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Community Building for Adopted Tweens and Teens

By Jessica Luciere   - Community Liaison, Adoption Mentorship Program

By Jessica Luciere
- Community Liaison, Adoption Mentorship Program

In everyone’s life, it is important to find the right community. That is no less true for people who were adopted. When we are older, we’re able to dig into our own identities with more of a worldly view of ourselves. When we are younger, sometimes this navigation needs more guidance. Adoptive parents know the value and power in meeting other adoptive parents, creating those safe spaces and finding ways to connect with one another. When parents search out these communities for their kids it is just as important and defining. The youngest years of a child’s life are formative, which is why giving them the space to connect with others who have such a common bond as adoption is so important.

Many people are touched and affected by adoption, which is why creating the right programming to facilitate safe spaces in the adoption community, is so important. As an adoptee myself, and someone who has benefitted from programs that allow me to interact with other adoptees, I know personally how powerful these programs can be. When adoptees have access to each other, they have access to stories that may or may not relate to their own, they meet people from similar and different backgrounds, but who all share this one common, deep-rooted experience.

Spence-Chapin’s Adoption Mentorship Program has been for running for 15 years continuously, I have been a Mentor in this program for those past 15 years. We have seen the lasting effects that creating a community has had on the many Mentors and Mentees who have participated in the program over the years. The bonds that are created when we give room to this topic have been incredible. For some, it may be their first time talking about their stories publicly, or even sharing a room with fellow adoptees. When adoptees are given the opportunity to share their stories, listen to each other, and get to know one another we are creating a space that adoptees may not necessarily find outside of these walls. Allowing adoptees to share a space helps eliminate a feeling of aloneness that can sometimes happen, especially for younger teens who have not yet learned how to manage their emotions, is so important. Adoptees who are older may also feel a sense of aloneness, so creating a Mentorship program where adults are Mentoring other younger adoptees creates a platform for everyone to work through these obstacles simultaneously. Often, we see that those who participate in the Mentorship program as youths, then come back as they get older to become Mentors to the new generation of adoptees. Adoptees finding themselves amongst peers, and finding their community is powerful.

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Much of adoption history has been covered in secrecy. Parents might be afraid to talk about certain adoption issues for fear of causing pain for their child or not knowing when or how to have these conversations. The Adoption Mentorship Program helps adolescents find their voices and build their growing understanding of their identity in a safe nurturing way with others who have gone thru what they might be going thru now. The challenge is incorporating your adoption identity and all that it means to you with pride as you move throughout life. It will always remain a continuous and ever-changing experience for all those who seek it. The Mentors who participate in this program will often say that they take away just as much from this program as the kids and parents do. The Mentors see themselves oftentimes, reflected back to them in the Mentees. Remembering what it was like to be their age, adopted, with questions and not always a clear path to the answers, gives them the chance to relive, but in present times, what the teen adoptee experience is, and was like. In the same respect, our Mentees can seek guidance from the adults who have lived through some of the experiences they may have had and could have in the future.

Adoptive parents know that giving their child a space to share this intimate part of their lives is important, and healthy. It is always encouraged and shared with parents that they start the conversation of adoption at home. Once the child knows that there is a safe space to share any feelings they may have, generally, it may open them up to find words to explain to their parents and friends what they are thinking and feeling about their adoptions. Parents are key players in adoptees growing into their adoption identities, trust starts at the home, so for kids to have a healthy space to share before they reach these programs allows for a more open experience. We also understand that giving a community to the parents is important, adoptive parents have stories of their own to share, questions that only other adoptive parents can answer and relate to. Creating a separate space for parents to connect with one another is paramount.

These are just some of the reasons why community services are so important in building an adoption community for you and your family. Our Adoption Mentorship Program provides a community for adolescent adoptees to explore their adoption identity while having fun with kids their age, and Mentors who are familiar with what they are going thru at this stage of their lives. Mentorship provides a fun and open, yet safe space for the teens to express themselves, and their parents understand how to support their teens as their child’s understanding of their own identity is ever changing.

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When programs are geared towards the specific needs of a community and have the right tools in place to ensure its success and participation, there is no limit to the good that can come from them. Adoption is a beautiful and complicated part of the lives that it touches, and it is important to give space to let that ever-changing, and personal relationship with adoption grow.

