Tuesday Topic: Church (and Other Social Situations) With Newly Adopted Children

After taking a week off, I am back with a new Tuesday Topic!

Teresa asked:

How and when did you introduce your toddlers to larger functions–like church? Our Sunday mornings are quite extended–leaving home around 8:30 and arriving home around 1:30 (Church and Sunday School). I’d love to hear what was helpful or hurtful from your experience.

Teresa’s question is specific to toddlers because she is adopting children ages two to four. I would like to broaden it out to include newly adopted children of all ages.  Teresa asked specifically about church, but let’s also include other situations such as family gatherings, sports events, and other situations where groups of people gather.

I’m sure you have thoughts on this, so send them my way.  I will hold all comments until Tuesday, March 23rd, and post them all at once.  I love hearing what you have to say – so don’t hesitate, leave a comment!


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Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.


  1. Andrea
    March 16, 2010

    Our first daughter was a social butterfly and did great in large gatherings… working the crowd so to say. We had to find ways to reinforce her attachment to us and that included pulling her down off center stage. Our second daughter had the exact opposite personality. She became a koala climbing Daddy every time we got in a new group, noisy restaurant or even big park. We found that bringing groups of friends/family into our home (where she was already comfortable) and introducing "chaos" in a safe place allowed her to then handle public group settings much better. It still took 6 months for her to trust the nursery at church. We've found that our reaction to a crowd affects how well she handles new situations. Part of the issue with large crowds is her inability to pick out our voices due to her being deaf in one ear. When she can't hear us, she needs to be attached to us to feel comfortable. We're still learning and trying new situations with her. She takes longer than most kids but she is still moving forward just at her own pace.

  2. jamie
    March 17, 2010

    We adopted 2 kids, ages 2.5 and 4.5 at the time, and pretty much jumped right in to family life, church, etc(we came home in June, with parties and the like to attend regularly). We got the kids to adjust to us, and their grandmothers first, so if we were at a family function, they at least knew a few people well, and could retreat if necessary(rarely needed with our outgoing daughter but more so with our quieter son). We also let everyone know that we might leave quickly, or arrive late, and leave early, depending on the kids reactions, and their stress levels. We attended our first large gathering about 4 weeks after homecoming, but had welcomed many of the people in attendance into our house to meet the kids before that. The kids recognized people, from their visits, and had spent time with them in our own environment so they had that adjustment period too.
    For church, we prepped them, and took their favorite quiet toys, like scissors, crayons, and stickers. magna doodles, etc. We also stayed near the back, and took regular breaks to walk, use the bathroom, and regulate ourselves. We did practice quiet voices, sitting quietly, and not disturbing others, by playacting before the events as well.
    For younger ones a sling is truly the must have item, it allows them to be up, safely away from strange feet, and with limited touching and snatching potential(from well meaning others). My son retreated to the sling when ever he felt overwhelmed.
    really watching your kids, and seeing their signals of discomfort, or disquiet is the most important thing. Start small, like the grocery store or target, then work up to the bigger church, being prepared for the noise of the singing to be upsetting, or the length to be irritating. Of course be very wary of overly attention seeking behavior as well, as this is not a good thing.
    I am making it all seem hard, or like you need to put a lot of time into prep, but it is best to really know your kids, and how they might react, it will be critical to judging when your child will be ready to go out to meet their adoring public.

  3. Dianne
    March 17, 2010

    Our daughter was about 12 months old when we arrived home, and in our case, church was the large group we spent time preparing for. We first took her took her after about 5 or 6 weeks home, and held her the whole time with the intention that no one else would be allowed to touch her. For most people, our protective body language was enough to keep them a few feet away. For those who still asked to hold her, we politely said no as many times as was necessary. After about six months home, our daughter was able to make herself LOUD and clear when she didn't want someone getting too close.

    We didn't have issues with her showing indiscriminate affection to others – her trust in others after us has seemed to take a healthy progression. Our focus was more on helping her cope with social settings, as she had a lot of anxiety around strangers and needed help to feel safe.

