There are some unique aspects of parenting an adopted toddler, and it can be helpful to understand these and take them into account when working with and supporting parents who have adopted.
Toddlerhood is a uniquely exciting and challenging period in which the child is starting to gain some independence from parents, for example learning to walk unaided and using words to communicate their needs. Yet at the same time they still rely deeply on both physical and emotional care from adults. Parents with adopted toddlers will face many of the same experiences, issues and challenges that all parents and carers face when caring for a child aged between one and three years old. However, there are some unique aspects of parenting an adopted toddler, and it can be helpful to understand these and take them into account when working with and supporting parents who have adopted.
Toddlers who are adopted have usually experienced disturbances in their caregiving in their earliest years. They may have experienced abuse or neglect in their birth family and are likely to have had at least one move between carers while awaiting a permanent adoptive family. Since most children in the UK are adopted around the age of one or older, parents with adopted toddlers may still be getting to know their child, who may only recently have joined their family. This might include learning about and understanding their toddler’s ethnic background and culture, which may be different to their own.
Since each child and family’s experience is unique, it is important not to make assumptions about adopted toddlers, but don’t be afraid to talk openly with parents about their child’s adoption. Not all adopted toddlers experience difficulties at nursery, but if they do, parents can feel anxious about being judged by staff and don’t always feel able to talk openly with staff about their adopted child. Encourage parents to share anything they think is important for you to know about their child’s experiences and let them know that you are always willing to make time to talk if they feel they or their child need extra support.
The stability and nurture provided by adoption does a lot to help children recover from early disruptions to caregiving relationships. But even after they are settled with adoptive families, toddlers often continue to struggle with the impact of these early experiences.
For example, saying goodbye to parents at the childminder or nursery may be particularly difficult or stressful for a recently adopted toddler. In the past, they may have been separated from parents or carers suddenly, with little warning. They may have had to say goodbye to many different caregivers and may have only recently come to live with their adopted parents. All these factors make it very hard for children to trust that their parents will return after saying goodbye, and to risk building close relationships with childcare staff.
Children can express separation distress in many ways, from clinging, screaming, or hurting others or themselves, to ignoring goodbyes and avoiding waving or looking back at parents. In turn, their parents and carers may worry that their child will never settle into their childcare setting, that they are doing something wrong, or that there is something ‘wrong’ with their child. You can support them by reassuring them that some children take longer than others to settle into new environments, particularly when their have experienced early separations or attachment disruptions.
Help parents to go at the child’s pace by tailoring the settling-in period to the child, starting with very short periods and only gradually building up to longer ones. Talk to parents about what they and their child find most helpful at these difficult times – some parents find it helps their child if the childminder or keyworker steps in and actively takes the child into the nursery or childcare setting, while other children respond well to the parent staying longer and settling them into an activity before leaving – help parents work out what works best for them and their child, and try to tailor your response to them.
When children show a lot of distress on separation, it’s tempting to try to reassure or distract children out of their upset, especially when you want to reassure a worried parent. However instead focus on modelling tolerance and acceptance of strong feelings. Stay alongside the child and if possible, calmly try to put into words what you think they might be feeling. This will help show both child and parent that they too can accept difficult feelings, and although it may take many weeks and months, they will eventually be able to manage them.
Not all adopted children communicate separation distress in the same way. In fact, children who have experienced neglect often try to avoid strong feelings, by cutting off from emotions and showing themselves and others that they can manage all by themselves. These children may go into nursery or the childminder without saying goodbye or looking back, and in this way avoid upsetting feelings such as worry, fear or anger in response to separation. These children need gentle support to get in touch with strong feelings, in the company of trusted adults. Encourage parents to keep saying goodbye to their child, even if it seems like they don’t notice. As children begin to feel safer to feel and express their emotions, they may show more separation distress. It is really helpful to explain to parents that these behaviours are expectable in young children, and to reassure them that this shows that their child feels safe and secure.
All parent-child relationships are affected in some way by parents’ and carers’ life experiences, such as how they themselves were parented, their birth order or the cultural norms they grew up with. For parents who adopt their children, their journey to adoption is one of the experiences they bring with them to parenthood.
Parents choose to adopt for a range of reasons. Some may have known before starting a family that this was their preferred route to having children. Others may have struggled to conceive biologically, or experienced miscarriages and infant loss. Some adoptive parents may have birth children as well as adopted children; for others adoption may be their first and only experience of being a parent.
The journey to adoption will be different for every parent. In the UK, the process of adopting a child can be long, arduous and competitive. Some, although not all, parents who adopt may have had difficult, painful or even traumatic experiences leading up to becoming a parent, such as multiple infant losses, or fertility treatments which have not worked. Although it may not feel possible or appropriate to ask parents questions about this, it is helpful to bear in mind that some parents who adopt their children may be coping with additional layers of complexity, not only because their child is likely to have experienced early trauma and loss, but also because their own journey to adoption may have been painful or traumatic. This combination can make adoptive parents vulnerable to feelings of guilt, shame and inadequacy, as well as stress and exhaustion, and some of the ordinary challenges of parenting a toddler may be magnified for them. You can help by letting them know that you understand that they and their child may face additional challenges, and by communicating openly about any extra support you think could be helpful to put in place for their child.
While you can do a lot to help, it’s also important to identify when families might need specialist support. If you are consistently worried about a child, see no change in their behaviour or development over a prolonged period (two months or more), or you don’t feel that you are able to keep them safe, always make sure you discuss this with your manager and team where relevant. If you and the parent/s agree that additional support is needed, consider a referral to a specialist trauma- and attachment-informed mental health team with expertise in working therapeutically with children in care or adopted children and their families.
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