adjustment of school-age internationally adopted children to a new
Boris Gindis, Ph.D.,
Published in: ADOPTION TODAY, February/March
It is difficult to
imagine something that could be comparable to the complexity of
the adjustment experience of a school-age child adopted internationally.
Try to envision yourself amid a completely unfamiliar social/cultural
milieu, being bombarded by thousands of novel auditory and visual
experiences, and, on top on this, being handed over to adult strangers
who are now part of something you may have never experienced before,
called "family." That is what internationally adopted
(IA) children are going through as soon as they land on American
There are two specific features of the
initial adjustment process in IA children. First, it is indeed a
total adjustment that includes the physical environment (water,
food, air) and the cultural/social environment. Second, there is
a new language mediating the whole process: language acquisition
and communication difficulties are intrinsic parts of the adjustment
period. It is only reasonable to expect behavior problems determined
by these two factors during the adjustment period.
There is a period of initial (acute)
adjustment, usually lasting from several days to 2-3 weeks, and
a basic adjustment period that may last several months. Many experienced
adoptive parents talk about the "first year" as the crucial
time for a basic adjustment. Experience shows that many of the issues
of newly arrived children do abate within those critical first several
Each and every child has an individual
dynamic of initial and basic adjustments. In general there are three
essential phases in the initial adjustment:
is usually a rather short period of elevated sympathy in people
who are new to each other and who have certain expectations of and
attitudes towards each other. Many older children have the idea
that if they misbehave they may be returned to the orphanage, so
they try to control their behavior to the best of their ability.
Adoptive parents try to be as nice as possible to their newly obtained
children. Again, this period may be so short that some adoptive
parents may not notice it. Some children while just traveling to
their new home may have tantrums, crying fits, etc., which can be
due to the frustrating inability to communicate wishes and needs.
Some children may have had not enough sleep, be tired from the excitement
of the departure, be scared by the sometimes frightening experiences
of being restrained by a seat belt in an airplane, by the series
of doctor's examinations, etc. and act out right in the middle of
Testing of the limits
For IA children, the only way to explore their new
reality is to test it with whatever repertoire of behavior is available
to the children: it may be angry rebellion, autistic-like withdrawn,
hectic hyperactive examination of their surroundings by touching,
pulling, throwing, etc. A child's behavior during the acute period
of his/her adjustment may not be typical of this child later on.
By the same token, parenting techniques to manage these behaviors
may be different from the typical behavior management repertoire
of particular parents. "Testing the limits" means that
limits and routines are to be established by parents and learned
by the child. Cultural differences (at times no less than "culture
shock") mediate the testing-of-limits process in both parents
Gradual mutual acceptance
Although this may be a part of the initial adjustment,
it is a relatively long period of reciprocal accommodation and adaptation
that is the starting point of basic adjustment. This is a period
where post-orphanage behavior is to be tried again and again and
is gradually replaced by more functional adaptive behavior. Now
is when intense feelings of anxiety, grief, anger, and other emotional
turbulence might take place. This is the time when a new post-institutional
way of life (e.g.: routines, values, attitudes, etc.) are being
gradually acquired by the IA child. This beginning of acceptance
of a new way of life is the end of the initial adjustment period.
issues during the initial adjustment period
In order to make the initial adjustment
manageable and productive, adoptive parents should follow certain
"dos" and don'ts":
- Keep stimulation to a minimum. No welcome parties,
no trips to the mall within the first three weeks, no stream of
relatives to see your new addition to the family. Limit toys,
choices, outing, etc. Plan only one big stimulation activity per
day (such as the park, store, etc.).
- Concentrate on establishing a daily routine. Your
key words from day one should be structure, consistency, routine.
Develop a set of rules and procedures as quickly as possible and
stick to them rigorously. Post-orphanage children's personal experience
with discipline needs to be changed. The orphanage regiment has,
in general, an adverse effect on a child because it does not nurture
self-discipline. The child learns to be an object of externally
exposed discipline. In a new family the child must learn self-discipline
as the base for behavior and social interaction. What is needed
is discipline that is attuned to the particular personalities
within the family, that is shared and understood by everyone in
the immediate family, and that is capable of teaching an IA child
(probably for the first time) how to belong within a family.
- Parents should understand that there are things
upon which they cannot compromise and there are things upon which
negotiation and mutual "steps back" are possible. The
first are issues of safety and health: no compromise on those.
All the rest may be negotiated. Start working on safety skills
and rules, such as crossing busy streets, walking around parked
cars, asking owners before petting dogs, finding the way home,
if lost asking for help, dealing with strangers, etc.
- The initial adjustment can be a very stressful
time for everyone in the family. Parents should remember the basic
rule of airplane safety: put an oxygen mask on yourself first
and after that on the one you are going to take care of. Give
yourselves breaks from the stress whenever you can. Take care
Adoptive parents should be ready to understand
that the coping technique for many IA children during the adjustment
period will be regression to a younger age behavior. A 5-year-old
will behave like a 2 year old and an 8 year old will test limits
through behavior that is expected from a preschooler.
Language acquisition has its own dynamic
during the adjustment period. Both parents and children become very
frustrated due to a mutual inability to understand each other, and
children may end up in a temper tantrum.
Parents should not expect older children
to be impressed with what is available for them now or to be immediately
appreciative and grateful to their parents for that. Actually, just
the opposite should be expected due to cultural shock. Parents should
be ready for ungrateful, unimpressed, and resistant children in
order to avoid disappointment.
The initial adjustment may significantly
alter the child's "normal" behavior and produce symptoms
usually associated with different psychiatric diagnoses. However,
patience is needed: it would be a mistake to jump to conclusions
about the presence of a specific disorder and start specialized
assessment and treatment right away. Some parents with no parenting
experience and elevated anxiety may think the way a freshman in
medical school thinks, going through the list of symptoms of different
diseases: "My God, I had this symptom just yesterday, sure,
I have this disease!" There are so many "behavior checklists"
freely floating around (mostly through the Internet) that adoptive
parents may read one of those and decide that the child has "all
of these." Remember that this is still an adjustment period;
certain patterns of troubling behavior may have a transitional nature.
There should be a balance between a "wait and see'' approach
and an "immediate response" approach.
There is an effective and useful method
to reduce parents' anxiety and structure their experiences: write
a diary describing the child's behavior and parents' reactions,
feelings, and attitudes. For this you must be a keen observer of
your child's behavior and be honest about your own frustrations
and fears. Describe any progress or lack of progress that you see
in the child. You should focus on the present moment (here and now)
while learning all you can about the issues your child might have.
This diary can be an invaluable resource later, if and when you
decide to seek a professional consultation.