Parenting Your Adopted Preschooler

Children ages 3 to 5 are limited in how much they can understand about adoption. Like all children of this age, adopted children are naturally curious and may ask many questions. They are also growing and changing rapidly. As their abilities develop, so will their understanding of their place in their families and communities. These early years are a good time for you to start practicing talking about adoption in a positive and relaxed manner. This will set the stage for open communication as your child grows.

Adoption and Child Development

It is important to understand the typical developmental tasks and needs of preschoolers, as well as how adoption-related experiences may affect your child. This knowledge will help you better meet his or her needs, build a close relationship with your child, and promptly identify and address any delays.

Preschooler Development

Preschoolers don’t need special classes or expensive toys to learn and grow. Simple everyday interactions such as singing, talking, touching, rocking, and reading can help create a bond with your child and support healthy growth. The following are common characteristics and needs of preschoolers:

What Preschoolers are Learning:

  • How to jump, hop, climb, ride a tricycle, throw a ball (large muscle development)
  • How to color, draw, cut with scissors, brush teeth, dress and undress themselves, use forks and spoons (fine muscle skills).
  • How to put words and short phrases together.
  • How to concentrate on a task.
  • How to recognize family members and friends.
  • How to name simple emotions such as happy, angry, sad, or scared.
  • How to express emotions in an appropriate way.

How Preschoolers Think:

  • They believe in magic and imaginary characters such as fairies, elves, and monsters.
  • They believe that they cause life-changing events, that everything revolves around them, and that everyone shares their point of view.
  • Their thoughts are often occupied by fantasies and fears.
  • They give lifelike qualities to nonliving objects (children may believe that a stuffed animal has thoughts and feelings).
  • They are literal thinkers and may not understand abstract concepts (children may think that a child “put up for adoption” is literally put on a shelf).

What You Can Do

  • Provide space, activities, and playthings to stimulate both large and small muscle groups.
  • Provide channels to play and talk with others.
  • Give them the opportunity to make simple choices (what to wear or eat); narrow down choices to just a few things to keep them from being overwhelmed with options.
  • Read to your child, and nurture an interest in reading by visiting libraries and bookstores.
  • Teach appropriate social skills through words and by example.
  • Model and talk about healthy ways to cope with emotions.
  • Calm their fears. (“See? There are no monsters hiding under your bed.”) Remember that you might not understand why they are afraid of some things, especially if a fear is linked to a past memory.
  • Help them understand cause and effect. (“You went into foster care because your parents had grown-up problems that kept them from being able to take care of you, not because of anything you did.”)
  • If possible, when transitioning a preschooler into your family, use familiar foods, clothing, and blankets – little things that will help them feel comfortable and ease the transition.
  • Be calm, patient, consistent, and predictable. Listen to your child and be emotionally and physically available.

Effects of Early Experiences

Children’s brains grow rapidly during the early years of life and are shaped by a child’s experiences, both good and bad. When the brain is stimulated in positive ways, connections related to those experiences form (for example, talking and singing with and reading to your child helps develop the connections related to language). Negative life experiences – such as maltreatment, involvement with the child welfare system, and institutionalization – also impact brain functioning and are risk factors for cognitive, emotional, social, health, and developmental delays. They may also cause sensory processing issues, where children can be either sensory seeking or sensory avoiding as a way to calm their nervous systems. The experiences described below sometimes contribute to delays or disabilities, but they do not affect all children in the same way:

