By Jeannine Zoppi, Ph.D.
Parenting is an exciting and complex journey filled with various demands and many emotions: joy, happiness, anger, confusion and worry, to name just a few. All parents worry. Worrying is part of what parents do. Adoptive parents face multiple layers of challenges and a mosaic of worries unique to adoptive parenting. Although their worries are normal and expected reactions to the experience of adoptive parenting, it is important that these anxieties be dealt with so that adoptive parents maintain their emotional health and help their children navigate the psychological experience of adoption. By developing better ways to cope with their emotional response to adoption, adoptive parents can experience more self-confidence in their parenting role and cultivate more enriching relationships with their children.
Parenting is a complicated, multi-faceted, dynamic process that involves three important components: an interactive relationship with your child; multiple types of behaviors such as teaching, disciplining, modeling, supporting, and communicating; and a constellations of emotions such as love, nurturance, hope, frustration, sadness, anger and anxiety. Although parenting does not depend on a biological connection and instead is based on the emotional connection between parent and child, adoptive parenting is different. As a result, adoptive parents need to grapple with issues and worries that are unique to adoptive parenting.
Many adoptive parents experience worries such as:
- I’m not equipped to help my child deal with trauma/losses from his past
- When my daughter misbehaves I worry that her behavior is due to adoption
- Someone would call child protective services if they knew that I’ve thought “Can we return this child?”
- My adopted son would hate me if he knew I compared him to my biological son
- What if my daughter gets pregnant in high school just like her birth mother did?
- My child suffered such profound loss prior to adoption I’m afraid he’ll be damaged for life
- If I acknowledge the racial/cultural/ethnic differences between my son and me he won’t feel like I’ve accepted him as part of our family
- This was a big mistake. What was I thinking when I agreed to adopt a child with a disability?
- Other people failed this child. What if I fail, too?
- Will she ever feel like my own baby or will she always feel like she belongs to someone else?
- Am I a real parent?
- If my daughter thinks about/searches for/loves her birth parents, will she love us less?
- Will she/he really love us?
- Will we really love her/him?
If any item on this list resonates with you, you are not alone. Worries of adoptive parents may feel intense but they are normal and common. However, many are reluctant to admit that they struggle with these types of anxieties due to fear of being viewed as bad parents. It is important to remember that all parents have positive and negative thoughts about parenting and about their children. It is easy for adoptive parents to share with others the positive thoughts they have about themselves, their children and adoption. It is much harder to acknowledge the negative thoughts, frequently as a result of shame and fear of criticism. Often what can go through the mind of an adoptive parent is: “It is bad to worry about this. No one will understand that I am having these bad thoughts about my child and about adoption. I don’t even understand it myself. But I chose to adopt so I shouldn’t have these negative thoughts. I must be a bad parent or maybe my kid is just a bad kid.”
Many factors influence how adoptive parents deal with worries about adoptive parenting. Unresolved past issues, relationships with their own parents, infertility, stress of the adoption process, personalities of parent and child, and hopes and expectations that the parent has about the child all impact on how adoptive parents manage their worries.
What contributes most to successful adoptive parenting and to a strong parent-child connection is how adoptive parents handle their worries. Many adoptive parents find it beneficial to participate in a parenting support group or even speak to a therapist to help them develop strategies to cope with their worries. When adoptive parents keep worries and ambivalent feelings to themselves, adoptive parenting can feel like a burden rather than a joy. When adoptive parents acknowledge and verbalize their worries, there is a greater chance of developing more self-confidence and self-understanding as a parent and healthier, close relationships with their children.
Jeannine Zoppi, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist with a private practice in Caldwell, NJ and a member of The American Fertility Association’s Adoption Advisory Council