Helping Adopted Children Through A Divorce

Many adopted children have experienced significant, and emotionally traumatic, losses in the past. Some have already seen relationships broken by discord and difference. Before their adoption, many children lived without the sense of security and consistent guidance that fosters healthy emotional development.

These difficult emotions don’t end upon placement. Like everyone else, adoptees enter every new situation with a history, one that isn’t always overwhelmingly positive. The impending divorce of their adoptive parents can draw these painful feelings back into sharp relief.

Your child will experience your divorce as another loss; that’s unavoidable. Now, your child will lose the steady familial structure on which they have come to depend. More acutely, their sense of belonging, often a difficult issue for adoptees, is being challenged. How does your child fit into this new definition of “family,” which will now extend beyond a single household and may implicate very different parenting styles.

Your child deserves and needs strength and security, now more than ever before. At every step, try to stay “child-first,” asking yourself what you can do in the present to provide your child with stability and love. Taking a child-first approach can be difficult. That’s especially true when you’re getting a divorce, consulting attorneys and planning out your next steps. Make sure your child’s well-being is at the heart of those steps.

Many adopted children benefit greatly from structure. Try your hardest to maintain schedules, rituals and rules, creating consistency through the often unstable divorce process.

Adopted children often experience difficult attachment-related issues, especially when one parent is given primary custody. Losing control over who you can see and when is hard and it will continue to be hard. If possible, attempt to work out your custody arrangement as soon as possible, so you can familiarize your child with how things will be after your divorce is finalized.

Be rational and compassionate. It’s all too easy to slip into an unhealthy headspace, viewing your divorce as a competition with your child’s love as the prize. Looking to position yourself as the “fun” parent is a trap. What your child needs is a stable parent. Viewing the situation this way is a grave mistake, particularly if it comes to affect the way you talk about and act toward your child. Your child will pick up on that and may even able the obligation to “choose sides.” It should be obvious that no child should be made to decide between two people they love. Instead, reiterate with your child that your former partner loves them and will continue to be their parent. Then encourage your child to express their own love for your former partner.

Be open and transparent about the choice you and your former partner have made. Divorce, for most couples who decide on it, is the right thing to do. People get divorced because being apart is simply healthier for all parties involved. Even so, adoptive parents can be hit particularly hard by divorce. Many hold themselves to a high standard, often a higher standard than they would apply to other couples. After developing a winning adoption profile, examining your relationship’s strengths and welcoming a child into your family, deciding on divorce can lead to strong feelings of guilt and shame. Don’t let these feelings overwhelm you. Divorce is the right choice for you, your former spouse and your child, too. You’ve chosen to become a happier, healthier person and, I’d bet, a better parent in the long-run. Sit down with your child and let them know that they are not being rejected. That this is not their fault. That no one is going to abandon them. Then make good on those promises.


Article by Maxine Chalker, MSW / LSW.  Maxine Chalker is the executive director of Adoptions From The Heart, a non-profit private adoption agency with offices throughout the East Coast.