Battle Adoptive Family Distress From Day One

challenging communication and distress in adoptive families
Minimize distress + anxiety with an open communication journey—immediately

I recently read about new research that supported what I’ve known intuitively since becoming an adoptive parent: Children who learn that they are adopted later than three years old experience an increased level of emotional distress and more overall life dissatisfaction than children who learn by the time they are three. I’m repeating this only because of its significance: by time they are three years old; not during the year that they’re three or older, but between their birth and through age two. More distress occurs the older the child discovers that they’re adopted. Respondents in the study shared in their narrative accounts that the betrayal they felt was a significant factor that added to their distress, and the findings also emphasize how secrecy and lies in adoption become destructive to the relationships involved. Delaying Adoption Disclosure: A Survey of Late Discovery Adoptees, first published May 14, 2019, Journal of Family issues.

For their own emotional well-being, adopted children need to be informed of their roots as early as possible, and long before they have the cognitive ability to fully process the meaning of their adoption. The goal would be for the child to be able to think back and have a recollection of always knowing their life story from the time of their first memories; and, it is as common place for the child to remember their parents talking with them about their adoption as, for example, about their love of soccer. The communication regarding their life story may start out in general terms. As the child develops and is better able to comprehend the intricacies of their life experience, more detail needs to be filled in to the best of the adoptive parents’ knowledge. Avoiding this important function of adoptive parenting will only serve to undermine and potentially harm the parent’s relationship with their child.

Through the years. I have seen hundreds of adoptive families during various stages of their adopted child’s development that do not deeply communicate about the wounds associated with adoption, in the way that the child desperately needs in order to feel understood and connected. They present for therapy for a myriad of reasons, typically none of which the family believes at the time center around adoption issues. Lovingly and well-intentioned, when asked about communicating about the challenging aspects of adoption with their child, many parents tend to respond by explaining that their child doesn’t bring up questions or issues about their adoption, or they feel their child simply doesn’t think about their adoption, it’s somehow insignificant in their present life, and/or they certainly don’t want to cause their child pain. Usually the underlying issue when further explored is either the parent’s lack of understanding of the psychological/emotional needs of adopted children, denial of the challenges involved with adoption for their own self-preservation, or general discomfort and anxiety around how to communicate about challenging and emotionally painful issues.

Honestly, as an adopted parent, I get it. Can’t we just wipe away the negative parts of adoption and pretend that our child’s life began the day we were united as a family? What adoptive parent in their right mind wants to talk about the fact that their child experienced a significant loss at birth or sometime later when the focus can be on the beauty and joy of the adoptive family? Who wants to broach those difficult, challenging, and painful conversations about the not-so-pleasant details and early history, especially if the child is not initiating the conversation and seems fine with their adoption?

None of us do, but literally if we don’t, we as their parents eventually cause our children more distress in their lives. We put our own relationship with our child at risk as potentially or eventually being seen by our child as untrustworthy with a lack of understanding and empathy of their needs.

Our children have suffered a profound loss, one that we as adoptive parents are not responsible for nor contributed to. One that we, with all of our might and determination, are not able to take away or protect them from. The quicker we realize that, come to terms and accept it, the better position we put ourselves in to help our child cope and build lifelong emotionally close, authentic relationships—not only with us but with others.

Points to ponder in communicating to minimize distress:

  1. How are adoptive children able to formulate and communicate their questions or concerns if there is no context or space in which to bring up the issues?
  2. Is there such a thing as communicating perfectly or waiting for the perfect moment? Isn’t it better to just start talking then not communicate at all? Communication about hard issues is messy; get used to and comfortable with that idea.
  3. Talking to your adopted child when they are very young and unable to fully grasp the significance of the losses involved gives you time to practice how and ways in which to explain their story. You will set the important stage of your child being able to trust and communicate with you—not only about their adoption, but likely about other significant issues as well.
  4. Natural opportunities and everyday moments consistently present themselves in which to bring up adoption issues with your child. Having this on your radar will help you recognize and utilize them.

