by Cathy Carlson

A definition of claiming by Jojo, our 14 year old daughter (adopted 2 years ago from a disruption):

“When a parent says in their heart that this kid is MINE no matter what, it makes the ground stop shaking under the kids’ feet so they can feel safe again.” 

In all my attempts to define what it means to ‘claim’ I could never describe it better than that. “When a parent says in their heart that this kid is MINE no matter what…” That’s exactly it!

‘Claiming’ is heart work.  Yes, it’s hard work… but definitely HEART work!

It is constantly choosing to believe that the Almighty, Sovereign God designed before the beginning of the world that this child would be placed in your family. That no matter what happens, He will provide everything you need to deal with it.

Psalm 37:23-24 has comforted me through some of our most trying times with our children. It says, “The steps of a man are established by the Lord; and He delights in his way. When he falls, he shall not be hurled headlong; because the Lord is the One who holds his hand.”

I love that verse because it reminds me that the Lord is the one that led us to this place and that even when we are tired and stumble on the way, we will never be ‘hurled headlong’ because He is still holding onto our hands. Think of it – what can overwhelm us if the God of all creation is holding our hand??

Let me just take a moment and remind you: adoption is messy! We are inviting a child that has – at least – a broken heart and – at most – a scarred, traumatized, bruised and beaten soul, to share our lives with us. What part of that seems like an easy task? If we allow ourselves to fully comprehend what we are asking of them (and ourselves) we wouldn’t wonder why we are all so stressed!

Truly, the only way that we can hope to navigate the garbage that is strewn along our path in this journey is by determining that WE are the ones that God has asked to walk this very path with these very people at this very time! That is ‘claiming.’

Claiming is choosing to accept

  • all that this child is
  • all they came from
  • all their hurts, joys and hopes
  • all their wonderful qualities
  • all their ugliness
  • all the history that played a part in who they have become
  • all they will become and
  • all they will fail to accomplish

and COMBINE it with who your family is to make a new family.

Did you hear that?? This is an extremely important point, so let me say it one more time, in a little different way…

Claiming means that whatever defined your family will now be different because you have invited a new person to be a part of it. Adoption is not the same as birth. When you give birth to a child, you are bringing another one of YOU into the family. With adoption, you are bringing an entirely different element into the picture that changes everything. It re-defines you.

Carlsons 2010
Picture for a moment what your family looked like before adoption… what you did together, what you stood for, what was important/unimportant to you, what was the flavor, color, smell, essence of your family. Now picture your new child… What was their life like before they came to you?  What was their history, culture, and family?  What was important/unimportant to them and the look, feel, design and definition of who they are? This doesn’t just go away when they become a part of your family.

When a child comes into your family with a set of ideas and experiences that have defined their perspective on life and themselves, as wonderful as your family may be, simply being a part of a new family will not miraculously transform them into another one of ‘you.’ If it was that simple -if love alone or a family alone could do that mighty work – then it belittles their experiences (good and bad) and the person God has made them to be, or what their history was allowed to do in their hearts.

Change is painful, difficult work and I don’t know many people that actually like it. Adoption will, and should, shake the family tree to the roots. Everyone will have to shift and adjust to find their new place. For some, this is an easier process than others, probably a combination of the personality of the family and that of the new child. As the family members feel the roots shaking and the image of what they knew before begin to take on a new look, it can create a lot of insecurity. It’s more important than ever to hold onto the belief (“claim”) that this child was predestined before the beginning of time to be in this place at this time and to speak words that reflect that belief to your family members and even to yourself!

When you ‘claim’ this new family member with resolve and determination then, as Jojo said, “…the ground stops shaking under the kids’ feet so they feel safe again.” When the ground stops shaking and they begin to feel safe, they begin to trust and hope again.

For some reason, there seems to be very little information about this crucial topic in adoption circles.  We often describe claiming is an unconditional commitment parents make at the time they accept a referral that has nothing to do with external issues like behavior or love being reciprocated.  Claiming doesn’t happen gradually – it’s a non-emotional decision made from the beginning, therefore claiming is not the same as bonding.  From time of referral on, if there has been a very conscious decision made to claim that child, it doesn’t matter what behaviors, medical issues or any other situations occur.  (In extreme cases, parents may consider having the child live in another setting for their own sake or the sake of the family but they don’t give up, just as they wouldn’t with a biological child.)  That child is theirs every bit as much as a biological child is theirs. 

Here is a link to an article at with some more good information about claiming:

clip_image002Cathy and her husband David have been married for 23 years and live in Poulsbo, WA. They have 11 children, ranging in age from 13 to 22 years old. Two are biological, two are from domestic adoption and 7 were adopted from Ethiopia. 

The Carlsons are experienced adoptive parents, not only because of the number of children they’ve adopted but also because of the kinds of kids they’ve made a part of their family. Two of their adoptive children have special needs and three come from disrupted adoption situations. The children adopted from Ethiopia were all older-child adoptions and several had experienced physical and sexual abuse in Ethiopia.  They helped to launch the non-profit adoption ministry Ibsen Adoption Network.

Cathy has been a wonderful source of help for Adoption Ministry’s staff and for several of our adoptive families. She teaches about claiming, parenting strategies, family dynamics and sexual and abuse issues for Adoption Ministry’s International Adoption Training. Her very practical advice and experience-based wisdom are an invaluable resource for others who may face these same issues.