Walking the Tightrope in Adoptive Parenting

Dawn Davenport


Adoptive parenting can often feel like you are walking an a tightrope.

Adoptive parenting can often feel like you are walking an a tightrope.

Surely I’m not alone up here on the adoptive parenting tightrope. I bet some of you have also been there.  Your child is the only kid in the history of your church to get kicked out of the nursery room for crying (“We think she’s just not ready to be away from Mommy yet” said with a grimace and a prayer that you’ll heed their request.); your toddler is the biter that other parents complain about; your child is the only third grader still afraid to sleep over at a friend’s house; your child is filching change from your purse; your child doesn’t seek out hugs and snuggles from you.  You wonder: Is it me? Is it his/her temperament? Is it just a normal stage? Or, {pause} {heavy sigh}, is it adoption?

Ah, the joys of adoptive parenting!  Most of us, at one time or another, walk the “is it or isn’t it” adoption tightrope.  I’m definitely a been-there-done-that mom.  But, being a mom through both birth and adoption, I have the luxury of comparison.  And since my kids are now teens and beyond, I also have the luxury of hindsight.  For example, all of the above scenarios are out of my life.

Scenario #1 (kicked out of the church nursery): Birth child. Very resistant to all change from birth.  Diagnosis: God-given inbred temperament.

Scenario #2 (the biter): Adopted child.  Frustration build-up caused by language not keeping up with desires. Diagnosis: Developmental stage.

Scenario #3 (fear of sleep overs): Same kid as Scenario #1—not surprising that the child who hated to separate in infancy would hate to separate in elementary school.  Diagnosis: Temperament again.

Scenario #4 (petty thievery): Probably all at one time or another, but the one that stands out is a child by birth.  Diagnosis: Developmental stage, combined with low impulse control and a penchant for getting caught.  Thankfully it passed, but not without much parental prayer, worry and hand wringing, moving my purse out of easy reach, and counting my money frequently so the heavy hand of justice could be swift and fierce.

Scenario #5 (avoidance of snuggles): One birth and one adopted.  Diagnosis: Not sure, and not sure it is a problem to be diagnosed.  I think it is their temperament (not needing lots of physical closeness and strong independent streak) being viewed from my temperament (avowed hug-lover).

As I was trying to think of occasions in parenting that had caused me to walk the tightrope, it surprises me that I had a hard time coming up with a single one, with the power of hindsight, that I now attribute solely to adoption.  I suppose this could in part be my bias to avoid pathologizing adoption, but in truth, I think it because humans aren’t so easily pegged.

The hard part about adoptive parenting is walking the tightrope between being aware of potential adoption related issues and attributing temperament and normal developmental stages to adoption.  If we lean too far one way, we pathologize our kids.  If we lean too far the other way we leave our children unsupported.

I do believe that adoption brings “issues” to our children, and these “issues” can and often are reflected in their behavior.  But I think many things in life bring baggage that we all have to deal with, such as low impulse control, risk-taking temperament, learning disorders, birth order, income level, parental unemployment, etc.  A family is a complex web of several people all dealing with their own issues and interacting and bumping up against each other’s temperament and issues.  Family dynamics don’t lend themselves to A+B=C analysis.

I’ve come to believe that this tightrope is inherent in all types of parenting, not just adoptive parenting.  Plenty of parents of kids with learning disabilities also walk the is it/isn’t it tightrope, as do parents who divorce, work full time, have only one child, have many kids, etc.  As my kids get older, I wouldn’t say that I’ve jumped off the tightrope completely, but the rope appears to be a lot thicker and the balance easier to find.


Image credit: U.S. Army Korea

04/04/2012 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 14 Comments

14 Responses to Walking the Tightrope in Adoptive Parenting

  1. Avatar Tara says:

    I’m a first time parent so I have no experience with raising little ones and I’ve been struggling with this subject lately. When I did my reasearch while waiting to adopt I did what I always do, prepared for the worst. So I read everything about raising troubled children, dealing with attachment issues, The Primal Wound (wow), and others. So now that I am actually a mom I’m looking for (expecting) all these issues, or rather seeing all of these problems when it is probably just regular development.
    Currently, I’m concerned that my son happily goes to any Tom, Dick, Or Sheila who smiles at him and says he is cute, and then cries when I take him back. I read that kids who seem to attach to everyone have attachment issues. So I’m wondering if I should take him to a therapist at 11 months old. On the other hand, that seems ridiculous. Wish I read a little less about the bad stuff so I wouldn’t worry as much.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Tara, I’m so glad you asked this question. As someone who runs an adoption education nonprofit, I am keenly aware of the exact point you are making. We want parents to be prepared for the worst, but then are we not predisposing them to think the worst every time an issue arises. We truly try to keep in in perspective here, but I suspect we too are guilty of that. Some books and some educators are afraid to acknowledge that the problems they are talking about don’t define the whole universe of adoptees because they say that they believe that prospective adoptive parents only hear a small part of what they are saying to begin with. Also, quite frankly, these therapist are usually only seeing the kids who are struggling, therefore their perspective is screwed. I’m always astounded at how little of the really good adoption research is read by many psychological and medical “experts” in this field.

