Loving a child will change your life
7 things to expect when adopting from foster care
Interview with Aaron and Jeannette, adoptive parents
The greatest need in adoption today is families for older children and sibling groups. These children (typically between the ages of 8-18) are in foster care, unable to return to their biological families. Across the U.S., more than 100,000 children are waiting for a permanent home, and many have been waiting two years or more. The wait gets harder and less hopeful as they get older and no longer fit the 0-3 “ideal” child many adopting adults have in mind.
If we understand adoption to be about giving a home to a child who needs one, that means families need to be ready and willing to adapt so they can fully welcome a child as they are. For parents, this often means adjusting parenting styles, house rules, and expectations—and that’s not an easy ask.
Aaron and Jeannette adopted three children from foster care—first a 10-year-old girl and later another 10-year-old girl and her half-brother, who was 4. Jeannette had previously parented biological children, but Aaron had not. Yet both were quick to realize their kids’ past trauma required them to adjust so they could be the parents their children needed them to be.
Seven years into their adoption journey, Aaron and Jeannette share how parenting older children has changed them and their expectations.
WHY DO ADOPTIVE PARENTS NEED TO BE FLEXIBLE, ADAPTING TO THEIR CHILDREN?
When we adopted the first time, our 10-year-old daughter had lived nearly half her life in foster care. For years, she was the one who always had to adjust from temporary stays in foster homes to having a permanent family.
People often assume kids who join your family through adoption should adjust to you—your family, your family culture, your rules, etc. But when you have a biological child, when you bring that baby into your home, you as the parents do all the adjusting around what your child needs.
This is no different. When you adopt an older child from foster care, you should expect that you will change. Your family will change. Your life will change.
Older children are often self-sufficient, able to care for themselves when they come to your home. They were in an environment where they had to grow up fast and take care of themselves. They know how to make their own beds and do their own laundry, but they don’t always know how to be part of a family.
Adoptive parents often expect that if they just love their kids, the kids will be fine. But kids who have experienced trauma don’t always know how to receive that love. Love may scare them. They may not ask you for anything because they don’t know if they can rely on you as a parent.
That’s a great quality in a roommate, but the goal is for all of us to learn how to become a family. And that’s going to take time, intention, and a lot of flexibility.
WHAT ARE SOME SPECIFIC THINGS PARENTS SHOULD EXPECT WHEN THEY ADOPT AN OLDER CHILD?
Expect to see behaviors that don’t match the child’s age
You can’t set your expectations by what’s typical behavior for other children your child’s age or biological children in your household that were that age. You might think you shouldn’t have to tell a 10-year-old not to eat with their hands, for example. Or you might see an 8-year-old show behaviors that look like a 13-year-old in one situation and a 3-year-old in another.
Kids with a trauma history don’t always respond to emotional triggers according to their chronological age. They may be 14, but when they’re frustrated, you may see much younger behavior in their reaction. You’ll be tempted to scold them for overreacting, but a moment of empathy will remind you of their past and how their trauma has disrupted their emotional development.
Expect to see up close how trauma impacts behavior
Kids who experience foster care have had almost no control over anything that has happened to them in their lives. In our state, kids over 13 can choose not to be adopted. Our kids were younger than that, so even their adoption into our family was beyond their control.
Kids will often make choices they rationally know aren’t wise; but in the moment, their need to feel in control is stronger than their logic. As parents, we understand how control often drives our kids’ decision-making. We talk about what the consequences of their control choice might be, and we try to guide them toward better choices.
Expect to pick your battles
When our children first joined our family, we let go of some of our house rules—things we didn’t want to let go of but did to build our relationship with them. At 4, our son knew all the swear words. These were words he was used to hearing at home. We modeled other ways to communicate, and it didn’t take long for him to learn we don’t use those words in our home. As parents, you can’t get upset about the 4-year-old swearing, because the rules he learned in his home were different.
