7 Steps to Managing the Adjustment Period when Adopting an Older Child

Bringing a new child into the home is always an adjustment, no matter how that child arrives…. via birth, via step-parenting, or via adoption. The parents need to adjust to meeting someone else’s needs as well as meeting their child’s expectations. And the child needs to adjust to being in a new home complete with background noise, household routines, and parental expectations. It is a challenge when the baby is a newborn, but it can be even more of an undertaking when the child coming home is a preschooler or older.

All children need to be raised in a kind and loving home- it doesn’t matter if they are 4 months, 4 years old, or even 14. Children need parents. Children need and want routines, and rules, and structure. And good food, a warm bed, clothes that fit, and someone to talk to. I absolutely advocate that these needs be met for all children. But when you decide to welcome into your home an older child, you need to prepare yourself for an extended adjustment period…. which may last a few weeks, a few months, or even longer. While adopting a child, your game plan can’t just rely on “All he or she needs is love… and everything will turn out fine.” Trust me, that little mantra is not going to arm you with the tools you need to work through the adjustment process. Here are some tools that will:

Try to learn as much about your child’s previous routine as possible

One of the most comforting ways to help a child begin to feel at ease in a new environment is to try to keep his or her routine consistent with what he or she has been used to- particularly in terms of meal and bedtime schedules. If your child is accustomed to having a small snack in the afternoon, then by all means make sure that it is offered when expected, even though that may not be something that you currently do in your home.

And don’t forget to learn about likes and dislikes… does your child love potatoes but hate eggs? Then be sure to offer potatoes at breakfast along with some of the other breakfast foods that you normally serve, such as cereal. Is your child used to sleeping in a room full of other children? Well then imagine how scary it might seem to be put into a bedroom all alone at night. Pair your child up with a sibling, or say with your child until he or she falls asleep.

Have a plan for communication

This is especially important if you and your child do not speak the same language. Make sure that you are equipped to use some basic phrases in your child’s native language right from the get-go. “Do you need to use the bathroom?”,”Are you hungry?”, “Are you thirsty?”, and “It’s time to go to bed.”. “Yes”, “No”, and “Stop” are important to learn too. These are all critical phrases that you need to be able to communicate to take care of your child’s basic needs as well as to keep him or her safe.

Even if you and your child share the same language, be aware of how you communicate with your new family member. He or she may not be used to an adult uttering words of affection all day long. If this seems to trouble your child, then ease up a bit and give your child the space to feel comfortable in his or her new family.

Try to examine everything from your child’s point of view

Keep in mind that there is good chance that your child dreamed up an idea of what living in a family-your family- would be like. And chances are, those dreams did not include things like routines, or being told “No” when they want something, or even having to share new toys with a sibling. And if you do not share the same language, explaining the “Why” behind the “No”, the routine, or the restrictions is especially difficult.

One of my newly adopted children had a difficult time when her siblings headed off to school or to after-school activities each day. While I felt that it was far too soon to sign her up for say, swimming lessons, when she did not yet speak English and had never been in a swimming pool before… to her point of view- she just felt excluded from all of the fun that her brothers and sisters were having.

Expect melt-downs (theirs and yours)

You know, for the first few weeks, everything might seem to be going along really well. Your child acts happy, the siblings love their new brother or sister, and you are just head over heels in love. And then all of the sudden… life isn’t such a fairy tale anymore. At some point your new child starts to realize that this new living situation- with all of its rules and routines is here for good… and he or she may not always like it. Your child might feel frustrated, lonely for their old caregivers and friends, and my be unable, or not know how to share that with you.

And sometimes this comes out as rage.

A lay-down-on-the-floor, kicking and screaming, out-of-control fury. And you are left bewildered…. Where did this come from? This wasn’t how your child was acting just yesterday. What set this off?

And when this melt-down behavior occurs again and again for the next few days… on and off for the next few weeks… or even months. What do you do to make it stop?

(Insert your own melt down here)

Use the 4 C’s: Calm, Clear, Consistent, Caring

It is so easy to start to think that this new angry and upset child is now the “real one”… and the sweetie that came home with you a few weeks ago was the “fake one”. But don’t jump to hard and fast conclusions…. this is when you have truly entered the “adjustment period”! And you both are trying to get to know each other and understand what you can expect from one another. Right now it may seem that what you can expect is outbursts, tantrums, alongside of periodic spells of happy and calm. But what you really need is a way to navigate this transition, and a good friend to remind you that “you will see the other side of this”.

You need a real mantra to rely on- when your new family member is acting out and you don’t understand why. The way I navigated my turbulent time period was by writing these words down and posting them in my kitchen: “Calm, Clear, Consistent, and Caring.” It reminded me that when tantrums were going on, that I needed to remain calm. One of us was already out of control, having a Mommy who is upset isn’t going to help the situation. I took many. deep. breaths.