      I obviously don’t know your son. I do know he was adopted at birth by a highly motivated and loving mama who had waited a very long time and worked very hard to get her boy. For what it’s worth, one of my son’s was exactly like what you are describing. As a baby, he loved the attention of anyone and went freely to everyone. He didn’t seem to ever go through the stranger anxiety stage. Even when he fell down and was hurt, he seemed as easily comforted by others as by me, which I’ve got to tell you, hurt my feelings. Throughout his life, he made friends easily and freely. (I shudder to think that he is probably the life of the party in college now.) This son is now almost a man and has what they call high emotional IQ and great people skills. He likes everyone and as one of his sister’s says, “He could talk to a stump and find it interesting.” Oh, and by the way, this is one of my kids by birth.

  2. Dawn,

    I think that if a child withdraws or seems sad for a period of time, or appears to have self-esteem concerns would be times when it may be triggered by adoption.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      theadoptedones, I agree. If my kid seemed sad or really struggling with self-esteem, I would want to get him or her help. This could be depression, could be adoption issues, could be struggles with learning, could be confusion over sexual identity, could be a combination of all the above, but no matter what the reason, this is a child that needs support and help.

  3. Well said. It’s a continual balancing act between not denying the affects adoption can have and also not dwelling on them.

    A tightrope is a good metaphor! And, like you point out, there are other situations in which a parent has to be mindful of finding just the right balance.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Lori, I have found the tightrope walk as the parent of a child/children with learning disabilities to be a much harder balancing act.

  4. Avatar Monika says:

    As a birth parent, I actually worry about my daughter more than her parents probably do. I worry that she’ll have issues because I’ve read the nightmare stories of adoptees struggling all through life emotionally. She seems to be well-adjusted so far (at 2), and I have no doubt that if her parents wonder about her personality or emotional well-being at any point that they’ll discuss with me and her birth father and be able to sort things out. The benefits of open adoption! 🙂

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Talk about the benefits of open adoption indeed! I’m so glad you are in her life and in her parents’ lives. Truthfully, I imagine your daughter will be just fine. She has 4 parents to watch over her and to be there for her. I love your blog, by the way.

  5. Avatar Mike Recant says:

    What I have observed over the years (my Chinese adoptive daughter is 14) is that no kid is perfect. Yes, I feel bad for all problems my daughter has, but when I look around I see that all kids have problems albeit most are different than my daughter’s. It’s a trade-off. My daughter has sleep problems, someone else’s kid sleeps great but gets colds all the time. My daughter is great in reading and spelling but has to work hard at math while another kid is a math whiz but can’t spell worth beans. They all have talents and issues.

    I agree that dealing with both the “talents” and “issues” are just a part of parenting. At this point, for me, whether the “issue” or “talent” is related to the adoption is irrelevent, it is just something we deal with as a family. I accept/love my daughter for what she is and we take things step by step and I try not to let my personal insecurities get in the way.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Mike: “At this point, for me, whether the “issue” or “talent” is related to the adoption is irrelevent, it is just something we deal with as a family. I accept/love my daughter for what she is and we take things step by step and I try not to let my personal insecurities get in the way.” Well said!!!!

  6. I am so glad to see this written out! A couple years ago I wrote a post that laid my insecurities as an adoptive mother out there a bit. In hindsight now it is totally temperament for my girl!


    • Avatar Dawn says:

      I loved your blog on this subject. [A small part of me though, a very fragile part of me, was convinced that [adoption] was precisely the reason [for my daughter’s lack of cuddling]. That is the fragile part of us, isn’t it. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Avatar Renee Smith says:

    As the mother of 6 children, 4 born to me and 2 adopted – I believe that each one of my children have different personalities, dispositions, and levels of need. My oldest adopted child does have some issues that she is being counseled on but I believe with enough love, patience, and faith she too will overcome her issues. We do not make a big deal out of her situation and we reinforce constantly that she is home and will never be displaced from our family no matter what. I also have a birth son who had some issues as a teenager and we applied the same techniques that we are using with our baby girl and he is an extraordinary man now. Its all about consistency and support regardless if your children were born to you or chosen by adoption…

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