When most of us think about becoming a parent, we dream of a healthy child. We may not expect perfection, but we sure hope that our child does not have significant special needs. So how do you cope with the fear of the unknown when adopting? What is this child has an undiagnosed mental illness, what if this child was exposed to alcohol or drugs in utero? What if…

Coping with the fear of the unknown in adoption

At the end of a show on Raising a Child with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD), we received an email from someone who said she was considering adoption but was terrified of  Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and that the information presented on the show had scared her even more. I imagine that she spoke for a lot of us. Most of us imagine our lives parenting perfectly healthy kids who thrive academically, socially, and emotionally—kids who make us proud and reflect well on our parenting skills. Most of us are afraid of what we don’t know. I know because I’m right there with you. Who wouldn’t want a guarantee of success before you start on a 21+ year endeavor?

Oh, if only it were possible!

Nothing is certain but death and taxes.

I don’t know a lot of things for certain, but the one thing I do know beyond a shadow of a doubt is that there are no guarantees in life-and especially no guarantees in parenting. This lack of guarantee is present regardless of whether you have kids through adoption or infertility treatment, or by doing the baby dance with your hubby.

If you adopt, you end up worrying about prenatal exposure or the effects of institutionalized care. If you have a child through assisted reproductive technology, you end up worrying about the potential health consequences of these techniques or unknowns in the donor’s health history. The “safest” approach would seem to be conceiving and having a biological child—right? Well, maybe not. Take a look under the leaves of most of our family trees and you’ll find alcoholism, heart disease, cancer, poor academic performers, depression, and some pretty weird personalities—all with potential genetic connections.

Parenting is a risky business. You willingly agree to become connected to someone you don’t know and this connection is for life. Gulp! What if this someone turns out to be sickly, or uncoordinated, or not all that bright, or hyperactive, or….  Yep, it could happen.

But here’s the thing—it could happen regardless of how that child came to be yours.

And here’s the other thing—most of these “issues” don’t affect parental satisfaction all that much.

Nothing is certain in life, special needs adoptions are not a bad thing

Special needs don’t mean a bad parenting experience.

I’ve talked with parents of kids with all sorts of “issues”:  kids who struggle academically, kids who have physical limitations, kids who are the square pegs in a round peg world. I am a parent to kids who fit some of those descriptions as well.

Parents who begin parenting with the right expectations and who are able to adjust and be flexible along the way seem to enjoy the experience most of the time regardless if their kiddo is pulling in A’s or C’s, regardless whether she has 1 friend or 10, and regardless if they bring him to occupational therapy or to baseball practice after school.

Research supports this anecdotal conclusion. For example, in a study of children adopted from Romania, researchers found that even though these children came from extreme deprivation and arrived with very significant delays, almost 92% of the parents had a positive view of the adoption; almost 98% said they got along well with the child; and about 96% said they felt close to the child. (Ryan and Groza, 2004)

Flexibility is key.

I can’t stress enough, however, how crucial it is for parents to have appropriate expectations and remain flexible to their child’s changing needs. Adoptive parents are supposed to get some preparation pre-adopting to help with expectations and flexibility, but I’ll admit that the quality of this preparation is varied. In truth, however, I worry more about parents through birth who don’t receive any preparation and who naively think that because their child was born to them, their child will be perfect and will not have any “issues”. Parenting doesn’t come with such guarantees.

I am not suggesting that prospective adoptive parents automatically and blindly be open to children who might have been exposed to alcohol during pregnancy or open to adopting a child with any special need. This is not a decision to make lightly. Get educated on what this means to you and to your family. Parenting is for life and any decisions about parenting should be weighed heavily. But what I am suggesting is that there’s a lot of happiness in expanding your idea of what the perfect family and perfect child look like.

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First published in 2010; Update in 2019
Image credit: Juhan Sonin; The Advocacy Project