I was speaking at a conference on my book, After They Are Yours: The Grace and Grit of Adoption (Cruciform Press, 2014). I was talking openly and transparently about my wife’s and my struggles as adoptive parents, our failures, and our hopes. As I did, there were 4 or 5 women who wept throughout the session. Their husbands sat there, trying to comfort them, while they held back tears. After I was done, I was approached by some of them, asking me the familiar questions, with broken hearts. My own heart broke as I saw their pain and their hope for better relationships with their adopted children. The pain is very real.

The evangelical orphan care and adoption movement has moved into its second decade. Some adoption and orphan care ministries are realizing the need to deal with the challenges that are emerging as Christian engagement in orphan care, foster care, and adoption grows and develops. Frankly, there are personal challenges that we don’t like to talk about. They are the kind of things that made the mothers at the conference weep. Some are opposed to putting too much emphasis on the challenges, lest we dissuade people from adopting. However, I am firmly convinced that being equipped is good for us and for our children. The more we talk openly about the challenges, the better we can encourage the weary. I am not talking about “adoption gripe sessions” where we bash our kids or their biological parents. I am talking about creating a framework within our churches where biblical principles are put into practice, being applied to the lives of adoptive parents.

The cornerstone of helping adoptive parents and families is to simply recognize that they need support, encouragement, and sometimes counsel. Frequently, the adoptive family struggles in silence, not wanting to be negative or seem like they are complaining. We need to realize that there is regular encouragement that we all need (1 Thess. 5:11; Heb. 3:12-13). That kind of encouraging environment needs to be cultivated so that if adoptive families need help, they aren’t afraid to get help. Adoptive parents should know that their church family will gladly “encourage the exhausted and strengthen the feeble” (Isa 35:3).

The second crucial piece to this framework is that the church cannot minimize the difficulties of adoption. We need to try to understand the struggles of adoptive parents as much as possible. Adoptive parents can get gun-shy about seeking help when they are told that “disorders” and “syndromes” are not really things to worry about, kids are kids, and there is nothing different about adopted kids. I urge you, if you have this attitude towards adoptive parents, you need to seriously change your mind. Paul Tripp notes, “Although you are doing a wonderful thing, you must recognize that children were meant to live with their natural parents. When children are raised by those who aren’t their natural parents, there will be struggles and difficulties. Parenting an adopted child is often harder than parenting your natural child. Your adopted child deals with significant personal issues that your natural child never has to deal with.”[i]

Rosaria Butterfield has written some of the most important words on adoption from a book that’s not directly about adoption, “No child asks to be adopted. No child asks for incompetent or rejecting birth parents. No child wants to be told how ‘lucky’ he is to be adopted. Adoption always starts with a loss. Adoption always combines ambiguous loss with unrequested gain. An adopted child faces this paradox – this ambiguous grief – at each developmental stage. His or her family must choose to either welcome the complexity or make the child go it alone. We choose to walk alongside our children, even as we don’t always understand how deep or how raw the complexity rests. The journey is frightful. At its core is this: do I love Jesus enough to face my children’s potential rejection of me?”[ii]

Things like Reactive Detachment Disorder or Fetal Alcohol Syndrome are real issues. If we dismiss the peculiar challenges of adoption, we will never really be able to minister to families. Most people don’t have to deal with a child who secretly agonizes over not being wanted and “given away.” Most people don’t have to deal with the pain of children not wanting to be held or hugged. Abuse, rejection, hunger, neglect, all have an impact on a child’s emotional state. Be sensitive to these issues, do not dismiss them. If you do, the adoptive parents will conclude that you do not understand.

The third piece of this framework is to listen to adoptive parents and families with grace. Be a good listener (James 1:19). Don’t be shocked by what they might say. If we create an environment where families come for help, then we need to listen well. But also, when it comes time to offer help, seek to liberate these parents from the evangelical parenting formulas. Formulas can be legalistic. They can exasperate the child. They can be a form of bondage and frustration to the parents.[iii]

Encourage and assist adoptive parents to be creative and wise in their parenting. They need to be asking the Lord for wisdom and insight (Phil. 1:9; Col. 1:9). They need discernment based on love and spiritual insight. They need to learn how not to exasperate or provoke their children (Ph. 6:4; Col. 3:21). What may have been standard parental procedure for their biological children, may be the source of exasperation and even anger with adopted children.

One adoptive mom said to me, “In an adoptive home, it’s almost always “backwards day.” What works well for well-adjusted kids in a biological home tends to be the opposite of what adoptive kids, with brokenness and interesting survival techniques, benefit from.” Paul Tripp’s wisdom is refreshing here, “Your struggles with your adopted child will not always be the result of your mistakes. Sometimes your struggles will stem from inherent differences in the hardwiring of your child. Those differences will require different parenting strategies from the ones you use with your natural children.[iv] Adaptability, flexibility and creativity within a biblical framework can be liberating and change the situations. I deal with this more extensively in my book, with some specific examples.

Finally, while I am urging encouragement and support, we also need to help adoptive parents examine their own hearts (Psa. 139:23-24; Prov. 4:23). Sometimes our challenges are simply exacerbated by our own idols. This was the hardest part of the book to write (chapter 6), because God used our son to expose so many idols in our hearts. But if we are going to do more than sympathize, we need to also lovingly ask hard questions: “Why do you seem to take his behavior as if it a personal insult?” or “Why are you so focused on how this is affecting you?” and perhaps, “You say she is pushing your buttons. Maybe we should ask, ‘What idols is she knocking over’?”

Adoption is glorious, but is can also be hard. The Church needs to stand ready to help these courageous, loving parents who have stepped out to do something hard. The Church needs to cultivate the kind of environment where such parents and families are encouraged and strengthened because they can be honest without fear. If our churches are serious about the Gospel, we will be serious about how to help those who have acted on the Gospel and adopted.

[i] Paul Tripp, Helping Your Adopted Child, Understanding Your Child’s Unique Identity ((New Growth Press, 2008), 6. Italics are mine.

[ii] Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (Crown and Covenant, 2011), 126.

[iii] I highly recommend Jim Newheiser’s little book, Parenting is More than a Formula (Presbyterian and Reformed, 2015).

[iv] Tripp, 7.