This post, originally on the Holt International blog, discusses the importance of adoption-specific support for parents. 

As all new and veteran parents know, children don’t come with rulebooks. There is no universal guide for parents — only tips, techniques and advice passed down through generations or published based on new science or shared experiences. The Internet brought a new trove of parenting information — blogs and support forums, stories and photos, and platforms to celebrate special moments with the rest of the Google-sphere. Still, parenting can feel at times overwhelmingly difficult. Undoubtedly, at some point, all parents will face challenges they never imagined. For parents of adopted children, it can be more difficult to find support systems, information and advice tailored to the specific needs of an adoptive family. What works for a biological child may be the exact opposite of what will help an adopted child. So, who can adoptive parents turn to for sound advice and information when parenting feels hard?

Holt’s clinical services director, Abbie Smith, and her team of therapists can help.

A licensed clinical social worker who has more than 25 years of experience counseling adoptive families, Abbie oversees a team of people who help families navigate through ups and downs in life. She offers clarity and support in times of trial. And, she reminds parents that they are not alone.

Lisa Vertulfo, Holt’s vice president of adoption services says that adoptive families get support from lots of places — church groups, family and more — but it’s important to know that in times of crises, grief or fear, adoption competent advice can make all the difference.

“Families need ongoing support,” Lisa says. “When they need more specialized support, we are always here.”

One Holt mom calls Abbie when she has questions about the developmental stages of her twin daughters. Another family might work with Abbie to find a pediatrician or psychologist experienced with adopted children in their state. Some seek Abbie’s support after a life-changing event.

Sometimes, parents can spend hours on the Internet searching for something — anything — that seems relevant to what their family is experiencing. When a family contacts Abbie’s adoption-competent staff, however, they draw upon an extensive catalog of resources specific to adoption to help direct parents to the right sources of information.

“I can’t stress enough the importance of adoption-specific information,” Abbie says. “I work with many families who struggle to find information that applies to adopted children. I can help with that.”

You might need a counselor in your area with adoption experience. Books that address bonding. Or the right early intervention specialist. But perhaps just as important as the guidance she offers parents, Abbie also takes the isolation out of adoption — more often than not, reminding families that what they experience is normal.

“Moms especially, they struggle in silence,” Abbie says. “I’m here to remind them they aren’t alone.”

Sunday Silver, Holt’s director of post adoption services says that finding qualified adoption clinicians across the U.S. can be very difficult, though some universities are expanding and developing new training on adoption competency for social workers, psychologists and clinicians. However, in smaller cities especially, it can be difficult to find someone with adoption-specific education.

“It’s important for Holt social workers to know who to refer families to when they are having issue beyond their skill set,” Sunday says. “Abbie and her team provide a much needed resource for our  families as well as for our social workers.”

In recent years, Holt expanded our pre-adoption parent training and post-adoption support, partly in response to changing needs among children now coming home to families.

Nearly 60 years ago — when the Holts pioneered the modern practice of international adoption — most children coming home were younger and few had special medical needs.

Today, many more orphaned or abandoned healthy infants are able to find homes within their birth countries, thanks to changing attitudes toward adoption and stronger economies in many of the countries where Holt works. Therefore, most of the children who now need homes internationally are older or have more involved special needs. It is important to Holt to offer life-long support to all families and adoptees — both pre and post-adoption.

Abbie helped to develop portions of Holt’s new pre-adoption curriculum — which includes education about trauma, grief and attachment, as well as adoption-specific parenting models and in-home parent-to-child therapy. After adoptions are finalized, she works directly with a diverse range of families, including first-time adoptive parents, families with multiple adopted children or sibling groups, and older adoptees. She says concerns about an adopted child’s development or transition home and sibling relationships are common. She also works with parents and children who struggle to bond, or families who are coping with grief after a death or divorce.

“Anything that involves loss, parents might feel it at 10 percent,” Abbie says, “but kids feel the same event at 90 percent.”

If a child or parents suffers from high stress, this can be a major cause of distress in the home. So can certain discipline techniques that may have been effective with other children, but not with children who have experienced abuse or neglect. Sometimes, a parent’s own traumatic personal history comes out in interactions with a child who has also experienced trauma.

“Many times, I help parents understand their children’s experience and identify their own, personal past hurts,” Abbie says. “It’s important for parents to know how their experiences shape what pushes their buttons.”

Without judgment, Abbie and her team help parents learn adoption-appropriate parenting methods, discipline and bonding techniques.

Abbie works with all ages, including adult adoptees, and she can sometimes help families who didn’t adopt through Holt.

If you are an adoptive parent or adoptee in Illinois who would like to talk with someone about child development stages, bonding, parenting techniques, trauma and grief, or any other issue related to the emotional or cognitive aspects of adoption, adoptive families or adoptive parenting, contact Pam Shepard at pams@holtsunnyridge.org or 630-754-4522 for in-person counseling.

Holt also offers summer camps that explore race and identity for adoptees, picnics throughout the country for adoptive families to gather and form community, and support from social workers for adoptees who wish to search for their birth families. 

 Billie Loewen | Staff Writer

If you are looking for an adoption-competent therapist in Illinois, please contact Pam Shepard, the director of clinical services at Holt-Sunny Ridge. You can contact her at pams@holtsunnyridge.org.