What I wish I had known about adoption

In light of some recent, tragic events, there’s been a lot of talk in the adoption community about how well agencies are preparing their families for adoption. In no way do I believe it’s my job to prepare families, but I also understand that I have a platform to share about adoption and I need to be sharing everything, not just the glowing snapshot of our daily lives. Please understand that the glowing snapshots are significant part of our daily lives, as is cleaning up spaghetti sauce or yogurt from all over the dining room floor. For the most part, our lives are pretty normal, just like any other American family. But, there are some challenges that adoptive families face, especially in the first few months home.

I asked some of my favorite mamas what they wish they had know about adoption before they gave it their “yes” or maybe just at any point before their child was home and the difficult work of parenting began. Also, be aware in reading this that all of the mamas quoted below have adopted children with special needs who were in institutionalized settings before adoption.


“I’m glad I read somewhere that its okay to be honest with yourself about what you want in a child (age, race, gender, etc.) before you decide to adopt. It’s okay to have limits and to stick with them. And I think it’s important to have those decisions well thought out before all the various players (agency, SW, family, friends, etc.) start weighing in. I get really self conscious in public and we live in a very racially homogenous area, so I knew a child of another race for our first adoption just wasn’t something I was ready for. Don’t feel guilty making those decisions, would be my advice.”

“I would not adopt out of age order again now that I see first hand what happens to your younger child…more space between the last child already in the family and the newly adopted child. There are reasons this is not recommended, why do I always think we will be the exception to the rules???”

Institutionalized behavior

“I wasn’t really prepared for what “institutional behavior” meant. Really blindsided by lying, stealing, manipulative behavior. When I mention this to “professionals” they all say, “what did you expect, her to act like a nurtured child?” I guess I really didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t expect screaming tantrums from a 7 year old. I think it would have been helpful to have a list of possible “behaviors” and a well thought out effective response to them. I wish i had done more legwork on this before she came home instead of trying to scramble to find answers while we were in the middle of it.”

“I wish I had known what a culture shock it would be going into her orphanage and how unsocialized the children would be. I had read a lot about it, but nothing can prepare you for the smells, the desperate looks directed at you, and how abnormal my child would seem. I had a normally developing child of the same age at home, and even though I knew [she] would be behind, her mannerisms and movements were jerky. She wasn’t talking at all, and she was scared of her own shadow. It’s scary when you’re going in and have no idea how far behind the child is because they are just staring at you like a deer in headlights. I also wish I had known the signs of starvation because in retrospect, [her] jerky movements were symptomatic of her severe protein deficiency. It would have saved me a lot of fear.”


“I wish I would’ve known that adopting an almost 8 y/o actually meant that she was developmentally between 2-6 years old depending on the task. That we would be mourning together: me- the loss of the child I thought was coming home and her – everything she had ever known. That post-adoption depression is REAL, and it doesn’t make you a bad mother. That bonding takes months, and I constantly felt like I was babysitting someone else’s kid for a long time.”

“On adopting a child with Down syndrome… I have to continue to remind professionals he is ESL. So many things are coming up as ‘developmental delays’ that I believe are actual rooted in language. I wish I had had him evaluated in Russian right away for the schools because I’m sure he’s lost so much of that now. Eight months later we are in this weird spot where English is not 100%, yet we have no way of knowing how much if his native language comprehension is lost. ‘Point to the animal that barks.’ Well, does he know what ‘bark’ means?”

“Having a child who doesn’t speak english is difficult but listening to a child learn english is adorable.”

“My advice is not to freak out at the extremely low test scores, and stand your ground for what you know as the appropriate placement for your child. IEP meetings are generally no fun to begin with, but be prepared for a whole new battle for your adopted child.”


“I wish I knew that my daughter would reject me as hard as she did and that her first year home would be so very difficult so that I could have been more prepared. I was told it could happen, but did NOT have a true understanding of how hard it would be.”

“I was so naive to think that the brunt of the adjustment would be between me and the adopted child. I never believed (or let myself believe) that one of my children would have to bear the brunt so graciously. When we adopt, we really are calling our other children to serve alongside of us, come what may. I knew that….but I just didn’t think it would be our situation. I thought I could keep the other kids in a bubble while I did all the work.”

“My biggest struggle was dealing with our son’s inability to attach to me. I was the only one he rejected and it was really hard to be that only one. It took him a whole year (and a few months of intensive attachment therapy) to finally start bonding with me. I definitely was not aware of this when we were adopting, especially since he was so young (he was only two when we brought him home).”

“I wish I had allowed myself to feel ‘differently’ about my adopted child without the fear of thinking that meant I loved him less. Of course it’s different, silly me!”

“I think one of the huge things is not to judge bonding (yours or theirs) the first year. Also do not judge what your life is now going to be like with this new child until a year passes. The first year tends to be hard but also a time of huge change. Things look totally different year 2 and on.”

“My number one thing would be that the feelings you have for the child prior to them coming home are not the same as the feelings you’ll have for them once they are home. They are, however, critical because the memory of how you once saw them will you see through months 1-4 or more.”

Daily Parenting

“I am so glad I read The Connected Child full of so much awesome advice, especially regarding setting limits and remaining in control. It would be so tempting to give in to this new and emotionally fragile child, especially when you are feeling overwhelmed and needing a break. Standing my ground and being “Nazi Mama” really helped her understand our roles as her parents.”

“I learned that my “plan of adjustment” needed thrown out the window and I would have saved a lot of stress by just waiting for her to tell me when she was ready for new foods, ready for school, ready to be left with grandma, ready for her own room, etc.”

“How much I need prayer, daily. I used to be able to coast through life, and now I need God to have a good day each time.”

“Spending lots of one on one time with bio kids is crucial after adoption. We were so overwhelmed with [our adopted child’s] needs that we totally ignored [his siblings] till [his brother] had a nervous break down.”

“The hardest thing has been the defiance. I get so tired of her looking at me and telling me no any time I ask her to do something. It is frustrating. She is so sweet and cuddly (as long ad it is on her terms) and extremely stubborn at the same time. Although things are beginning to improve and I still love her to pieces.”

Mourning, Fear, and Anger

“One thing I was SO happy that I did know was that it’s common to go through a raging/mourning phase at some point after they come home. I was actually relieved when it happened the day after she came home because it showed she was getting comfortable with me, and I felt like we were getting it out of the way and could move on.”

“I wish I would have known how to deal with terror. And to forget even talking or working thru it… I knew my daughter would be scared but I had no idea how to deal with her terror. It’s infrequent these days as long as I leave her door open when she sleeps.”

” I was completely unprepared for [her] fear of being naked, of being touched, or even of me taking her socks off. Seeing a toddler literally watching her back is very unsettling to see.”

4 thoughts on “What I wish I had known about adoption”

  1. Wonderful! Some things I have read before, and some were new to me. Then of course, having read something and having actually UNDERSTOOD it are two very different things……… I will read this list again and then again. Thank you.

  2. You sound like an amazing person! I fostered for a short time and the same advice applies. The attachment tips really strung a cord with me. I also found it hard myself to become attached to a child who has an attachment disorder.

  3. Thank you for sharing these. It’s encouraging to see that other people have experienced some of the same things we are currently going through.

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