Coping with Fear of the Unknown When Adopting

Dawn Davenport


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

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.

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 looks like.

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

21/01/2019 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 24 Comments

24 Responses to Coping with Fear of the Unknown When Adopting

  1. Avatar Jocelyne says:

    Having four preteen/teen boys through our home in six years, our parenting experience was not what we had originally planned. Now that we are empty nesters, I miss the day to day parenting, even with the chaos, drama, and uncertainty.

  2. Avatar Fingers Crossed says:

    Great post – and so true – you really roll the dice when you agree to become a parent, hoping for the best but knowing you might not get “perfect”. I’ve seen a lot of parents redefine what “perfect” means though. 🙂

    ICLW #115

  3. Avatar Stefanie says:

    Thank you for sharing this information

    ~Stopping by for ICLW #69

  4. Avatar Pat Johnston says:

    Great blog, Dawn. It’s that pesky problem of working on expectations

  5. Avatar Tracy says:

    My youngest son is two and was adopted domestically. He was born positive for cocaine, but did not go through withdrawal. He is relatively healthy -he has tubes in his ears and he hasd had some digestive issues. Around the age of one, however, we started noticing some aggression, hyperactivity, etc. We saw a developmental pediatrician in May who diagnosed him with FAS. We were devastated, but we are working through it all. Some days are difficult, but I would not change it for the world. Although he has behavior issues, he is also sweet, funny, charming, and adorable.

  6. Avatar LB says:

    Thanks for good stuff

  7. Avatar Wendy says:

    I soooooo needed to read this today. I’m an example of life not working out the way I thought, but it so has worked out the way it should. I need to remember ever day how blessed I am. thankyou for this heart felt post.

  8. Avatar christine says:

    There certainly are no guarantees in life, especially in parenthood! And even when you do all you can you can still have a child who isn’t perfect (but, heck, who is?). I’m glad you posted this!

    ICLW #43

  9. Avatar Pix says:

    Thanks so much for a great post! Most of our pre-adoption training has focused on the scary stuff, and while it’s out there, scary doesn’t always equal bad. Thanks for the reminder!
    Cheese Curds and Kimchi

  10. Avatar Geochick says:

    FAS scares me too. Thanks for putting it into perspective.

  11. Great post! I had to laugh to myself because I actually worry less about my daughter’s potential issues because she became part of our family via adoption and not by birth. I look at her birth family and compared to my genetic history, they are the healtier lot. 🙂

    Stopping by to say hi from ICLW!

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Reagan’s Mommy: I smiled when I read your post. A friend of mine says she thinks the greatest gift she gave her son was using an egg from a donor to conceive him. She didn’t want to pass some of her genes on to the next generation.

  12. Avatar Waiting and waiting says:

    Great blog and so true. There are no guarantees with parenting.

  13. Avatar nh says:

    I think you are so right when you that we need to expand our ideas about what a perfect family looks like. As we have got further and further down our adoption journey we have become more and more open to the idea that our child will have issues whether exposure to drink and drugs during pregnancy or issues afterwards in the family home.

    One of my friends keeps reminding me that there are no guarantees no-matter how a child joins the family.

  14. Avatar N. S. says:

    nice post. thanks.

  15. Avatar Jess says:

    As others have said, there are no guarantees with parenthood: All we can do as the parent is the best job we can with the tools and knowledge we have, dosed with a hearty dollop of love.


  16. Avatar Heather says:

    Thank you so much for posting about topics such as this. I listened to your radio podcast and learned quite a bit.

  17. Avatar Kelly says:

    After adopting a “low risk” child two years ago, we just adopted a second child who our IA Dr. considered high risk for FAS so this post hit home. I will admit that the decision to move forward was a difficult one and I do get anxious at times about what the future will hold. But one reason we decided to move forward is because we believe that there are no guarantees in parenting. I have more than a few friends with biological children with severe autism and ADHD. I’m sure that they did what they could to ensure a healthy baby – but it happened anyway. The one advantage of adoption is that you can assess some of your risks before moving forward as you can meet the child and have the child evaluated before making a decision. And, besides, the greatest factor for success for FAS and many special needs children is growing up in a loving stable family who will help them (or get them the help they need) to realize their potential. Isn’t this why we have children anyway?

  18. Avatar jkl says:

    And I agree with you that there are never any guarentees either way, but from everything I read it’s sooo… important when adopting to consider what you can and can’t handle in order to provide what’s best for the child.

  19. Avatar Sarah says:

    Thank you for sharing this information.

    There are so many children out there that might be passed over, when just a little bit of research and love will make for a happy family!!

  20. Avatar jkl says:

    I agree that there are no guarentees with parenting, at least from what I can see in my view as a non-parent, but as someone looking at adoption I also am trying to figure out what I can and can’t handle. If I had a child biologically there are certain things I would have control over. I wouldn’t drink or use drugs, therefore I wouldn’t have to worry about pre-natal exposure. I also wouldn’t have to worry about the impact of institutional care, for example.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      jkl: That is true, you do have more control over the prenatal environment, but there is still much you can’t control, such as catching a virus that affects the fetus, pre-eclampsia, cord wrapped around the neck, premature birth, genetics, etc. Although this is not something that I focus on, three of my four children have some type of “issue” that can be labeled. Their issues have not impacted my enjoyment of parenting. Oh, I should add that all three of these kids are my biological children. My special needs adopted child has no label. (I almost typed “no issues”, but then I could think of plenty of issues I have with her. 🙂 ) My point is simply that the search for guarantees is futile and can be paralyzing.

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