In 2011, WACAP parent Kris Kittle welcomed home her 13-year-old daughter, adopted from China. Here, Kris offers some tips to families about how to build and strengthen emotional connections with children who’ve joined their families through adoption. Especially addressing parents who’ve adopted older kids, Kris acknowledges that love can be hard to feel sometimes … and that’s okay.
Loving Your Child: Older Child Adoption
By Kris Kittle, Ph.D
Those who choose older child adoption face many distinct challenges. Many of the challenges are openly discussed as parents seek out advice and wisdom in how to address them.
One of the unique challenges parents may face, however, is not feeling love for their child, although this topic is rarely discussed. Few parents willingly admit they do not feel love for their child; those who do often receive judgment from others.
When the Feelings Are Hard to Find
Admitting you do not feel love for your child is perceived as unacceptable because it runs counter to human nature, so why do so many experience it?
There are likely a variety of reasons, but consider this scenario: When an infant or young toddler joins your family, you see the sweet smile that melts your heart. You hear the contagious baby giggle. You know how much this treasured child depends on you for care and comfort. When the baby you’ve cherished becomes a preteen—who perhaps begins to exude an attitude—you still know and remember the sweet baby tucked behind the challenging exterior.
However, when you bring your child home as a preteen (or older), you do not have those memories of the sweet and precious baby. You see only the tough exterior, and you are not sure what is underneath. Often, it is difficult to look past the exterior to that hurt child hiding deep inside.
Three Tips to Help Parents Build Emotional Connections With Their Older Kids
How can parents love their child when they lack the gushy loving feelings?
1. Set realistic expectations.
Would you marry a complete stranger and expect to feel immediately emotionally connected to that person? Certainly you answered, “No, of course not.”
Adopting an older child is similar: You are entering into a relationship with a complete stranger who has their own experiences, personality, and likes and dislikes. Yet as their parent, you are expected to feel emotional love for them from the start.
Those emotional connections and feelings can develop, but it often takes time to feel that love. It will take time for your child to feel love for you, too. And they may never feel love for you. You have to accept that loving your child is not about what they do (or don’t do), but who they are as your child.
2. Love is an action, not a feeling.
As one dad I talked with shared, “Love is what you do, what you say, and how you interact with your child.”
- You can express love to your kids by meeting their needs.
- You can show love by giving sincere, authentic praise every day (even if you have to look really hard to find something praise worthy).
- You can show love through service such as teaching skills, such as how to cook, how to sort laundry, how to manage money, etc.
- You can show affectionate touch by giving hugs, pats on the back, fist bumps, and high fives.
- You can spend quality time with your child listening to them and doing activities together that your child enjoys.
3. Take care of yourself.
It is hard to help others when you have already given everything within you, and you feel dry … parched, out of energy, done. As parents, it is easy to become so immersed in the needs of our children, or family in general, that we neglect taking care of us. However, we cannot pour from an empty cup, either. (Airline attendants remind us to put on our oxygen masks before assisting others.)
We need to change the narrative that suggests taking time to care for ourselves is selfish. Nonetheless, many parents struggle to find enjoyable things that help them feel refreshed. If that sounds like you:
- Consider different types of activities that you have tried or want to try.
- If you’re unsure of what works for you, consider activities in these categories:
- Reflective (example: meditation or positive self-talk).
- Calming (example: reading or spending time in nature).
- Physical (example: exercise).
- Creative (example: hand crafts or coloring).
- Social (example: join a new group or go to a movie).
- There are many ideas within each category, so search the internet for additional ideas.
- Don’t be afraid to try out new ideas.
- Keep track of what works for you as well as what does not.
- Make sure what you select is beneficial, not detrimental (such as overworking).
- If taking time for yourself seems difficult, start with small increments of time and gradually increase it. Find what works best for you to take care of you.
Worth the Effort
Setting realistic expectations for yourself (and your child), acting out love by meeting your child’s needs (even when you do not feel like it), and making sure you have energy to give are vital for you and your child.
If one day (or week) is really hard or is unsuccessful …
- Give yourself grace.
- Recommit to showing love to your child.
- And purposefully act.
It can be hard, but you, your child, and your family are worth the effort.
Dr. Kris Kittle is a WACAP adoptive mom and co-author of “Wisdom from Adoptive Families: Joys and Challenges in Older Child Adoption,” which brings together the experience of forty families who adopted preteen or teenage children. You can learn more about the book at www.AdoptionSurvival.com.
Dr. Kittle earned her doctorate at the University of North Texas and teaches leadership communication at Dallas Baptist University. She also blogs at https://kriskittle.com.