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Helping Understand Toddler Adoption Transitions

By Crystal Hogg, LCSW


Is your friend or family member adopting a toddler? Not sure how to help?… Here are a few tips straight from the mouths of adopted parents and adoption professionals.


Most of us are familiar with the term ‘gestational age’ in relation to premature babies, right? No one would argue that a baby born 12 weeks early should meet the same initial developmental milestones as a child born full-term. Now, let’s talk about adoption age. Adopted children experience trauma. Even babies adopted as infants or toddlers that have lived in one, wonderful foster home have experienced trauma. Trauma may include stress experienced in utero, the loss of connection with the birth mother, and in the case of an internationally adopted toddler – the loss of language, culture, food, smells, home, music, sounds, etc. If you factor additional issues such as possible developmental delays, special needs, medical issues, history of abuse/neglect, you have a rather unique parenting scenario. We’ve outlined a few tips and bits of helpful information to give insight into your friend/family’s new world and will help you better understand how to help.


When a 3 year old is adopted and enters his new home, his family should expect that, emotionally, he is an infant in their family. Although he may run, walk and talk like a typical 3 year old, his reasoning, trust, understanding of unconditional love is very limited. For the parents, the first few months will be a time of survival and picking only the big battles. Don’t worry if it seems your friend is letting the toddler get away with bad behavior. Their primary goals are to keep him safe, to get rest and to establish trust. There is going to be plenty of time for addressing tantrums and refusal to eat vegetables.


Every child is different, but usually children who have a chance to acclimate to their new world slowly, after they have become comfortable with their new parents, attach more quickly and more securely. This will mean for a little while, at least, one parent will miss church, miss sibling ball games, miss big events like parties or wedding, trips to the beach, etc. That first year should be considered as fragile as it would be with an infant. Yes, after a few months, the new baby gets hauled around, but the pace is slower than before. If an infant does better with a schedule and predictability, you work around those needs if possible. The newly adopted toddler needs those same considerations.


Discipline for an adopted child may look different than what you have seen used with biological children. When bio-children are placed in time-out, we usually do not have to worry about them thinking we may leave them forever. The fear of losing another family is very real to an adopted child. Time-ins, where the parent or teacher keeps the child in line of sight so the child (while in ‘time-out’) can still see the adult that cares for him may be used instead. While ‘crying it out’ may be something that has worked with some kids, it is not advised in parenting relationships with insecure or new attachment.


The new parents may ask you to not cuddle with their child or ask you not to feed him – just for a while. New parents will be working very hard to establish that their relationship with him is different than any other adult. If you observe the new child to be very comfortable and friendly around strangers, that can be as equal of a concern as a child who is anxious and cries around strangers. For the initial months of adjustment, the goal is for the child to find comfort in the presence of his new parents and to be wary of strangers for a while. High-fives are a great substitute during this period. Ask mom or dad for ideas on how you and your new little loved one can spend time together in a way that doesn’t dilute their efforts.


Listen a lot… talk a little. Comparing her experiences with experiences of parenting bio-kids will likely only frustrate your friend if she is struggling. You don’t have to have the answers, just give hugs and ears.


Don’t judge when mom or dad stays with toddler for the first few days at day care or weeks of Bible class. This is not spoiling a child but helping them transition. Everybody needs positive affirmations. Give them freely.


Remember that if the new parents do not share about his former family or experiences, they have been encouraged to respect his privacy and allow him to share the details about his life as he chooses, when he is older.


What else can you do? Bring food! Prepare to get a hug from the mom at the door instead of inside the house. They will be minimizing the number of strangers for a while. Offer to help with other responsibilities, run errands, care for older kids in the home, mow the yard, teach their Bible class.



Look at it this way – these efforts also help the family to have more of the time together they have been waiting on for so long. Very soon, it will seem like he has been a part of your lives forever and your support through this time will set the stage for a wonderful relationship with him and even stronger relationship with his parents.

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