Learn more about programs and services that support your adopted tween or teen here or contact us at mentorship@spence-chapin.org or 646-539-2167.

Talking to Your Child About Adoption

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If you are like many adoptive parents it can come as a big surprise when your elementary school-aged child, who has always “known” that they were adopted, begins to ask questions you thought were answered years ago. In many ways you’re right—you have probably told your child their story many times and answered their questions. But something transformative happens between the ages of six and eight that shakes everything up. As your child moves into middle childhood, they experience remarkable cognitive changes, from newly found reasoning and problem-solving skills to being able to take another person’s perspective for the first time.

By this age, most children are not only able to notice what makes them similar to and different from others, but they are able to arrange their thoughts into questions about skin color, family composition, and reproduction—which allows them to think about their adoption in a whole new way. It’s an exciting time, but also comes with some sadness and confusion as many adopted children are able to understand for the first time that relinquishment led to their being adopted. This is a significant shift for children and their parents and many of our coaching clients reach out to us at this time for support and to get practical tools and tips to help navigate these conversations.

Here are some of the techniques we use when coaching parents thru this stage of adoption development.

  • Go Slowly and Listen Carefully. It may sound counterintuitive but try your best not to rush in to answer your child’s questions or fix what might seem like a problem. Instead, listen carefully and ask your child simple questions to help them express what’s on their mind. This could sound like: “You mentioned that you wish you grew in my belly; what do you think that would have been like?” With a focus on listening, you will learn to see the world from your child’s perspective and be better prepared to respond to your child’s unique needs. We often use role playing in coaching sessions to help parents develop and practice this skill.

  • Keep Playing. If you’re getting tripped up over finding just the right words you are in luck because helping a young child make sense of adoption also happens through play. Play themes of caretaking, nurturing, separation and reconnection, belonging, being lost and found are common among all children and can have an added layer for adoptees. Your child may incorporate elements from movies or stories that worry or delight them, and it is through their play that they express their emotional experience symbolically. We often inform parents that it’s not necessary to correct a child’s play or to interpret the story line, just acknowledge the story line. You can simply enjoy the intimate experience of being included in their imagination and take note of the concerns or themes that your child is working through.

  • It’s Not about You. At this age, children are able to ask very direct questions about their biological family, and some parents feel hurt by their little one’s curiosity about their past. One thing that may help is to keep in mind that your child’s interest in their birth family is not a rejection of you. It’s hard, but crucial, that parents do not take this personally. Even at a young age, children are experts at picking up on this kind of defensiveness, and if your child feels that they are upsetting you, they may retreat from future discussions. Coaching sessions can help parents recognize how their own grief and fear may be getting in the way of responding well to their child’s developmentally appropriate questions.

  • Use Props and Resources: Using props to help move conversations forward is especially grounding when emotions run high and we can literally “hold on” to something to help us stay on topic. For example, picture books help to identify feelings, reflect diversity in families, and show images from birth places. Children’s literature is now bursting with adoption-themed stories, including chapter books. There are non-competitive games to encourage communication and build attachment as well as videos created to help both children and adults understand adoptive family life. This is also an ideal time to attend a Lifebook workshop to create or re-create a Lifebook with your child that will help facilitate conversations about their adoption story. Consider your coach as a personal guide to help you identify the right tools and how to use them to keep these conversations going.

  • Build Your Community: The usefulness of making connections with other adults and children who truly understand what you and your child are experiencing can’t be overestimated. People who are not personally connected to adoption, although loving and well-meaning, are simply unable to help in the way that other triad members can. I often encourage parents that when the time is right, becoming part of an adoption community can truly be life changing. Here at Spence-Chapin we believe that adoption is a lifelong journey and help parents build their community early with our Bagels and Blox Sunday meet ups. This is where young children and their parents can meet to play and socialize. We also have Play Café which gives adopted children 6-8 a place to explore their feelings through arts and crafts. Whether through coaching, a playgroup or support group, mentorship program, social event, or on-line forums. There is a way to connect that can be the right fit for you.

Listen to this podcast of Mark Lacava, LCSW-R, Executive Vice President of Spence-Chapin's Pre & Post Adoption Services Department discuss common questions children ask at different developmental stages and how to answer them.

