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Helping Extended Family Understand Adoption – North Dakota Post Adopt Network
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Helping Extended Family Understand Adoption

By April 6, 2017 Uncategorized

May 31, 2016 | Sonja McLean

 (Information compiled from resources cited at the end of this article.)

Deciding to parent is a decision not made lightly and is usually part of a larger journey.  Midpoint on this journey may be the conscious decision to adopt. Extended family and friends may have a hard time understanding this plan. Most of the time, your family hasn’t experienced this journey with you from the very beginning and they haven’t gained the knowledge that you have from your trainings, meetings, and discussions with others.  Naturally, they may have a lot of questions and fears about your plan. It’s unfair that we assume that our families know and understand the process, as self-preservation may have stalled you from telling your extended family about your adoption plans right away. Don’t let negative reactions steer you off course. We were all new to adoption at one point!

In educating your extended family, teach positive adoption language (list attached). As adoptive parents, be prepared for some painful questions. Your extended family may have questions about everything from how the adoption process works to why your child was made available for adoption. Ensure that you and your partner have an agreement on how much information should be shared and with whom. When you need support from your family, be direct in requesting this. Sometimes your family may not know everything you are dealing with and not realize when you need help or not know how to help you. As adoptive parents, you may also want to set boundaries with your extended family. Let them know what is okay and what isn’t, when to visit and when you would prefer them not to.

Extended family may be nervous about your adoption and what that means for you.  Assure them that you are comfortable with where you are, that you are committed to this process and are excited about it! Let them know that the training and conversations with your case workers have helped prepare you for what it will be like to parent a child that isn’t biologically yours. You are the experts of your children and your family, no matter how long your children have been with you and no matter how they became a part of your family.

Most comments that extended family members make are out of love and concern. They may be concerned that their biological family tree has stopped; that there may be a loss of family traits, genetics, etc. As adoptive parents, we can education our families on the concept that our family won’t end, but rather our family tree will uniquely expand.

Comments that make us cringe (ie. “even though she’s half black…” or “he is so amazing, I can’t believe his real mom didn’t want her” or “I just don’t understand why anyone would give you up”) may come up innocently.  Remember, extended family members have not had the education that we have on positive adoption language. Our first instinct may be “they should know better!” when in reality it should be “how would they know?” Although your relatives may sound a bit “clunky” with their language, they are “growing out loud” and learning from your lead. Take a moment to acknowledge how lucky your kids are to have these extended relatives, but also let them know that these comments may disrespect your child’s birth parents or your role as a parent.  Explain that it is important for your child to grow up hearing their biological family talked about with respect and when their adoption plan is questioned, it may make the child further question their feelings toward birth parents. Letting your extended family know that it would mean a lot to you that if they say negative things about birth parents or make racial statements, it affects not only you as the parent, but it negatively affects the child, as well.

Some extended family may prefer that your adoption not be so visible.  This is common with older generations, especially regarding transracial adoptions. But we cannot minimize the transracial aspect- we know we need to acknowledge and celebrate our kids’ identity as people of color. We need to make decisions and choices that help them navigate their world with this in mind.

Not all adoption stories are rosy and happy. Most of the media coverage involving adoption tends to be “adoption horror stories”. Unfortunately, we rarely hear of adoption success stories in media coverage and extended family may have a concern for your well-being. As part of our role as adoptive parents, we need to find a gentle way to educate others on being careful of how we share information about adoption, especially when we explain adoption in the context of dramatic stories from the news.

When you add a child to your family, it is important for your extended family to know that adoption isn’t always a celebration for children, but can bring forward feelings of grief and loss. Help your extended family know that they are essentially strangers to your new children and encourage them to build their relationships slowly and at the child’s pace. Asking the child if they can participate in playing with them, asking for permission before they hug them, and respecting that child’s personal space will help the child feel safe and respected.

Adoptive families may catch flak for their parenting styles, especially when extended family doesn’t understand that what you are doing is to facilitate attachment.  This may come from a general lack of understanding of child development, or not understanding the type of environment your child came from, the effects of deprivation early in life, and the need to create a healthy, stable attachment between child and caregiver. You may feel judged in this situation, but extended relatives need to understand the why behind what you are doing (ie. Why you need to be the only one changing diapers and doing feedings, why you are not letting your child “cry it out”, why you need to be the disciplinarian).  This can be hard for extended relatives to watch-they want to love and help too!

The topic of “open adoption” can be scary for extended family to think about as it is commonly misunderstood.  It could be threatening to your family that a child could have more than one core set of parents, grandparents, etc. Help your extended family understand that openness now is going to be healthier for your entire family in the long run and will ensure that there are no secrets surrounding your child’s adoption, although there may be some aspects of the situation that you decide to keep private.

Parenting through adoption is a privilege. Something to be proud and excited about. The impact of adoption certainly doesn’t stop at the child.  It is important that you as adoptive parents, connect to a continued support network that understands the uniqueness of your situation. Many adoptive families appreciate knowing that other families out there are experiencing similar celebrations and struggles.

If you have questions or suggestions, please feel free to reach out!

Thanks for reading! 🙂


 Author unknown. (date unknown). “Activities to promote attachment” http://www.attach-china.org/attachmentactivi.html

 Calvani, C. (date unknown). “We’re adopting!”.  https://www.adoptivefamilies.com/adoption-process/announcing-your-adoption-decision/

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2013). “Working with birth and adoptive families to support open adoption”. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.

Lyon, L. (date unknown). “Parenting a traumatized child”.  http://attach-china.org/therapeuticparen.html

O’Toole, Elizabeth. (2011). “Preparing your extended family when adopting a child”. [podcast]. https://creatingafamily.org/adoption-category/preparing-your-extended-family-when-adopting-a-child/


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