Why Did You Adopt?

By Mark Coen, CAMHS, LCSW

I was speaking to the father of one of my clients the other day about his own attachment style; the children he adopted were acting out and the stress was contributing to his marital strife. This is an unfortunate yet common scenario in many of my families.  Although many of us who adopt come from far more functional backgrounds than our kids do, raising children with attachment issues tends to shine a light on our own attachment patterns.

One of the first questions I ask of parents at the initial consultation is “Why did you adopt?” The answers range from the romantic to the most practical. Some clients take this question more literally and answer that they have been thinking about it for awhile and finally took the plunge. I suppose this answer works, though it doesn’t truly capture the essence of the question. 

We all adopt for various reasons; to carry on our name, impart our values and wisdom, have infertility issues, religious calling, fix problems in the marriage, complete our families, fill an emotional void, harbor a rescue fantasy, feel sympathy for the less fortunate or add a brother or sister to the only child of the house. Though some of these reasons aren’t intrinsically wrong, they most certainly collide with the reality of raising kids with attachment issues. 

I remember my aunt asking me the same question prior to considering adoption. I felt thrown off by the question and somewhat defensive. “Why wouldn’t I want to adopt? This kid needs a home – this isn’t about me!” Now that I’ve had 15 years to reflect, I think I adopted my son partially out of some rescue fantasy as well as being a ‘fix-it’ dad. I had great dreams and aspirations for the little boy who had such a tragic upbringing – though very few of them came to fruition; my son was hellbent on letting me know he wasn’t going to blindly follow my direction. At some point years into raising him, I transitioned from having my own external agenda for him to stepping back and accepting him for who he was; and that was the day I became less reactive and more proactive in my parenting.

 Kids with attachment issues don’t want to be fixed. They don’t want to be saved, molded or fit some model of the child parents wanted. It is hard enough to figure out their place in the world and impossible to fill a need for another. Some kids express this by directly rebelling, and others step into survival ‘pleasing’ mode. I worry about those kids the most because they shelve their true feelings and needs in order to adopt the family’s culture. Eventually they implode or explode down the line. 

Reality often hits home with parents who adopt for the aforementioned reasons. They end up with the child who they did not envision or want. The dreams they had going into the adoption are shattered and their old feelings of depression, neediness and grief resurface. I see this dynamic a lot with couples adopting due to infertility. If they have not grieved the baby they could not have, the grief over having an adopted child with attachment issues is magnified. 

And there is tremendous grief over raising children with attachment issues. It’s a necessary part that allows us to move on and become the parents that our children need, not the parents we wanted to be. Some get stuck in the grief process, and the resentment that builds often is directed towards the child. It’s a sad reality when parents can’t recognize that no child can or should be responsible for another person’s happiness.

 In order to be truly effective and survive raising a child with attachment issues, we must do our own ‘work’ prior to adopting. We have to delve into our own attachment histories and recognize what we bring to the table as parents. We have to heal our own wounds, strengthen our marriages, and have our hearts and minds in the right place. We are merely along for the journey with these kids. Their successes and failures should not define who we are as parents. We are tour guides responsible for showing them a different path than the one set out for them early in life. We cannot be vested in which path they take albeit painful to watch at times, the choice is theirs alone. They ultimately have to figure out whether they are worth having a good life, and we must stand by with unconditional love and acceptance.