    I'll be very interested to read the comments of parents who have adopted children who are school aged, as that is what we are preparing for now.

  4. April
    March 17, 2010

    Grace came home at 21 months of age. We were very purposeful in our efforts to promote attachment while initially keeping her world small. We asked friends and family to be understanding when requested that she not be hugged or held until we felt she was ready. We introduced her to close friends while we were out on a "walk" and did not have visitors for about a month (and even then they did not stay overnight but at a hotel close by).
    Our church at the time was large and we made the decision to stay home on Sundays for about two months. After that two month period, Grace sat with us in the sanctuary and was kept occupied with toys and snacks. She has never minded being around a lot of people (in fact she prefers it due to the large size of her foster family and personality) but we still considered the sensory overload aspect of the service. At nine months home we integrated her into Sunday school. She did well-some Sundays were difficult, most were very easy. Her tears were short lived and she had good reports from her teachers that she calmed down very quickly after we left. When we picked her up she had a smile on her face and happily showed off her craft or snack.
    One hurtful aspect that we did not anticipate was the reaction we received from friends who did not understand our reasoning behind not wanting anyone to hold Grace. I think the emotional connection THEY had had while praying for us and our daughter for two years made them feel (and understandably so) somewhat bonded to our experience. Here they were emotionally invested and to meet this little girl and not even hug her was difficult, I think, for some of my girlfriends. I know that my best friend had tears in her eyes when after six months she held Grace for the first time (and we lived across the street from each other!). One friend in particular complained to my husband about our "rule" and, unfortunately, we've had a strained relationship since but I wouldn't have changed a thing. We did what we felt was best and I believe the continuity was a positive for Grace's attachment.
    Every child is unique in that their age, personalities and early experiences may require flexibility in those first few months (or however long it takes). What actions we perceive to be in the best interest of our newly adopted children before they arrive may very well change after they are home. Educate yourself, spend time in prayer to prepare your heart and that of your new little one and once he or she is home, give yourself the grace to take it one day at a time.
    Congratulations on your new little one and may your experiences be blessed beyond measure.

  5. Hannah
    March 17, 2010

    We adopted a newborn, but there was still a different entry into social life than with our bio kids. We opted to not let her be passed around or held by others when we were out and about until after we had her a month. This was so important for our bonding process. To help this greatly, my husband or I would wear her in a Moby wrap almost everywhere we went. Everyone was disappointed, some were offended, and some understood.

  6. Lori
    March 17, 2010

    My experience is with older adopted children who were six and ten when they came home. We actually got home from India on a Friday and went to church on Sunday. They were doing well so we felt like it was a good plan to jump right into our normal routine. We only went to church – not Sunday school that first time. They knew next to no English. When they did attend Sunday school the next week I sat with them so they would feel more comfortable. Honestly, they did really well and I think I only went with them twice.

    You will know by how they are handling things at home whether you should attend church or another social function. I would just watch real carefully to make sure they aren't feeling uncomfortable. Sit in a place that is easy to get up and walk out if you need to. If you are focused on how they are reacting and being sensitve to that, you will be able to leave early if you need to so that the activity remains a positive experience. You can build up from there.

    Congratulations on your adoption!

  7. Sarah
    March 17, 2010

    I have three bio kids, adopted a 7 year old from US foster care, and recently adopted a 2 year old from Haiti. Personally, I like to take my cues from the child and ease into it slowly. We basically stay home for a week with going nowhere…and ease into church, extended family, etc. I also try to make the trip/visit short and increase it in length. For example, the first time, I would probably just bring my child to church and gradually add Sunday School. Go slow. I also do not expect my children to greet everyone that greets them. I don't linger long at church. I smile and people seem to understand that it really is overwhelming. I just encourage the kids to smile. After doing this twice, it does seem like it has been very overwhelming for both my kids, who are in general very friendly. Baby steps, would be my advice.

  8. Lauren
    March 17, 2010

    We took our son (15m) out as soon as we recovered from jet lag. We had a huge welcome party for him. We took him to church the first chance we got and continued with our Sunday family dinners (with our large extended family). I also took him to my MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) gatherings. We did not put him in the child care at church or MOPS for several months. And we were careful to be the only ones to get him the things he needed or wanted, so that he could learn that we are the ones to come too. He was free to roam around and play and sit with whomever he felt comfortable with.

