of the best things you can do for your kids.

Celebrate Your Successes!

If you’ve been chosen to parent children with trauma histories, there will always be a new challenge waiting for you just around the corner. Just when you feel like your elementary school kid is sailing smoothly along—bam! puberty hits. And when your middle schooler has finally learned to make friends and control their temper—watch out! it’s on to high school and dating and driving and leaving home. You need to slow things down and take time to realize how far you’ve come.

The other day I was lamenting to my husband that our son had walked to school without his backpack—again. Then we both just laughed. Because if that’s the biggest problem we’re facing right now, we sure must have done something right.

We need to step back and look at the progress we’ve all made in this family. Our kids have learned to trust, to manage emotions, to develop social skills, to accept help, and, yes, even to gain enough table manners to eat out at a nice restaurant.

But we parents have also made progress. We’ve learned so much from our kids, grown so much in our understanding of what it means to be a parent, become so blessed by our children that we can’t imagine life any other way. We are happy now. Our lives are full. And it was absolutely worth every sleepless night, every tear we shed, every time we second-guessed ourselves, every sideways look we got from folks who just didn’t understand. It was worth it all because we also had hugs and laughter and long walks and fireflies and more memories than we can fit in 10 photo albums on our shelves. You will get there too. Take it from someone who’s been where you are.

About Sarah W:

Sarah is an adoptive mother of four who lives in Minnesota. She is also a librarian at St. Olaf College and loves to garden in her spare time. Read her blog at

Categories: Parenting, Parenting Strategies

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