Connecting with your child's birth family is wonderful, but what happens if it doesn't work out? Here are 10 ways to help your adoptee.

When Adoption Triads Don’t Work: Helping Your Adoptee Cope

The papers were signed. Agreements were agreed to. And now, 10 years later, things aren’t working out. You’re still 100% all-in, your kiddo is absolutely attached to you and your partner, and things in the home are happy. However, maybe your child’s birth mom has married and now has other children. Maybe she’s started associating with risky people and you’re not feeling safe about the relationship. Whatever the reason, your sweet 10-year-old boy who has your personality and her facial features is weeping into your arms because his birth mom didn’t want to visit. Or she didn’t answer the phone. Or she won’t FaceTime. It’s not you, and it’s not your adoptee, it is her and her big feelings making it really difficult to connect right now. Whatever the situation, however you feel about the situation, your little boy needs you now. 

What do you do when adoption triads don’t work? What happens when the biological family takes a step back for whatever reason and your child is left wondering what he did wrong? Hopefully, given some time and prayer, things will come back around. Eventually, his birth family will want contact again and they’ll reach out when they’re ready. But what do you do in between? Here are 10 ways to help your adoptee cope.

#1: Do Not Vilify the Birth Family

Never vilify the birth family. Whatever you do, however you feel, they are where your child came from. Their choices allowed you to have the beautiful child who is struggling now, so do not make them the bad guys. The temptation can feel strong to shift the blame on the “other” in the relationship. Just know that there is a chance your child will internalize whatever you say about their birth family. Yes, if a birth family member shows up to a visit high, drunk, or otherwise unsafe/unpredictable, it is perfectly okay to state that in kid-friendly terms. It is not okay to say negative things about the biological family to or around your child. Let them know it was unsafe, but you don’t need to elaborate. Kids are intuitive a lot of the time and can figure out something was “off” without you saying so. 

It’s important to not break this rule because, long-term, it will affect your relationship with your children. If they hear you talking about their “deadbeat” family, it won’t endear you to them—it will hurt their heart. I know most people know this. I also know that when a kid is hurting because of something you can’t control, the impulse can be strong to focus on the “bad guy” in the situation. 

#2: Keep Communication Channels Open (If You Can)

Allow your child to continue writing letters and drawing pictures for the birth family even if other communication becomes difficult for some reason. Don’t lie and say you’ll send the letters, as that will lead to issues later down the road if they realize you never sent the letters. If there is a P.O. box or adoption agency you can send things to, keep doing so. Encourage them to write down, talk about, or draw their feelings. I find myself often surprised at the depth of emotion my very small children can express to me if I give them space to do so. They feel so many things, and making it okay to talk about it helps them. How many of us grew up in “don’t talk about it” homes and find ourselves struggling to communicate in adulthood? Give your adoptee the gift of open, transparent communication. 

#3: Take a special trip 

Even if you can’t afford a beach getaway, find time to spend one-on-one with your hurting adoptee and give him or her some extra attention. My youngest daughter’s mood will change dramatically if I take her outside by herself to push her on the swing. It’s not a big thing, but it is huge to her. Spoil them a little if you can. You can’t replace or erase their biological family, but you can help them through their grief by giving them some extra joy. Remind your child that while “right now” the biological family is struggling to keep in touch it doesn’t mean they always will. For right now, you’re there to talk and play. 

#4: Seek Counseling

Counseling isn’t a magic pill. You can’t go one time to some random person and see progress. However, taking the time to find a counselor who will help your child work through grief over the damaged relationship will go a long way toward healing. This might take time. We have tried several different counselors, found one that was awesome, and ended up stopping our meetings for a while because of a scheduling conflict. Find a way to make it work if you can. If your child shies away from formal counseling, see if you have a safe friend they can connect with. Oftentimes, children will tell things to other safe adults (youth leaders, teachers, parents of their friends) that they feel weird saying to their parents. It isn’t personal. It isn’t about you. It’s about their ability to communicate. Kids are complicated. They often infer things that aren’t true from limited information. A lot of times they don’t want to hurt your feelings, so they just don’t say anything. Get them someone they can talk to. There are even online and text-based counseling options. 

#5: Practice Journaling

Take your child shopping for a special journal and pen. I know this is bordering on way too touchy-feely. I’m aware. However, my little girls have loved picking out a pretty notebook and a special pen and having a trip with Mom to find those things. They keep their journals in a special spot and they write in them when they feel like it. Sometimes they’ll see me writing in my journal and it will prompt them to write in theirs. Other times I’ll find one of them curled up in a corner with their journal and pen, with fierce concentration on their faces. Every once in a while I’ll hear a hollered “How do you spell ‘angry’?” I’ll spell it out and they’ll be silent for a while, then holler “How do you spell ‘interesting’?” They are 6,7, and 8, so their spoken vocabulary is sometimes more abundant than their written one. The youngest likes to draw pictures of what she is thinking about, or what she is excited for. Anyway, the journals are a big deal right now, and they help the girls with all of their big feelings. None of my people have a connection with the biological family because they were placed with us through CPS and we’ve struggled to find or maintain connections. When our girls have questions, we have them write them down for later. That seems to help a lot, especially with uncertainty. 

