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From Orphanage to Home
Helping your adopted child make the transition
June 01,2008 / Rita Taddonio
Untitled Document

If you are preparing to bring your child home, or have recently arrived home with your child, there are a number of things that are important to understand:

First and foremost, keep in mind that while you have spent months, perhaps years, preparing your minds and hearts to welcome this child into your lives and become a family, your child has had little, if any, preparation for this incredibly huge and significant change in his or her life.

Your child was going along with the daily routine when one day, there was an introduction to this person who is to be their new Mom or Dad. Certainly nothing told to them in the way of preparation makes sense to them. Cognitively, most of them are too young to understand that they are getting a new family, and most of them have no reference point for "family." If you have lived all but the first month or two of your life in an orphanage, you have no real understanding of what family means. If your child is older and has memories of a dysfunctional or unstable family life, those memories won't be an accurate reflection of the new relationship ahead with your family.

Don't be too upset or surprised if your child doesn't react to you the way you expected or hoped. Don't take it personally. It takes time to fall in love. It takes time to become a family - to learn how to interact with each other's personalities, temperaments, etc.

In addition, orphanage life requires different skills than family life. In fact, survival skills for life in an orphanage may be "dysfunctional" in a family or American school system.

Consider these points:

  • Life in institutions is often based on submissive/dominance models; therefore, your child at home may seem too aggressive or too passive.

  • If a child had to be very self-sufficient for survival, or was older and became a caretaker for younger children in the institution, it will be hard for the child to let you be the parent.

  • The extremely routinized life in institutions does not equip children with skills to handle transitions.

  • In an institution, everything is outer regulated: when you sleep, when you eat, when you go to the bathroom - so a child doesn't have any opportunities to learn self-regulation or deal with choices.

  • In an institution, there are many changes over which a child has no control - staff, changes in what room he/she lives in because of age. This can create control issues and/or a lag in developing trust.

  • Living with multiple caregivers may result in indiscriminate friendliness. This is not the same as attachment disorder.

  • There are times when attachment disorder is an issue - but it can be dealt with successfully with appropriate intervention.

  • The children will not be used to having things of their own. It will take time to learn the concept of personal property.

There are positives and negatives to each of the above points. The important thing is that understanding where a behavior may be coming from helps you deal with it appropriately.

Your child may be coming home at 8 months, 18 months, or 28 months, but you will have to teach her/him how to be in a family, how to have social relationships.

Lastly, remember that this is a huge transition for your child. Everything - smells, foods, sounds, textures, language, faces - is going to be radically different from what they are used to and recognize. Respect that by going slowly in introducing them to new things (people, places, toys, foods, etc.).

Practical Suggestions for Parents

While You Wait

  1. Educate yourself about the effects of institutionalization on development.

  2. Examine what expectations you have for your child, for yourself as a parent, and for your new family - and consider how realistic they are.

  3. Try to get a clear understanding of the developmental stage / capabilities typical of the specific age of your child.

  4. If your child is older than two years, try to learn some simple phrases in her/his native language.

  5. Try to have ongoing contact during this waiting period - send pictures, letters... involve siblings in drawing pictures, etc.

  6. Send or bring a transition object - a small stuffed animal, a blanket. Hopefully orphanage staff will share photos or letters with your child but they may not. You can ask them to send drawings if your child is older. This may not happen either but it doesn't hurt to ask.

Saying Goodbye at the Orphanage

  1. Try to have time to say goodbye properly, not rushed. Bring something the child can give to caretakers.

  2. Take pictures with an instant camera and give them to caretakers. Take photos of your child with caretakers, others children, the orphanage, and the town to take home.

  3. Bring a transition object (in case the one you sent got lost).

  4. Bring activities for the plane.

Transition at Home

  1. Presume your child's development will be delayed in at least one area, maybe more. Early childhood specialists agree that there is about a 1 month delay for every 3 months in an institution.

  2. Be aware that socially and emotionally your child may be operating on the level of a child younger than her/his chronological age.

  3. Avoid sensory overload - keep gatherings low-key, don't fill their room with "stuff."

  4. Make sure you are the one doing all the "parenting" tasks such as bathing, feeding, putting to sleep - no matter how much grandparents or aunts/uncles want to do it.

  5. Try to be fairly consistent with structure and routine.

  6. If possible, allow your child to have a transitional object - a picture of friends from the orphanage, a stuffed dog or blanket you brought with you when you went to get them in their country.

  7. If at all possible, take as much time as you can off from work to be with your child during this transition time, not just for the time you need to be in their country, but when you come home as well.

  8. Remember that bonding doesn't "just happen." Provide experiences and interactions that will promote bonding.

  9. Think about testing and finding appropriate school programs.

  10. Again, give yourself and your child time to fall in love.

Transitioning from orphanage to home is hard on everyone, but the long-term effects of this transition will stay with a child for the rest of their life. Planning ahead and being properly prepared can make for a much smoother road for everyone.

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Readers Comments  (1 Comments)  View All Comments
Great article. I woul have added something about grieving and about how many times a child will connect to one parent and reject the other depending on their experiences. I wasn't aware of either of these the first time we adopted internationally. Another thing is the importance of learning the language. Even if just to ask if they need to use the bathroom or if they are hungry or thirsty. You'd be surprised how lost you feel when you can't even ask if they cold or in pain.- Bobbie*
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