Adoption: Building a Solid Foundation

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Adoption touches most of our lives in some way. If you are not directly involved with adoption, most likely you know a neighbor, friend, or family member who is.

  • 39% of Americans have "seriously or somewhat seriously" considered adopting.
  • 64% have a family member or close friend who has been adopted, adopted a child, or placed a child for adoption.4

Adoptive families have unique challenges. If they understand these challenges and learn effective ways to handle them, they will be better off. Researchers Foli and Thompson found that three things help adoptive parents make the adoption experience positive and fulfilling:6

  • Preparation
  • Education
  • Support services

Take the Time to Prepare

Recognize the lossesWhile the gains usually far outweigh the losses, it is important to recognize the losses. The birth mother has lost a child. The child has lost her birth mother. The adoptive parents may never give birth to a child that shares their genes.

Adopt for the right reasons. Examine your motives for adopting and make sure they don't include strengthening your marriage, easing depression, or lessening the pain of infertility. It's best to work through these issues before adopting.

Prepare emotionally. Take time to think through the differences between adoption and giving birth to a child. Be sure that this way of becoming a parent is right for you -- over your lifetime and not just in the moment.

Make parenting - not pregnancy - the goal. Believing that adoption is second best to giving birth will harm your relationship with your adopted child. When your goal is parenting rather than pregnancy, you will rear your adopted child in healthier ways.6

Cultivate open attitudesIf you're flexible in how you think about what makes a family, you're more likely to have a successful adoption.3 Define family by relationships instead of genes.

Look for similarities. Finding or developing common interests is a great way to bond with your adopted child. You can also find similarities in sleep patterns, personality traits, food you like, work habits, sense of humor, etc.1 When you notice differences, pay special attention to positive ones. For example, you might have two left feet but your adopted daughter dances beautifully. Celebrate these differences.1

Be prepared for insensitive questions. When you adopt a child you will most likely get some rude or insensitive questions and comments. Here is some advice for handling these comments:

  • Learn to take other people's comments in stride.
  • Remember that most people are just curious or trying to be friendly.
  • Think through the comments you are likely to hear and plan responses you feel comfortable with.
  • Use humor if that works for you.
  • The way you respond to others teaches your adopted child how to respond, so behave in ways you hope your child will behave.

Get Educated

Get as much information as possible about your childMany adoptive families say they didn't know what to expect. Even when they were given information, they didn't really understand what the information meant for their child or what impact it would have on their family.12 This problem is especially common in special needs adoptions and international adoptions. One mother who has adopted several children from China said she learned over time to expect "surprises." All the children she adopted have serious medical problems or other significant issues that weren't discovered until after the adoptions were final. Research confirms that her experience is not unusual.12

Learn about adoption. Get parenting education and training specific to adoption. Adoption agencies usually require this, and many agencies provide it. Many resources can be found through the Internet. A few are listed at the end of this article. Specific training and education you should look for include:

  • How to talk with your child about being adopted. There are different approaches to this important conversation, depending on your child's age. Plan on having this discussion many times throughout your child's life.
  • How to recognize signs of grief in your child. Even if you adopt your child as an infant, he will experience some degree of grief over the loss of birth parents, just as you might experience grief over the loss of the ability to have a birth child. You can learn to accept and understand this grief and develop strategies to help your child cope.
  • How to build attachment with your child. Attachment doesn't always come instantly, even with biological parents and children. Building attachment takes consistent and lifelong effort. If you accept this reality, it will help you weather the hard times.

Most adoptive parents are able to successfully form a strong, healthy relationship with their adopted child.8 Attachment generally forms through consistently and lovingly meeting the child's needs. 11

Children who were neglected or abused before adoption have special problems forming attachment. You may need the help of professionals who specialize in attachment disorders.

Find opportunities for self-directed learning. Check out resources online or subscribe to a magazine or newsgroup for adoptive families.

