By Billy Kaplan
You knew what you had to do. You had to adopt a child. Adding to your family through adoption became a burning passion. So you found an agency to work with, engaged and completed the home-study process, and now you’re waiting for the moment you and your child get to meet each other. It’s a very exciting and nerve-racking time.
And then someone from the agency suggests you may want to consider getting some counseling before adopting your infant. And you think, “huh?” And a million questions pop into your head challenging your self-worth and ability to parent.
But hang on! That suggestion for counseling may not be implying there are any concerns ABOUT you, but concerns FOR you. Adopting a child is a big deal, as you know, and there STILL may be a lot to learn – about adoption and yourself – before you and your child(ren) form your family.
Meeting with a psychotherapist can help you prepare for that in at least a few ways:
1) Providing you with information about trauma in early childhood, known as Developmental Trauma, which your child may have experienced in utero and which may affect your child’s ability to connect and regulate;
2) Helping you to explore how you were raised so you can learn more about how those experiences may influence how you will parent.
3) Supporting you around the many normal issues that often come up for parents getting ready to adopt a child.
Developmental Trauma Issues
Building your family through adoption is very different from building your family through your own biological process. Let’s say that you’re building your family through a planned adoption in which the birth mother has chosen you, and you plan to bring home that scrumptious little bundle after three days in the hospital.
Here’s a trick question: how old will your baby be when you bring her/him home? If you thought, “three days old,” sorry! Your kiddo will actually be three days and nine months old.
What does that mean?
Well, if you follow the old line about babies being born as blank slates, you may think it means nothing. But it is not true that babies are born as blank slates. You see, once the baby has a brain, there are billions and billions of nerve cells in their tiny brain while your baby is growing inside his/her birth mother. Since science now understands that, technically speaking, a memory is just a connection between nerve cells in the brain (a synapse connection for those who prefer the more scientific terms), we have come to understand that whatever birth-mom experiences becomes a memory for your child.
Let me say it another way: whatever a woman experiences when she is pregnant fires neurons in her baby’s brain. How those neurons get stored in the baby’s brain can set a tone and course for that baby’s life. When the baby’s mom shares essentially positive, loving, connecting, nurturing experiences, it makes sense that those experiences would form positive impressions in the core part of the baby’s brain, from which the rest of the brain develops. Think about that: from which the rest of the brain develops.
And if the baby’s mom shares scary, confusing, isolated, and hurtful experiences, it makes sense that those experiences would form negative impressions in the core part of the baby’s brain, from which the rest of the brain develops. From which the rest of the brain develops.
So, what does this mean for you and your baby? Well, if birth-mom had essentially positive experiences during pregnancy, and was confident in her decision to place the baby for adoption, that baby likely will have developed positive neural connections in the brain and s/he may develop neuro-typically. If, however, the opposite was true, if that mom was unsure of placing her baby for adoption, or if mom had difficult experiences during pregnancy like conflict, substance use, or significant mental health issues, that baby may have developed negative neural connections in the brain and s/he may develop neuro-atypically, and your baby may be at risk of developing emotional and behavioral dysregulation, and s/he may have a more challenging time connecting with you.
Working with a counselor may help you truly understand and prepare for potential struggles that can be experienced when adopting a child who had more negative than positive experiences while growing inside her/his mother. It may help you to understand that, unlike neurologically-based brain deficits like a permanent cognitive delay (what used to be referred to as “retarded”), children who experienced more negative than positive experiences in their moms can heal. The WAY they heal is largely through their relationship with you as you engage in focused, informed interventions. It’s a matter of “re-wiring” their brains through therapeutic parenting. A knowledgeable psychotherapist can help you learn therapeutic parenting in counseling.
How We Were Parented
Look, we all come from somewhere. And we were all kids once. And our parents did the best they could raising us. Some of us appreciate how we were parented, even if there were some mistakes, and some of us wish our parents had done a whole lot better.
Either way, we learned things from how we were parented as children. Some of those things we want to replicate, some we don’t. Counseling can help us explore our past, help us to parent our kids like the best of how we were parented, or help us not to parent our kids like the worst of how we were parented. One of the things counseling can do for us is help us find a parenting balance. Frequently, when we DON’T want to do what our parents did, we do the opposite. If our parents were distant, we work to be present. Yet, sometimes engaging in that 180° shift can be equally as problematic. In this example, for instance, some people who felt neglected as children may end up being invasive and overly involved with their kids (think helicopter parenting).
Though it may not feel “fair,” the truth is that when we do the work to bring some resolution to our issues first, we are more able to be, and remain, present for our kids’ healing journeys, and we are less likely to pass down the worst of how we were parented. The “stuff” of our childhood will be less likely to get in our way when, not if, the behaviors and emotional expressions of our kids try to trigger us.
Common Issues When Adopting
You are ADOPTING a child! It makes perfect sense to have fears & anxieties around it. Honestly, there is no need to feel guilty if you are having some doubts. It’s reasonable not to be feeling totally secure in your decision to adopt. Or to have an open adoption. Or to have another person with the title of “mother” and “father.” Those are perfect issues to address in counseling.
It’s also challenging to know…
- when and how to tell your child that s/he is adopted, and to share the details of their story
- whether you and your parenting partner are really on the same page
- how you’ll manage as a single parent
- how to manage other people’s opinions
- how to build a support system
- how to deal with the anxiety of waiting
…and all the “what if’s…”
Fear not! Counselors, Social Workers, and Marriage & Family Therapists are here for you! We can and will support you as you travel on the Road to Adoption. When you make the decision to get some support, one of the most important things to do is make sure the psychotherapist is well grounded in adoption issues. Ask around for recommendations: from your adoption agency, support groups (Facebook has lots of great groups like Parenting in SPACE that are adoption-informed), and other parents who have adopted. Not all psychotherapists know about adoption issues, so choose wisely, Grasshopper.
Billy Kaplan’s work is being his daughters’ father and his wife’s husband. To support that work he is the President and Clinical Director of House Calls Counseling, Chicagoland’s premier provider of attachment-focused, trauma-informed psychotherapy to individuals, couples and families in the comfort of the home. He is also the Clinical Consultant of Kaleidoscope, Inc., a child welfare agency. He earned a Master of Social Work from Yeshiva University, the Wurzweiler School of Social Work. He has held positions in foster care, residential, and counseling programs. He has presented workshops locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. He is the co-producer of an educational DVD entitled “Chaos to Healing: Therapeutic Parenting 101.”