Understanding the Transition from Foster Care to Adoption: A Personal and Professional Perspective
Updated: Mar 23
As seen in November/December 2019 THERAPIST MAGAZINE from the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists
The transition from foster care to adoption can be very difficult for a child and there are many challenges to take into consideration. The challenges center around separation and loss, trust, rejection, guilt and shame, identity, intimacy, loyalty, and mastery or power and control. I will primarily be dealing with children between the ages of six and twelve and their developmental stages. Followed by ways in which parents and therapists can understand how to help a foster or adopted child cope with these psychological complexities so the transition can be smoother for all involved.
I chose this topic because I was a foster child until the age of seven and was "finally" adopted. And having lived the experience, I know how helpless a child can feel and how helpless I have felt. Separation and loss from a family are very difficult emotionally for a child especially when they have formed an attachment. The pain, loss, and memories will remain with them for the rest of their lives.
Since the age of 8, I have been in psychotherapy. Therapy has allowed me to take a deeper look at my own life and share it with others. Writing also helps me come to a deeper understanding and forgiveness for all of my families. And with that deep understanding, I hope to educate others of a child's needs in foster care and adoption so that the pain will be eased that much more for generations to come.
First, I would like to define the difference between foster care and adoption.
Foster care provides temporary relief care for children. Children generally are placed in foster care by child welfare agencies. But, some of these children are voluntarily placed in foster care when circumstances, such as illness, death or adolescent pregnancy prevent their parents from caring for them. In cases of child abuse or neglect, social service agencies may remove children involuntarily and place them with foster parents. Most foster placements are made with the intention of reuniting the biological family at a later time although the percentages are low. Agencies also place children in foster care while searching for adoptive parents.
Adoption is a procedure by which people legally assume the role of "parents" for a person who is not their biological child. Adopted children become full members of their adopted family and have the same status as biological children. The majority of people who adopt are married couples, of all ethnic, racial, religious backgrounds, same-sex couples, as well as single-household families.
Children in foster care are forced to deal with many emotions starting with the aftermath of abandonment. They often feel unwanted and unloved because they “psychologically feel” a physical and emotional abandonment from their birth parents. Some children have been moved from place to place so often, (statistical average is 3-4 placements) they believe it is because of something they must have done to cause this and as a result begin to internalize their pain and blame themselves causing intense shame. They suffer from separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is defined as a grief reaction to unresolved loss. (Lifton, 1994) This separation is associated with the visceral feeling of loss from the time of that first separation from the birth mother. (Lifton, 1994) It is very traumatic for the child and difficult to grieve. Most children try to repress their feelings because they become too difficult to handle. Even the mere thought of saying "goodbye" to a friend, can be very traumatic, for fear they may never see that person again. Some children develop chronic illnesses as a result of their constant anxiety such as stomach aches, headaches, allergies, asthma chronic fatigue or stuttering as a result of separation from their mother. There is a close association between gastrointestinal functioning and emotional states. The 'not being able to stomach" their pain is closely related to the unconscious fear of another abandonment related to the deprivation of food or further nurturing. (Nancy Newton Verrier, 1993)
They can feel easily frightened and scared. They can understand cognitively the situation they are in is only temporary and that they can be moved at any time. However, to psychologically survive the experience some children will develop a rich fantasy life, which allows them to escape from painful memories. This escaping is a coping mechanism that is learned early on. Children can seem like they are in a trance by their emotional detachment or passivity in normal activities. Also called dissociation. Any type of mental activity seems difficult because it involves the memory - something foster children are trying to keep at bay. (Verrier, 1993)
It is common for many foster children to be diagnosed with A.D.D or A.D.H.D.
In middle childhood, children are beginning to understand the meanings and implications of events but this can be very difficult for them. They can't fully comprehend what is happening to them, so some children choose another coping mechanism; "the fight or flight mode." The flight mode develops a fantasy world that takes them away from their present situation to the extent of believing their biological mother will come back and rescue them. While the latter develops deep anger and will act out or fight feeling anything. Their fear is risking further rejection. They will hide their feelings and emotions in fear of getting hurt again. Some children will mask their pain and hide behind a "false self” which they subconsciously create for themselves as a coping mechanism. But by masking their pain and denying their painful feelings will only get worse and lead to depression. The immense pain can lead to anger which can become internalized and lead to suicide or self-mutilation, another way of trying to unleash their painful depression.
