When people ask me about counseling and specifically how they will know if they need counseling, I have a standard answer. If you feel stuck–with the same problems or the same difficult patterns or the same tired way of thinking–then it’s time to go get counseling. Therapy can help people grind through a problem that isn’t getting better on its own.
The same goes for families living open adoption. Adoptive parenting is parenting plus; our children have the same issues as any other child but they have the added layer of adoption, which can exacerbate what is in other ways a typical developmental challenge.
If you feel stuck or your child seems to feel stuck, it’s time to seek out an adoption-competent therapist and get out of the rut. (Even if your family’s problems don’t seem to be related to adoption, adoption as a fact is a relevant part of your family’s history. A well-trained, well-researched therapist will be able to make sense of adoption’s place in your and your child’s experience.)
The Center for Adoption Support and Education has a great printable timeline to track the progress of your child’s awareness of adoption. It can be a helpful as you prepare yourself for each stage of your child’s life and begin to negotiate your support around your child’s normal development.
Note: My focus in this post will be on the adoptive family since they will be the ones who make decisions about therapy for the children in their care. However I would be remiss in not recognizing the very real need for counseling services that recognizes the grief and trauma that comes with the loss of a child to adoption – even if that loss is seen as a willing surrender by the birth parents. Birth family members deserve appropriate therapeutic support both in the immediate post-placement period and later on when life events and changing perspective may demand that parents, grandparents and other family members revisit and reevaluate the experience. Parented siblings of children placed for adoption may also benefit from counseling that acknowledges their own losses.
Early Days: Bringing a baby home is a stressful event for any parent and counseling to help with the adjustment can make things easier. Parents should be aware of the possibility of post-adoption depression, which may not have the hormonal component of post-partum depression but is still very real.
Parents might also seek counseling for sibling who are having trouble getting comfortable with a new brother or sister.
Another challenge for new adoptive parents is the creation of a family narrative. This is a life-long story that for partnered parents begins with the story of how they met and became committed to each other. When families adopt children, the narrative addresses how that particular child became a part of that particular family. In open adoption, the narrative includes the birth parents’ narrative. This can challenge the traditional “meant to be” story that most adoptive parents tell since it must confront the birth parents’ grief and loss as shared with the adoptive family. A therapist familiar with and supportive of open adoption can help families who are struggling with this important developmental task.
Elementary Age: It’s been my observation that children adopted in open adoptions tend to hit adoption milestones earlier than adoptees in closed adoptions. I haven’t read any research on it and my observations are purely anecdotal but my theory is that with structural openness (the presence of birth parents in the family either in person or by letters and phone calls) often coincides with communicative openness (discussion about adoption and birth family connections). Children who have the words to describe their experience are able to recognize and take part in the creation of their stories and they may hit developmental milestones around adoption at the early end of the spectrum.
Grief and loss at being “given away” and a struggle for understanding about what it means to be adopted are at the forefront of the adoptee experience at this age and some children may need professional support to navigate their concerns.
Parents can seek counseling, too, if they need help finding appropriate ways to talk to their children about adoption and particularly if there are parts of their children’s adoption stories that are difficult to hear.
Adolescence: Remember when I said that adoptive parenting is parenting plus? This is never more true than in adolescence. The teen years are a time for children to separate themselves from their parents and to work on issues of identity. Our children are working to understand their connections to their adoptive families, their birth families and their peers.
Research shows that adopted teens–regardless of their level of contact – want more of their birth families in their lives. This may be more contact with birth family members or may be leaning in more deeply to their birth cultures. They may need help from an understanding therapist as they navigate this journey.
Sex education can also be difficult for parents who have gone through infertility since their child’s burgeoning sexuality may bring back unaddressed feelings about their own reproductive challenges. Parents, too, may seek counseling to help set appropriate limits, manage their own complicated feelings as their children grow, and to find support from other parents who understand their particular challenges.
About the author:
Dawn Friedman MSEd LPC is a writer and a therapist. Her practice, Building Family Counseling, specializes in infertility, adoption and parenting. She is mother to a bio son and a daughter who arrived to their family in an open, transracial adoption.
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici | FreeDigitalImages.net