Additional resources on how to communicate with children regarding adoption issues + distress:

Consistent communication from the very day the adoptive family is united is key; and ideally before the child is three, yet with the understanding that it is never too late to start.  We can help, either in a group setting in our future workshops, or contact us in our private practice(s) through “our journey” page.

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Enhance Provider Relationship To Promote Healing

Enhancing provider relationship

Healthcare providers, we can enhance relationship + experience.

Understanding the mentality and feelings of individuals who have experienced adoption or foster care without having a direct connection to either community or the proper insight into the lifelong impacts of adoption/foster care is complicated. The complex nature of these systems can leave healthcare providers feeling as if they are up against a wall not knowing how to best acknowledge and discuss these important issues with their patients or their colleagues. Learning about the degrees of trauma associated with adoption and foster care, using proper terminology, and taking the time to acknowledge and validate the individual’s point of view will enhance the relationship between provider and patient resulting in better quality visits and more effective outcomes.

As an adoptee and a trauma therapist, I have experienced firsthand the inequities that adopted individuals and those who have been in foster care face when it comes to healthcare. I can recollect countless examples throughout my life of entering providers’ offices where my adoption was not acknowledged or discussed or where I was asked invasive questions that seemed to stem more from the provider’s own curiosity rather than for the benefit of my treatment. In other cases, despite providers’ having an awareness of my history, I recall being questioned about my medical history or other family history information that I did not and still do not have access to.

As a mental health provider, I regularly witness providers who are at a complete loss when it comes to treating children and families touched by adoption or foster care. I have sat in countless supervisions and trainings with colleagues who demonstrate major discrepancies related to the quality of care being provided to these individuals; from unknowingly using insensitive adoption/foster care vocabulary, to completely ignoring separation trauma apart from noting it on a demographic form, to perpetuating the societal narrative of adoption and foster care as something for which to be grateful. To say these experiences with providers have caused me a fair share of headaches would be an understatement.

Oftentimes, as a patient, I would sit through an appointment feeling completely anxious or unheard. I would leave a provider’s office feeling uncomfortable, judged, and misunderstood. As a professional myself, I have participated in meetings with coworkers where the discussion focused on how challenging adoption/foster care cases are and how they have no idea where to begin— when to me, it was glaringly obvious. Admittedly, I became frustrated with them for not recognizing what felt natural to me. And while I realize this lack of understanding is not intentional, it quickly became evident to me that things need to change—we need to do better as professionals.

I believe it is important to shed light on these issues and assist providers to better understand that certain forms of questioning (or the lack thereof) or refusing to validate the adoption/foster care experience reduces feelings of safety in patients and can be negatively internalized by individuals who have been adopted or are in foster care. This makes it nearly impossible to form quality provider/patient relationships. Adoption and foster care related trauma is something that impacts clients/patients to their very core and affects every facet of an individual physically, mentally, and emotionally. It is the responsibility of providers to increase adoption/foster care competency as a way to promote and enhance provider relationship and achieve what we all strive for—healing.


Speak From Experience

One huge way in which I feel better care can be provided, is by increasing the number of therapists and other providers who have personal experience with adoption and/or foster care.

Since becoming a trauma therapist, I have worked with many individuals and families impacted by adoption and foster care. When working with these clients, I always disclose my connection to adoption and have found that it makes such a difference when working with these complex cases. When I disclose to my clients and their families that I am adopted and understand how complicated it is, I witness their bodies instantly loosen; the sigh of relief and physical response speaks volumes. Hearing me share that I am there to listen if they want to talk about adoption/foster care related issues or that I understand to a degree what their child is going through because of my own experience results in an immediate increase in safety and trust. The client sees me as someone who they don’t have to explain themselves to. I am not someone they have to educate about the conflicting feelings, the loss, or the other challenges, because even though our stories may not be exactly the same, we have a mutual understanding and respect. There is an inherent message of “I see you, I understand you, and I get it,” a message that I wish I had received from others when I was growing up.