When a child is moved from foster care to adoption there are many things to take into consideration how a child understands this transition. The child now has a permanent place to call home. Even though it is now "official" he/she may still not believe that they will not be abandoned again. Not only has the child left his/her biological family but has now left a second family and is moving onto the third if they were not in more than one foster home before. The child now experiences another loss to suffer, loss of the foster family.
With the loss of the foster family, they are now told who the "real" Mommy and Daddy are. The feelings are bittersweet on the one hand it is all very exciting but on the other, there is a lot of unresolved loss and confusion. There is an intense love and intense sadness dynamic which occurs.
Foster children are often ashamed of their past and unsure of the present. Some children are so used to the experience they are ready at any moment to pack up and leave. I remember as a child being very neat and knowing where all of my few belongings were “just in case” I needed to leave again, I was ready.
When a child is finally adopted and no longer in foster care, there are new beginnings but much is left be said of their pasts. Most adoptive parents don't want to relive what their child has experienced but they will ultimately have to join, understand, grieve with and help make sense of their child’s past with them. These are things that become issues for newly adoptive families.
Watch VIDEO from Jeanette explaining the internal life of foster children HERE
Birthdays are critical times. This day brings them back to their birth and their birthmother and questions about family or origin. It can bring up issues of loss or anger and empty feelings. They feel disconnected from their past. The British researcher H.J. Sants coined the term "genealogical bewilderment" in 1964 to describe this sense of disconnectedness. (Brodzinsky, Schechter, Marantz, 1992)
There will be an ethnic and racial awareness of their new family. Do they look like them? What are our similarities? Physical characteristics help children define themselves and make connections with others. Feelings of belonging and security are nurtured by looking like the people around you and when they are absent children become confused. (Brodzinsky, Schechter, Marantz, 1992) Additional issues arise when adopted children come from a different culture than their adoptive parents. Adoptions in which the adoptive parents and their adopted child are of different races, known as transracial adoptions, pose special difficulties. When children belong to a different race than either of their parents, others in the community very quickly become aware that the children are adopted. Transracial adoptive families often face everything from innocent curiosity to outright hostility and prejudice. Many adoptive parents educate themselves about their child's birth culture so that they can offer their child support and help build self-esteem.
Separation anxiety can occur. For example, staying over a friend's house, going to school or to camp. Adoptees have trouble leaving home or going to college. While other teenagers are separating from their parents and turning to people outside the family circle, many adoptees fear to venture far from the only place that stands between them and the void. (Lifton, 1994)
There may be a testing-out period. The child may try to provoke the very rejection he/she fears most. They will reject the parents before the parents can reject them. It is as if the child cannot trust that he/she will not again be abandoned. (Verrier, 1993)
On the other hand, some children will have the burning desire to excel in school, in sports, in their careers and rearing a family. They may become very successful at everything they do in order to please others and be accepted by others. One adoptee puts in clearly "... when they said, "Jump!" I asked, "How high!" Many adoptees will say they feel as if a “part of them is missing”, they have difficulty with their identity and what they are supposed to be? They are longing to find that part of themselves that has been lost.
As an adoptee develops, he/she will struggle with feelings of duality or duplicity. In dual identity, there is a false self as an adoptee and a real self in relation to the biological family. (Brodzinsky, Schechter, Marantz, 1992) What this means is the initial self that was exposed and rejected is now hidden behind another self in order to protect the real self from being hurt again. So, it's like they are living in two worlds.
As therapists and prospective adoptive parents, how can we help these children?
