When a new child joins your family, it means that all the family members need to adjust and adapt to the new arrival so that he or she develops a sense of belonging.
This transformation has to occur not only the first time a family adopts, but each time a child arrives. If the members of the family system don’t make the shift to include the new child, then the child will be stuck in the outer limits of the family, never really belonging. And, if the family system resists transforming, then the child’s adjustment behaviours will be interpreted as challenging and the child will not be able to move on with attachment.
Unfortunately, transformations are never easy because people resist change, even change they have invited. And, adjusting to a new person and resolving and absorbing their impact on the family means that everyone has to shift and change a little, sometimes a lot. If the child has behavioral challenges, as most older adopted children have, then there is going to be more resistance to change as some members of the family system are confused about who the child is and what he needs in order to belong.
Challenges from the child
Here are some other challenges to family identity formation that come from the child.
- The child has divided loyalties to former foster family or genetic parents.
- The child is afraid of or expects rejection.
- The child has learned to live like a boarder due to many moves but lacks belonging skills.
- The child feels stolen from former family and is stuck with significant, unspoken loss issues.
- The child doesn’t feel entitled to a new family.
- The child has pre-existing conditions such as FASD etc., that make it hard to attach and to belong.
These factors can make it hard for the child to merge into the family and can be a barrier between the child and her new parents.
There are also some challenges to family identity formation that come from the family. These include:
- The family expects too much, too soon from the child.
- Some members of the family don’t want to include the child because they are put off by his behaviours.
- Some family members don’t want to put out the effort to integrate the new child (e.g., a teen who has a disinterest in sharing a room or changing a routine or schedule for a new sibling).
- The family doesn’t have a full understanding of the needs of the child due to a lack of proper assessments or information about the child.
- Not all family members wanted the adoption.
- Some members of the family resent further sharing the parents’ time and energy.
"Adoptive parents have to understand that children need at least a year to feel they truly belong to a family. They need numerous special occaisions--Christmases, Halloweens, birthday, Valentine's Days--to get it that they have a future with their new family.
If they have lost their birth family, been in foster care and faced multiple moves, they will find it very hard to believe that an adoption is going to be forever." -Cathy Sarino, retired adoption social worker
The resistance to change by the existing family can feel like rejection to the child who, in turn, responds by rejecting those members of the family (usually the parents) who are trying to claim the child and encourage attachment.
Forming a new family identity can be a positive experience for all family members if they know ahead that change is expected, that change is normal after an adoption, and that change can be a benefit to all. They also need to have words for the experience so parents can use family meetings to talk about how the family is changing and re-forming and to identify the feelings that various family members experience as they go through the experience. Parents should use positive statements to discuss this, and they should model positive feelings about the change—even if they are struggling with the transformation themselves.
In other words, the formation of adoptive family identity is about belonging—the child learns to belong to the family and the family members learn to belong to the child. In doing so, they come together to form a group, the family, that is stronger and more capable than they were before the child arrived.
Build it up
- Accept that it’s not just the newly adopted child that has to adapt.
- This process takes at least 18 months to two years. It can’t be rushed.
- Develop family rituals such as having pizza and a DVD every Friday night.
- Teach the new child your family values. Talk about your values and the meaning they have in your lives. Remind the other kids about your family values.
- Take lots of family pictures and place them prominently around your home.
- Find and define a role for your newly placed child.
- Play together. Find activities that involve all, or at least, most members of the family. Try new activities so that the new child isn’t the only one who is new to the activity.
- Have family meetings weekly so that everyone can share in how things are going and add ideas and energy.
Brenda McCreight, PhD, is the mother of 14 children, 12 of whom were adopted. Brenda is also a therapist, an author, and a sought after speaker. Visit Brenda’s website and blog at www.theadoptioncounselor.com.