It is unrealistic to expect every therapist to have first-hand experience with foster care/adoption and this is where education comes in for providers. I have been in the position of having to educate my providers, as many of my adopted/foster care clients have had to. This is because too many professionals have no touchpoint or understanding of adoption/foster care, its complexities and its influence on health. This lack of experience unintentionally puts the client/patient in the position of knowing more that the professional, who is supposed to be the expert. This tip in the scale of power sends the underlying message to clients, “I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t know how to help you, and I don’t even understand you.” This is not the message professionals mean to send or what clients need to hear. It does not facilitate feelings of safety and security that adoptees and individuals in foster care often crave the most—and that sense of safety is necessary to start the healing journey. It is imperative that education and training surrounding these topics are made a priority when first-hand experience does not exist to tip that scale into balance; otherwise, we only do a disservice to our clients/patients who have already faced so much.

The good news is, times have changed. I have noticed steady progress on the front of adoption/foster care education since my experiences as a child and even since I began working in the mental health field. There have been many research studies on the impacts of trauma associated with adoption and foster care, more adoptees/individuals with histories of foster care are in the field of healthcare, and there are evidence-based treatments that can address the deep-rooted feelings and promote healing. That said, there is still much to be done to make sure this often underserved population is receiving quality care.

Adoptive/foster parents and providers can be proactive in helping to make available the best quality care for those touched by adoption and/or foster care.

Enhancing provider relationship as an adoptive or foster parent:
  • Advocate for your child. Do not be afraid to voice concerns to providers or provide them with pertinent information about your child’s adoption or foster care placement. This information is always important. 
  • Search out adoption/foster care competency trainings to help you feel more confident in providing and advocating for your child’s needs.
  • Find pediatricians and other medical providers who are aware of the trauma associated with adoption or foster care and how it can cognitively, physically, and emotionally impact your child’s development. 
  • Seek out mental health providers who specialize in adoption, separation trauma, and attachment.
  • Locate therapists in your area who are trained or certified in trauma resolution therapy (e.g., Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or Progressive Counting).
  • Search for providers who are adoptees or have histories involving foster care such as Adoption Perspectives. Having that connection can go such a long way in helping solidify feelings of safety and therapeutic rapport.
Enhancing provider relationship as a provider:
  • Educate yourself about adoption and foster care related issues. This will only help you to feel more confident when working with these kids of clients/patients. Attend training(s), read adoption/foster care literature, meet with individuals willing to share their experiences. The more you know, the better you can serve those coming to you for help. More on Adoption Perspectives training seminars.
  • If you see the words “adoption” or “foster care” on intake paperwork or a demographic, don’t gloss over it! Don’t just have this be a one liner in a social history write up or a box you check off on a form. Work collaboratively with the adoptive/foster parents (biological parents if they are in the picture), foster care workers, and any other person who can shed light on the individual’s history to provide as complete a picture as possible.
  • Do not view early life adoptions or placements as irrelevant. Separation trauma, regardless of the age of the child, is serious and can have lifelong impacts. It is always a factor that should be considered throughout the course of treatment. 
  • Do not expect the client/patient to explain themselves to you. They have come to you for help and it is up to you to do your research on how best to help them. Avoid putting them in a position where they feel obligated to teach you about the adoption/foster care experience and associated issues.

My hope is that the future will be different for those touched by adoption and foster care when it comes to seeking healthcare services. I believe the best way to enhance the provider relationship is through education and open dialogues that include the voices of those personally impacted by adoption and/or foster care. By bringing these experts and their experiences to the table, we validate those who have dealt with the challenges personally and we empower professional healthcare providers to become more comfortable and effective with promoting healing for this population.

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