Adoption and Divorce

Parents do not envision divorce when they adopt children. The breakup of a family made through adoption can be particularly traumatic for everyone involved. The adopted child takes a one-two punch when his or her parents divorce because once again a parent leaves the picture. Both parents may feel extra guilt over inflicting an additional trauma on a child with a history of adoption losses, says Jean MacLeod, who is the author of At Home in This World and contributing co-editor of Adoption Parenting: Creating a Toolbox, Building Connections, and the Social Media Specialist for Oakland Schools.

Adoptive parents are no more likely to divorce than biological parents. In fact, the opposite is true. Adoptive parents undergo a great deal of scrutiny individually and as a couple in the home study. If a marriage is on shaky ground, the agency recommends against adoption and rejects the application. Moreover, adoptive and foster parents have often experienced infertility. They have longed for and struggled emotionally and financially to become parents. Adoptive parents who work very hard to keep the family intact make the marriage that survives the stress of infertility.

However, both adoption and divorce mean profound losses. “Through the process of adoption, our children lost birthparents and an extended family of aunts, uncles, grandparents, and even siblings. Internationally adopted children lost their birth country, birth culture, racial identity and language. Some of our daughters and sons lost orphanage caretakers that they cared about, others lost foster families that they had loved and lived with since birth,” says Ms. MacLeod.

Divorce can be an opportunity to identify and talk about loss, validate feelings, offer empathy, and help build the child’s resilience and coping skills. To an adopted child, divorce means abandonment, but the child may not understand why he or she feels that way. Understanding is a huge step toward an adopted child being able to successfully deal with the stress of this major life dislocation.

Divorce may hit an unsupported adoptee like a sledgehammer. Parents must make a necessary transition less traumatic by remembering “the extra layers of adoption require extra-care parenting in divorce.”

The adopted child needs to be guided through his own pain, fear and confusion regardless of whether the breakup is amicable or acrimonious.

The parent who is able to display emotional leadership and implement a family emotional-behavioral plan to weather the upheaval of divorce teaches an adoptee that there is life-after-loss. A chronically unhappy parent in a dysfunctional relationship cannot be the parent he or she needs to be for the adopted child.

Parents can mitigate some of the guilt by recognizing that when a parent chooses to demonstrate a “good” ending to a bad situation, it sets an important example. Both parents are the marriage role models that children emulate. Divorce is a sad ending, but a high-conflict marriage can be worse. The parents’ marital relationship could become their children’s as adults.

Every parent wants to protect his or her child, but when a parent shows little interest in visitation or abandons a son or daughter, an honest explanation is the best way to deal with a child’s hurt feelings. Covering for an ex-spouse in order to protect the child will eventually backlash.

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