adoptive parents giving son adopted from Thailand a kiss on the cheek

As the overwhelming majority of children now coming home are older or have a special medical need, what children need from parents is much more complex. In response, Holt has expanded our parent education curriculum to help parents be successful and help children thrive in their families.

It’s dinnertime. It was a long day of work, and you just want to get a meal on the table and take a break. However, your daughter has a different idea. She’s on the floor, throwing a full-on tantrum complete with screams, tears and even a few thrown toys — and it’s all over a pair of socks.

A pair of socks your daughter picked out, because she wanted to wear socks.

A pair of socks you already offered to help her put on.

You take a deep breath, and prepare to address her needs.

You reach into your memory bank, and pull from all that you learned. You get down to her level and use a soft, but authoritative voice. You respond with love, and a comforting hug. You start talking your child through her feelings, remembering that she doesn’t mean to frustrate you with her actions. They are her natural response in times of fear.

And, because you prepared, you know how to turn this into a bonding experience.

At Holt, educating parents about adoption-related parenting issues is critical to the success of families and adopted children. While most accredited adoption agencies only require potential adoptive parents take a 10-hour course prior to their home study, we’ve found that most parents want and need more training — and that training is most effective when it is spread out over the entire adoption process, which could take anywhere from 12 months to three years.

“Adopted children come with a lot of joys and a lot of challenges. We want parents to be successful,” says Lisa Vertulfo, Holt’s vice president of adoption services.

While families wait for their children to come home, they go through Holt’s Parents in Process training, a three-phase curriculum that starts broad, then focuses on issues specific to each family and each child. By the end, parents should not only be experts on the adoption process, but also have practical tools for how to use playtime as bonding time to develop loving attachment to overcome grief, and how to avoid tantrums by empowering children with choices. They should also develop a deep understanding of how an adopted child’s brain responds differently to everyday experiences — being told ‘no,’ sharing toys, watching a movie — than a child who hasn’t experienced abandonment, trauma or neglect. Overall, parents spend about 35-40 hours engaged in the curriculum, though Holt offers more resources and educational tools for parents who choose to go beyond the required course load.

In recent years, Holt expanded our training partly in response to changing needs among children now coming home to families.

Nearly 60 years ago — when the Holts pioneered the modern practice of international adoption — most children coming home were younger and few had special medical needs.

Today, many more orphaned or abandoned healthy infants are able to find homes within their birth countries, thanks to changing attitudes toward adoption and stronger economies in many of the countries where Holt works. Therefore, most of the children who now need homes internationally are older or have more involved special needs. It’s only natural that our parent training would adapt to match the profile and needs of children coming home.

“Parent education is more critical now,” Lisa says.

Our parent education curriculum now has three distinct, but overlapping phases.

Phase one of Parents in Process is a course required by the Hague Convention, the international safeguard agreement for adopted children. Lisa says this phase is like the nuts and bolts of parent education, since all adoptive parents working with an accredited agency are required to have 12 hours of specific training that covers the adoption process, developmental risk factors associated with children from the expected country of origin, and attachment styles.

While phase one is more general, phase two is specific to Holt, and the information parents receive in phase two digs into parenting models, bonding techniques, and other practical knowledge that helps parents — and even brothers or sisters in the home — prepare mentally and emotionally to meet and care for their child.

When Holt first introduced parent education in 2001, parents met in groups at a Holt branch office to fulfill their Parents in Process requirements. But times have changed. Holt’s parenting curriculum now uses technology to allow parents to complete the training in their own time, at their own pace and in their own home.

Phase two consists of webinars, presentations, reading materials and a new five-part DVD series from the Texas Christian University’s Institute of Child Development. The DVDs offer insight and understanding into the issues adopted children face, and how to “help children overcome everyday struggles that hamper their success.” These videos feature child development researchers Dr. Karyn Purvis and Dr. David Cross, who offer parents practical exercises to help children improve self-esteem, enrich their relationships, and cope with sensory processing issues — which has to do with how the brain interprets and reacts to what’s going on around them. Abbie Smith, Holt’s former clinical resource director, wrote a manual to accompany the DVDs that helps recap important points and expand upon the practical tips.

“So far, families love it,” says Abbie, who developed the new curriculum for families. “Most parents want to feel informed and prepared.”

The DVDs also cover attachment and developing social and emotional skills through play. In chapter nine of the Parents in Process manual, Abbie discusses how turning off the TV and engaging in play for as little as 15 minutes per day can make a huge impact on a child. Playing a game of make-believe or working on a craft at a consistent, but critical time each day — such as right after school, or first thing in the morning — builds stronger parent-child bonds and sends a strong, loving message to the child. It can even help diminish negative sensory responses, like tantrums, and help children work through fear.

