Sarah Bobo, director of domestic services training
Eight years later, I still remember looking out the window on a clear fall day, watching my son vie for my husband’s attention.
My husband was talking to a neighbor and didn’t immediately respond to our son’s persistent efforts to be noticed. I was heartbroken because I couldn’t respond to him myself—I was indoors caring for his new brother. I realized I could no longer be right there when my oldest had a need.
Was he fine? Of course, but it was a hard dose of reality for me! Things were going to be different for all of us.
It can be overwhelming when a new child joins your family.
You wonder how to be sure everyone’s needs are being met and how long it will take to find a new equilibrium. This is especially true when you are adopting an older child or a sibling group. You may question whether things will ever be normal again and even find yourself wondering, “What were we thinking?”
If you’ve adopted a child with special placement needs, you may find it harder to ask for help, perhaps because you worry people will think “you signed up for this” or “you should have known how difficult this would be.”
But be assured, there are many things you can do, before and after adopting, to strengthen your family and reduce stress.
1. Set new expectations
Let your other children know that things will be different when a new child joins your family, but that each member of the family is valued.
Start discussing how a new sibling will need much of your time and attention. Use eye contact, name feelings, and offer choices to help even very young children adjust when the attention they seek must be delayed.
Enlist the help of friends and family members to spend time with your other children and get help with taking the children to activities and appointments. This will give you more time to focus on building a relationship with your newly adopted child while ensuring your other children are still able to do the things they enjoy.
Let friends and family know you will likely need this help for a significant amount of time—beyond a few meals and visits right after the adoption is finalized.
2. Talk about the change
Change is hard, but open dialogue about how things are going can make the transition easier. Family members should be able to honestly share about the good and the challenging parts of having a new child in the home.
Books about adoption and new siblings are good for starting conversations with children. Adoption support groups for children and parents are also a great resource for talking with others who share similar experiences. Online groups and blogs are another way to connect with people who will understand your situation.
3. Anticipate challenges
“It’s not fair!” is a common complaint of children everywhere.
“Life’s not fair” is often the easy comeback, but it misses the heart of the issue. What does the child making the fairness accusation actually need? Are they really asking for your time, attention, a material item, or a privilege another child is getting?
Consider how you can meet that need without feeling pressured to make things the same for every child in your home. Teaching children that “fair” does not always mean “same” is a valuable life lesson. Rules, accommodations, time, and attention may not be equal for all siblings; love, acceptance, and nurturing should be.
4. Adjust your approach to discipline
Discipline strategies for adopted children often differ from strategies used with biological children, and this can be challenging for others to understand.
Educate the other children in your family, extended family members, and individuals in your support network about how your family plans to implement adoption-sensitive discipline strategies. It is important to have common understanding about why these approaches are needed and to avoid confusion about how they will be enforced.
5. Talk about personal body safety
Families need to have conversations and plans to promote sexual safety for all children in the family. Direct conversations about privacy, safe and unsafe touch, and respect of personal boundaries should happen before and after adoption.
Develop a family safety plan and share it with all the children in the family. Families may have rules including not sharing beds, using the bathroom jointly, or playing together in bedrooms. Parents should periodically ask children about the boundaries established in the safety plan to encourage communication.
6. Prioritize self-care
This may seem like the last thing you have time for when you are adjusting to life as a bigger family, but without it your whole family is at a disadvantage.
It may not be realistic to plan a weekend getaway or even a few hours of uninterrupted time but look for little things you can do daily that bring you joy. Name them and claim them as sacred. This could be moments spread throughout the day such as a five-minute break for a cup of coffee, two minutes for stretching your muscles, or 15 minutes to read and pray.
Build into your daily routine a few small things that will refresh you so you will maintain the capacity to give back to others.
7. Nurture each family relationship
Set aside small amounts of time to give one-on-one attention to each child. You can build this into bedtime routines, turn chores into parent-child activities, or make a ritual for how you share about the highs and lows of the day.
If you are married, don’t forget about nurturing your marital relationship. You might not have the time or resources for regular date nights but incorporating small opportunities to connect can go a long way toward keeping your marriage strong. Can you share a bowl of ice cream together after the kids go to bed, find a television show you both enjoy, pray with each other, or make a routine of always kissing goodbye?
It’s easy to let these things go when life feels hectic, but proactively keeping your marriage strong is far easier than trying to repair it when major issues arise.
8. Reach out for extra support
Seek advice from others who have a family structure similar to yours to learn tips and avoid pitfalls they’ve encountered. You can also contact Bethany’s Post-Adoption Contact Center to get connected with support resources.