Adoption comes with joy and love as well as hurt. Loss, pain and frustration can be compounded for toddlers. They have already had many experiences but cannot communicate either their feelings, desires, or fears. They are at the mercy of the big people who make decisions in their best interests but don't really fully understand just how much they understand and hurt.
The transition for a toddler depends a great deal on previous experiences and temperament. Every child experiences and expresses in their own way. However, there are some things we can do to ease the transition for both our new little family member and ourselves.
Remind yourself about that age - If you are adopting an age you haven't had experience with in your house before or in awhile, get around that age. Find friends with children that age and spend time with them or babysit to remind yourself what they are like. For us, it had been years since we diapered and we'd never had a boy. It all came back but a little refresher with other wiggly toddlers would have helped.
Don't assume - our little guy was very smiley and seemed quite happy. Really he was hiding a ton of hurt behind a smile designed to please his caregivers. Don't assume a smile means they are not hurting. Remember they have been pulled from everything they have ever known; maybe multiple times. There is loss and hurt, anger and frustration.
Give yourself a break - yes, everyone may be watching and that is definitely hard. Say a prayer, take a deep breath and dive in. What those watching think about you doesn't matter nearly as much as connecting with that little one. If you are overwhelmed, say so and ask for help from their caregivers and the agency until you get the hang of it. If you want to take some pressure off, one of you distract the adults with questions so the other can concentrate on your child.
Transition slowly - if at all possible, transition over at LEAST a few days. You may need to request this of your agency. Spend some time with your child with their caregivers both in their home and out of it. Then spend some time with your child without the caregivers around both in their home and out of it. This doesn't fix everything but gives your child a chance to know you and increases their comfort level with you before they lose their previous caregivers. *I know this can't always happen, depending on the situation, especially in international adoption but if possible, it is highly recommended.
Meet with birth parents away from your child - meeting with birth parents with your child in tow shortly after the child's loss is too much emotionally for them to understand or process. Take turns meeting with the birth family or enlist the agency's help in caring for your child while you meet with them. In our case, our son hadn't seen his birth mom for a week. He was devastated at seeing and losing her again. If your agency or birth family insists on seeing you with the child, set up something where they can see you with the child but not reveal themselves. You can go to a park or an indoor play place and let the birth family watch from outside. Again, enlist the help of the agency staff to coordinate this and be with the birth family during what can be a very emotional time.
Establish a schedule - try to establish a daily routine as early as possible. This can be challenging when traveling but you can usually at least establish a wake-up and bedtime routine. These can be very comforting.
Keep as much familiar as possible - your child is inundated with new smells, sights, sounds, voices, foods and more. Ask what they like to eat and even if you don't agree with it, feed it to them anyway. Our son was used to chicken nuggets and lunch meat. We don't really eat either of those but we gave them to him aplenty as we slowly transitioned to the types of food our family does eat.
Comfort items - it is likely your child will have some comfort items when they come to you. Don't take them away or try to change them. Eventually, they will likely move on. As your child begins to bond with your family they discard the old comfort items. A week after our arrival home, our son began throwing fits when we gave him the blanket he came with. We finally realized the smells on the blanket were bringing back memories he couldn't handle. We washed it and he was fine but it was never as special to him as before.
Keep the activity level down - this goes for your time waiting in your child's home state or country waiting for approval to travel home and once you arrive home. No big parties or endless lines of guests that only serve to overwhelm and confuse. It is all about settling your child into their new home, surviving the transition, and cementing you as his caregivers that will always be there when he needs you. Warn friends and family that you still need them and care and ask for their help with errands and meals and laundry but let them know you will invite them in when your little one is ready for more.
Take care of yourself and your family - your toddler will take a lot out of you in the beginning. Make sure each of you get a chance to unwind and have some time alone and with your other children. Although your times to care for yourself and connect with your spouse and family may be more rare and shorter, your toddler won't always be this needy.
The first months can be turbulent but as the days pass you will see changes as you all settle into a routine and the love and bond between you grows.