    We didn't want to shelter him from our normal lives. We felt that our other children might resent not being able to carry on normal activities if we stayed home from everything because of their new brother. We also felt that if we stayed away from things for a while and then all of a sudden jumped back into things, our son would have a hard time understanding what just happened to his nice quiet life.
    We truly have a village that helps us raise our children. My husband and his parents and grandparents, and so on, all grew up in the city that we live and raise our children in. Our family is important to us, not just the "actual" family, but those friends that my children do not realize are not truly part of our family. We could not imagine them not being part of our son's first months.

    Our views are different from most other adoptive parents in our area. We did get some rude and uncalled for comments about choosing to take our child to parties and church and other gatherings very soon after he came home. But it worked for us. He has grown close to us and bonded just beautifully. Our way may not work for everyone, this is a very personal decision and will be different for each family. Being confident in the choice you make is going to make all the difference. cc

  9. Shannon
    March 17, 2010

    Oh- I need this one!!

  10. jen
    March 17, 2010

    For church, we opted to enter in slowly and carefully. Our church service at the time was 1.5 hours long with a family worship (so the kids stayed in the service) at the beginning. We stayed home for about a month after we got our children home (some of that was actually because it was Dec. 1 when we got our kids home, and we had holiday stuff and a couple illnesses during that month), then when we did start going to church we kept our kiddos with us. That meant that for a season the kids attended the singing portion of the service with us, then we left. Then we started keeping them with us the whole service. Then when they started asking to go downstairs to Sunday School with their siblings (SS takes place after the singing is over), we took them to class and stayed with them. And finally after about a full year – we were able to leave them in SS. It seems like a long process, but it allowed them to wade in slowly and be fully comfortable when the did go on their own.

    As for family gatherings: We are a military family but live near family right now. With the thought that we won't always live near family, we just dove in to this one! We attended as many family gatherings as possible and allowed other family members to hug and hold and snuggle with the kids. (We didn't leave the kids with anyone else for at least a year, so this snuggling was a blessed break for me!) Since the kids don't see extended family every day or even every week, misplaced bonding didn't seem to be an issue for us.

    There we so many other things (even adoption group gatherings) that we just didn't attend that year. Church and family things were safe places where the kids felt comfortable relatively quickly, but anything new was hard for a long time. Any place with lots of people and a lot of stimuli also caused great exhaustion! If we went to the zoo or the pool, we HAD to have a nap in the afternoon – the kids were just wiped out!

    I'd say just take it as slow as you possibly can, and plan for naps/down-time/extended snuggling after big events!

  11. Sara
    March 18, 2010

    We adopted a sibling group of 4 (ages 2, 3, 5, 6) and did not go to church the first two months we were home. Our church is fairly small, and we knew that everyone would want to hold and talk to them.

    During the first two months we would have "towel time" where we practiced sitting on towels for lengths of time while looking at Bible story books. We also tried to have one family come for a couple hours each week (and rotated through most the families in our church). This way no one would crowd them when they did go to church.

    When we did go to church we sat in the VERY back 🙂 and put the kids towels on the floor in front of our chairs. If one got rowdy we would quietly take them into the hall and talk to them. TAKE SNACKS!!! it was very good towards the end of the service when the kids got restless. We did NOT go to Sunday School for another month so we would not be at church all day. We also did not put any of them in the nursery due to bonding and attachment (the youngest 2 sit in our Sunday school- the 3 year old hates us to leave her so we don't)

  12. AmyAJ
    March 19, 2010

    Have you ever posted the question, "What led you to decide to adopt?"

    We have rolled this decision around and around in our heads for years now. I pray more often than I can tell you, yet have not gone forward or let it go. I'm curious as to how others came to the understanding that adoption was meant for their family.

