Adopting an Older Child Internationally
7 Ways to Ease the Adjustment and start the bonding process
By Elizabeth Westermann, LMSW
The adoption of older children from foreign countries is becoming more common as fewer infants and young toddlers are available for adoption by US families. Building your family by adopting an older child brings much joy, but it can also be challenging. After all, the majority of your new child’s life has been spent in a different country, and in an environment that is likely to be very different from your own. The bonding process will take time. From the child’s perspective, they are suddenly living in a strange land, with strange looking people, different sounds, smells, and a very strange sounding language. They are likely scared, confused and grieving the loss of all they have left behind. They may not understand the concept of family as you know it. These and many other issues will arise as you begin to adjust to your new child, and your new child to you. Here are a few tips on how to get off to a good start during the mutual adjustment and bonding process.
1. Look through your child’s eyes. In order to see things they way your child sees them; you need to gather as much information on your child before they are placed with you. Research traditions and the culture of your child’s birth country. Use the information provided by your adoption agency to understand your child’s living conditions. Are they in foster care, or in an orphanage? If they are in foster care, how many other children are in the home? Do they attend school? Where does the child sleep? How does their culture of origin define family? Is their experience in a family the same as the cultural norms? What is the role of mother and father in a family according to their culture and experience? What do they like to eat? Use this information to create a deeper level of understanding and empathy with your child. The answers to these questions, and more, will give you a way to see the world through your child’s eyes and be better prepared for the initial adjustment period.
2. When will they call you Mom and Dad? When an infant learns to speak, their first words are often “Mama” and “Dada”. When an older child is placed in a new family, they may not feel comfortable calling you Mom or Dad right away. Their definition of what a mother and father are in relation to their role in the family, may be different then yours. Give them time to establish a bond, to trust that you are their forever family and you are there for him. Set an expectation for him, that you eventually expect him to call you Mom and Dad, but you understand this will take time.
3. Bring their Country of Origin home with you. When you travel to bring your child home, use this time to gather as much information as you can about the culture, traditions, and food. Bring your child to historic sites, museums, street fairs, concerts if accessible. Purchase household items such as cutlery, and dishes which are familiar to your child. This will make eating easier for your child when you get home. Take home music, books, and clothing from your child’s country. Your child may be used to a certain type of fabric, so bring home clothing that feels familiar and comfortable to him.
4. Break the language barrier. Many adoptive parents worry about the potential for a language barrier with their newly adopted child. You may wonder how you will communicate with your child and meet his needs without a common language. Basically, the younger the child is, the easier it will be for him to learn a new language. From birth to age 7 is the optimal time for a child to learn a new language, and if a child learns English before age 10, there is not usually a noticeable accent from their native language. It will take more time for a child to learn English after age 10, but it will take some patience and extra work on your child’s part. Acquiring the English language should pose no difficulties if your child was proficient in his native language. However, if there are cognitive delays, or learning difficulties, then acquiring English language will be more of a challenge. During the initial adjustment period, learn to use non-verbal cues such as hand gestures and sign language. Speak English with your child from the onset. If your child is feeling angry and frustrated due to the language barrier, chances are you are feeling the same way. Find a person in your community who speaks your child’s native language who would be willing to translate. Try local universities, where foreign students can serve as a translator, or ethnic restaurants where employees speak your child’s native language. Download translation apps on your phone for quick access to vocabulary. Ensure your child receives English as Second Language (ESL) support in school. And of course, reading to your child will help his language development as well. It is normal and expected for internationally adopted children to feel frustrated when they cannot communicate, so don’t take it personally or blame yourself. Be patient, keep a good sense of humor, and know that it will take time.
5. Look beyond their behaviors. As a parent of an older adopted child, it is always important to put their challenging behaviors in perspective. Look at the behavior. Remember where your child came from. They may appear withdrawn, have frequent temper tantrums, refuse to communicate with you, act out in anger, or harm themselves or others in your household. Remember that a child in foster care or institutional care is likely to have experienced neglect, abuse, abandonment and lack of attachment to any caregiver, among others. Their biological parents may have mental health issues or addiction. Their behaviors do not indicate that your child is “a bad kid” it is just their reaction to their negative past. Working with your child in a calm, therapeutic manner can make all of the difference. Providing security, structure and nurturing will help your child change and learn to trust you. With the help of professionals who are experienced in adoption-related issues, you can help your child learn to trust you and create a secure bond with you.
6. Initially, it’s about learning to be in school, not the academics. Remember that your child may not have been in a school setting at all or it may have been a different type of school setting than in the US. His English language skills are developing and he is trying to see how he fits into this new “culture” of school in addition to being a part of the American culture. Give your child the time to form a level of comfort in school, make some friends, and establish a relationship with his teachers. Placement into the appropriate grade level can make all the difference when it comes to building your child’s confidence. Many adoptive families have found that placing a child according to where they are developmentally, not chronologically, works the best. Consider your child’s maturity level as well as their academic ability when determining placement. Placing a child in the grade where he will be most successful is paramount. Success builds confidence, which builds self esteem, which leads to a child who is motivated to do better.
7. It takes time. The majority of your child’s life was spent in a different country, in a different living environment, with different people. His experience in his birth country has impacted his life in every way. Remember, your child is experiencing loss and grief, as he moves from the only place he has ever known. You and your child are both on a learning curve; learning to live together, how to be a family and how to relate and communicate with each other. Keep your expectations in check, have fun, laugh -- a lot!! And enjoy the beginning of your parenting journey.
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