The impact of adoption on school-age children

Adoption is a lifelong journey. Its impact on you, your family and children in your home will change from year to year. Children who have been adopted will be impacted differently by that experience, and their personal histories are as unique as their personalities.

For school-age kids, knowing what to expect will help a parent meet a child’s needs and strengthen your relationship. A summary of common challenges for school-age children who have been adopted is below as well as suggestions on how you can support your child’s development. More detailed information and suggestions are available on the Child Information Gateway.

Attachment

A strong attachment to a caring adult is an important part of every child’s development. When attachment is distributed, a child may not develop the foundation needed for healthy development. Factors that may prevent healthy attachment include sexual and physical abuse, neglect, early years spent in large group homes and multiple moves from caregiver to caregiver.

A school-age child with insecure attachment might experience anxiety when away from home or even show developmental delays or traits of a younger child. You can help your child by interacting with him or her in a way that is consistent with the child’s developmental age, not chronological age. When you interact with children at the level of their emotional and physical development, you help them grow and improve and repair attachment.

What You Can Do: Make eye contact and smile before you address your child. Provide a safe and secure environment with a focus on predictable routines and schedules. Play board games or find other creative ways (such as face painting) that puts you eye-to-eye with your child. Engage your child in planning future events, to show that you plan to be together in the future.  Be sure to avoid “attachment therapies” that use questionable techniques such as physical restraint, isolation or placing children in residential care without involving their families.

Social and Emotional Impacts

Much of your identity comes from their relationships with family and friends. For children who have been adopted, developing an identity is more complicated. They must merge two separate families and histories as they decide how they fit in. In middle childhood, young people who have been adopted may struggle with issues of self-worth, self-esteem and feeling “different.”

These emotional challenges can interfere with concentration and distract children from schoolwork. Children with these struggles may appear to be less capable than they truly are. In addition, children who did not spend enough time with emotionally healthy adults when they were younger may have difficulty understanding, controlling and expressing their emotions.

What you can do: Teach your child the words for various feelings. Explain how to handle and express emotions in a healthy way. Be a positive example to your child as you express emotions. (“I feel so angry right now, I think I’ll take a walk until I cool down.”) Practice how to greet a playmate, how to ask for something, how to share.

Effects of Trauma

Children who have been adopted through foster care have experienced some degree of trauma. Exposure to trauma can affect how children learn, think, feel and interact, and it may have consequences for their health and development that persist even after they join safe and stable adoptive homes.

What you can do: Treat trauma as early as possible. Identify trauma triggers. Build trust by being available, consistent, and predictable. Watch for signs of secondary trauma in yourself.

Developmental Delays

Children develop at different paces, but some children who have been adopted may experience a significant, persistent lag in one or more skill areas. Such delays can be caused by genetic factors or environmental factors, including abuse and neglect.  

What you can do: Ask your school or doctor for a professional assessment if you notice something that concerns you. Inform your child’s teacher and school about his or her condition, and provide specific information about how the delay or disability affects your child’s ability to succeed in school. Advocate for school personnel to work with you to develop an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP).

Visit the Child Welfare Information Gateway for more information.

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