Adopted Children Need Time to Adjust, Experts Say

Filed under: Adoption, In The News, Expert Advice: Babies, Expert Advice: Toddlers & Preschoolers, Expert Advice: Big Kids, Expert Advice: Tweens, Expert Advice: Teens

Interaction helps adopted kids form attachment bonds. Credit: Getty Images

a Tennessee woman sent her adopted child on a plane back to Russia last week, the topic of adoption is both in the news and on people's minds.

What's important to understand, experts say, is that adoption itself is not the problem. Rather, issues can occur because of things that may have happened before the adoption ever took place -- including whether the child was abused or neglected, was institutionalized or lived in an orphanage in another country.

Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a New York-based nonprofit that works for best practices in adoption, stresses that it's a parent's job to take care of the child's needs. If you adopt through an agency, he says, the agency should provide resources before and after the adoption, adding that one of the most important things an agency can do is continue to follow up with adoptive families.

"When they move into an adoptive family, children invariably start healing and may make immediate improvements," Pertman tells ParentDish. "But few parents are expert enough to solely provide what a child needs to make that happen. People tend to generalize adoption, but this is what we do in biological families -- there are plenty of families where kids are really tough and have psychological needs, but you don't see parents putting them on a bus to another city."

Rita Taddonio, director of the Adoption Resource Center at Spence-Chapin Services to Families and Children, tells ParentDish that each child is different, as is his or her history, but there are a number of common issues most adoptive families will face, and for which they should prepare.

Attachment is critical, according to Tadonnio, as children and families must learn to develop and maintain healthy attachments for the adoptive family to be successful. A small percentage of children will experience the extreme Reactive Attachment Disorder, but a majority of adopted kids will have some level of attachment problem, especially those who have experienced abuse or neglect or traumatic separations.

"Certainly, if you're adopting internationally, and probably if you're adopting a child older than 6 months from the foster care system, you will need to expect attachment problems," Taddonio tells ParentDish. She adds, "I always tell parents to be prepared, to expect the worst or the most difficult, and then they can be relieved when that doesn't happen."

A lot of parents who adopt internationally expect developmental delays, but the piece that's integral to the family is social-emotional attachment. This is one of the most difficult issues to deal with, Taddonio says, as it may result in adoptive parents not getting the positive feedback they expect from the child in the beginning.

Also, Taddonio explains that since children can't really articulate what their issues are, they likely will act out, so it's the parents' job to figure out where the behavior is coming from. For this reason, she says, the practice of discipline is different with adopted children -- parents can't just target the unwanted behavior. They need to figure out where it's coming from, because if they just distinguish the behavior it likely will surface somewhere else.

Grief and loss issues are prevalent with adopted kids, though rather than dealing with the actual death of a parent, it's the loss of their birth family culture and of a life that might have been. Taddonio notes that there really are no rituals to deal with this kind of loss, and often parents are so busy focusing on the joy of adopting the child that sometimes they don't want to bring up the sad parts. She tells ParentDish that parents need to actively help their child articulate this loss by doing a lot of intentional parenting around these issues and providing them with plenty of opportunities to do so.

For this reason, Taddonio says, it's extremely important to give adopted kids the space to talk about their birth parents, which should also help prevent them from developing divided loyalties. If they feel they have to choose which family to care about, biological or adoptive, it puts them in a difficult position, and can often cause acting out and depression, she says.

Taddonio suggests using phrases such as "You must have gotten that wonderful singing voice from your birth mother or father, because you certainly didn't get it from your dad or me." She tells ParentDish there also should be a way to acknowledge the child's birth parents, such as lighting a candle every year on the day the child was adopted.

Identity is another issue that links back to the birth parents, according to Taddonio. Each of us has to figure out who we are in the world, but adoptive kids have different layers of identity: ethnicity, birth culture, birth family and identity within the context of the new family to which they belong. She tells ParentDish that parents need to help adoptive children bring all of these layers together so they feel whole, and a part of their adoptive family. In helping to balance out both families, she also suggests that parents point out what the child has gotten from their adoptive parents, such as their sense of humor, love of reading or way of looking at the world.

When adopting a child of a different race or ethnicity, it's important to combine pieces of the child's background into the family culture. Taddonio explains that it's more than just sending a child to Chinese dance school or Russian language lessons -- taken out of context, those acts keep the child separate. Rather, parents should make sure they have objects in their home that reflect the child's birth culture, and make sure to incorporate cultural celebrations that help teach them who they are. If you adopt a child from a different race, it's crucial to have people in your life who are diverse -- and not just the same race as your child. Taddonio says this is a message clearly heard from adult adoptees.

One strategy that works really well with adopted children is the creation, a process that is described in the book, Adoption Lifebook: A Bridge to Your Child's Beginnings, Taddonio says. A lifebook is not actually a scrapbook, but rather a tool to help parents gain insight on how their child is understanding their own story. Children create the books themselves, adding information on their birth country, birth parents, where they lived before, and their current family. The recommended age for a Lifebook is 8 to 11 years old, and Taddonio suggests that a child be in the home for one or two years before creating it, and that it's important for a social worker to work with the child and the parents in helping the child to clarify his or her story, and to help understand that being put up for adoption was not his or her fault.

Pertman emphasizes that the recent story of Torry Ann Hansen, who returned her adopted son Artyom Savelyev to Russia, should serve as a wake-up call that sufficient resources in the U.S. to provide needed post-placement services are lacking.

"Our job is not just placing kids in families, it's helping kids succeed," he says.

Both Pertman and Taddonio agree that adoption agencies should be the nexus of information for parents both pre- and post-adoption. Taddonio tells ParentDish parents should attend pre-adoptive workshops, read books such as Deborah Gray's "Attaching in Adoption," and go online and read some of the many blogs written by adoptive parents.

"It's important for parents to get a sense of what they're going to be dealing with, to find out what's available in their community and to start connecting with resources early on," Taddonio says.

According to Pertman, the need for post-adoptive services is a normal part of adoptive family development, and should not be looked on as an indication of family dysfunction. These services can help all members of the adoption circle deal with normal developmental stages of adoptive family life and other long-term issues. According to the U.S. government's Child Welfare Information Gateway, a safety net of supportive post-adoption services helps preserve permanency, and provides reassurance to families and can help prevent termination of a child's placement before finalization of the adoption.

Post-adoptive resources include workshops at local adoption agencies, private or government-sponsored parent support groups and centers that deal exclusively with adoption issues, such as the Center for Adoption Support and Education (CASE) in Maryland, or Center for Family Connections in Boston. In addition, Adoptive Families magazine is a great resource for articles and practical suggestions on how to deal with issues, and Adoption Learning Partners offers a series of online video courses that deal with some of the most common issues and come widely recommended by Taddonio.

In addition, Taddonio advises adoptive parents to keep communication open.

"Answer questions, help them articulate their loss and any anger," she says. "This goes a long way to healing adoptive issues."

Related: Opinion: Adoptive Mother Should Be Sent to the Gulag

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.
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