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Raising Your Adopted Child: Problems

All children go through hard times. Read about some problems many adopted children face.

Raising Your Adopted Child: Problems


An adoption issue is a problem that preoccupies and distresses an adopted child and is related to adoption. For example, fear that a birthparent might kidnap the child is an adoption issue.

So what is not an adoption issue? Any problem not related to the adoption. For example, a child who is temperamentally shy or a child who hates his teacher isn't experiencing an adoption issue. Remember, many problems adopted kids experience have nothing to do with being adopted.

Do adopted kids ever have emotional or psychological problems? Sure they do. Sometimes they hit a temporary rocky road; other times they may need professional help. Probably the biggest time when kids experience trouble is during adolescence, generally a difficult time for most children. I'll look at some of the most common problems some adopted children face.

“You're Not My Real Mom”

“I hate you! You're not my real mom! My real mom would never be as mean as you are!” If you hear these words from your child, it can be a shattering experience. You may wonder about your competence and whether your child loves you at all.

The good news is that in most cases, your child doesn't mean what she said. She's had an emotional outburst because she's mad that you didn't buy her the CD she wanted. Or you wouldn't let her do what she thinks everybody else is allowed to do. Or you are punishing her for a wrongdoing.

You should handle outbursts like this exactly as any biological parent would. Evaluate whether you were right or wrong. Are you being fair? Is the punishment appropriate for the crime? If you feel you've done everything right, hold your ground. If you cave in every time the “real parent” charge comes up, your child will use it repeatedly to control you, and that's not good for either of you.

So what you can say, in response to the “you're not my real mom” outburst, is that you are her real mom, in the first sentence. And then say that you have decided it's important for her to do what you've said. Say you love her and you feel sad that she's angry, but you'll talk about it later when you're both calmer. (You might also add that parents who raise biological children don't let their kids do whatever they want, either.) Then take a deep breath, shed a few tears in private, and move on. (Your child might cry, too. She might be surprised at her own outburst.)

Familybuilding Tips

The authors of The Adoptive Family in Treatment discuss a problem sometimes inadvertently caused by adopters who overly coddle their child—the creation of a little prince or princess who rules the household.

Parents need to realize that they, not the child, are in charge. Don't let your child run wild and take charge of your family. Even though you wanted this child for so long and you love her intensely, you do her no favors by constantly giving in to her demands. The cold, cruel world won't do that.

Discipline Disasters

Sometimes adopters are so thrilled they've finally adopted a child that when the child misbehaves later on—as children invariably do—they let the behavior go because they are unwilling to discipline their child. But if any parent, adoptive or nonadoptive, lets a child rule the household, that parent is in for big trouble. To obtain many more parenting tips for kids from infancy through adolescence, read Parenting Your Adopted Child (McGraw-Hill, 2004) by Andrew Adesman, a noted pediatrician in New York. (For the record, I helped him write the book.)

Other adopters don't feel a sense of entitlement to be a full and complete parent to the child. They imagine the birthmother thinking of them as bad parents for losing their tempers and yelling. The truth is that if the child had remained with the birthmother, she would probably punish him for his misbehavior, too. Because you are parenting the child and she's not, it's your job.

Echo Response

Sometimes a child adopted at an older age can display what therapist Claudia Jewett calls an echo response. This refers to hypervigilant behavior based on fears the child has developed from past experiences. For example, Jewett counseled a child who would never get into blue cars (although other color cars were okay). Through questioning the child, Jewett learned that the state social services cars had always been blue. The child associated blue cars with being taken away and put in yet another foster home. Understanding and desensitization can work to solve these kinds of problems.


If your child is exhibiting problematic symptoms that are not causing imminent harm to himself or others, don't rush your child off to the nearest psychologist or psychiatrist. (This is especially true if you just adopted your child from another country. It takes time to get used to a new family/culture/lifestyle/climate!) Instead, start with your pediatrician. Ask the doctor to give your child a complete physical examination. If all is well with your child physically, your doctor sometimes may advise you to seek the help of a mental health professional.

Food Fights

If “food is love,” then an early-life shortage of food can be interpreted very strongly and negatively by some children. Actually, food problems are fairly common among kids who are adopted after infancy, particularly older kids from other countries. Here are a few food issues:

  • Extreme pickiness about foods. Kids who've lived in an orphanage, group home, or other place where they didn't always get enough to eat—or got extremely bland food—need to get used to the many new foods you serve.
  • Gorging on food. Food gorging can really upset parents, especially when a child gorges to the point of vomiting. This is not a sign of bulimia; usually, the adopted child who gorges wants to be sure that he or she will have enough food to eat, unlike the past. Food gorging is especially common if the child was malnourished. The problem is nearly always temporary.
  • Hoarding and hiding food. This is a common problem for children who never knew where their next meal was coming from. They need time to learn that food is plentiful in their new home.

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