Caring for adopted children

The Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families provide a range of services to support children, parents and carers before, during and after adoption. Here, Sarah Peter, a child and adolescent psychotherapist with the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, outlines some of the issues which may be faced and how practitioners may be able to help.

Children who are adopted have usually experienced trauma and loss in their earliest years. They are likely to have been abused or neglected in their birth family, and experienced multiple moves between carers and long waits for a permanent adoptive family. The stability and love provided by adoption can help turn things around for children. But even after they are settled with adoptive families, the impact of early trauma is often clear. By noticing difficulties and offering extra help where needed, childminders and nursery workers can provide invaluable support to these families.

Separation distress

Saying goodbye to parents is even more stressful and difficult for adopted children than it is for most other children. In the past, they may have been separated from parents or carers suddenly, with little warning. They may have had to say goodbye to many different caregivers, and may have only recently come to live with their adopted parents. Some adopted children will show lots of distress when their parents leave, such as clinging, screaming or hurting others or themselves in protest. It’s tempting to want to reassure and persuade children out of their upset, but it’s important for you to show that you understand and accept their feelings. Stay with the child and calmly try to put into words what you think they might be feeling. If you have to stop them from harming themselves or someone else, explain that you have to do this to keep them safe. You may have to repeat this for many weeks or months, but eventually, they will start to trust that Mummy or Daddy will come back, and that you are there to help them with their feelings.

‘Too good’ behaviour

Not all adopted children show their distress in the same way. In fact, children who have experienced neglect often try to avoid strong feelings, showing the world that they can manage all by themselves. These children may go into childcare without saying goodbye, or seem happy to play alone for long periods. They may even seem advanced in their development. However, these behaviours often show that the child does not yet trust adults to help and care for them. They need gentle support to get in touch with strong feelings, in the company of trusted adults. Encourage parents to keep saying goodbye to their child, even if it seems like they don’t notice. Spend time with them when they are playing alone, narrating what they are doing and how you think they might feel. Books, stories and imaginative play are helpful ways to explore strong feelings indirectly. As children begin to feel safer to feel and express their emotions, they may show more separation distress or struggle more when interacting with peers. You can help by explaining to parents that these behaviours are really normal in young children, and a good sign that their child feels safe and secure.

Safety and self-worth

Experiences of abuse and neglect can leave children with deep-rooted feelings of shame and a sense that the world is unpredictable and unsafe. They might then struggle to manage their emotions. This can to lead an unhelpful cycle. Adults try to teach the child to behave better, by letting them know that they have done something wrong. This confirms to the child that they are not ‘good’, and increases their shame and fear, leading to more emotional difficulties and challenging behaviour. Try instead to talk to children  about feeling ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’, instead of saying that behaviour is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. If possible, find ways to help them express their all ‘big’ feelings safely, for example through play with dolls or teddies, or by drawing.

Supporting parents

All the usual challenges of parenting are doubled for parents who have adopted their children. Parents may be exhausted and stressed by the struggle to manage their child’s behaviour or feel rejected by the child. These kinds of emotionally draining experiences can make adoptive parents particularly vulnerable to their own feelings of guilt and inadequacy. Let them know that you understand that they and their child may face additional challenges, and talk about any extra support you think could be helpful for their child.

When to seek further help

While you can do a lot to help, it’s also important to identify when families might need specialist support. If you are consistently worried about a child or you don’t feel that you are able to keep them safe, it is always worth thinking with their parents about a referral to a specialist early years child mental health service.

Join our network for early years practitioners!

Early Years in Mind is a free online network for early years practitioners, developed by mental health experts at the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families. It shares practical and clinical knowledge on supporting the mental health of babies, young children and their families.

Sarah Peter is a child and adolescent psychotherapist. She is a senior therapist the Early Years Programme, at the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families (AFNCCF), where she currently runs an online therapeutic parent-toddler group. Previously she worked in the NHS in specialist mental health services for babies, children and adolescents, and in community outreach services targeted at families with young children. Sarah teaches child development and psychoanalytic theory at the AFNCCF and the British Psychotherapy Foundation.