It’s that time of year: first day of school pictures are flooding social media and children everywhere are returning to the classroom. For a parent of an adopted child, your excitement might be matched with a little bit of anxiety. The routine and safety of your 4 walls are now being put to test in the unpredictable environment of elementary school. Parenting any child comes with its challenges, but for you they might feel a little different. We want to help ease your mind and let you head into this school year prepared and excited to watch your child grow!
Before we actually get into the classroom, let’s cover a few of the basics. If you are reading this, you have likely adopted a child somewhere in the 6-12-year-old range. One thing to keep in mind is that your child’s actual age and their developmental age may differ. For instance, your 7 year old may need the bedtime routine of a 3 year old. Or a child who is socially delayed may play better with younger kids to help give them a sense of confidence. Understanding their developmental age will help you navigate their best practices as the school year begins.
Another thing you’ve likely thought a lot about is how to approach the topic of adoption with your child. This is also something they may encounter in school, so having an open dialogue at home can be very helpful. Your child’s feeling may come up in unexpected ways. As they start to navigate understanding where they came from and learning more about their history, you may notice some different behaviors. Your child may become sad, angry, insecure or start to feel ambivalent toward their identity. The grief they are experiencing can be a result of them being separated from the life they knew (or have imagined in their mind). Here are a few ways to help address these feelings at home:
- Address the issues. You don’t have to wait for your child to bring up their thoughts on being adopted. Most kids their age have frequent thoughts about where they came from and having their parent bring it up first can be helpful to start the conversation.
- Acknowledge their feelings. Let them know it is OK to feel the way they are feeling and completely normal.
- Resist the urge to cheer your child up. Letting your child experience their feelings and emotions is important. Acknowledge their feelings, but avoid trying to cheer them up or make them go away. This may lead them to question the value in the way they are feeling.
- Be prepared for grief disguised as anger. This is a way for your child to vent their feelings of loss and sadness. Let them work through it, as it will typically subside once those feelings have passed.
As your child starts school, you might notice an increase in separation anxiety. This is completely normal and is an important step in your child learning you are their forever parent. As those anxious feelings grow in your child, be sure to reassure them with both words and actions that you will be with them forever. Here are some simple ideas that may help ease their fear and anxiety:
- Plan family events together. Let your child be a part of planning activities far into the future such as Thanksgiving dinner, Spring break, etc.
- Create a photo album with designated spots for school photos all the way through high school.
- Talk about the future with them included. Even the smallest thing like going to the grocery store after school or the farmers market next weekend can make a big difference.
There are some inevitable situations you are sure to encounter as your child navigates elementary school. Many curricula involve learning about your family history, which can be hard for children who have been adopted. Helping them understand their history at home is a great building block to be able to talk about it at school. They will learn it one day and if it comes from you first in the form of an honest conversation, it helps keep that line of communication open.
Communicating with school personnel ahead of time is a great idea as well. Let them know any subjects that could be distressing to your child. Encourage them to use positive adoption language and include adoption in lessons about family. Family tree assignments are pretty common in younger school grades, but can be confusing and stressful for adopted children. One novel idea suggested by the experts at childwelfare.gov is that adopted children can include their birth family as the “roots” of the tree.
Ask your child’s teachers to offer options or adjust assignments about family history. For example, instead of asking students to bring in a baby photo, students could bring in or draw a photo of themselves when they were younger. For a “family tree” assignment, children could be allowed to include their birth family as the root system or draw a figure that better reflects their unique family structure.
Navigating the challenges of parenting a school aged child can be hard for any parent. Remember that all families have their unique challenges and while yours may look slightly different, they are completely manageable with the right tools in your toolbox. In the next few years you will see your child grow in ways you couldn’t have imagined and you will be there with them to create so many fun, new memories. Believe in your abilities to figure out this time of your child’s life, and believe in your child’s abilities to figure it out too!