#6: Let Your Adoptee Cry 

I know the impulse is to want to stop the tears. You don’t want them to be sad. However, sometimes they need to cry it all out. Be there, and hold them if they’ll let you. Rub their back, hold them tight if they want it. Hold their hand if they’ll let it. Or, if they insist, give them space but stay nearby where they’ll know you’re there if they need you. This is one of the hardest parts for me. I can’t handle it when my kids cry. It makes me so sad for them to weep uncontrollably. I want to fix it and often I just can’t. However, sometimes bodies just need a good cry. I personally feel much better after a solid cry and a nap. 

#7: Find a Physical Outlet

If your children are feeling big feelings a lot of the time, give them a physical outlet for it. Sometimes bodies need to move to feel okay. Go for a bike ride, a walk, or a run. Go roller skating. We have a family rule that everyone has one “active thing” they do each week outside the house. Gymnastics, horseback riding, hockey, running, biking, whatever. My drug of choice is gym time. I can work through all sorts of big feelings on a treadmill, stair climber, and row machine. I return home exhausted and happier than when I left. A happy mama is a great way to support your adoptee. Which leads us to… 

#8: Take Care of Your Own Feelings in Private

There is space for you to grieve over what you thought would be. That space is not venting to your adoptee. Yes, they can and should know you’re aching for them, but do not allow them to own your sad feelings as well. Kids will often repress feelings if they are afraid they are making others feel bad by having them. I don’t want my 6-year-old apologizing for crying because it made me cry. That is all sorts of wrong. So, do take care of your emotions, do not take care of them where they will affect your adoptee. 

#9: Get Thee to a Counselor 

Yes. You. I don’t mean for you to go cry in your closet (though, if you’re like me, you might do that. Or the bathroom. I personally dig the shower because it washes the tears right away and you can’t tell I was ugly crying when I’m done). You will need a counselor. If the relationship between your adopted child and their biological family is deteriorating, it will affect you. Maybe your kid losing his birth mom means you’re losing a friend too. Maybe you’re feeling extra pressure to be a supermom since the biological mom backed out of the picture. I don’t know you, but I know you probably need therapy. (I’m like the Oprah of therapy advice though: “You get therapy, and YOU get therapy! EVERYONE GETS THERAPY!!!!!” *jazz hands*) 

But really. I know it is expensive. I know it can be annoying having someone all up in your business. However, you’ll be better for it if you take the time to find the right kind of therapy and the right therapist. Seeing a therapist and going to a doctor for antidepressants and ADHD meds are some of the best ways I can care for my adoptees and help them cope with their disappointments. I take care of my mental health. I model what that looks like and I talk about it. I talk about how sometimes I get really sad because my brain doesn’t always make the right chemicals. I talk about how I’m forgetful and struggle to focus because my brain doesn’t make the right chemicals sometimes. I tell them I see a counselor, I see a doctor, I go to the gym, I talk to friends. As much work as it can be, I try to model real self-care to them. 

#10: Let Your Adoptee Know that You Aren’t Going Anywhere

Adoptees often struggle with feelings of abandonment. The biological family backing out of contact agreements can compound that feeling. The adoptee may begin to feel anxiety about their status as your child. Since they know, on some level, that they can be given to other parents, they may fear that eventually you will have to make the difficult choice to give them to someone else. Assure them that you will not leave them if it is within your ability. I make sure my kids know that they are loved tremendously. Or, at least I try. That means being the adult and doing our bedtime routine right, even if I’m annoyed at them. Stories, kisses, hugs, prayer, and tuck in don’t change because Mama is having a hard time. Mama might get upset sometimes, but her love never changes for her babies. 

I hope these things help. I hope you don’t need them, but in the event you do, I hope that you can help your adoptee feel okay. 

Do you feel there is a hole in your heart that can only be filled by a child? We’ve helped complete 32,000+ adoptions. We would love to help you through your adoption journey. Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98.
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Christina Gochnauer

Christina Gochnauer is a foster and adoptive mom of 5. She has a bachelor's degree of Psychology from Letourneau University. She currently resides in Texas with husband of 16 years, her children ages 3, 3.5, 4.5, 11, and 12, and her three dogs. She is passionate about using her voice to speak out for children from "hard places" in her church and community.