  • Poor Prenatal Care: If your child’s birth mother had poor prenatal care or nutrition, your child’s mental or physical development may have been harmed. Prenatal exposure to alcohol or drugs may damage a child’s developing brain or lead to specific disabilities. In preschool-age children, prenatal alcohol- and drug-related impairments can cause learning disabilities and poor self control and social adjustment. It may be hard to tell if a child’s impairments are related to substance abuse or to trauma after birth.
  • Child Abuse or Neglect: If your child experienced early neglect or abuse, that experience could limit his or her physical, mental, emotional, and social development. Often children can catch up to peers, although their development takes longer, but in some cases, development is permanently damaged. Children whose early lives are harsh and/or unpredictable may not be able to develop the trust needed for healthy emotions. Sexual abuse can have an especially negative impact on young children by altering a child’s understanding of appropriate roles and relationships. Physical abuse and harsh physical punishment may affect how a child responds to discipline.
  • Institutionalization or Multiple Moves: Young children in institutional care (e.g. orphanages) are at risk for delays in mental, social, and physical growth. They may also have challenges processing sensory information or challenges with balance and movement. Institutionalization or multiple moves from family to family may limit a young child’s ability to form a healthy attachment to a primary caregiver. This can delay emotional and social development.
  • Grief and Loss: Children who experience separation from their birth parents may feel an unresolved sense of grief or guilt. Even children adopted as infants will experience grief about the loss of their birth parents and a potential life with them. These feelings may recur over their lifetime, particularly at milestones in life, even when the adoption was a positive experience. Unresolved grief can affect a child’s emotional and mental development.
  • Trauma: Trauma is an emotional response to a stressful experience that threatens or causes harm (such as child abuse, neglect, separation from loved ones, institutionalization, and multiple moves). While most children have some resilience, trauma overwhelms a child’s natural ability to cope, and untreated trauma can interfere with a child’s physical, cognitive, emotional, and social health and development. Some of the signs of trauma in preschool-aged children include irritability (fussiness), tantrums, startling easily or being difficult to calm, repeating traumatic events in play or conversation, and delays in reaching a variety of milestones.

Parents should know that while the experiences outlined above can negatively affect a child’s development, every child is different. Not all children will exhibit impairments or disabilities. For those children that do, there is hope. Parents can help their children build resilience (the ability to cope and heal) following negative life events with nurturing and support. Many children will catch up developmentally; some children will always have challenges.

Gaps in Development

Children who spent a lot of time living with a family or in an institution and experienced maltreatment may not learn how to communicate well or to express their feelings. They may not have had chances to play with other children, take turns, or just have fun. If this was your child’s experience, your child may be much younger in development than his or her chronological age, and it may be helpful to think of your child as being younger. This reduces expectations that can frustrate a child or damage his or her self-esteem. Your child may need time to “catch up” to children in the same age group in some skills, and most children are able to do so, particularly if parents are patient with their child and if they offer the guidance and experiences necessary for growth. Although parents might be uncomfortable allowing their child to behave in a younger manner, children must go back and learn what they have missed in order to grow. Also, if your child’s first language is not English, there may be additional delays and challenges.

You can help your child overcome these developmental gaps by considering your child’s developmental needs, rather than his or her age. Allow your child to learn at his or her own pace. Break tasks down to smaller, doable steps so that the child can feel a sense of mastery and accomplishment. This encourages progress.

The following are some examples:

  • Teach your child new ways to interact and communicate. Use both actions and words. (“I am waiting for my turn to throw the Frisbee.” “John showed his anger with words, instead of hitting.”)
  • Teach your child about safety, privacy, and healthy family relationships. Demonstrate appropriate behavior and explain. (“In this home we go to the bathroom one at a time,” or “We don’t talk to strangers.”)
  • Use simple games and activities that help your child develop and coordinate all five senses. Finger-paint in the bathtub with colored shaving cream, practice writing with foam rubber letters, play dress-up with multi-fabric clothing and accessories, identify toys and point out their different characteristics (red, yellow, smooth, soft, big, small). Allow your child to play with “baby toys” designed for much younger children. A child cannot catch up without experiencing earlier developmental steps.

Parenting to Build Attachment

Secure attachment – the strong emotional bond between child and primary caregiver that makes a child feel safe and loved – is an important and powerful influence that positively affects a child’s brain development, social and emotional development, and self-regulation. Children who have experienced trauma (such as maltreatment and involvement in the child welfare system) may exhibit problems associated with a lack of healthy attachment to a caregiver, including developmental delays, difficult social relationships, struggles with emotional regulation, aggression, low self-esteem, and depression.

