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Step-Parent Adoption: Addressing The Emotional Needs of Children

By: Rebecca Amster Cantor, Esq., M.S.
Family Law Attorney
Marriage and Family Therapist

Ask almost any family law attorney about step-parent adoption and she will tell you that it is one of her favorite kinds of cases to handle. Most family law attorneys break up families through divorce or paternity lawsuits, and a step-parent adoption feels like the opposite.  What can be better than cementing a familial bond through a legal process?  And while that may be true, there are some issues that the children of the step-parent adoption may yet experience over time and step-parent adoption families would be wise to prepare and address those issues as they arise long after the ink on the final order has dried.

Many children of step-parent adoption may experience feelings of adoption-related loss, in which they come to understand that at least one of their biological parents has failed to be a part of their life (Brodzinsky, Smith, & Brodzinsky, 1998).  This sense of loss may contribute to feelings of difference, low self-esteem, and questions around their identity (McGinnes, Smith, Ryan, & Howard, 2009).  It is vitally important for their parents, therefore, to spend some time thinking about and preparing for the day that the difficult discussions around their child’s step-parent adoption arise.

As parents prepare to discuss their child’s step-parent adoption, it is crucial that parents keep in mind their child’s developmental ages and stages.  For instance, parents of preschool children (ages 3-5) should keep in mind that their children only have a tangential understanding of what an adoption is, or how their parents came to be their parents, whereas parents of children in middle childhood (ages 6-12) have children who understand basic biological relationships and can begin to understand that the step-parent who adopted them is not their biological parent, and, more significantly, can understand that they had a biological parent who is no longer part of their life for a reason they may or may not understand.  For adolescents, the understanding of the biological relationship between themselves and their step-parent is combined with a societal perspective; they understand that their peers may have an opinion about having a non-biologically related parent and that having an adopted parent could be viewed as a “second-best” route to having two parents who are biologically related (Brodzinsky, 2011).

It is my recommendation that the parents of the child in a step-parent adoption case keep in mind the following suggestions in helping their children if and when issues arise:

  • Discussing step-parent adoption is a PROCESS, not an event. Small children in particular, as they learn about being adopted by their step-parent, may return many times to the subject for many different reasons as they grow and learn more about the process and about themselves.
  • Keep your child’s developmental stage in mind as you discuss the step-parent adoption with him, her, or them. Not all children are emotionally or intellectually ready to understand, accept, or integrate all facets of a step-parent adoption at the same rate.
  • Avoid negative judgments about the child’s biological parent who is no longer involved. A child will come to understand that one half of their biological make-up comes from the parent with whom they no longer interact, but to paint that parent in a negative light will ultimately be harmful to the child’s self-esteem and identity development.
  • Normalize your child’s innate curiosity about their non-present parent, their heritage, or other questions about the process of step-parent adoption. Children are full of questions, and while they may seem trivial or strange, their questions are always important to them.
  • And finally, LISTEN and be emotionally available to your children. They may be experiencing troubling emotions as they work out and work through their experience of a step-parent adoption.  So long as they know that you, their parents, are able to listen and hear their worries, they will know that they have a secure relationship with you.

And isn’t that the whole point of a step-parent adoption after all?  To create and secure a loving relationship between a parent and child.