Adoptees have, by the very act of adoption, go through a lot. By the time adoptees are adults, they have survived separation from their birth parents, have acclimated to a new family, have dealt with fantasy and fears, have confronted identity issues, and have navigated relationships. The awareness of having survived such stages and transitions can give the adoptee's strength and determination in various areas of their lives. The downside of this feeling of survival is that some adoptees find it difficult to depend on others and instead are very independent. It is important for adoptees to realize that healthy relationships involve interdependence- depending on one's self and depending on others. (Russell, 1996)
Understand the difference between attachment and bonding, two terms often used interchangeably. It is safe to say that most adopted children form attachments to their adoptive parents. This is a kind of emotional dependence, which may seem crucial to their survival. Bonding, on the other band, may not be so easily achieved. It implies a profound connection, which is experienced at all levels of human awareness. As an infant, bonding instills a child with a sense of well-being and wholeness necessary for healthy emotional development. (Verrier, 1993) When the bond is interrupted the child does not develop a bond with the birth mother and his/her needs have not been met.
Nancy Verrier, a clinical psychologist, and adoptive mother said 'The severing of that connection between adopted child and his birthmother causes a primal or narcissistic wound, which affects the adoptee's sense of self and manifests in a sense of loss, basic mistrust, anxiety and depression, emotional or behavioral problems, and difficulties in relationships with significant others. And that abandoned baby lives inside each and every adoptee all his or her life."
Parents need to understand that the foster child or adopted child they are getting comes with a past, which they may never be able to fully comprehend. Parents need to try not to mold their children into their fantasy of what they want him or her to be for them. The child is who they already are especially if the child is coming to them at an older age.
In order to understand an adoptee's past parents and therapists need to listen and be there for them because they will have a lot of pain. Difficult as it is for parents to watch their adopted children try to deal with the pain of adoption or foster related loss, they can do nothing to spare them. They can, however, help ease the process by providing a supportive, nurturing environment in which the emotional storms of grieving can be weathered. Be available and listen, help them clarify their emotions, and accept whatever" feelings they are expressing and accept them as valid. (Verrier, 1993)
The following is the Adoptee 's Bill of Rights written by Sherrie Eldridge, a psychologist, who was also adopted:
I have the right to feel confused.
After all, I have had two sets of parents, one of which was shrouded in secrecy.
I have the right to fear abandonment and rejection.
After all, 1 was abandoned by the one I was most intimate -with.
I have the right to acknowledge pain.
After all, I lost my closest relative at the youngest age possible.
I have the right to grieve.
After all, everyone else in society acknowledges strong emotions.
I have a right to express my emotions.
After all, they have been shut down ever since adoption day.
By parent's nonjudgmental responses, parents can show their children that these ups and downs are normal, real, acceptable—and temporary. (Brodzinsky, Schechter, Marantz, 1992)
Remind adoptees of their strengths, competence, and worth as people. This helps them gain some esteem over the deep sense of helplessness. Look for the opportunities and help express them. Foster and adopted children will gain a greater sense of self and pride ... that which is mostly absent.
Expose adoptee's to other adoptee's so they can receive validation by hearing another person's story. This will create bonding which is something that was lost for the adoptee.
It will give them the freedom to be themselves with those like themselves.
Coming from experience, adoption is not an easy task for all involved. One adoptee put it well, "It's like getting to the end of the book and you have two more pages left and you lose the book." Adoption, I feel, like life is a process. It is an issue, which needs to be dealt with properly, so the experience can be beautiful for all. Each person from child to parent is ultimately giving each other what they were searching for in the first place: love and a family. It is a beautiful dichotomy that unfortunately is taken for granted every day.
Brodzinsky, David M., Schechter, Marshall and Henig Marantz, Robin. (1992).
Being Adopted-The Lifelong Search for Self. New York, NY: Doubleday.
Eldridge, Sherrie. (1999). Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive
Parents Knew. New York, NY: Dell Publishing.
Lifton, Betty Jean. (1994). Journey of the Adopted Self. New York, NY: BasicBooks.
Miller, Alice. (1997). The Drama of the Gifted Child. New York, NY: BasicBooks.
Russell, Marlou. (1996). Adoption Wisdom. Santa Monica, CA: Broken Branch Productions.
Verrier, Nancy Newton. (1993). The Primal Wound. Baltimore, MD: Gateway Press.