You can use knowledge of your child’s history and developmental needs to help enhance his or her attachment to you. Offer your child the kind of attention, nurturing, and physical closeness that he or she may have missed during early months and years. This is particularly important for children who have experienced traumatic life events because positive, healthy relationships with supportive and loving caregivers increase the odds of recovery.

What you can do:

  • Smile at your child often, make loving eye contact, and use frequent praise.
  • Increase your physical contact (hug, hold hands, let your child sit on your lap, even lovingly apply a bandage to a small cut).
  • Spend as much time with your child as possible. Consider reducing your work hours or taking a leave of absence during the child’s initial placement, if you are able.
  • Allow your child to go back to an earlier developmental stage, such as rocking on your lap cuddled in a blanket. Play baby games like peek-a-boo, feeding each other, and pat-a-cake.
  • Show your child how to play, how to have fun, and how to be silly.
  • Establish regular routines, guidelines, family activities, and traditions.
  • Plan future events to reassure your child that he or she will always be part of your family. Show your child where he or she will go to grade school, middle school, and high school. Talk about the future in your conversations (e.g. next Thanksgiving, next summer, on your sixth birthday).
  • Help your child grieve losses. Talk about former caregivers, and look at their photos together, if available. Allow your child to feel sad and miss people; it doesn’t lessen your child’s bond with you.
  • Help your child remember his or her past with scrapbooks and pictures, but follow your child’s lead. Some children may not always want to talk about their pasts or have pictures within view.
  • Find ways to make eye contact playing board games across from each other, fixing hair, or face painting.

When to Seek Help

Children learn skills (talking, walking, kicking a ball, recognizing letters) at their own pace. Don’t become alarmed if your child is slightly behind others his or her age in one, two, or more areas.

However, any child, adopted or not, may have had a developmental delay or disability. This is defined as a significant delay in one or more skill areas. Some delays are present at birth while others become more evident as the child grows. Some delays (e.g. academic struggles) are not noticeable until a child gets older. If you notice significant delays, loss of previous skills, or extreme behavior, contact your child’s doctor. You should also report if your child has excessive reactions to touch, light, sounds, and motion. A professional can help assess your child’s development and determine if serious delays exist. If you disagree with your professional, then be sure to seek a second opinion or press for further testing.

There are many things you can do if you feel that your child’s birth family history or early experiences may put him or her at risk for developmental delays or disabilities:

  • Talk to your child’s doctor about the possibility of developmental delay or disability. Choose a doctor who has experience with children who have been adopted or those in placement, if possible.
  • Contact the placing agency to ask about post-adoption services that may be available. It may be possible and helpful to retake pre-adoption trainings and review the materials you acquired during the adoption process.
  • Contact your state’s post-adoption resource center or adoptive parent association.
  • Seek support and advice from experienced adoptive parents of children similar to yours. Join an adoptive parent support group.
  • Ask for a professional assessment. Under Federal law, a young child who might have a physical, sensory, mental, or emotional disability is guaranteed the right to an assessment. If your child receives Medicaid, screening is free through the Early Periodic Screening, Diagnosis, and Treatment (EPSDT) program.
  • Attend ongoing training on adoption and special needs.
  • For children showing signs of trauma, ask the placing agency if a trauma/formal mental health assessment was done, and, if it was not, request one. Discuss the availability of trauma-focused treatment. Be sure an adoption-competent practitioner is used.

If your child is found to have a disability, he or she might be eligible for Early Childhood Special Education. This can include speech therapy, occupational or physical therapy, and counseling. Some services can be provided at home, while others may be offered at a child development center.

It’s important that you maintain a positive attitude and establish a tone of loving support and encouragement by showing you are willing to meet the child where he or she is developmentally. Recent research shows that nurturing environments and loving relationships can build resilience in children.

