If you’ve paid attention at all in your adoption training classes, then you’ve heard people talk about transition plans. But now you’ve received word that your family has been selected to be a child’s pre-adoptive placement. That’s a Yay-able moment for sure! Many pre-adoptive families are excited and eager to move their new family member into their home – and that’s natural. You should be excited! For adults who did not have significant trauma in their early years, transitions may be easy. You might love change, because you like learning new things, experiencing new places, and it all feels like an adventure. Or, you might not really love change, but you’ve figured out some self-care techniques to make sure it doesn’t throw you off-balance. So wouldn’t this waiting child who has just been matched with a family also feel the same? They’ve been waiting for a family. You are a family. Now, just put the two together and voila! Instant family, right?
Of course not. There’s a reason that transition plans are put into place, because youth don’t always know how to embrace changes or handle their big emotions. Although families are often eager to speed though the transition period from being matched to moving in, this is a process that requires thoughtful preparation and sensitivity. So now it’s time to recall that information from the trainings: what exactly happens next? Does the child show up at your house later that afternoon? Who determines the transition plan? How much say do you have in it? How much input does the child have?
Fortunately, you’re not making the transition plan alone – your adoption consultant and the child’s team will be there to help guide the planning and make it as smooth as possible. After your family agrees to the match, there will be a planning meeting to discuss the specifics of the child’s transition into your home, from an initial meeting or overnight visit to the full move-in. Chances are, the child’s team will talk with the child about their preferences – what would they like to do on a first visit? Do they feel comfortable spending the night? What are the things they want to know about your family? That planning meeting is a great time to ask your own questions and find out what questions the child has as well.
Practice Active Listening
While it’s important for you to explain to the child that they’ll be transitioning to your home and will ideally become a permanent member of your family, it’s even more important to actively listen to what the child is saying (and in some cases, not saying, or communicating through body language or behavior). Pay attention to the cues the child is giving you – and ask members of the team if they are aware of other cues that perhaps you’re not aware of. If the child has had a lot of moves, they may think that each time they have an overnight bag packed, that means they’re moving to another new house. But in the transition period where they’re first just spending a night or a weekend with your family, they’re going to have an overnight bag. It may help them to feel more secure in the transition – and that they’re going to stay with you – to encourage them to leave some clothes or items in their new room (or to get them a couple of outfits), so that the items are waiting when they return the next weekend.
Active listening can be especially hard when behaviors start emerging – especially if they’re behaviors you’re not prepared for or haven’t encountered with this particular child before. It is true that the children who need the most love may ask for it in the least loving and least lovable ways. New families often go through a “honeymoon phase,” after which a new phase of intense distress and troubling behavior emerges. You may experience this right away, or perhaps not for a while. It’s important to recognize that some of these behaviors are based in fear and loss, or the child may be testing you to see if you’re really committed to them. Keep listening – actively – anyway. Set aside your own reactions and try to listen for what the child may be saying without using words. And if you start to get overwhelmed or concerned, reach out to the child’s team for advice.
When a child begins to transition into your home, it’s tempting to shower them with excessive gifts, extravagant trips, and to make well-intentioned promises. After all, this child has been without a family for so long, and you want them to know that vacations and holidays and all those fun things are things they’ll get to experience! But, you don’t want to set the unrealistic expectation that gifts and trips are a common occurrence. And you also don’t want to overwhelm this new family member. They have a lot to process through in relation to the transition and their new family – and it may be better for you to resist the urge to pack their schedule full of excitement until they are more settled and have begun to feel as though they are part of the family.
Depending on the child’s age, they may also be very connected to their “stuff.” And as the child’s new family, you may be very connected to the idea of getting them “new stuff” that isn’t worn-out or handed down from someone else. You want them to feel like they belong. If your biological children got to pick out their comforter, then this child should too, right? Of course – but only if the child wants to, and is ready. They may be more concerned about whether they’ll get to bring all their clothes from the previous home, and whether they’ll be able to see their friends even though they’re moving.
Maintaining normalcy also means maintaining schedules, setting ground rules, and all those things that most kids buck against. For children who have experienced a lot of instability in their lives, schedules = stability and security. The child needs to know what to expect from their new family, and also what the family expects from them. If there’s a set time for dinner, stick to that as much as possible. If there’s a standard routine on the weekends – breakfast, then chores, then play time – it will help to keep to that routine, so that the child knows what is expected of them from the start.
Be Willing to Have the Tough Conversations
“What if I don’t want to change my last name?” or “Does this mean I get to stay here forever?” are probably questions that you’ve thought about. There may be other questions, though, like “Will I still get to see my other foster family?” or “What if your biological children don’t like me?” that you may be unsure of. That’s okay. Have the tough conversation anyway. Many of these questions are rooted in fear of not belonging or of losing things and people that are important. If you can work out a plan to remain in contact with the people who are important to the child, that might be a great way to help calm those concerns. Being able to say “I’m not sure, but we can figure it out together” can actually be more reassuring to a child than platitudes. It’s likely that your child’s team includes a therapist or other supports – don’t hesitate to utilize those people and seek their input when you need it. Family therapy is seldom a bad thing when you’re planning to adopt a child, and often can be a great way to have some of those tougher conversations in a safe space.
Even if you’ve been awarded the Most Patient Person Award, you’re going to want to learn more for this transition process. And if you’re not known as the most patient person around, then this is a critical time to start brushing up on those skills. Sometimes a transition seems to be moving along at a steady pace, and then something happens and now it’s veering this way and that, and things feel very much not in control. Patience. Regroup with the child’s team, work through what’s causing the transition to slow down or change course, identify some potential solutions, and then start again. Patience. Maybe you’re ready to start the adoption paperwork when the child hints at maybe not wanting to be adopted. Patience. Regroup, work through, identify, begin again. Whether the adoption takes 6 months or 16 months is less important than getting it right as a family – new family member’s ambivalence included. Patience.
The most successful adoptive families are those that remain invested when it would be easier to not be, and who keep working at healthy relationships when sometimes it seems like all work and no reward. Moving a child into your home is a big step and will require some adapting on everyone’s part. Ensuring that the child knows your home is their home – forever, regardless, no matter what – will require even more. Permanency is a process, not just a status to achieve.