In adoption, as in all of life’s momentous decisions, it is important to prepare both legally and emotionally.

From the legal point of view, adoption is constituted by a judicial resolution, seeks the interest of the minor, entails the achievement of the right to parental authority and determines the disappearance of the legal ties between the adoptee and the biological family. From the emotional point of view, it means taking in as a child, with all the rights and obligations, a child coming from a different environment , with a culture and customs different from ours.

Adoption generates, on the one hand, new emotional ties and, on the other hand, the development of new roles and functions on the part of the parents and the child. This article aims to offer some recommendations that facilitate reflection on the meaning of adoption and the preparation of the child’s arrival in the family .

Key ideas for psychologically managing an adoption process

At the moment that a desire for adoption takes root, what is embodied is the story of a rapprochement between different people who have feelings and moods derived from their personal history and experiences.

Adoption is a long journey of learning and managing emotions, both of the child who joins a family, and of some adults who are initiated in the role of parents of a “little person” who carries a burden that in many cases they are unaware of.

This path requires that the future parents are aware of their own feelings, of the couple’s feelings, of the family and social response and of what is essential to remedy the adopted child’s shortcomings. Let us not forget that: “an adopted child is an abandoned child”.

Abandonment implies a break in the bond that will leave a wound in the child and generate an insecure attachment . After a period of time with his adoptive family, the percentages of secure attachment increase because a close and positive relationship generates security and, therefore, the capacity to re-establish affective bonds.

It is important to be aware that for the adoption to be a success the parents, as the main figure of attachment and repairers of the child’s wounds, must feel strong and be convinced of their capacity as protective and affectionate figures. This strength and capacity involves working on the emotions that invade them and the child, in each of the phases, using their internal resources or contacting professionals who provide them with tools and guidelines.

The importance of managing emotions when adopting

Let no one feel guilty if at a certain moment his strength fails him or he feels discouraged and lost; it is the result of the roller coaster caused by emotions. It is important to know that at the next turn happiness and joy will explode. From the moment you decide to adopt a child, this maelstrom of emotions will accompany you throughout your life.

The adoptive parents begin the path of parenthood by a different route to the biological one, and this implies different experiences and emotions , for each of the stages that lead to building a family.

The stages of adoption

Although the stages are similar (waiting, birth-assignment, meeting, judgement in the case of intercountry adoptions, adaptation and integration and consolidation as a family) the experiences of each of them and the associated emotions differ greatly from one form of parenthood to another.

1. Waiting stage

Once the decision has been made to build a family through adoption and the application for adoption has been submitted, the process begins with the waiting stage: this is a long phase in which , once the legal procedures have been completed and the documentation has been drawn up, time passes very slowly . Unlike the biological parents who know that at nine months they will know their child, the adoptive parents do not know how long they can wait and this causes them uncertainty, impatience and disenchantment bathed in much hope.

2. Allocation

At an undetermined point, we enter the second stage: the assignment. The parents receive a call in which they are informed that their child is waiting for them , they explain the characteristics and background of the child and ask if they want to meet him/her. This is a very intense and confusing moment. On the one hand, the longed-for desire to meet and on the other, the fear that the expectations created will not be fulfilled.

It is inevitable to create an image about the “little angel” that you are going to meet and to ask yourself how he will react when he sees you (he will reject me, he will accept me, he will think, as he will feel, because you left him, that he will have lived…). A lot of unanswered questions come to mind that generate a lot of illusion, nervousness, fear, anguish and insecurity in the face of the unknown, which are overcome by the absolute desire to know the child and begin the journey as parents.

3. Meeting

The first meeting is the most eagerly awaited stage, where the greatest desire of the future parents becomes a reality : to get to know their child. On arriving at the centre where the child is, the parents react in various ways: some cry, others laugh, others collapse, or have reactions that define panic (the parents are terrified of not being up to the “little person” they will soon meet).

The child, on the other hand, feels anxious and helpless: “I’m going to have some parents, I don’t know what it is or what will happen to me, I don’t know them and this makes me very nervous”. At first the parents are perfect strangers; feelings of mutual strangeness and distrust of the child towards the parents will surface. It is necessary to relax, transmit serenity and respect the child’s behaviour to get him to relax too and to be able to interact. The easiest way to reach the child is through play.

Usually after a certain amount of time, the child will agree to play with you and at that moment the relationship that will last a lifetime and forge the bond begins to be built. When this happens, happiness will be felt by both parents and child and is the omen of certain success.

4. Adaptation

Then we will enter into the stage of adaptation, whose purpose is to get to know each other and to build the relationship that will generate trust and will lead to adoption.

Although this period can be very different between national and international adoptions due to the difference in the legal process, the main emotion is the joy, which comes from the depths of our hearts and brings us the tranquility, well-being and love that pushes us to explore the environment and deepen our knowledge of the other.

Once the competent entities decide that the adoption is favourable, both the parents and the child are ready to start a common adventure that will be formalized, starting the real adventure of building a family.

This stage begins the day the child is picked up from the centre where he has spent the last months or years of his life. For the child, this is a very strong emotional blow that generates defenselessness and a lot of anxiety and that, generally, takes the form of disconsolate crying in the face of fear, rage, anger or disconnection with the environment, in the background another loss.

Parents face this situation in a different way, they feel a deep emotion charged with tenderness, love, joy, accompanied by a certain anguish. Giving up everything and putting oneself in the situation of the child, who feels as if he has just been kidnapped, makes it easier to understand him and to help him overcome his pain. Understanding the relational style he has lived, the affective bonds he has had , the non-individualised group relations, not feeling exclusive, not knowing what a father or mother is…, will facilitate his first steps in the family environment.

5. Consolidation as a family

Once out of the center is the moment of truth, the beginning of the journey as a family. When you get home, your child may be curious and explore the environment by touching everything, or he may be inhibited and not move.

From this moment on, the child will have to face many changes : the way of relating (from the institutional to the family environment), the situation of abundance (affection, relationship, play), the cultural change (climate, language, food, environment) and sometimes the ethnic difference.

The child feels disorientation, restlessness and expectation. He does not trust that the new conditions are permanent. He must understand that this time is different and he will not be abandoned. He needs to understand what is happening to him, get used to his new situation and learn what it means to live as a family . Therefore, it is important that before starting their school life they spend a long period of time at home to strengthen their emotional ties with the family environment.

As parents, observing the child, listening to him/her, seeing what he/she expresses and what his/her deficiencies are, pursuing him/her to cover his/her needs and showing him/her that you are there to protect him/her, take care of him/her and love him/her, you will manage to consolidate his/her integration into the family. This implies “accompanying your child in his growth and attending to his formation as a human being by protecting him and giving him affection, values and norms that will place him in social life” (Meltzer, 1989).

It is necessary not to forget that “as parents, the adoptive parents must fulfill the same functions as the biological parents, but with a plus that comes from the adopted child. The adoptive parents’ bonus is to repair the damage and consequences derived from the child’s previous history.” (Miravent and Ricart (2005)).

Parents and the extended family participate in this reparative process , so that the child can feel like one of the family, it is necessary that the family promotes an integrating attitude and a feeling of belonging. As the child feels safe in the family environment, he or she will dare to explore other environments and will start to walk alone, investigate his or her origins, develop his or her identity and become a happy adult.