Talking About Adoption

Parents who project an attitude of acceptance and comfort with adoption are better able to help their children explore their own feelings and fears. With young children, how you say something is more important than what you say. Stay relaxed and matter-of-fact. Your tone of voice is important. Parents who tense up when the topic of adoption is raised may send the message that something is wrong with being adopted. Similarly, keeping information “secret” implies that adoption is negative, bad, or scary. This section provides strategies to help you communicate effectively with your preschooler.

Talk Openly With Your Child

Preschoolers love stories and will want to hear their own adoption story again and again. These years are a great time to practice approaching the topic comfortably and honestly. Preschoolers are limited in how much they can understand about adoption, so simple explanations will work best. Be concrete and use props such as dolls, simple drawings, and story books. Don’t feel you have to cover everything at once; you and your child will have many chances to talk about adoption. Remember that young children may not be ready to hear all details regarding their adoption, particularly upsetting details relating to their early treatment or about their birth family.

Preschoolers generally feel good about having been adopted but may still have questions. At this age, they are beginning to notice pregnant women and wonder where babies come from. The most important idea for the preschooler to grasp is that he or she was born to another set of parents and now lives with your family. (Some adopted preschoolers have thought that they were not born.) You can help your child understand this idea by using clear and simple explanations. (“Babies grow in a special safe place inside their birth mothers’ bodies.”) Don’t worry if they initially reject the explanation.

Children this age are also self-centered and concrete in their thinking. They often blame themselves for life events. Language is an important consideration whenever discussing adoption, both with your child and in responses to other people’s questions when your child is present. Tell the adoption story in words that will help him or her build a positive identity, calm fears, and understand his or her personal story.

Consider the following word choices:

  • Instead of “Real” mother/father OR “Natural” mother/ father,
    • Say “Birth mother/father” OR “Biological mother/father” OR “First mother/father”
  • Instead of “Adoptive” mother/father
    • Say “Mother/father”
  • Instead of  “We could not have our own baby”
    • Say “We could not have a baby born to us.”
  • Instead of “Your birth parents were not able to take care of you.”
    • Say “Your birth parents had grown-up problems, so they could not take care of a child.”
  • Instead of “They gave you up for adoption.”
    • Say “They made a plan for you to be adopted.”
  • Instead of “The child is adopted.”
    • Say “The child was adopted.”

Use a Lifebook

A “lifebook” contains background and story of your child’s life. It is a sort of personal history book, where your child can collect pictures of important people, places, and events, as well as objects and other memorabilia that have a personal meaning and helps them answer “Who am I?”.

What You Can Do:

  • Start at the beginning of your child’s story –  with his or her birth, not with the adoption.
  • Present facts simply, in ways that the child can understand.
  • Where applicable, maintain contacts with birth family members, orphanage staff, and previous caseworkers and caregivers to gather photos and memorabilia for the book.
  • If your child was adopted internationally, include visuals from his or her native country (postcards, woven fabrics, popular folk images, native cartoon characters).
  • Allow your child to decide when and with whom to share this valuable book.
  • If necessary, put aside sensitive information until the child is old enough to understand it.
  • View the lifebook as a therapeutic process, not just a book. Chances are, your child’s book may never be finished, but that’s okay.
  • It is possible that looking through the book may cause a child to become upset, particularly on special occasions when emotions are already heightened, such as holidays. Tuck books away for safe-keeping if they are upsetting your child. Pull them back out when your child asks.

Support Birth Family Relationships

“Open adoption” refers to maintaining contact between the child (adoptee) and his or her birth parents, siblings, or other birth relatives. Like not keeping adoption a secret, an open adoption can have great benefits for the adoptee as well as the adoptive parents and birth families. Many adoptive families choose to maintain some level of contact with their child’s birth family members, although the degree of openness varies. In recent years, there has been a growing trend toward open adoptions and, today, an open adoption is more often the rule rather than the exception. Adoptive parents often meet birth parents before the adoption, whether it is an infant adoption or an adoption from foster care. Thus the question may not be, “Do you want to have contact with the birth family?” but “When and what kind of contact would be in your child’s best interest?”