“Clear” reminded me that my child did not speak the same language that I did, and therefore I needed to try to be very basic and clear in my instructions. Lots of words and explanations did not help the situation- at all.

“Consistent”- when a child is out of control, he or she needs to know how you are going to react to the situation. If you walk out of the room one day, and then cuddle and hold her during the tantrum the next day, and then ask her loudly to “STOP” the third day- she has no idea of what to expect, and therefore it take a lot longer for her to calm down. But if every time she has a tantrum, she knows that you are going to sit near her and hold her hand, or rub her back, and you do this EVERY SINGLE TIME, you’ll find that eventually the tantrums end more quickly.

The last word I needed to remember was “Caring”. I needed to show my child through my actions that I still cared, no matter how she behaved. Sometimes that felt hard to do… but that was my job as her Mom.

Educate yourself on behaviors that are red-flags for concern

Hopefully your agency provided you with a strong educational foundation during your adoption paperwork process, and you are already familiar with post-instituionalized behaviors where you need to intervene. If not, then get yourself a good adoption parenting book (I will be sharing some of my favorites here on the blog on Friday). Examples of red-flag behaviors include hoarding food, and over-friendliness with people that are new to him or her.

Set up a support system for yourself

One of the hardest things is when everything seems fine on the outside… your child is adorable and friendly when you are with friends, and your friends just marvel at how well it is all going. And yet, when you want to discuss with them (privately of course) how it isn’t always going so well… the words get caught in your throat. You are LUCKY to have this child… and it is exactly what you wanted, right? Look at all of the other potential adoptive families still waiting to meet their future child…. how can you complain?

Well first of all- you need to accept that feeling grateful for your child and loving him or her can co-exist with all of the other emotions that you are feeling- frustration, exhaustion, helplessness, not knowing what to do. Not to mention just being scared and upset. So stop feeling guilty and go and talk to someone! Getting to say everything that is on your mind to a trusted friend can be incredibly healing. Or contact me. I’ve been there and I am all too happy to be someone to talk to.

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  1. maggie says

    Sharon – Thanks for this post. It really hit the spot! We had a tough time with our daughter and her/our transition to a new life when she first got here. She has come a long way but those meltdowns still make an appearance every now and then, I know how to handle them when we are at home – leave her to it but stay in the room with her so that I can comfort her when she comes out of it. Because so often it starts out as anger but I think that it is really about sadness so don’t want her to feel abandoned if she is having one. But she does not want to be touched while having them, so all we can do is just be there for her when it is over. But my question is what to do when this happens outside the home? What I have done is pick her up and take her home but the wailing intensifies and the meltdown lasts longer when we do that but just don’t want to have her lying in the street/store doing this for 15 minutes. Any suggestions? Maggie

    • says

      Maggie- I so wished we could have compared notes when we were both in the height of the melt-downs when we each first arrived home with our girls- it would have been so comforting to know that we were not alone! In our case the tantrums went on for many months after we first got home. I think what finally ended them was when the school year ended for the other kids, and the siblings were all home together for the summer (and she was no longer the lone child left home from school and activities). And the tantrums largely subsided for about a year…. although throughout the time there were still lots of little things going on…. like not looking at me or answering me when she was mad or didn’t like the rules that I was imposing, etc.
      But about three months after she started kindergarten (after being home for more than 15 months), the melt-downs started again- in full force. Over what seemed like completely random and unforseeable reasons… such as one time when I didn’t know the words to a song that she wanted to tell me about from school. I mean screaming and kicking and complete loss of control…. in a moving car rolling down the road!
      However, in some ways- I was lucky. The worst was always saved for me. Although it happened occasionally in front of Dad- it was rare. And never out in public. I think for her, the potential embarrassment of losing it in public always caused her to hold it in, until it was just us…..
      That being said, if I were you- and the full-on tantrum happened while I was at a store, or anywhere away from home, I would do exactly what you are doing. I would pick her up, and we would leave. Even if it made the situation worse. I think as long as you tell her- We’re leaving because you can’t manage your “mads”, and then do exactly as you say… she will learn that this is her consequence for the behavior. It may take a few thousand times (ha ha ha)…. but at least she will know what to expect.
      Good luck with it- I KNOW how hard it is.

      • maggie says

        Sharon – Thanks for the support. I feel like we are the only ones going through this since everyone else’s kids seem to be so well behaved – at least when I see them in public. So there is some comfort that we are not alone. And yes if it happens in public (unless there is somewhere carpeted and out of people’s way where she can cry it out – sorry NYC Ballet fans leaving the matinee of Swan Lake a few Saturdays ago) we do pick her up and take her home but oh the screaming and carrying on! In fact I have heard through the grapevine that neighbors living blocks away are wondering who is that screaming kid? Because she is really really loud when in the middle of one of these meltdowns. But I have now memorized your mantra – Calm Clear Consistent Caring and used it many times over this past weekend. Sometimes all I needed was that 30 second break to get myself in hand before trying to handle her. Thanks so much – M

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