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How to support a child through the emotional journey of adoption

By seeking trauma-informed counseling, adoptive parents can support kids in this transition of making a home with a new family

The emotional journey for an adopted child may start with a single thought about identity and belonging. It is important to support them as they try to make sense of the changes in their lives. Photo: PIxabay

By Shweta Sharan

LAST PUBLISHED 09.11.2023  |  01:00 PM IST

In 2011, Srobona Das and her husband took a flight to Ranchi to meet their adopted daughter, Naina, for the first time. But all was not hunky-dory. There were documentation delays. And on top of that, that beautiful chubby baby took one look at the couple and bawled. “However, it all seemed worthwhile, when after leaving Sahyog village in Jharkhand, Naina finally relaxed in my arms," says Das. “My eyes welled up, I was overcome by a surge of love and belonging. That was the moment I became a mother, and I have not looked backed ever since."

A few years later, Das and another adoptive parent, Swarna Venkataraman, created a Facebook group called ‘For & Of Heart Babies'. The goal was to support pre-adoptive and adoptive parents, and to raise awareness about the process at the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA), the designated authority that handles adoptions in India.

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Das also wanted to draw attention to something that not many parents fully understood—adoption trauma for young children. The process of bonding between mother and child begins in the womb. And when kids are separated from their birth moms, they are impacted physically, emotionally and developmentally, even if adopted immediately.

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“Adoption trauma is very real and sometimes buried in the subconscious of the child," says Das. “It can come up during different stages in the child’s life. Hence, it is important for parents, educators and communities to understand and support our children."

In an article for Verywell Mind, a US-based website that provides mental health and wellness information by health professionals, therapist Theodora Blanchfield says that in spite of being happy with her adoptive family, the primal wound of adoption is real and needs constant work. “I have dealt with severe depression, and my psychiatrist monitors me for signs of bipolar disorder because of genetic susceptibility combined with that attachment trauma," she writes.

November is Adoption Awareness Month and while there is continuous focus on the need for a smoother adoption process, do adoptive families in India have access to counsellors, who are equipped to support their needs?

The first step is building an understanding

“Adoption starts with loss and grief," says Sangitha Krishnamurthi, a Bengaluru-based adoptive parent. “There are three parties involved—the birth parents, the adopted child and the adoptive parents. Unfortunately, the first two voices aren’t heard as much as the last one. Adoptive parents are unnecessarily placed on pedestals for being noble. There’s nothing noble about starting a family, it just is. And adoption is one way of building a family."

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Krishnamurthi adopted her son when her daughter was two-years-old. “We made an album of pictures of our wedding, our daughter’s birth, the time we went to the agency to the moment we brought our son home, and the first vacation we took as a family," she says. “The kids loved it."

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Krishnamurthi’s son, now 19 years old, knew he was adopted from the beginning, and used to conduct workshops on adoption for other children and adults. Krishnamurthi believes that there is a huge gap in understanding when it comes to schools and how they work with adoptees. This was one of the reasons why she co-founded a platform to work with schools to make them more inclusive.

In the last few years, there have been many disrupted adoptions in India—when children are returned by adoptive families due to “lack of adjustment". A possible reason could be the lack of adoption-related information and trauma awareness.

Dr Divya Kannan is a Bengaluru-based psychologist who focuses on a diverse range of mental health concerns arising from trauma. “We need to understand the individual needs that adopted children might struggle with. There needs to be greater awareness about how to express their grief and form their identity over time," says Dr Kannan, who has worked with both adoptees and adoptive parents. “The emotional journey for an adopted child may start with a single thought or question about identity and belonging. It is important to support them as they try to make sense of the separation and attachment that occurred early on in their life."

Counselling helped Mumbai-based adoptive mother Pooja Oswal understand her adopted daughter Kripa better. “When she was around seven, Kripa became quite rebellious for no apparent reason," she says. At that time, Kripa and she had a bedtime ritual called starry dreams. Oswal would play soft music in the background, ask her to close her eyes and imagine she was floating on the clouds to help her relax before falling asleep. “One day she closed her eyes and said she's on the cloud with her birth mother. I was so stunned. I steadied my voice and continued, ‘Do you want to hug her?’ She said, ‘Yes’, and wrapped her arms around herself," recalls Oswal. She patiently continued the conversation and asked Kripa if she had a question for her birth mother. And the seven-year-old replied: “[I want to ask] why did you leave me?"

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"At that moment, I kept quiet and Kripa grew quiet after mumbling something. After a few more minutes, I asked, ‘Do you want to let go now? Can we go back home now?’ She said, ‘Yes Mumma’, and went off to sleep. The next morning, she came to me and hugged me and said ‘I love you, Mumma’, and went around the house prancing as usual. That's when I realised that she was probably thinking about her birth mother and was seeking my acceptance. Once she found that, she was able to communicate with me freely," says Oswal.

Shweta Sharan is the founder of Bangalore Schools and Mumbai Schools, two popular parenting support groups on Facebook.