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Initial adjustment of school-age internationally adopted children to a new family

Boris Gindis, Ph.D.,
NYS Licensed Psychologist

Published in: ADOPTION TODAY, February/March 2005

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 soil.

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.

Adjustment period phases

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 months.

Each and every child has an individual dynamic of initial and basic adjustments. In general there are three essential phases in the initial adjustment:

Honeymoon phase
This 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 the "honeymoon."

Testing of the limits phase
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 and children.

Gradual mutual acceptance phase
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.

Managing behavioral 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 of yourselves.

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.

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