Families should consider the degree of openness that best suits their child’s needs. In some adoptions, adoptive family and birth family members contact each other directly. Contact can vary from frequent to annual in-person visits and phone conversations, to the exchange of letters and pictures through the mail with no in-person contact. In other adoptions, information is shared through an agency, caseworker, or lawyer. Some families choose to share only medical histories and other background information without identifying information such as last names or addresses. Many families, in conjunction with their agency, work out a post-adoption contact agreement with the birth families before the adoption. Families should learn more about the benefits of open adoption by working with their adoption agency and by reading and educating themselves about adoption issues.

Helping Your Child With Post-Adoption Contact

Adoptive parents sometimes worry about relationships with the birth family. Sometimes their reaction to the idea of openness and contact is one of fear. (Will their child prefer the birth parent? Will the child reject the adoptive family? Can the child become confused about having two families?) Because of these fears, adoptive parents may want to limit contact. However, adoption experts note that contact with birth family members generally has a positive effect on children. Contact with birth family members helps a child develop his or her sense of identity, build self-esteem, and feel more – not less – attached to the adoptive family. Like all relationships, these types of relationships may feel awkward at first. Sometimes an outside adoption expert, such as a counselor or agency social worker, can help everyone define and feel comfortable with their respective roles. Early meetings may need to take place at a neutral location, or initial contact may be by letter, email, or phone.

Preschool-age children have limited understanding of their relationship to their birth parents. Help your preschooler see that these other “parents” or relatives are important. Speak of them respectfully and comment on their positive qualities. Seeing that you value his or her birth relatives or previous caregivers will help your child feel better about themselves and closer to you. Children attach and bond with those who love and care for them daily, and relationships with birth families need not be threatening to adoptive parents.

Transracial/Transcultural Openness

While intercountry adoptions (also known as transracial or cross-cultural adoptions) remain mostly closed, there is a growing trend of openness across international borders. Open transracial adoptions may be particularly important in helping an adopted child develop a positive self-identity. Birth parents/relatives may represent the only tie to the child’s race and heritage.

For internationally adopted children with no birth family member contacts, show your interest in finding as much information about your child’s heritage as you can. Help your child learn about his or her country of origin – its culture, history, language, native foods and manner or dress, and current events. Talk abut the possibility of a future family trip there, if financially possible. Ideally, your family also has ongoing relationships with people of the same race and heritage as your adopted child so the child has positive role models whom the child sees on a regular basis.

Social Media

Social media, which includes form of internet communication such as social networking sites (like Facebook and Twitter), blogs, chat rooms, and photolistings, can be helpful tools for supporting birth family relationships. Growing numbers of birth parents and adoptees are using social media to search for and contact each other. This evolving level of openness in adoption can have both positive and negative implications. It means traditional “closed” adoptions (those that involve total confidentiality and sealed records) may become a thing of the past. Birth and adoptive families should understand that, in the age of the internet, private information may not always remain that way. Also, parents should prepare their children to be contacted via the internet by birth family members. Discuss safety and privacy concerns, as well as the importance of pacing contact.

Help Children Cope With Adoption-Related Losses

Children adopted as preschoolers often feel sad or angry about their separation from the people they remember. These may include birth family members, foster parents, and orphanage “brothers and sisters.”

Young children, even those who have no conscious memories of their birth parents, experience grief and need to mourn and work through loss. You can help them by answering their questions honestly, accepting their feelings, and helping them remember important people in their past. Accept sadness as a normal part of a child’s coming to terms with adoption. Don’t deny your child this feeling or rush him or her through it. However, if your preschooler seems sad or angry much of the time, seek help. Extreme behaviors or moods (control issues, withdrawal, apathy, extreme fearfulness, poor appetite, aggressiveness) may result from unresolved grief or may be signs of untreated trauma. If your child shows these behaviors, look for a therapist or counselor who specializes in young children and truly understands adoption. Ask other adoptive parents for recommendations whenever possible. In many cases, anger and difficult behavior subside in time, after children have vented or worked through their emotions.