Any parent who has ever wondered how much their child needs to know about adoption and how to share it with them can benefit from a coaching session. Spence-Chapin’s coaching and counseling services can support you to gain clarity and receive guidance no matter your child’s age. Contact us at 646-539-2167 or postadoptionservices@spence-chapin.org to schedule an initial consultation.

What to Do After Finding Birth Relatives Through DNA Testing

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Have you identified a birth relative through DNA testing and are wondering what to do next? The technology moves so quickly that even those who plan carefully are often caught off guard by the rush of emotions and the flood of decisions that need to be made. Years of fantasies, imaginings, and what-ifs now have the possibility of becoming part of your reality. This brings tremendous opportunity as well as a loss of control that worries many adoptees and their families. In consultation with a coach, families can find an ally to navigate this complex moment in birth family connection.

Here are some things you can do to feel steadier in this process.

  • Identify your unique motivation and allow for flexibility. Now that you have identified a birth relative, it can be helpful to revisit why you originally initiated the search. For some, it is purely about finding medical information or to learn about their ancestry. And for others, there is a strong desire to develop an ongoing relationship that may begin gradually with correspondence and phone calls and could culminate with in-person meetings. We often coach people to give themselves permission to slow down and take the time they need to think things through. You may become more curious and open, or you may find yourself becoming more cautious and hesitant. And, many adoptees we have worked with find that as they get deeper into the process their paths can take unpredictable turns.

  • Think carefully about how you want to exchange information. Technology and birth family contact often moves more quickly than anticipated. It is likely that together you are going to be working out ways of communicating with your biological relative. Receiving new information can be exciting and welcomed, yet we find that this can also result in feeling exposed or overwhelmed. For instance, integrating new information about your early life circumstances or newly discovered biological siblings can powerfully impact your present life and relationships. Each new piece of your story, (for example a retelling of your relinquishment), may affirm, challenge or transform your personal narrative. Setting the right pace, creating comfortable boundaries, and finding careful ways to disclose personal information are tasks that can be worked through successfully in partnership with a coach. Remember that there isn’t a right or wrong way to develop your connection. Contact may move forward quickly and easily or may require more thought, negotiation and support. Sometimes these new relationships unfold slowly over weeks, months, or even years.

  • Attend to the emotional response. The momentum and the logistics of the search itself can be all- consuming and eclipse the importance of attending to emotional outcomes. Most adoptees have conflicting feelings when they identify a birth relative that range from elation, relief, and joy to fear, panic, and sadness. All of these feelings are expected and need to be explored and understood so that you can move forward with more confidence and less anxiety. Exploring the emotional side of your search with the guidance and support of an adoption-competent professional, can help you organize and manage these powerful feelings.

  • Find un-biased support. Having a solid support system of trusted people who are readily available to you is critical. Consider the different kinds of support that you may need. For instance, who in your circle can provide guidance with objectivity and won’t be influenced by their own needs or agenda? Who is a patient, empathic listener? And, who can provide sound advice about the wide variety of ways to make and maintain contact? Many adoptees find that well-meaning friends and family have trouble understanding this deeply personal process. If you feel this way, consider joining an adoption community that can offer a network of people who have been where you are and can share their search experience. Having the support of other adoptees offers invaluable camaraderie on this journey. In addition, there are books, blogs, support groups, advocacy and social organizations, and on-line communities, each offering different ways to engage with people who can relate personally to your experience.

Spence-Chapin’s coaching and counseling services can support you to explore the emotional side of your search and figure out what to do next. Contact us at 646-539-2167 or postadoptionservices@spence-chapin.org to schedule an initial consultation.

Sharing Difficult or Sensitive Information with Your Adopted Teen

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Many parents pick up the phone and call for coaching services when they realize that it’s time to tell their child a part of their adoption story that they have been holding. Perhaps you have photos you haven’t shown, know about a birth sibling, or there are circumstances surrounding your child’s conception or relinquishment that you have not yet shared. Best practice is for adoptees to know their full story before they transition through adolescence. There are exceptions to this, but generally this is a sound guideline and we have also found that even parents who would prefer to wait longer, tend to feel uneasy withholding information as their child moves deeper into the teen years. An understandable, but common mistake, is to expect there to be a “sweet spot” or the perfect time to share information so that it is pain-free. This may be too much to ask, but there are definitely some things that you can do to help the conversation be more comfortable for you and your child.

