4 Things to Know Before You Adopt

Jessica Hirst Fact Checked
A mother and child walking over a bridge.
© Lawren Lu / Stocksy United

Whether you've always known you wanted to adopt or have made the decision after much deliberation, the process can feel like steering a ship into uncharted waters.  

And if you've ever spent a little too much time watching Lifetime TV specials, you might be wondering just how rough those waters will get. What if your child doesn't form an attachment with you or isn't happy in your family?   

Not to fear, says Julia Bledsoe, M.D., a pediatrician and director of the UW Center for Adoption Medicine.

Take time with the bonding process

Adopted children and their parents usually develop a deep connection, but it doesn't always happen quickly. If you're adopting a child who is toddler-age or older, it can take a little more time for attachment to develop, says Bledsoe.

"So try not to worry if it seems like you're not bonding right away," she says.

Children who have been cared for by others usually need time to recognize you as their new primary caregiver and to trust the relationship. This is particularly true for kids who have lived in multiple places, such as different foster homes. 

In general, bonding with your new child might end up being easier than you think. Practice cocooning when they first arrive, demonstrate that you'll take care of their needs, spend quality time together, get to know them and remember to relax and enjoy the process.

Talk openly about how your family came to be

“Make sure you talk about adoption from the very beginning, using the terms adopted and birth mother, even though most kids won't understand the concept of pregnancy until they’re 5 or so,” says Bledsoe. If families don't talk openly about adoption, kids can get the message that it's a bad secret.

It’s important to teach relatives and friends to use the term birth parents instead of real parents. 

“If your kid’s friend asks, 'Is she your real mom?' your kid can always answer, ‘She's not make believe,’” says Bledsoe.

To explain adoption while affirming the special bond you have with your child, use language like, "I chose you. You didn't grow in my body, but you grew in my heart.” It might sound corny, but it works. There are lots of great children's books about adoption that can be helpful, too. 

To help kids develop a strong sense of identity, keep them connected to their birth culture, help them get to know other adopted children, and maintain ties with their birth family if at all possible.

Learn as much about your child’s medical history as possible

It’s true that adopted children can be prone to emotional and behavioral problems, says Bledsoe. “I don't want every adoptive parent thinking it's going to be terrible, but it is good to have this on your radar so that you can get them the help they need."

It’s important to know the specific risk factors for your child so that you can be better prepared to handle whatever might come up. The biggest risk factors for emotional, learning and behavioral problems include genetics (family members with mental health issues), prenatal exposure to alcohol, being in an orphanage for more than two years, living in multiple foster homes, and early childhood malnutrition and trauma. 

Bledsoe advises getting a medical file review by an adoption medicine specialist so you can understand your child’s long-term needs as clearly as possible. And once they arrive in your family, you should ensure that they get a comprehensive physical exam and lab evaluation, particularly if they came from overseas or have multiple risk factors.

"When kids do have struggles, parents often blossom in terms of becoming advocates for everything their child needs. And they develop even more compassion," says Bledsoe. And it’s good to remember that while some adopted children struggle, many do not.

Be prepared to be flexible

For anyone about to become a parent there are elements of the unknown. With adoption, even more so. 

For Bledsoe—herself an adoptive parent—this aspect of adoption has been a gift. "It's liberating not to have a preconceived notion of what my kids will be like. It's been fun to watch their personalities, interests and traits unfold," she says.