Ask most Americans what they believe life in an orphanage is like, and chances are that they’ll have some vague impressions from stories like “Annie” and not much else. It’s simply an aspect of the world that most people are infrequently exposed to.
To understand international adoption, however, means understanding what life is like for children in an orphanage. This is especially true if you yourself are adopting. Here are five things you should keep in mind:
1) Orphanages deprive them of a sense of permanency
While there is no question that the care provided in a managed facility is preferable to a child living on the street, orphanage life does mean a child can have difficulty in establishing a sense of permanency. Life is an orphanage is one of change. Caregivers come and go. So do peers. You are rarely alone, but there is often a distinct lack of closeness in the relationships you have.
2) Their free time tends to be well-managed
Children living in orphanages tend to lead fairly structured lives. Due to the nature of an orphanage – many children, and fewer caregivers – life happens on a schedule. Children get up, get cleaned, eat, learn, and recreate in a regimented way. This is useful for providing structure and for maintaining order over a large number of young people at once, though it’s important to note that it may have a negative impact on their later life with a family like yours (albeit an impact that can be overcome). Specifically, these children sometimes have difficulty coping with free time and self-directed play, a lingering remnant of their days living such structured lives.
3) They learn to depend on themselves
Despite being surrounded by people at all hours of the day, orphanage life can be lonely. Children who have spent time in an orphanage often learn to depend on no one but themselves. This may be in part because they feel let down by adults (not uncommon in older children) and in part because personal, family-like care is lacking. This self-dependency can mean they have a sense of independence, but it may also mean that establishing trust in new caregivers – or even new parents – is difficult.
4) The orphanage environment does not help build family skills
Life in an orphanage is a life of building survival skills. Not life and death survival, perhaps, but rather a form of intense coping mechanics most children will not have to develop. It’s a useful kind of social skill when living in that kind of environment, but it doesn’t necessarily serve children once they are placed in a family environment. Those are skills that will take time to develop.
5) Trauma will have been a part of your child’s life
Being separated from one’s birth family is a traumatic experience. There is no way around that. Scientists have even now confirmed that this remains true even for infants, who can experience traumatic effects from such separation for the first several years of their life. Understanding this is vital to giving your child a good transition into your home. The trauma of separation may mean they have difficulties. Your job is to help them deal with those difficulties.
Orphanage life can change a child, making it so that their transition into a traditional family unit will entail a few bumps in the road. Understanding the life they once came from and the impact it may have had on them is the first step in helping them overcome those difficulties.