Here are some tips to support you and your family as you move into sharing more difficult information

  • Review your information. One of the most helpful things you can do is to go back in time and pull together all the information that you have about your child’s adoption—everything from the handwritten notes you may have taken, to documents from your agency, lawyer, or oversees representative. Any photos, videos, and correspondence with anyone connected to your adoption process from the very beginning to the present. There are two main reasons ask parents to do this. The first is so that you, as the parent, can make a clear inventory of what you do know about your child’s adoption. Most parents’ memories of the adoption process are filled with gaps or their memory of what happened is different from their partner. The second reason is that by sifting through these items, you are likely to be flooded with memories and to feel emotional— we ask parents to do this exercise as an important task to get familiar with what comes up for them and addressing this so that they can feel more comfortable sharing this difficult information.

  • Write down all the facts. Write what you think you have told your child on one page and what you have left to share on the other. Write out their story in a way that you think they can absorb. Your children are looking to you for the truth. The more in control and prepared you are the easier it is for your teen to take the information in and process it on their terms. This is one of the areas where a coach can help you formulate and articulate the information and your intent.

  • Consider the timing for your child. It’s important that you be the one to provide your child with the truth about their story. The older your child gets, the more likely it is that they will learn information about their adoption from other sources—they may stumble upon the information in your computer or file cabinet, hear it from someone that you confided in, or search for information themselves on the internet or by using social media. So, yes, it’s important that you not wait too long to provide your child with their full story. But with your newfound readiness, be sure to consider if it is also a good time for your child. Think about their overall mental health, their current ability to understand and process information, other transitions they are experiencing with friends or at school, and significant changes in your home life (parent separation, illness, or other losses.)

  • Address your own anxiety and fears. Addressing your fears and anxiety head-on is a critical step in preparing to share difficult information with your child. Parents worry that this new information is going to cause distress for their child and, understandably, want to protect their child from this pain and protect themselves from witnessing it. Parents’ worry tends to fall into two main areas. Their first concern is that the child will feel more rejection or shame as a result of having this new information. The second area of concern is that this information will change the relationship and create distance between the parent and the child. This is an area where I find coaching can be most effective because parents need a place to express their own fears and worries without judgement. Often coaching provides relief for parents, enabling them to have difficult conversations with their child without becoming overwhelmed with their own fears. Your coach can help you develop language, determine timing, and build your own resilience so that you feel more confident in your parenting decisions.

Spence-Chapin’s coaching and counseling services can support you as you explore how to share difficult information with your teen. Contact us at 646-539-2167 or postadoptionservices@spence-chapin.org to schedule an initial consultation.

Questions to Ask Yourself When Considering a Birth Parent Search

During our late teens and early twenties, a main developmental task is to establish our identity while simultaneously seeking independence from our family. In other words, to figure out who we are becoming, we need to know where we came from so that we can have something to actually separate from. For adoptees, who have limited information about their origin, this is often the time when there is an increase in wondering and seeking out more information about birth family—Questions like: What makes me unique? What about my genetic history? How am I similar and different from my birth and adoptive family? Where do I fit and belong? These are all important, valuable questions. Some adoptees move through this stage comfortably by exploring these search-related questions on their own without pursuing contact with birth relatives or an actual reunion. Yet for others, these curiosities lead to a strong desire for an active search and the hope of making a connection with birth relatives.   

If you are in this age group, here are a few questions to ask yourself that may help you decide if this is a good time to pursue a search.

1.     Do I have the support in my life to embark on a search right now, or should I build my community first? 

Having a solid support system of trusted people who are accessible to you is critical during your search. Consider the kind of help that you may need and then think carefully about who in your circle of friends, family, and professionals can be there for you. Many adoptees find that well-meaning friends and family have trouble understanding what they need, and that having the support of other adoptees makes all the difference. As you explore the answers to this question, you may consider working with a coach or therapist who specializes in adoption-related concerns. Joining an adoption community or support group can also offer a network of people who have been where you are and can share their search experiences.  

