Coping With Complicated Feelings as an Adoptive Parent

Top view of lovely little girl sleeping soundly under mom's arms at home

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Adoption can be a long, complicated, and emotionally draining process. After working toward your goal for so long, it’s hard to imagine being anything but overjoyed with happiness when the process is complete and you bring your child home. However, as you and your child settle into your home, you might be surprised to find that your joy is also tinged with other emotions.

Being an adoptive parent can come with complicated feelings. According to a 2019 study, while there is awareness about the postpartum mental health issues biological parents face, the mental health issues of post-adoptive parents are underrecognized.

While adoptive parents may experience many of the same emotions and stressors as biological parents, there are some emotional experiences and challenges that are unique to adoptive parents.

This article explores some of the complicated emotions adoptive parents may experience after the adoption, as well as coping strategies that may be helpful.

Complicated Feelings Adoptive Parents May Experience

These are some of the emotions adoptive parents may experience in the aftermath of the adoption, according to Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University.

Identity Conflict

Many adoptive parents struggle with conflicts of identity. Adoptive parents may struggle with owning the role of a parent on a physical and emotional level.

This is especially common in women or parents who have not experienced the physical process of pregnancy. This can be further complicated in open adoption cases, where the adoptive parents must negotiate their roles with their child’s biological parents.

Guilt

Guilt is a commonly experienced emotion, particularly toward the child’s birth parents. 

Adoptive parents tend to feel guilt toward their children’s biological parents as the more they bond with the child and grow to love them, the more they grow to fear the loss of that connection. In turn, the adoptive parents feel sympathy for the biological parents and feel guilty for taking away their child.

Depression and Anxiety

Many adoptive parents experience feelings of depression and anxiety after bringing their child home. 

Post-adoption depression (PAD) occurs when the expectation and excitement of finally bringing their child home clashes with the realities of parenthood, which can include lack of sleep, disrupted routines, immense responsibilities, and increased stress levels.

Adoptive parents might experience the impact of these stressors more strongly because the process of adoption tends to be so arduous that they may criticize themselves for feeling anything less than happy and grateful for having their child home with them.

Complicating Factors

Dr. Romanoff lists some of the factors that can further complicate the emotional experiences of adoptive parents:

  • The adoption process: The circumstances surrounding the adoption can play a large role in adoptive parents’ emotions, particularly if it was a long and difficult process, which might heighten feelings of anticipation and, in turn, feelings of guilt when their reaction or the experience with their child is not as expected.
  • The relationship with the birth parents: The adoptive parents' relationship with the birth parents, which is often dictated by the type of adoption, can further complicate and exacerbate these feelings. For instance, the adoptive parents may have a difficult relationship with the biological parents. Or, they may feel guilty for not having any contact with them.
  • The child’s development: The child’s development and adjustment to their new home and parents—or lack thereof—can further complicate parental reactions. 

Coping With Complicated Feelings

Dr. Romanoff shares some strategies that can help adoptive parents cope with complicated emotions.

Accept That Your Feelings Are Normal

Anxiety, guilt, and irritation are completely normal emotions that are extremely common among adoptive parents. When you're anticipating something you've invested a tremendous amount of time and energy into, you may fall short in preparing yourself for things that will not go according to plan. 

It’s important to learn to manage emotions in these instances and realize that they do not have to occupy the driver’s seat with the way you react and make decisions in the future.

Manage Your Expectations of Parenthood

Don’t build up unreasonable expectations and set yourself up for disappointment. Resist the urge to create an ideal version of yourself as a parent, as it will inevitably lead to feelings of inadequacy. 

Remember that perfect is unattainable, and instead, aim towards being a good enough parent.

Build a Social Support System

Parenthood isn’t easy and it certainly takes a village. You may have the urge to isolate yourself if you’re struggling; however, this further exacerbates stressors and can make your situation more difficult to manage. 

Instead, reach out to family and friends for help and advice, and to vent. Share your anxieties, worries, and struggles with them. This can not only help you process these difficult emotions but also enables you to maintain an emotional connection with the important people in your life.

Seek Help

If you need help, one option is to attend a support group for adoptive parents. It can be validating and normalizing to hear similar concerns among people who are adjusting to parenthood under the same circumstances as you. 

Support groups provide a safe environment for you to share your feelings, receive feedback, and learn new strategies to manage common problems. Additionally, these groups can help you connect with other new parents and give you the opportunity to meet and learn from more experienced adoptive parents, who can serve as role models.

Therapy is another option that can be incredibly helpful to new adoptive parents in this situation. It can offer a safe space for you to explore your conflicting emotions.

A Word From Verywell

Excitement, joy, and gratitude are some of the emotions you expect to feel when you bring your adopted child home. However, you may find yourself feeling guilty, depressed, or anxious instead. These feelings can be confusing, and you may feel even more guilty with regard to the child’s biological parents or when you consider everything you went through during the adoption process.

Additionally, raising a child is a lot of responsibility and you might struggle to cope with the role of being a new parent. During the course of the adoption process, it’s easy to picture yourself as a super parent, who excels at everything effortlessly. However, when the time comes, you might find yourself feeling out of your depth.

It’s important to understand that you’re not alone; these feelings are common among adoptive parents. Be kind to yourself and allow for imperfections. Do the best you can and seek the help and support of loved ones when you need it. You can also join a support group or see a therapist if you’re having a hard time coping.

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2 Sources
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  1. Anthony RE, Paine AL, Shelton KH. Depression and anxiety symptoms of British adoptive parents: a prospective four-wave longitudinal study. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019;16(24):5153. doi:10.3390/ijerph16245153

  2. Foli KJ, South SC, Lim E, Jarnecke A. Post-adoption depression: parental classes of depressive symptoms across time. J Affect Disord. 2016;200:293-302. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2016.01.049