In all the excitement and last minute rush as we embark on an inter-country adoption, we sometimes neglect one of the most important aspects - helping the child make the transition from
institution to family life as gentle and low stress as possible.
In her book “The Family of Adoption”, Joyce Pavao makes the following observations:
“Transitions are so very important for infants and children. We often neglect to take the time to make the transition smooth and careful. We would do a great deal towards building attachment if we paid better attention to transitions.
It is normal, for instance, for a new parent, upon receiving her infant baby in China, to want to take all of the worn and dirty clothing from the orphanage off, wash the baby clean and put on new clothing that has been specially bought. This is, however, taking away the comfort, the familiar feel and smell that would make the transition smoother and help in the process of attaching.
There are things that seem to meet the instinctual needs of the parents - to claim the child, to make the child their own. Often these are the very things that are not in the best interest of a smooth and gradual transition for the child”.
HOW TO EASE YOUR CHILD’S TRANSITION IN TO YOUR FAMILY:
Before leaving home catch up on household chores. Buy in any groceries and other family staples that you think you will need in the month after you bring your child home. Pay bills ahead of time. Estimate clothing sizes and buy a few items to save having to dash to the shops in the first critical days when calm and order will help the most.
Talk to your other children about what the first months may be like. They will need to have extra patience in getting their own needs met.
Take the time to learn the language of your child’s country of birth. For an older child, this will be an invaluable aid to communication, easing the child’s fears and frustrations, meeting his needs and keeping him safe. A younger child may not yet be speaking but their receptive vocabulary may already be large.
Make up a durable photo album to give the child. Include photos of yourselves, your children, other family members who will feature in your child’s life, your pets, home, local park, playground, school, etc.
Learn as much as possible about children of your new child’s age by spending time with children and their parents as well as reading relevant books.
Expect your toddlers to have memories of their short lives, even if they can’t communicate them to you. Don’t assume that they are too young to remember things, people, sounds, and smells; they do.
Go early and spend as many days as possible before your court date visiting the child. An hour or two every day will allow him to get to know you in his familiar and secure environment.
Ask the caregivers about the child, his personality, habits, likes and dislikes, things that frighten him, things he enjoys doing, how he is best consoled, etc.
Take note of the schedule and structure of the child’s day and reproduce his routine.
Interact with the child in a low key manner. Try not to over stimulate him with lots of toys or activity, keep it simple. Go sightseeing before your child comes in to your care.
Leave an older child a photo of your family on your first visit.
Find out what your child is called by his caregivers (it may sound quite different to his given name) and use it.
Stage a little good-bye ceremony with his caregivers when leaving the orphanage. This gives the child ‘permission’ to leave.
Clearly explain to the child in his language, what is happening and when. If he is old enough, he should feel a sense of contribution to the decision.
Show the child photos of a car, an airplane, seats and toilets on the airplane, restaurants, etc. and explain how he will be traveling home. Ask a speaker of the language to make audio tapes to explain what the child is about to experience.
Play games with the child with appropriate toys, e.g., a plane to demonstrate how a it takes off, lands etc.
Make a communication board with pictures for foods, drinks, necessities (toilet, bed, etc.), toys, traveling. Use picture from magazines and laminate them. Use them also to teach English.
Find out what your child’s diet is and try to reproduce it as much as possible.
Simplify your language. Slow down your speech. Exaggerate important words with your voice. Talk about what you are doing. Use facial expressions and hand gestures. Give your child plenty of time to respond. Reward your child’s speech attempts.
Be aware of your family routines so that you can predict and intervene when the newcomer needs direction.
Let her sleep in your bed, in your room, or at least in her sibling’s room for as long as necessary. She is not used to sleeping alone. Don’t worry, she will eventually feel secure enough to enjoy being on her own in her own room.
Let her sleep with a light on.
Read often to her, holding her on your lap. Baby her.
Play calming music.
If you have other children, use them to help her understand and imitate how things are done and what is expected of her.
