Child Myths

Straight talk about child development.

The Russian Adoption Mess: Using Common Sense and Empathy

Some common sense questions and suggestions about foreign adoption.

The problems of families who have adopted from Russia, and the Russian response to these, have been swept from public discussion by the tragic plane crash near Katyn, with its reminders of other tragic events. It is with no wish to be disrespectful of these losses that I am returning to the issues of adoptive families, recently brought to public attention by the unaccompanied return of a Russian adoptee to his native country.

I am going to make some suggestions about preventing problems in adoptions of older children, and in foreign adoptions in particular. I want to emphasize that these suggestions have not been, tested by research--- in fact, there is relatively little research that examines the outcomes of adoptive parents' actions. I am basing what I have to say on common sense implications of human development facts, and on the capacity to empathize with both adoptive parents and adopted children. Some of my comments will have to do with considerations before the adoption process proceeds far; others will have to do with treatment of children after they come to the adoptive home.

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First, thinking it over before you adopt:
1. Before moving toward adoption, give serious consideration to WHY you want to adopt. There are many reasons for such a choice, and all of them are to some degree selfish, so let's not get involved with that word. But some motivations are more likely than others to blind possible adoptive parents to reality. For example, did you begin the adoption process because someone came to your church and spoke about it? Are you going with a whole group on a charter flight so you can all pick up your kids at the same time? Would this situation make it harder for you to decide that you don't want to adopt after all? Be sure that these factors don't influence your decision inappropriately.

2. Are there factors in your life that would create particular problems with respect to an older child? Are you adopting as a single parent, with no other children, so that you are unused to dealing with privacy issues in your home? Or are you thinking that an older child will be "less trouble"--- for instance, are you a woman whose birth children are grown up, and you are considering adopting an older child because you don't want the work associated with caring for a baby? Are you thinking about adopting an older child because you want to avoid toilet training? Be sure to think through these issues and consider what your life will really be with an older child.

3. Why are you considering a foreign adoption? Are there concerns in your own thinking or in your family about racial issues which you want to avoid? Are you worried that a birth parent may want to get in contact with a child in later years, or that the child may want to find the birth parent and that this would be easier in the United States? Give some thought to the ways these concerns may affect your decision-making. Don't let unexamined wishes and worries influence your choice, and understand that they may also influence your relationship with an adopted child.

4. Have you experienced periods of depression in the past? If you have, consider carefully what this may mean about your reaction to the challenges of adoptive parenting. You may want to talk to your therapist about this and even consider pharmaceutical treatment to help maintain your emotional balance--- especially if you have benefited from medication in the past.

Then--- when you prepare for and bring a child home:

1. Learn as much as you can of the child's language, and keep in mind that children's vocabularies are not the same as those of adults. Your child needs for you to know words like "bed" and "ice cream", not "the pen of my aunt is on the writing desk of my uncle." Above all, find out from someone who has been caring for the child what words the child uses for toilet communications! Words that describe emotions, like "happy" and "sad", can also be very helpful in allowing children to communicate feelings without being driven to acting out. It's true that children learn new languages quickly, but it's not instantaneous, and any foreign-adopted child has much else to learn in the first weeks.

2. Remember to follow the child's lead in communication and in play. This does not mean that you have to do everything the child wants at all times, but it does mean that you need to try to understand what the child feels or wants, whether words, gestures, or facial expressions are used to communicate. It also means that you can use play to foster the building of a good relationship by allowing the child to set the theme and rules of play. One set of ideas about following the child's lead is called "Floor Time", and books and videos about this approach provide some excellent ideas for working with children who seem withdrawn or disorganized.

3. Don't be too quick to look for terrible things that you may have been warned about, like physical attacks or threats of arson.

Just for general purposes, you should child-proof your home before bringing an older adoptee home, just as you would for a younger one. Put dangerous or delicate items in a safe place-- then you won't have to worry about either accidental or intentional misuse. Don't fall for the idea that the child will have to learn to be careful with things eventually, so he may as well start now! You need to keep matters positive, so make sure you don't have to say "no" all the time.

If you do think a child is threatening you or someone else through drawings or stories, or in some other way, be calm about it. Keep these events to yourself unless you have a person you can speak to in confidence. Don't let the child overhear you on the phone telling someone else in a dramatic way, and don't create a situation where you and a friend look at each other over the child's head and say "that's what I told you about...". I don't mean you should ignore real threats, but it's counterproductive to show the child the power of what may have been "just a story".

4. Find a professional who can give you guidance or counseling, and have that person in place even if you need help only occasionally. I recommend clinical psychologists and psychiatrists with experience working with parenting issues for this purpose. Avoid people who claim to have special training in attachment or "bonding", as this is usually an indication of unconventional and poorly-supported methods. One extremely useful approach is that of therapists who use videorecording of parents and children together; watching these recordings later with the parents, the therapist is often able to point out facial expressions or postures that were misunderstood by one person or the other, and to guide the parent toward better empathy on later occasions.

Avoid professionals who want to work with the child only and who ignore what the parent brings to the relationship. While both parent and child may need individual work, the real goal is to enable them to work together.

5. However, in spite of all these things you can do, you also need to remember that any child, adopted or not, may have a serious mental illness or physical problems that will make common sense solutions insufficient. I hope this won't be the case, but everyone needs to realize that parenthood does not come with guarantees.






Jean Mercer is a developmental psychologist with a special interest in parent-infant relationships.


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