Checking Your Expectations, Part 2

Checking Your Expectations, Part 2

In our last blog post, two weeks ago, we talked about 10 of the expectations foster-adoptive parents commonly hold about the foster-adoptive process. There isn’t a person on earth who starts down the path of parenting without trying to imagine what might be in store. Prospective foster-adoptive parents certainly aren’t immune to fantasies about children and parental life. Why is the subject of managing expectations so important? Several studies of failed special-needs adoptions have found that among all the reasons an adoption might end in disruption, unrealistic expectations on the part of the parents tops the list.  This has been our experience at Sierra Forever Families, as well.

It’s rare that any experience lives up to our expectations, no matter what they are. The first time you went to Disneyland, it wasn’t exactly how you pictured it, right? Struggling with expectations is a normal part of life, and our goal here is not to lay blame but to open parents’ eyes to potential pitfalls, the better to avoid them.

Let’s zero in on two very normal expectations of parenting a special needs child: that love will be enough to heal the child’s traumatic wounds, and that foster-adoptive parents will feel that love immediately. But imagine this scenario: A child is newly placed in your home, and you begin to feel something very different: dread, numbness, annoyance, fatigue. And on top of your shock at failing to adore the child immediately, you also feel surprise, guilt and shame—so much that you’re too mortified to tell anyone!

Let’s look at a third common expectation of foster-adoption: That the child will easily fit into the family and all its rules and culture. An older child and/or a child with significant special needs can put so many demands on a family that any cracks in family unity are sure to come to light. For example, if one or both partners are challenged with communicating, negotiating conflict or coping with stress, a family can move beyond frustration into crisis. Crisis can turn an inflexible family into one that is even more rigid, insisting on more rules and more structure, and expecting the newly placed child to do most of the adjusting.

What’s more, guilt and shame can lead parents to isolate themselves from the support they now need more than ever, and crisis can lead friends and acquaintances to abandon the family for more peaceful acquaintances. It’s a downward spiral, because lack of a support network is another predictor of disrupted adoptions. Emphasizing the importance of a strong support network is a key element in our training for prospective parents at Sierra Forever Families.

When reality clashes with expectations, it can lead to disappointment, discouragement and despair. It’s not a pretty picture. So how to manage these expectations to make foster-adoptive parenting more fulfilling and successful? In “Wounded Children, Healing Homes,” Jayne Schooler and her co-authors have some suggestions, paraphrased here:

  • Examine how you came to believe the myths behind your expectations of adoption.
  • Ponder how you can adjust your expectations so they’re more in line with the reality you’re experiencing in your home.
  • Remember that parenting a traumatized child is draining and mixed emotions are absolutely normal.
  • Be kind and compassionate to yourself, lowering your expectations of yourself, and of your loved ones.
  • Practice “mind yoga”: Work on being flexible and accepting change—it’s inevitable!
  • Be open to new experiences and acquaintances and learn to value individual differences.

Any prospective parent is wise to remember to hold his or her expectations lightly. Recognize that unmet expectations are a bit like shattered dreams, which must be mourned before moving on. As Schooler puts it, “Old dreams disappear and new ones emerge in their place.” Managing expectations makes room for those new dreams to come to fruition.

Contact us to learn more about the foster to adoption process at 916.368.5114 or

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