Have realistic expectations. Learning about adoption and about your child will help you be realistic about your expectations. Many adoptees fantasize about their birth parents, and many adoptive parents also have unrealistic expectations. Having expectations you will never be able to meet sets you up for disappointment and failure.

Remember that things take time. Adoption, as well as parenthood, is a lifelong process and not an event.12

Find Support

Establish a support systemBefore you adopt, think about the support you will receive from family, friends, and the community. Are the people closest to you willing to offer needed help and emotional support? Are they fully in favor of your decision to adopt? Will they help your child feel accepted?

Extended family members need to be prepared also. Pass along some books or pamphlets about adoption. Help them understand how to talk to your child. If your family is not supportive, and some aren't, you will need other people to turn to for support.

Participate in support groups that practice skill building. Many online adoption communities offer online groups, provide lists of local groups, or teach you how to form your own support group. Friends you make in these groups can become supports through later stages of adoption.

Find a coach or a mentor. This person could be a skilled adoption specialist and/or more experienced adoptive parents. You can learn a lot from adoptive parents who have already been through the experience and understand its ups and downs.12

Know how to get help from professional resources. Learn how to find and access resources that can help your family thrive. It's okay to acknowledge that you can't deal with everything on your own. A school counselor, your adoption agency, or your social worker can direct you to good professional resources. It is up to you to speak up when you or your child needs more support.

Continue to nurture your marriage and other relationshipsA strong marriage is a vital support during the challenges of parenting and the added challenges of adoptive parenting. Families that report having strong marriages and having both parents equally committed to the adoption have better experiences with adoption.3 It is vital that spouses be committed to each other. This is one of the best ways you can help your child feel secure. A loving marriage based on understanding, honor, and respect can ease other pressures in the family.6 See the articles listed under "Marriage" on this website for specific ideas on how to strengthen your marriage.

Written by Tanya Bailey, Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.

Recommended Resources:

Adoptive Families Magazine

Adoption Learning Partners - An Online Adoption Education Community

Are You Ready to Adopt? What You Can Learn From Your Motives

Child Welfare Information Gateway

Life Books: Every Adopted Child Needs One


  1. Adesman, A., & Adamec, C. (2004). Parenting your adopted child: A positive approach to building a strong family. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  2. Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System. (2006).The AFCARS report: Preliminary FY 2005 estimates as of September 2006.
  3. Clark, P., Thigpen S., Yates. A.M., (2006). Integrating the older/special needs adoptive child into the family. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 32 (2). pp. 181-194.
  4. Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute (2002). National adoption attitudes survey research report.
  5. Farber, M., Timberlake, E., Mudd, H. P., & Cullen, L. (2003). Preparing parents for adoption: An agency experience. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 20(3),175-196.
  6. Foli, K., & Thompson, J. (2004). The post-adoption blues. New York: Rodale Press
  7. Howe, D. (2003). Attachment disorders: Disinhibited attachment behaviors and secure base distortions with special reference to adopted children. Attachment and Human Development, 5, 3, 265-270.
  8. Nickman, S., Rosenfeld, A., Fine, P., Macintyre, J., Pilowsky, D., Howe, R., Derdeyn, A., Gonzales, M., Forsythe, L., & Sveda, S. (2005). Children in adoptive families: Overview and update. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 44, 987-995.
  9. Pavao, J. M. (2005). The family of adoptionBoston: Beacon Press.
  10. Prochaska, J. M., Paiva, A., Padula, J., Prochaska, J. O., Montgomery, J. E., Hageman, L., & Bergart, A.(2005). Assessing emotional readiness for adoption using the transtheoretical model. Children and Youth Services Review, 27, 135-152.
  11. Robinson, G. (1998). Older child adoption. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.
  12. Rycus, J., Freundlich, M., Hughes, R., Keefer, B., & Oakes, E. (2006). Confronting barriers to adoption success. Family Court Review, 44(2), 210-230.