Every toddler without a family is ready for a placement, but not every prospective adoptive family is ready for a toddler. The good news is that the vast majority of parents who have the ability to be effective adoptive parents can develop the skills to parent an adopted toddler, but there are unique concerns and issues that need to be considered.
Who are the best candidates?
Prospective parents who feel entitled to parent a toddler, have experience with toddlers, have deliberately chosen to adopt a toddler, have an extended support system, have prepared by reading about toddler adoption and networking with other adoptive parents, have a minimum of other stressors in their lives, and are willing to accept the unique challenges of toddler adoption.
Toddlers have a past - one likely to have a profound effect on all aspects of their development. Rarely do toddlers become available for adoption who have not experienced neglect and other abuse. The severity of the trauma, the timing, the number of disrupted placements and the child’s physical health, personality and temperament all impact how severely a child will be affected, but developmental delays and attachment difficulties are not uncommon.
To complicate the issue, toddlers don’t have the language or cognitive capacity to benefit from many of the strategies commonly used to help older children adjust to their new families. However, there are numerous strategies to enhance the bond between toddler and new parent—for example:
- Rehearse for parenthood by spending time with toddlers. Observe how they react to people they don’t know: often with anxiety, rejection and fear—reactions common when a toddler and his or her new parents first meet.
- Hang out where families of young children congregate (parks, fast food play areas, story hour at the library). Imagine you’re the parent. What works? What doesn’t?
- Learn about child development. Read, observe parents or childcare providers engaged in develop-mental play activities and talk to experienced parents. Prepare for attachment challenges by talking to adoptive parents of older children, asking your social worker for help and reading the vast amount of attachment information online.
- Toddler-proof your home - see any worthwhile parenting book. Try to make your home feel similar to your anticipated toddler’s current home. If your child has only experienced tiled floors, remove area rugs. If your child has slept on a mattress on the floor, plan to continue the practice for a time.
- Learn about your new child’s language and culture. If English will be a second language, learn key words and phrases in his or her mother tongue. Prepare to ease your child’s transition to a new culture by finding out what care- giving practices he or she is familiar with that you can use. For example, young children are carried in slings in many South American countries. Learn to prepare food that your new child is familiar with and enjoys.
Toddlers can be prepared for a pending adoption in many ways.
A gradual, planned transition to the new family helps resolve grief, allows for transfer of attachment and helps develop healthy attachment toward the permanent parent(s). Whenever possible foster caregivers should introduce toddlers to their new parents via pictures, letters and preplacement visits that allow a gradual transfer of care from the former caregivers to the adoptive family. During these visits the toddler needs to witness the former caregiver’s permission and support for the role the new parents are assuming. This allows the child to shift their love and loyalty. After playing with and caring for the child in the caregiver’s presence, the adoptive family should take the child on short outings, gradually spending an increasingly amount of time with the child.
Even after transferring completely to the adoptive family opportunities should be provided for the child to visit and or talk to the previous caregiver.
Attachment issues are central to every toddler adoption. Toddlers who were securely attached to a former caregiver will grieve the loss of that relationship but given appropriate support are usually able to transfer that attachment to their new parents. Toddlers who have never enjoyed a secure attachment due to severe neglect or frequent moves may be quite resistant to their parent’s attachment efforts. Resistance may be shown by developmental delays, unwillingness to be comforted, ambivalent or rejecting behaviour, raging, extremely controlling behaviour, an absence of or extreme separation anxiety or extremely withdrawn behaviour.
To enhance attachment, parents must initially provide for their child’s needs on demand, much like parents of newborns. Parents must establish themselves as the provider of the child’s basic needs, even if the child demonstrates precocious independence. For example, parents should require their new toddler to be dependent on their parent for food, even if the toddler resists. Some toddler’s attachment is enhanced by temporarily regressing to being bottle-fed. Feeding and other caregiving activities such as bathing, diaper changing and dressing should include loving touch, vocalization and eye contact, similar to caring for newborns.
Attachment is also enhanced by structure and consistency. Morning, meal and bedtime routines are especially important. Family rituals are also effective in building attachment and creating a sense of belonging. All toddlers are sticklers for routines, but predictability is essential so adopted toddlers learn to feel secure in their new homes.
Play enhances the bond between parents and their new children. One of the many joys of adopting toddlers is that they are immediately able to play and participate in family activities. Get down on the floor and let your child take the lead in play activities. Hide-and-seek, gentle wrestling, bathtub finger painting and other games that involve appropriate touch are great ways to enjoy your new family member while building attachment.
Sometimes parenting strategies need to be supplemented by professional assistance. Your adoption social worker is a good source of support and information about other service providers. While some children continue to display developmental delays and attachment problems, the vast majority of children adopted as toddlers become strongly attached to their parents and are doing exceptionally well.
Dr Mary Hopkins-Best is a program director at the University of Wisconsin-Stout and author of Toddler Adoption: The Weaver’s Craft