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Wisdom Wednesday: Transitioning from Foster Care to Home

As a foster care coordinator and someone who has adopted a child who was fostered, I often field questions from parents about how best to prepare themselves for adopting a child who was in foster care. Even the most prepared parents can find themselves caught off guard by their children’s behavior. Here are some observations that I and my fellow parents who have adopted children who were fostered in China have made.

There is no one way to grieve. My daughter marched right up to us, shook our hands, and said in Mandarin, “Hello, I don’t speak English.” There were no tears or expressions of anger or fear; we were shocked with how well things are going. Now, almost a year later, my daughter is realizing that adoption is permanent and she is sad most days missing her Chinese grandma. Some children scream, kick, bite, sob uncontrollably, and have meltdowns. One parent reported that her child’s body was lifeless and her face was blank after saying goodbye to her foster family. Another parent reports that her child was generally uncooperative which required negotiations for completing activities like getting in and out of the car. Our daughter would yell “Bu kan! (Don’t look at me!)” when she was upset after we came home. Regardless of whether grieving occurs in China or once you are at home, grieving is stressful for parents. But it is a necessary part of the adoption process. It is important to remember that each of our children has a different level of understanding about adoption and a different personality.

Many of the foster children that were in my program continue to speak about their foster families. I think this speaks to the love and care our children received from their foster family. The intense grieving is natural: we are asking our children to trust that total strangers are going to be able to equal the love our children have felt from their foster families. I ask myself, “Could I have taken that leap of faith?” and the answer is a resounding NO. I am in awe of my daughter and the faith that she had in our family before she any tangible proof that we were indeed trustworthy.

Meals, clothing and bath time are potential battlegrounds. Some children will refuse to eat anything at all, possibly because of grieving or maybe to regain some control over the situation. Other children will only eat Chinese food. My daughter would take giant bites of food and literally be choking and stuffing more food in her mouth at the same time. She would show her displeasure in our directive to take smaller bites by narrowing her eyes and muttering in Chinese at us. Another parent reports that her child would be reaching for more food right after putting food in her mouth and would eat as quickly as possible, getting upset if someone had more than her.

Some children refuse to wear the new clothes that their parents have bought. One child wore the pajamas she had on under her clothes to bed the first night and the next day would only put on her clothes from the day before. This is so hard for us as parents because we lovingly chose the clothes we purchased. Just remember that the only family your child has ever known lovingly dressed them in the clothes they wore on their journey to meet you. I can always tell when my daughter is having an extra hard day missing her foster family as she puts on her red shoes that her foster grandma gave her, no matter how appropriate they are for the activity we are doing.

Some children don’t want to take baths at first. One family used bath toys to entice their daughter into the tub. Bubble bath and tub time with her jie jie (big sister) was how we won our daughter over to the tub. But don’t force the issue! Western bathrooms are not like Chinese ones, so this is a new experience for them.

Something that we might consider to be a behavior issue does not mean that our child has not been raised well. Culture is a contextual experience. So, while I cringed when my daughter spit her watermelon seeds onto the floor in the hotel restaurant and another parent reported her daughter spitting on the bathroom floor after brushing her teeth, this would be acceptable if the floor were dirt and not fancy marble. Children wandering around restaurants and other public spaces seemed fairly acceptable wherever we traveled in China. Partially because of our family culture and partially because we did not want our daughter wandering off, we insisted she take a seat. Some of our children have played roughly with the toys or electronics we have brought them. It may be the first time they have seen an iPad, baby doll, or deck of cards, and they just don’t know how to manipulate it. Many of us have noted boisterous, loud or bossy behavior in our children. One parent notes that her daughter is very loud, and that despite trying hard to use her indoor voice, she simply cannot. My daughter is also extremely loud. In fact, I had her hearing checked because I thought for sure it would show she had hearing loss. But no — she is just loud! Other parents report their children demand rather than ask or are overbearing with their friends. Maybe this is just to get their point across when language is limited, or perhaps it stems from a need to make their needs known.

So what can we do as our children transition from foster care to our families? One parent says that, “Adopting a foster child comes with mourning.” They are mourning the loss of the secure life they knew, and we are mourning the fact that our child may not come running willingly into our arms like we may have envisioned. But this same parent has reminded me that this mourning is necessary and that it demonstrates “an attachment that would prove fruitful” in creating lasting bonds with the new family. Reassure your child that it is OK to love their foster family and that they don’t need to choose between you and them. We talk about our daughter’s foster family every day. They raised my amazing daughter for five years, and talking about them acknowledges the gift they gave all of us. Another parent advises that “a rough time is part of the journey and you just have to hang in there. Keep using common sense and relax..Expect the unexpected and improvise.”

With these wise remarks, I wish you the best in your journey to adopt your child.

~Kerry Palombaro is the Huainan Foster Care & Tuition Assistance Co-Coordinator and mom to two girls from China.

Did you adopt a child from foster care? What advice would you share about the transition?

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  • Dawn Rentmeester says:

    Kerry….thanks so much for writing this. We are beginning the journey of adopting a child from foster care. I am inhaling as much information as I can and while I find books to be a great resource, nothing beats first hand experiences. thanks again!

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