Keep a consistent schedule.
Prepare simple, familiar foods for her.
If your child’s caregivers were women, decide with your spouse what primary care roles he/she should have. For example, Dad always reads the story before bedtime and Mum always feeds the child. The child then gets used to both parents fulfilling his needs.
Once home, limit your child’s new experiences to a minimum. While he may seem to enjoy lots of activity, there is a danger of over stimulation resulting in tantrums and major meltdowns. Limit television usage to a minimum, especially if it appears to be causing overload problems. Limit the number of outings and visitors to your home.
Be flexible; if something doesn’t work, change it. There is no sense in being completely consistent if your strategy doesn’t work.
Try to keep experiences positive and success oriented.
Ask someone who speaks the child’s language to phone or visit each day, to talk to the child and to translate for you. You will learn much more of what the child understands, needs and is thinking.
Take time off work and spend as much time with your new child as possible to help forge those bonds. As parents, we often feel that we have an immediate connection and that there seems little need to work hard on what seems to us to be a strong relationship. For the child, though, it may take much longer to learn to trust and love a new caregiver. Or, if we feel little connection with our child, all the more reason for spending the time now to develop a relationship and minimise the problems later on.
Your baby or child may go through a stage of grieving where he may suffer from depression, fantasizing, sleep disruptions, incontinence, difficulty with sucking, withdrawal and temper tantrums. This is very normal. Remain understanding and empathetic.
Allow the child to express his feelings of sadness, anger or grief without relegating them to the past or negating their importance.
Follow your child’s lead. As you begin to know each other, you will begin to recognize the child’s signals of stress and anxiety. Allow him some space at those times but stay close and offer solace. Help him step away from whatever increased the tension.
Remember the importance of physical touch. Children feel strength from a parent who sits close to them when they are sharing strong feelings. A gentle touch reassures a troubled youngster of secure love and concern.
Always remember, no matter what happens, your child is doing his best in what is for him a terrifying situation. Children are all different and have varying methods of coping with stress. The more we look at the situation from the child’s point of view, the better we will be at helping the child cope and make adjustments and the easier attachment will occur.
If my son were to speak for himself and all the other children who came to their families as toddlers, he might tell you this:
“Please learn as much as you can about me before you decide to be my Mom or Dad, so you won’t be surprised about me. Don’t think of me as a helpless infant, even though I may not yet be able to do all the things most kids my age can do. Don’t treat me as if I am older than I really am just because I act as if I don’t need you to take care of me. However, when I push you away is when I need you to hold me and tell me that you will never let me go. I had to learn to do many things for myself before you came into my life, and it’s hard for me to learn to depend on you as much as I should. Please recognize and help me with my special needs, but remember that I am still a lot more like other kids than I am different. See me first as your child, not as your adopted child or a child with special needs.
Sometimes I feel really sad and really mad. Don’t pretend that I don’t have these feelings, and don’t get discouraged when I take out my strong feelings on you. Most of the time I am not really mad at you, but you’re the one who’s here now and the one I can safely show my feelings to. I know in my heart that you didn’t do anything to hurt me, but I get all mixed up.
My memories of other Moms and other places where I’ve lived are all in my mind, but they’re stored in pictures, sounds, feelings, and even smells. I don’t have the words to talk about these things. I can’t figure out why that other Mom disappeared, and I’m worried that you might go away, too. I often have to test you because it’s hard for me to believe that you won’t leave me, too. In fact it’s pretty scary for me to love you and trust you, so I might have to test your love the most when you start to be important to me.
Sometimes I just want to curl up in a ball and be a little baby again so someone will take care of me. Other times I want to do everything by myself and I feel like running away from you. Please be patient. We have a long time together. After all, the really worthwhile things in life usually aren’t very easy and they don’t happen overnight”.
While we cannot ensure a smooth transition, we can make a huge difference to most children's experience of adoption if we remain empathetic and mindful of the children's needs and concerns.