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International Adoption Info

Newsletter #159 for Internationally Adopting Parents
April 24, 2012
PAL Center Inc.

Internet Digest

    Emily C. Merz
    Behavior Problems In Children Adopted From Socially-Emotionally Depriving Orphanages

    A graduate student study points out that post-institutionalized children are at higher risk of Attention Problems and Aggressive Behavior even when institutional deficiencies were limited to the assignment of children to a large number of short-term caregivers who provided impersonal, routine care. Risk of these behavior problems and Social Problems increased substantially after 12 months in a socially-emotionally depriving orphanage but did not increase again with longer exposure. A similar set of behavior problems was found for children exposed to more severe early deprivation, proving the association of these behavior problems with the severity of the orphanage environment.

    Habiba Ahmed Abd Elaziz
    Adoption in Islam
    Much like every other Sharia law, the law of adoption is interpreted differently, from one school of thought to the other.

    Impulsivity, Attention and Video Games
    Impulsive children with attention problems tend to play more video games, while children in general who spend lots of time video gaming may develop impulsivity and attention difficulties, according to new research.

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Post-Orphanage Behavior
in Internationally Adopted Children

B. Gindis Ph.D.

The psychological effect on child's behavior produced by living in orphanage did not attract the attention of scientists until the first international adoptees from Romania arrived to America. The last US orphanage was closed almost 70 years ago, and the notion of "orphanage behavior" disappeared from the researchers' radar. But when adoption of children from the overseas orphanages reached big numbers during the last two decades, the monster returned but was not recognized. It was given many fancy names, from "institutional autism" to "attachment disorder." In cases of "institutional autism," those children would be later diagnosed with "real" autism or, more often, their behavior would gradually morph into normal family-oriented and acceptable patterns (see my article Institutional autism in children adopted internationally: myth or reality?). The situation with attachment diagnoses was even more complex (see my article Attachment disorder: are we trying to fit square pegs into the round holes? ), as a child's unruly or unusual behavior in a family setting was not necessarily a sign of any medical/psychiatric condition. In fact, in many cases this was a post-orphanage behavior, magnified by an early childhood trauma and reinforced by the abrupt loss of first language and new negative circumstances.

We all intuitively understand that an institutional culture must be the breeding ground for institutional behavior among children who do not get adequate care and proper mediation from adults in their early most formative years, are continuously traumatized, and often forced into survival mode. We do not have any reliable research on these depraving forces, but we do see the psychological effects and consequences of these conditions for children in their post-institutional period, which I will identify and describe based on my observations and on hundreds of psychological assessments I have conducted over 20 years.

Post-Orphanage Behavior (POB) syndrome is a cluster of learned (acquired) behaviors that could have been adaptive and effective in orphanages but became maladaptive and counter-productive in the new family environment. I believe that to some extent we can initially observe some patterns of POB in the majority of post-institutionalized children. As one can see further, some characteristics of POB may even contradict each other (e.g., learned helplessness and self-parenting), but nevertheless can still be found in the same child. In fact, the illogical combination of seemingly opposite characteristics is the very essence of POB.

Though it is difficult to trace the direct link between certain environmental conditions affecting a former orphanage resident with the resulting psychological traits of the growing up person who now lives in the family - it's always a complex combination of biological and social aspects - we have to identify the main patterns of expected and common post-orphanage behavior and separate temporary from long-term psychological problems. Below we will look at several components of post-orphanage behavior. They are most common among international adoptees, but there may be some additional traits which I do not review here like hoarding, stealing, habitual lying, and other anti-social acts reported by adoptive parents.

Poor self regulation

A peculiar combination of rigid routine with ongoing uncontrollable changes in the environment is typical for foreign institutions: constant turnover of caregivers and frequent transfers of children between institutions create unpredictability in living arrangements and lead to a tremendous sense of instability and lack of control. On the other hand, children's everyday routines are fixed with rigid schedules, virtually no personal choices, and no private possession of toys or other goods. As a result of this everyday routine combined with sudden uncontrollable change, there is a minimal need for behavioral self-regulation, long-term planning, or a need to practice goal-directed consistent behavior. The orphanage residents live in a "reactive" mode, surviving "one day at a time." Immaturity in self-regulation of behavior and emotions can be seen in such behavior patterns as:

  • Difficulties with sustaining goal-directed behavior, independent generating of problem-solving strategies and methods toward achieving goals, carrying out multi-step activities and following complex instructions, monitoring/checking and keeping track of performance.
  • Emotional volatility - the inability to modulate emotional responses. These children are easily aroused emotionally - whether happy or sad, the speed and intensity with which they move to the extreme of their emotions is much greater than that of their same age peers; they are often on a roller coaster ride of emotions. As observed by one parent: "When my 8-year-old is happy, he is so happy that people tell him to calm down. When he is unhappy, he is so unhappy that people tell him to calm down."
  • Reluctance/unwillingness to perform tasks that are repetitive, uninteresting, require effort, and that have not been chosen by the child (but that is what life in general and school learning in particular consist of!). It is very hard for them to shift (to make transitions, change focus from one mindset to another, switch or alternate attention) and to inhibit, resist, or not act on an impulse, including an ability to stop one's activity at the appropriate time.
  • Difficulty with delaying gratification and accepting "No" for an answer. In this respect many post-institutionalized children are rather similar to much younger children than to their peers.


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