When most people think of adopting a child, they consider babies or infants under a year old – frequently infant adoptions. Those who consider the next age group up, toddlers, frequently throw them into one of two categories: big babies or smaller, younger children. This is due in part because much adoption literature focuses on infants and older children adoption – it’s easy to forget that toddlers are neither. In fact, adopting and parenting a toddler is a whole new game.
Toddlerhood is a defined step in human development, usually encompassing ages 1 to 4 years old. One misconception about this age group is that a toddler at any stage will forget potential past traumas and embrace their new family quickly, while the new parents pass over the“new baby” stage of raising children. It’s quick and easy to embrace the idea that a lot of love and some basic behavior therapy can wash over bad memories…but realistically, that’s not always the case.
Adoptive parents often find that parenting toddlers offers unique challenges and gratifying rewards.
For starters, toddlers have begun to grasp language and basic communication skills in addition to a sense of humor. However, these come coupled with a growing sense of autonomy of physical capabilities. For the emotionally traumatized toddler, this can lead to bouts of intense grief and anger, aggression, or rejection, and a hypersensitivity to stress, all of which can be physically expressed.
The two most important stages in a toddler adoption are transition and attachment. Toddlers are old enough to make up their minds, but young enough to not use much logic in their fact-finding processes. This makes investing a great deal of time and energy, along with developmentally appropriate learning and coping mechanisms, incredibly crucial at every step.
Adoptive parents may find that their toddlers initially resist their attachment. Their communication skills are limited, especially in international adoptions, and their routines are important in maintaining stability. Disrupting their everyday life and surroundings through the adoption process can be difficult for them to comprehend initially.
For toddlers who have been repeatedly fostered or placed, they may have rudimentarily concluded that stability in their caregivers does not exist and thus resist attaching to all new caregivers. This may present as aggression or grief in their first few months at home, during which time toddlers may cry, withdraw, refuse to eat or display food or comfort seeking behaviors, have trouble sleeping, or express infantile behavior.
For adoptive parents, the best actions to take will be to acknowledge the pain and support their toddlers through their grief. Offering familiar foods, instituting routines, and comforting toddlers as one would an infant are some of the steps that toddler parents find helpful in calming the grieving and introducing a new normal.
Unlike older children, toddlers who go through the adoption process are unable to participate in and understand every phase, including the ever-important transition and therapy strategies involved in placing older children.
While many parents find that their adoptive toddlers settle into family life with ease, some may find their new children want nothing to do with them through displays of anger, grief, and a push for independence. Though the road may be difficult, this outcome can be mitigated with extensive preparation and patience throughout the journey.