  13. a church grandma
    March 22, 2010

    What is amazing to me as someone from the "older generation" of moms, is how parents today can happily extend their children's time for sports activities, family events, but not church. Many young parents today in our church believe their children cannot last even 2 hours at church…it's so sad to me as someone who raised our children in the church that we could "take them from the crib to the chuch nursery" and it was like a second home to them. But not any more. Why do parents get "more tense" about church time than they do sports, family, shopping malls, etc.? Quality care is provided at church. The issue is not an "unsafe" environment. But nevertheless there are fear issues and control issues in many of the first time and younger parents. Anyone have ideas about how to get young parents to "thrive" in church because I know if they extended their stay, it wouldnt' be the kids who had a meltdown but the parents!!

  14. Julie Gumm
    March 22, 2010

    Our kids were a bit older (8 and 6) but I imagine that the same principles apply – take your cues from them and go slow.

    Our kids came home in the middle of Christmas break so we had a great first week at home all together. The next week they saw their siblings go off to school. After a couple days I asked them if they wanted to go with me to pick them up. They said yes. When we got there I asked if they wanted to go in or just wait with me. The waited for the first two days but on the 3rd day were ready to go in. We did that for several days giving them a chance to see it, meet the kids, etc.

    With church I would suggest maybe shortening your Sunday mornings for a few weeks. Try just church first. Sit in the back and be prepared to exit if you need to and entertain them outside or elsewhere. When you feel like they are acclimated introduce Sunday School but stay with them the first week in their class. The next week set the goal of staying for half the time with decreased participation with you and increasing their reliance on the volunteers. It may take a few weeks of stepping down your time in the class or you may find them ready after just a few weeks.

    Take your cues from them and realize that the effect may be delayed. If they seem to do great in Sunday School but are throwing tantrums, etc the rest of the day then it was probably too much, too soon.

    Also be prepared to say to people "I'm sorry but we're only allowing family members to hold him right now." You will have to be firm because some people just won't get it. You also need to decide what you want to communicate to the Sunday School volunteers as far as what behaviors mean they need to come get you.

    In the end, every kid is different and you've got to listen to them, listen to your gut, pray a lot and go from there.

  15. Anne
    March 22, 2010

    Ok I'll comment even though our daughter is only 10 months old and we brought her home the beginning of this month. We brought her to church the week after we came home. I just brought a bottle just in case, as well as books and toys that don't make a lot of noise. For active toddlers, I think you would do fine with bringing some books, non-messy snacks, drinks, and noiseless toys. Also continue to speak with them on appropriate behaviors at the functions (church, family gatherings, etc). If your children become overwhelmed easily, bringing a Bjorn or sling to wear them might bring them comfort. Also, letting others know what is appropriate would be helpful too. For example, you can let the adults know that you are the only ones to comfort, feed, change, hold your children. Hope that helps!

  16. Amy AJ
    March 24, 2010

    This is not specifically related to adoption/attachment, but it's a strategy that might be helpful. My four year old hated to be hugged, and, as the youngest in a family of 6, he is put in lots of situations where people want to hug him. I taught him to hold out his hand for a "five" when people ask for hugs or try to hug him. It's polite enough and keeps him from getting stressed out. It doesn't require any words or explanation and it's something he can do when I am not right next to him.

    1. OneThankfulmom
      March 24, 2010

      This is a great idea – I can see Eby really liking it since he is hesitant to receive hugs.

  17. Julie
    March 24, 2010

    I'm chiming in late…

    Our daughter is a lot like Dimples. We took her the 2nd week we were home to church only. After a few weeks, I went with her to Sunday School for several weeks. We sat in the back of big church and brought quiet toys and snacks.

    From the first minute, Cupcake knew that church was a safe place and that these people liked her. Sunday mornings, she would be up at the crack of dawn, dressed and ready to go. 🙂 She pitched a fit because we wouldn't leave the house until 9:00. It wasn't until I brought her up on a weekday that she realized that it wasn't a perpetually hoppin' place.

    Whatever you do, church should be a positive experience for your child. Follow his/her lead.

  18. physical therapist
    April 6, 2010

    Great site. A lot of useful information here. I’m sending it to some friends!


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