Review on "Parenting your internationally
adopted child" by Patty Cogen, from The Harvard Common Press, MA,
I recently acquired a number of copies of this book to
hand out to my colleagues at the BGCenter, as well as to several adoptive
parents. I never did this with any other book, and let me explain why
I did now. "Parenting your internationally adopted child",
published by the Harvard Common Press (MA) in 2008, is one of the most
informative and trustworthy books on this subject.
International adoption on a large scale unfolded in the US in the early
1990s. Since then, clinical research, therapeutic experience, parental
and educational practice gradually accumulated into collective wisdom
and a better understanding of the phenomenon. This "know-how"
for parenting has been presented in a growing number of books, articles
and blogs. Finally we have a book that is the quintessence of our collective
experience in this matter. While reading this book I experienced a deep
feeling of trust. I believe in the author, who describes what I witness
on a daily basis in my practice with adopted children. Dr. Cogen has
carefully thought about and researched the issues extensively, and has
also lived through the experience as a parent of an internationally
The book consists of three chapters: 1) Understanding Your Child's Behavior
and Misbehavior 2) Key Parenting Strategies and 3) As Your Adopted Child
Grows Up. It covers the lifespan of an adoption from pre-adoption expectations,
to meeting the child for the first time, surviving the first year, and
then living through the challenging teen years. Based on her experience
of running a group therapy called "First Year Home", Dr. Cogen
creates a composite portrait of five adoptive families with a different
array of problems and offers practical solutions in solving these problems.
Proactive parenting, complimentary to the more traditional "contingency"
parenting, is Dr. Cogen's core idea. Proactive parenting is "as
if" parenting: internationally adopted children of different ages
often do not communicate their needs clearly and parents must behave
as if the child has expressed those needs. A major principle of "proactive"
parenting is formulated by Joyce Sterkel, the founder of the Ranch for
Kids in Montana and my other favorite figure in the field of international
adoption. She says the following: "Create a situation in which
it is easy to do right and difficult to do wrong." Contingency
("reactive") parenting and proactive parenting are fully compatible
and should go hand in hand; however, proactive parenting is needed to
calm the "stressed-shaped personality" of an internationally
adopted post-institutionalized child who may react negatively to nurturing
The essence of proactive patenting is in the speed and intensity of
a parent's care-giving response, anticipating the child's distress.
The book describes a number of clever, "on-the-ball" techniques
and parenting methodologies (mostly in the form of games and shared
activities) that are the essence of proactive parenting. What is most
attractive to me about Dr. Cogen's approach is that it is developmentally
defined: there is one set of techniques (she calls them "toolkits")
for three year olds, another for six year olds and yet another for the
pre-adolescent and adolescent child.
In the first chapter the author explains the process of initial adjustment
- the beginnings of bonding and development of a positive self-image
that includes an American identity. The author begins with an explanation
of how to handle sleep and eating problems, how to address the issues
of accepting a new family routine and how to redirect troubling behaviors
in light of your child's early experiences.
The author distinguishes between family skills (group-centered and based
on cooperation) and survival skills (self-centered and based on manipulation
and distorted communication). She discusses the concept of "family
age" (in my writings I use the similar notion of "adoption
age") - the length of time in the family that usually correlates
with the family skills development.
One of the most intriguing parts of the book is the elaboration of the
concept of resilience as an ability to bounce back from stressful situations
without resorting to stress-based, reactive, "fight-or-flight"
behaviors. Resiliency includes behavioral and emotional self-control
and is my favorite subject: for years I have been writing about a lack
of self-control (emotional immaturity) as the most distinctive feature
(a "trademark") of international adoptees. Cogen concludes
that it takes internationally adopted orphanage-raised children much
longer to develop the same level of self-control as their non-adopted
siblings. As long as the child's self-regulation is not at least functional,
there will be constant set-backs in behavior.
Still another fruitful discussion presented in the book is the "mixed
maturities" concept (what I call, after Vera Falberg "two-and-twenty"
syndrome). The complicated background of a child, his chronological
age, and the family age diverge into mixed maturities: the child bounces
among different levels of maturity and self-regulation in different
areas of functioning.
I agree with the author's approach to the most burning issue in adoption
-attachment. According to Dr. Cogen, attachment is not something that
once reached stays there forever; it is a rather fragile psychological
state that needs to be achieved, maintained and reinforced. Her understanding
of attachment as a relationship in progress, but not a "catch-all"
static condition of a child predetermining every aspect of the child's
behavior, is fascinating to me and is very practical.
The book, of course, is not without some drawbacks. One of the most
noticeable is how surprisingly little attention is paid to one of the
most significant aspects of international adoption - language attrition,
language replacement and language learning. The few pages (120-126)
devoted to this subject are certainly not on par with the rest of the
book. For example, the author identifies a "silent" period
in adoption during which "
a child uses neither her native
language, nor her second language" and "
period lasts between three to six months" (page 123). This statement
can only be explained by the fact that the author apparently talks about
children adopted as infants and toddlers, in whom language issues may
not be so obvious. However, those parents who have adopted or are going
to adopt an older (four and up) child should understand the significance
of language issues in their child's family life and schooling. While
Dr. Cogen concentrates on integration of children into families, which
is, of course, the central piece of any adoption journey, there are
other concerns as well: cultural and cognitive/academic integration
into the school, neighborhood, and society at large, which are not covered
in the book to the degree they deserve.
Dr. Patty Cogen is a therapist who has worked with adoptive
families, a teacher who educates parents and adoptive professionals,
and an adoptive mother herself. She explains what to do before the adoption,
what to expect from the minute the parents meet their child up to the
challenging teen years. The calm and confident narrative tone of the
book, combined with a comprehensive and deep understanding of the issues,
make it an excellent guide for parents and professionals in the adoptive
community. In fact, she has created an effective "roadmap"
to successful adoption, and at the BGCenter we would like to see this
roadmap in the hands of everyone who participates in this journey, as
a parent or as a professional working in the field of international
B. Gindis, Ph.D.