Learning to be comfortable with your own feelings about adoption, why you chose to adopt (e.g. infertility), or missing out on your child’s earlier experiences creates a positive and significant bond with your adopted child. You may acknowledge your own sadness by saying something like, “I’m sad too that I didn’t get to be with you when you were just a little baby, but I’m happy that your birth mother (and father) had you and that you came to live with me, and now we can always be together. ”

Address Adoption Fears and Fantasies

Young children who have already lost one home might be very fearful of losing another. This may lead to increased insecurity. Fears may take the form of sleeping or eating difficulties, nightmares, separation difficulties, nervousness, or increased allergies and illnesses, but there are ways you can build your child’s physical comfort level and emotional security. Children may also push parents away or severely test limits to see if parents will reject them, as a way to protect themselves. Most children are unaware they are doing this.

What You Can Do:

  • Build a safe environment. Install nightlights, buy soft cuddly clothing, prepare favorite foods, and give your child extra attention. Try to keep important toys and clothes from your child’s past. Establishing consistent routines and rules will also help your child feel safe and secure.
  • Let your child know that you will always be there. Reassure your child that your family and home are permanent. If your child was adopted past infancy, he or she may experience separation anxieties. When you leave the house, make sure to point out that your departure is temporary. Offer something of yours, like a watch or bracelet to get back from your child when you return. This helps a child believe that you really will come home.
  • Acknowledge fantasies. Many children fantasize about an alternate family life. Some children dream of a “real” mother who never reprimands, or a father who serves ice cream for dinner. The fantasies of an adopted child may be more frequent or intense because another set of parents really exists. Accept your child’s pretending or wishing without defensiveness.
  • Give your child permission to talk about birth family members and/or wonder about family they have not met. You can even take the lead by saying, “I bet your birth mom thinks about you,” or “I wonder if your birth dad had such clear blue eyes like yours.” Teach your preschooler that it is okay to care about both adopted parents and birth parents.
  • Introduce pets and/or encourage interaction with animals. Interaction with animals can be very therapeutic. Something as simple as holding or petting an animal can help ease anxiety and loneliness. Pets can also help teach children the importance of trust and responsibility, as well as how to regulate emotion (if a child wants to pet a cat, he or she will learn to be calm and not scare the cat away). Children may also discover that once they are able to handle a pet, they are better able to manage their own lives. Monitor early pet experiences as some children may not know how to behave around animals, and this ensures the safety of both your child and the animal.

Be Sensitive to Daycare/Preschool Issues

Parents often wonder whether they should talk to their child’s teacher about adoption or the child’s past. A good rule to follow is to share only the information needed to ease the child’s adjustment and to keep your child and his or her classmates safe. Aside from parents and immediate family, school is often the most consistent and predictable part of a child’s life. For children that may have experienced traumatic life events, such as child maltreatment, separation from loved ones, and/or multiple moves, a structured classroom environment that includes interaction with supportive adults can help in developing resilience and improve in other emotional, behavioral, and social areas. However, parents may need to help school staff be more aware of and sensitive to the needs of adoptive families. Certain assignments may be difficult for adopted children, such as bringing baby photos to school. Ask that adoption be included in materials and discussions. Consider donating appropriate picture books about adoption, and help teachers learn positive adoption language.

Discipline Considerations

The purpose of discipline is to teach, re-teach, and assist children in developing their own internal controls. Discipline should take into account your child’s abilities, learning styles, and family history. There are many resources available to help parents learn and use positive discipline. A few specific strategies that may be particularly useful for parents of adopted children are outlined below. Note that parents need to be especially careful with children who have been abused or neglected. Physical punishm

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