And don’t fight about what your kids are wearing. If your kids aren’t used to having choices of clean clothing, they may be more comfortable wearing the same clothes they wore yesterday and the day before. You’ll want to say, “You’re going out in public dressed like that?” but you can let this one go. You’ll have more important things to fight about, so pick your battles.
Expect to be misunderstood
Parenting kids who have experienced trauma looks different from typical parenting. So unless people have lived this, it will be hard for them to understand your choices as parents. It could be your friends, neighbors, church, or extended family—anyone who assumes your kids “just need love” or “just need discipline.”
For example, if the kids act out at family gatherings, someone will say, “You let your child do this? Or say that?” Yes, right now we do. We’ll take the back talk today because right now we’re working on another unsafe behavior, and that’s a higher priority.
You know better than others where your kids came from, if there was a time in their life when they didn’t have food or a safe place to live. We had a child who wasn’t sleeping, and when they couldn’t sleep, they couldn’t function. Which meant our family couldn’t function. We had to do something different. So Jeannette slept on the floor in that child’s room for a month. Other people won’t understand why you’d decide to do that. It wasn’t Jeannette’s best sleep, and it wasn’t the best for our marriage; but it was temporary, and it was worth it in the end because the child slept and gradually became more settled.
Expect to apologize when you blow it
Our kids have faced a lot of life challenges, and behavior challenges come with that. The hardest part for parents is being forced to address your response when their behaviors push your buttons.
We’re not perfect; we get angry and upset. And if we’re honest, sometimes we respond in sin. Like throwing a child’s radio down the stairs and then smashing it on the driveway. Not my best moment. I had to own my response and ask the child for forgiveness. Instead of blaming our children for provoking us, we have to face our issues and own our behavior.
Expect to face your fears
With biological children, most parents don’t wonder, Will they decide to leave our family at 18? Will they “beat the odds”? But these are questions that keep us up at night. We’ve had some hard times as a family. We’ve done in-patient care. We’ve been close to doing residential treatment. Parents can go into adoption expecting that “all this child needs is love, and everything will be fine.” But love can look like many things: consistency, getting them therapy, not giving up on them, staying in the scary moments with them when they’re just as frightened as we are.
Expect to change your thinking
You can’t go into adoption thinking you and your love and stability are going to “fix broken kids.”
As parents, we’re not responsible to change them, and we overestimate our ability to change (or fix or heal) them. We can love them, send them to camp, send them to counseling, buy them a dog, and do all the things. But we can’t undo the hurt and trauma they’ve faced.
We hold to this truth: God doesn’t call us to produce results; he calls us to be faithful. We believe God has called us to be faithful to our kids, responding in love to meet their needs. As Christian parents, we’re living our faith in front of our kids, shaping how they see Jesus. So we’re always looking for that balance between structure and nurture in our house rules.
HOW DO YOU DECIDE WHEN TO HOLD THE LINE AS PARENTS AND WHEN TO BEND?
For both of us, our natural temperament tends to be authoritative: this is the rule, you need to follow it. But we’ve seen how holding rigidly to rules can cause problems. We’ve had to work on getting comfortable with letting some things go. Sometimes it’s hard to know when you need to demand compliance and when to loosen the grip.
There are generally three approaches to our decision-making with our kids:
We communicate, saying, “In this instance, you need to trust that I’m making this decision for your safety and well-being.” There are times when parents have to protect children from themselves when they’re not capable of making good choices.
We negotiate, saying, “This is the rule, and the rule doesn’t change. But if you choose not to follow the rule, you’ll get a consequence,” and we allow them to choose for themselves.
We compromise, saying, “That is probably a bad idea. Have you considered this better idea?”
The hardest part is figuring out when to respond in which way. We’ve had many conversations as a couple whether to respond with 1, 2, or 3. We discuss what each response would mean and make the decision together so we’re on the same page.
We’ve faced some really hard things as an adoptive family, but biological families face hard things too. No matter how your child became part of your family, when they face serious medical, emotional, or behavioral challenges, you do whatever you need to do to show up for your child and meet their needs.
That’s what it means to love a child. And loving a child will change your life.