2.     How will searching impact my relationship with my parents?  

This is a tricky thing to talk about. However, overlooking it could lead to bigger troubles. Consider how much or little you want to involve your parents in your search process and be proactive in how you approach this so that you are in the driver’s seat. As a young adult, it is recommended that this process be on your terms—but you need to know what you want in order for this to happen. Take the time you need to explore and define what is right for you. If not, you may be swayed by other people’s point of view, no matter how well meaning. It’s important for you to feel “in control” of the process—so you can take responsibility for the outcome as well as feel confident that you are making the right decisions. These in-between years can be a confusing phase of life because parents have often been the stewards of the child’s adoption information. As you transition to adulthood, you can learn to own your story. There are often growing pains here—parents may need some help letting go while you may need some encouragement and support to take the lead. Being ready to deal with your parent’s feelings about a birth parent search is an important part of the decision-making process. This can be hard for anyone, and even harder for a young adult who is still “in the nest.”  Bottom line is, recognize that searching affects your whole family system—especially your parents and consider this in the timing of your search.    

3.     Do I have the time and emotional bandwidth to dedicate to a search?  

Although everyone’s search experience is different, most would agree that the experience took them on an emotional roller coaster that, regardless of the preparation, was difficult to predict. Many of our coaching clients initially reached out because they were unprepared for the emotions that came up as well as the impact it had on their lives. This is also true for people who feel they had very positive experiences. With this in mind, consider what else is happening in your life and try not to overlap the active part of your search with other weighty decisions or commitments that require significant energy (application deadlines, school exams, new job, or stressful travel, etc...) Once you actively engage in the search process, it can take on a life of its own and the feelings that come with this are hard to anticipate and prepare for. As positive as your experience may be, it is likely to be consuming and distracting for a period of time.  

In closing, keep in mind that your search doesn’t have to be conducted all at once. Searching can happen in phases over a period of months or years. Consider both internal and external factors that may be influencing you and set a pace that is right for you. If there is no pressure to move quickly, it is recommended that you give yourself time to think things through. Seek the support of a trusted friend or advisor who can support you to clarify what outcome you hope to achieve, as well as how you will manage both the joys and sorrows that may arise. 

Spence-Chapin’s coaching and counseling services can support you at every phase of the birth parent search process.  Contact us at 646-539-2167 or postadoptionservices@spence-chapin.org to schedule an initial consultation.

10 LGBTQ Parenting Tips

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All adoptive families will likely have conversations about the validity of their family, and how to deal with prejudice and questions from people outside the family. LGBTQ parents also have the added complexity that cross-gender parenting can bring. The counseling team at Spence-Chapin offers practical advice and support for LGBTQ parents raising adopted children.

These 10 tips offer support and guidance around the particular issues that LGBTQ adoptive parents navigate with their children.

1. USE TIME BEFORE ADOPTION TO PLAN AND ASK QUESTIONS

If you are just embarking on your adoption journey, or are in process, now is the time to really do your homework and ask the hard questions about what you and your partner (if co-parenting) want and what feels right in family forming for you. If working through an adoption agency, take advantage of their experience to ask many questions, or see if you can speak with other families that could provide you with insight. The more questions you answer early, the more informed and comfortable you will become.

2. BE COMFORTABLE WITH YOUR SEXUAL IDENTITY

The more comfortable you are with your sexual identity and the coming out process, the easier parenting will be for you. When you are comfortable expressing yourself, it models emotional expression for your children. The less issues we work out on our children the easier parenting them will be. If you or your partner struggle in certain ways with your sexual identity, consider seeking out a counselor who can help you sort through those issues before you embark on parenting. Being confident and comfortable in your identity will help your family model that attitude and behavior to also be confident and comfortable.

3. ENCOURAGE DIALOGUE

Whether your family was formed through adoption or not, honesty and openness are always the best policy. Your family may look different to the outside world, but to your children this is their family. This is what they are accustomed to and this is what makes sense to them. Start as young as possible reading affirming books to toddlers. If issues should arise from the outside world or they have questions due to their different developmental stages, let them know you are always open to them. This requires having on-going continuing conversations as needed throughout childhood and young adulthood. Open dialogue can be uncomfortable at first but gets easier as everyone shares their thoughts and feelings.

4. STAY INVOLVED WITH YOUR CHILDREN’S SCHOOL

Get to know their teachers. This sense of openness within the community and where your children spend so much time is important. Just by being present, you show that you are advocating for your family and your expectations for your children’s wellbeing.

