From Cynthia’s Couch: What I’ve Learned from 20 Years at Arms Wide
An Interview with Post Adoption and Post Permanency Supervisor, Cynthia Couch, LCSW
Motivations and Reservations
- In your experience, what motivates people to foster/adopt?
Each person comes to adoption and foster care for unique reasons. Often, couples consider adoption after facing infertility. Other individuals feel called to adoption and foster care because they feel it’s their mission to help these children. Some parents wait until their biological children are grown, and, realizing they have more to give, decide to pursue foster care and/or adoption.
- What holds them back?
Some people are held back from adopting or fostering because they worry about how they’d cope with the behavioral issues or the trauma a child’s experienced. Others are held back by the fear that they won’t be able to love a son or daughter who isn’t biologically related to them.
The Changes: Good and Bad
- What changes in foster care/adoption have you witnessed over the course of your career?
There have been several changes, but the first that comes to mind is that more children are being exposed to drugs and alcohol. This exposure can be traumatic, and can result in physical and mental issues.
The children with whom I work also struggle with neurological disorders, which can be disconcerting for parents. However, mental health professionals are learning more and more about how to effectively treat these children. In fact, trauma-informed care has become even more common. This is medical and mental health care that takes into account the psychological, biological, neurological, and social effects of the trauma a child has experienced.
- What is one thing you would tell people about adoption or one misconception you encounter which you would like to dispel?
The idea that just love will be enough. It is a misconception that if you love the child enough all the past trauma and issues will dissolve. Love is essential. But we have to treat their traumatic experiences and mental health concerns as seriously as we’d treat any other injury. Combining resources like therapies and medication with a loving home allows children to thrive.
- Can you share your favorite adoption story?
I worked with a boy who was adopted when he was 11. He was severely sexually abused as a six-year-old, to the point of requiring surgeries and months of treatments and recovery, which resulted in his being in state custody for years. An older couple with no other children stepped forward to adopt him. They gave him a safe, loving forever family and now he is an 18-year-old high school graduate. Currently, he’s in the ROTC and has a part-time job!
- What makes an adoption successful – how can prospective parents/families best prepare?
To make an adoption a success, families need a community—family, friends, their church… An adoptive family needs people who will come into the life of their adopted child and participate in their life with that child, just as they would with a biological child. Love may not be immediate—sometimes it takes time to form a bond and the love might grow over time, and that’s okay. But everyone involved with the family should understand that this isn’t temporary. This child is the parents’ son or daughter forever.
- What are the resources needed to help families assimilate a new foster or adopted child?
In many cases, parents need to know the children will need mental health services to deal with issues of trauma and neglect. Keep in mind that adoption itself comes about through a trauma of sorts—the loss of the biological family. Families need to be open to seeking and using mental health services and other post-adoption resources. However, we also need providers, such as therapists and psychiatrists, who understand the uniqueness of families created by adoption. Because so many people, including many mental health professionals, don’t fully grasp the intricacies of adoption, support groups are important. Children, teens and parents need a place to interact with their peers and offset the feeling of isolation that can come with having a nontraditional family. To be able to share experiences with a group of people who’ve walked the same road is invaluable.
Welcoming Another Child
- What is it usually like when a family with biological children welcomes an adopted child into their home?
When there are already other biological children in the home, even if they were on board and excited about the adoption leading up, they can have difficulties understanding the amount of time and energy their parents need to spend on the adopted child. They might struggle with traditional sibling issues, like sharing toys with the adopted sibling. On the other hand, a birth child in the home can be a great model who helps clarify family expectations for the adopted child.
Talking About Adoption
- What advice do you have about talking to young children about being adopted?
As a new adoptive parent to a then two-year old, the best advice I was given was to look him right in the eye when I rocked him to sleep each night and say “We are glad we adopted you.” Even though he didn’t know what we were saying at that age, it was a pleasant word association. Say it from day one so that an adopted child grows in their understanding of it as they mature. As the child asks more questions, parents can add details. Adoption should always be approached as a positive and something a child can be proud of, never as a secret or taboo.
- When they are old enough to understand what is happening, can you share some of the children’s reactions to the news they are being adopted. What do they say?
At first, there’s a lot of excitement—finally, someone has chosen them after all the rejection they’ve faced. Fear sets in soon after. Children wonder if this will really last or just be another move like they’ve experienced in foster care. Some children worry they’ll lose contact with their friends or foster siblings. Overall, though, most children are excited and happy about having a forever home.
- What advice would you share with families who’ve adopted a child?
When a family welcomes a child into their family, they have to be honest about not fully knowing the child’s personality yet. The same goes for the child, who is still getting to know his or her adoptive parents.
For many children who are adopted, they’ve never had a forever family and might have never had anything truly permanent. Each child carries a unique history, filled with experiences, fears, and the trauma of transitions. Understanding that these new parents are forever can be incredibly difficult for a child who has never felt permanence. This is where honesty and dedication come into play. Parents have to truthfully acknowledge that they don’t know everything about their child’s personality or past, dedicate themselves to utilizing all the resources available and persist in loving their child throughout these hard situations.
I think of adoption as somewhat similar to a marriage. When you marry someone, you assert your love for this person and commit to be their family forever. You tell them you’ll stand by them in sickness and in health—you promise to never give up on them. However, just like in adoption, you haven’t known this person their whole life. You can’t possibly know all the experiences that formed them or what sort of struggles they might encounter in the future. So to make this lifetime promise is incredibly brave and bold. There’s an intrinsic risk in both marriage and adoption. And when we make these sorts of commitments, we affirm that this person is worthy of unconditional love.
About The Author
As the Post Adoption and Post Permanency Supervisor, Cynthia Couch, LCSW, leads the department in guiding families to resources and support services to help them thrive. After earning her BS in Psychology at Abilene Christian University, her Master’s in Social Work at Simmons College and spending 15 years as mental health practitioner, she discovered her love for working with adoptive families and found her career at Arms Wide.