Dear Family Whisperer: Fostering 'Family Grit' to Survive Adoption

04/13/2015 06:24 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2015
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Dear Family Whisperer,

Hi! My husband and I are planning to add to our family by means of adoption through our state children's division. We have an 8-year-old son who is very mature for his age, and also very sensitive to other's feelings. Since we are at the beginning of this process, how much of this would you recommend sharing with him? So far, we have shared some, but not all. We also haven't shared with our parents until we know more.

Adoptive Mother-to-Be

Your son is already part of the process.You and your husband made the decision to have more children, but "growing" a family impacts all of you. Regardless of how you get there, by traditional conception, adoption, or "ART" (assisted reproductive technologies), you're in this together.

But here's the most important reason to include your son: The greatest gift we can give our children is the ability to cope with whatever life throws at us. Think of adoption as an opportunity to develop "family grit."

Researchers define "grit" as "perseverance and passion for long-term goals." It's a key predictor of individual success in life. The concept applies to families, too.

Families with grit can handle change and crises. They have caring, conscious parents at the helm, but all members are "stakeholders." Whether it's managing the household, dealing with new circumstances or facing a serious problem, everyone works together. Here are 10 grit-strengthening strategies that apply to your situation:

1. Act now; admit what you're facing. At 8, "very mature" for his age, and the only child in the family, your son already "knows" that big change is in the air. Rather than risk his misunderstanding or, worse, his confusion and resentment, keep the conversation going. Make him part of the process.

2. Be Honest. Share with your son how you see your family and why you want to "add" to it: You have so much love to give. You enjoy being parents. You think he'll be a great brother. You want him to have a sibling like you did. Leave out details beyond his understanding (infertility) and information that might be confusing or scary. In short, respect him enough to be age-appropriately honest.

3. Educate yourselves. You've probably started down this road already by reading and tapping into adoption resources. Once you've got a handle on what the process entails -- paperwork, home visits and other requirements your family will have to meet -- share it with your son. Admit to what you know and don't know. Acknowledge that the waiting and uncertainty can be hard, but that the time and caution is designed to protect your family and the child who needs a home.

4. Don't catastrophize. After eight years in the spotlight, there's no way to predict how your son will adjust to the idea of sharing you. Don't overcompensate (with gifts or attention) or act like you've "betrayed" him. He will probably experience a range of feelings from excitement to resentment to self doubt ("Why aren't I enough?"). Expect all of the above-and allow it. William Is My Brother, which describes adoption from the older (biological) brother's point of view, would be a good springboard for discussion.

5. Include your family and close friends. By all means, talk your closest allies about your decision. Not only will your decision bring a new person into their lives, you'll do better with their support. Ideally, they'll be happy for you. If not, help them understand your needs and listen to their concerns.If you can't reach a consensus, urge them to keep an open mind and to respect your choices.

6. Find others who know the territory. Family change forces us into the unknown. We need professionals and lay people who can light the way. Many adoption or foster-care organizations sponsor get-to-know events for adults and children. Always "debrief" after these meetings: Talk about what you learned, what's exciting and what's scary.

7. Accept your new normal. To adjust to change, you have to accept it. Adoption will affect your family "ecosystem." On any given day, whether you're having absolute joy or utter frustration, you need to be where you are. Arguing with reality doesn't change it. It only saps the energy you need to cope.

8. Be a power of example. Resist the desire to "protect" your son's feelings, or to shield him from the truth. Negative feelings go with the territory whenever a family faces change. By dealing with your own emotions -- talking about them, doing something to change your mood, and moving on -- you are teaching your son how to handle life.

9. Keeping checking-in. You're at the beginning of a process that could take years. Minds can change along the way. Feelings can get hurt. New questions can arise. Schedule regular "check-ins" where you sit together, listen to each other, and make sure everyone's OK. However, don't allow "the adoption" to dominate every conversation. There's more going on in your son's life and in your family. Be sure to tend to your adult relationship, too; the process can be very hard on a couple.

10. Review and adjust. Every family has a "bank" of resources -- time, energy, and money -- to "spend." The adoption process will tap that bank. Reevaluate often: Are you more tired or stressed than usual? Does your son require extra tending? Do you and your husband have less time together? Is the process taxing your budget? You might have to reallocate -- say, by tweaking your routine, taking on fewer outside obligations or cutting back on other spending. Your son might surprise you. Children are amazingly creative and adaptive when given the chance!

Hi, it's Melinda. I welcome your comments and suggestions. Do you have a question about your family or a relationship? No topics are off limits, and it's all anonymous. Ask via Twitter @MelindaBlau #DearFamilyWhisperer, or click on this link. Read more about "family grit" and how to schedule "check-ins" in Family Whispering.