5. CREATE AN LGBTQ NETWORK

This can be invaluable. You do not have to reinvent the wheel. Others have done this before you. Just as an LGBTQ person you might have formed your own family outside of your birth family for certain types of support, this skill can be a great comfort to your family. Your children can see other children and families that look like their own. For children who are adopted this can be equally impactful to interact with other children who are adopted to help them form and express their own adoptive identities. It gives your children a chance to talk to other children about their experiences in the community. Whenever we feel we are not alone it is an ego booster!!

6. CREATE YOUR OWN FAMILY PRIDE

Your family is as important as any other. The more comfortable you are showing your pride, the easier it will be for your children.

7. SHOW AND EXPRESS YOUR LOVE

Do not be afraid to show and express your love. Children need unconditional love, to feel supported, to have their emotional and physical needs met. Your children will benefit from as much quality time as you can spend with them.

8. BE A POSITIVE ROLE MODEL FOR YOUR FAMILY

Your children will learn from you how to advocate when they need to. Providing a safe environment at times might mean saying something at their school, to family members or friend’s parents. This does not mean being a bulldozer, but modeling self-respect, awareness , sensitivity, and education when possible. Remember all parents teach by positive modeling. This will help create a safe and supportive environment for your children.

9. HAVE ON-GOING CONVERSATIONS

Have on-going conversations with your children about their friends and their relationships with their peers. Friends are important, no matter the parents’ sexuality. Kids need to be connected and not made to feel that they’re different. Start involving them in activities with other children and their parents at an early age. This way, you are building support and recognition for you and your child outside of the immediate family unit.

10. TAKE TIME FOR YOUR RELATIONSHIP

If you are in a partnered relationship don’t forget to make time to have a date night, special time together, or something you both enjoyed doing together before children. Like any other couple you will need to find ways and times to reconnect with each other. Parenting is stressful for everyone! Taking the time to reconnect and relax will help make your journey even more enjoyable.

Spence-Chapin provides a safe and family-friendly environment for you and your family. We offer culturally sensitive, LGBTQ-affirming care in an accepting, nonjudgmental environment. Services include pre-adoption consultations, counseling, parent coaching, community events, LGBTQ parent workshops and trainings for LGBTQ professionals. Learn more about our post-adoption support and community programs.

Contact us at postadoptionservices@spence-chapin.org or 646-539-2167 to explore ways our team can support your family.

10 Tips to Help Teens Explore Identity

Katie Rogala, an adoptee and Spence-Chapin employee, shares 10 helpful ways to support your adopted child’s exploration of inner and outer self.

Post-Adoption Books

Talking about adoption with your family can be difficult. Where do you even begin the conversation? Sometimes reading about other people’s experiences can make it easier to talk about your own. These books explore adoption, race identity, foster care, and the feelings from love to loneliness to everything in-between. They’re perfect to read as your family begins to talk about their own story.

Children Ages 0 – 5

  • We Belong Together, Todd Parr

  • A Mother for Choco, Keiko Kasza

  • Welcome Home Little Baby, Lisa Harper

  • Brown Like Me, Noelle Lamperti

Children Ages 6 – 11

  • Pancakes with Chocolate Syrup, Rebekah Barlow Rounce

  • Heaven, Angela Johnson

  • The Wanderer, Sharon Creech

Children Ages 12 – 18

  • Ninth Ward, Jewell Parker Rhodes

  • The Returnable Girl, Pamela Lowell

  • Pieces of Me, Edited by Bert Ballard

Photo Album or Early Lifebook

  • Create a small photo album

  • Don’t use original photos or irreplaceable items (if making a scrapbook)

  • Start the book with the start of the child’s life, not the start of their life with you

  • Leave blank pages as space holders where you have no information

  • Expand the book or create new books as child hits important life milestones

  • Join us for an upcoming event or community program

Spence-Chapin offers many post-adoption support services and community programs such as teen/tween mentorship, counseling, parent coaching, Lifebook workshops and more.

Adoption Life Stages

Listen to this podcast of Mark Lacava, LCSW-R, Executive Vice President of Spence-Chapin's Pre & Post Adoption Services Department discuss common questions children ask at different developmental stages and how to answer them.

We offer community programs as well as short-term parent coaching services to help get the ball rolling on these important but sometimes difficult conversations. Contact us at (646) 539-2167 or postadoptionservices@spence-chapin.org to explore how we can support your family.