“Our parents in process training is pretty unique,” Abbie says. “So much of the research that’s out there trains therapists. Instead, this training is geared for parents. It’s empowering for them.”

This phase also discusses in-depth the effects of trauma on a child’s social, cognitive and emotional development. Parents learn that many adopted children are developmentally only half their chronological age. A 6-year-old child may, for example, act the way we might expect a 3-year-old child to act, like throwing a tantrum over having to share a toy. The curriculum does more than simply inform parents that these behaviors may occur, however. It teaches them effective and appropriate responses to behaviors resulting from trauma their child experienced before coming home. Abbie emphasizes that children have to feel safe, not just be told they’re safe — especially in difficult times. Helping a child feel safe can be as simple as creating a few activities to cool down, keeping a consistent food routine, or acknowledging pain or disappointment.

“All adopted children have gone through trauma,” Abbie says. “Regardless of how old the child is, we need to teach parents how to earn their adopted child’s trust. Even experienced parents need to understand how trauma changes the brain.”

The older children are, however, the more likely it is they’ve experienced trauma. Today, 75 percent of children adopted through Holt are older than 3 when they arrive home. Ninety-five percent of those children have some special medical need. According to the U.S. Department of State, more than half of the children adopted internationally in 2013 by all agencies were older than 2 when they arrived home. What children need from parents is much more complex than ever before.

However complex, Holt’s parental training reminds families that they are not alone, and they can be successful, joyful parents.

Soon, part of phase two will include a module on race and racism, topics that Holt frequently discusses in post-adoption webinars, but that we are now working more intentionally and thoroughly into our parent education materials.

Our post-adoption services team is working to develop this race and identity module to accompany the other stage two materials. It may include links to readings, videos and other resources, touching on topics such as white privilege, racism, and tips for talking about race with both child and teenage adoptees.

“We are trying to teach parents how to have open communication about race in a regular, normal way,” says Steve Kalb, Holt’s former director of post-adoption services. “The more parents talk about race, the more normal those types of discussions become.”

Steve says that not all discussions from a parent to an adoptee about race have to be serious or long. It can be as simple as acknowledging the role race and racial stereotypes play in movies, television shows or YouTube videos.

“We want discussions about race to be something that happens organically, so adoptees know that race is a safe subject to discuss with their parents,” Steve says.

In developing the course, Steve drew from feedback he received from teenage adoptees who attended Holt adoptee camps, as well as adoptive parents.

While adoption agencies aren’t required to talk about race during parental training courses, Steve says agencies have an ethical imperative to teach potential parents these skills. As transracially adopted children grow into adulthood, they will be faced with issues related to race, culture and identity that differ from their parents.

Following phase two, parents enter phase three, which provides specialty trainings based on each family’s experience and the potential needs of the child they are adopting. This phase really targets the specific, detailed needs of each family or child.

“Many of the suggestions for topics in phase three come directly from parents,” Lisa says. “This is the time where we get really specific.”

This final phase of the curriculum is webinar-based and it covers topics such as preparing parents for their child’s first introduction and reaction to coming home, bonding with a teenaged child, and how to prepare brothers and sisters in the home for the arrival of a new sibling. It can also be as specific as how to manage food hoarding.

Many of the webinars include interviews with adoptees and adoptive parents, older adoptees, social workers and adoption experts.

In one webinar, adoptees share what they wish their adoptive parents knew, and our staff shares tips for engaging in safe, open conversations about adoption. In the webinar, we see pictures that adoptees drew about their family, addressing issues such as feelings of otherness within their family, isolation and meeting birth parents. In another activity, adoptees write questions they wish they could ask their adoptive parents, including:

“Do you regret adopting me?”

“Do you wish we looked more alike?”

“How would you feel if you met my birth parents?”

In recent years, Holt has also adapted our curriculum to another significant change in international adoption. As it now takes upwards of 12-36 months to adopt a child internationally, Holt has designed the curriculum to keep prospective parents engaged and learning throughout the process. Rather than overwhelm them with an onslaught of information very early in the adoption process, Holt has paced the training to the process — keeping parents engaged and helping them build upon what they learn in each phase.

Many of the webinars, articles and videos Holt uses in the Parents in Process phase two and three curriculum are available at no charge.

Here is Abbie’s list of recommended reading for adoptive parents or potential adoptive parents. All of these books are available on

To purchase the Texas Christian University’s trust-based parenting DVD series, click here.

Billie Loewen | Staff Writer

If you or your family would like to learn more about the services available to you through our post-adoption services department, please click here.

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