Helping Your Adopted Child Learn to Trust

family with boysTime is your ally in helping your child build a trusting relationship with you.

Most of us are aware of the negative effects that abuse, neglect and abandonment have on a child’s developing brain. Any of these unpleasant life experiences can alter the child’s ability to function in society, socially relate to other people and build trusting relationships with others. The trauma these children have experienced leads to grief, loss, shock, depression, interrupted child development, fear, anger, and loss of control, to name a few consequences. With children adopted internationally, in particular, the adoptive parents must begin the bonding and attachment process and help their child learn to trust again once they return home. This can be difficult to do when the family is in transition, tired, overwhelmed, and trying to get to know the needs and wants of their new family member. However, it is crucial to begin the process with them.

Early history will strongly influence their ability to trust. It is important that parents first try to recognize what their child may have experienced prior to joining their family as this has formed the foundation of their understanding of others, feelings, suspicions, ability to comply, loyalties, determinations, and fears. Some children don’t believe that they deserve a family or love or even affection. Their time in an institution, the abandonment by their biological family and the lack of supportive adults in their life may have contributed to low self-esteem and a lack of self-confidence. Because they do have a biological family, albeit absent, caregivers they have come to know, and potentially siblings they are leaving behind, these children may experience feelings of disloyalty if they connect to you or identify you as their mom and dad. They have lived without much control over their lives, being placed by officials in unfamiliar settings, being told what to do according to a specific daily schedule, and now being told they are going to live in a foreign country far away from the places and smells and people they find familiar. They do not feel they have a voice or an opinion; they see that no one considers their feelings. Since they may have frequently changed orphanages, foster homes, schools, and caregivers, the child really does not have a history of establishing or maintaining healthy relationships with adults and often not with children either. These children have had to learn to survive and in many cases that does not include letting others “inside.” The child will likely be guarded and slow to trust. And finally, the elephant in the room is Fear. Regardless of their chronological age or level of development, they are afraid. Fear of the unknown, fear of new places and people, fear of new surroundings, foods, customs, fear of not fitting in, fear of disappointing someone, fear of being abandoned yet again—-the list goes on and on.

So what can you do to begin to build trust with your newly adopted child? Connections to another human being are rarely immediate. They all take time to develop.

    • Give your child some space so they can build this trust at their level of comfort. Get to know each other and don’t force them to demonstrate trusting you immediately. Your consistent actions will show your desire to build that trusting relationship and will allow your child to have some semblance of control. When you allow your child to express his feelings, talk about his life before placement and speak of his birth family, you show that you accept him as a person and that it is OK for him to become his own person in your family. Feeling accepted by those who love and care for you is crucial to building a foundation of trust.
    • Be willing to be available to your child at any time he or she needs you, especially at first, as this will make coming to you for comfort, advice, and support develop naturally and in a healthy manner. It will offer the support the child needs at this crucial time and show him you can be trusted. By demonstrating stability, consistency, confidence, and healthy family relationships, you help your child see what a solid trusting relationship looks like and they can begin to emulate it. You cannot learn what you cannot see, and remember this may be the first time they have witnessed a true trusting relationship with another person.
    • Demonstrate patience and the ability to not take setbacks with your child personally. Any rejection they display or tests they utilize to ascertain your commitment to them are steps they need to take to ease into a trusting relationship with you. Remember, others have failed them in the past so they have to see if you will do the same.
    • Finally, attend to your own needs during this time and assure you feel supported and assisted, take occasional breaks, and avail yourself of resources and professional help when needed.

Time is your ally in helping your child build a trusting relationship with you. Your patience and understanding of the process will help you enable your child to develop a necessary life skill and discover what a loving, trusting family can be like.

For more information on our international adoption programs, please contact us.

Karlene Edgemon works as MLJ Adoptions’ Director of Social Services. Throughout her 25 year social services career, Karlene has been able to watch adoption transform the lives of children and she is always brainstorming new ways to support adoptive families before, during and after their adoption.