TIPS FOR ADOPTIVE PARENTS OF OLDER ADOPTED KIDS
2013 Update: I have a website now that addresses many of the issues you find in older adopted children. Check it out: Invisible Issues
BEFORE YOUR CHILD COMES HOME
Like the boy scouts, you must BE PREPARED.
Read. Read every adoption book you can find. One of the books I didn’t like much but have had reason to ponder a lot is Beyond Consequences, Love and Logic, by Heather Forbes. The big takeaway is that you have to reach out with love to your adopted kids. Being a drill sergeant doesn’t work. When I get harsh and yell at my kids they don’t respond well. When I make them aware of boundaries and then revoke privileges if they don’t abide by them, I get a lot further.
A book I didn’t read but I have heard discussed a lot is Attaching in Adoption, by Deborah Gray. I didn’t have any trouble attaching with my kids, but most folks have to work at it a bit. Gray’s books are valuable.
Read blogs by other parents of older kids. These can be hard to find. That’s the main reason I write The Crab Chronicles – to show what it’s really like, day to day, with older adopted kids. We have our ups and downs just like any family, but we also have special situations parents need to hear about because they might deal with it in their own families, like my daughter having a meltdown one night seeing a steak knife waved around, because it triggered a terrible memory in her.
Read about the country you’re adopting from, and learn as much as you can about that culture. I’m not saying that to be politically correct, actually. Culture will inform a lot of everyday things. A few examples - Russians like soup. My kids eat soup really well. My kids were used to drinking tea any time. I had to de-caffeinate them. In Kazakhstan, women occupy a traditional gender role, so my son was astonished to see me driving everywhere, my brother making the bed, etc. He has to be taught things are different in America. My kids weren’t used to wearing seatbelts in the car. My daughter had to be taught to dress modestly, not like the young girls in Russia who often look like hookers. Culture informs everything and it’s important to understand your child’s culture.
Learn the child’s language, as much as you can.
I am good at languages, but Russian was nearly impossible for me to learn. I did the best I could. Learning “mommy” words and phrases really helped.
I hear sometimes about parents who adopt a child that doesn’t speak English, and the parent doesn’t speak their language. Think how terrifying that must be for the child! They cannot make their wants and needs known. They can’t say they are scared, or hungry, or ask questions. It must be like being in prison. With my daughter, I let her know we could go online and put things in a translation website, and we did that a lot at first. We also called my Russian friend Kate sometimes, so she could translate back and forth between us. It was so hard for my daughter to adjust to having almost no voice in English. If you don’t learn some of the child’s language, expect attachment problems, in my opinion. I know several moms who dealt with attachment issues, who spoke none of their child’s language.
You don’t have to speak fluent Russian, just a bit.
Here are some Russian words and phrases I used a LOT, phonetically:
Yah teeb-ya looblue = I love you
Fuss-yoh boo-deet harrah show = everything will be OK
Bead nozsh ka = poor baby
Harrah show = fine, OK, good
Tee gal-oad-knee-ya? = are you hungry?
Tee hochish peet? = you want a drink?
Nee tro-gah = don’t touch
Oss tah rozh-nyah = be careful
Posh-lee = let’s go!
Ee dee so dah = come here!
See chass = now [nee see chas means not now]
Gut-zee-yah ball-eet? = where does it hurt?
Tee nye-eel-suh? = are you full?
Plo-hah = bad [if the child says “Yah ploha” something hurts or he’s sick]
I wrote down these phrases phonetically and carried a “cheat sheet” with me for months after my kids came home.
From another mom:
Fred De Chenes makes a nice CD and mini book combo of Russian phrases for adoptive parents - the only problem is that it does not include the words in cyrillic so the kids can point to the words. Get a laminated travelers phrase card for them to point at, or get a dictionary while you are there for them to look up words in.
AFTER YOUR CHILD COMES HOME
Help your child learn English.
Research and have a plan in place before the child comes home. Get CD’s, CD-ROMS, books, etc. Leap Pad learning systems are also good. There are wonderful CD’s by Teresa Kelleher called Rush Into English, which help Russian speaking kids learn English quickly. Also, the Rosetta Stone computer programs are great. You must have those things ready when the child comes home so they can start to learn English as quickly as possible. A younger child will learn much faster. Michael, adopted at 10, was fully conversant in English in 6 months. With my daughter it took more than a year, but she was 13 and had a learning disability.
Do not Overwhelm the child
This is one of the most important things I can tell you.
Right at first, keep things very low key. Don’t take the kids to Disneyworld. Don’t even take them to Chucky Cheese until they’ve been here a few weeks.
Most kids in orphanages have never been to a restaurant, or a movie theater, or Walmart. They can get overwhelmed very fast. I had a cousin that wanted to meet me at the airport when I got home with my daughter, with balloons and a cheering section. I said no thanks. I knew we would be exhausted and the best thing would be to keep it low key. Alesia didn’t need a brass band and a welcoming committee, no matter how good the intentions.
The first night my daughter Alesia was home, we ate at Waffle House – great place because there are color photos on the menu. She slept that night for almost 12 hours.
Alesia got overwhelmed a lot at first. She had seldom ever ridden in a car. For the first few weeks we were home, when we got in the car she let the seat back and curled up into a little ball, eyes squeezed shut. The car scared her. Traffic scared her. She got where she would sit up and look around, but only after a couple of months. Even after we had been home a year, she admitted that being in the car after dark was still very frightening to her.
My son Michael still gets overwhelmed in big stores sometimes. He stood in Target when he’d been home more than a year and just said he couldn’t deal with it, and sat down on the floor and buried his head in his lap. He was 11 years old.
Don’t shower the child with a million presents. Don’t take them to big parties. Keep gatherings to a minimum.
Spend most of the first few weeks at home, with the child nearby. Do not stick the child in daycare right away, or with a sitter. Take as much family leave as possible.
The child needs to learn to trust mama and/or daddy for everything. Parents should be the ones doling out food, clothes, etc. Kids need to learn that mama and papa are the caregivers, and develop a trust that their needs will be handled.
Some kids will freak out if they see you drink a beer, if they come from severely alcoholic families. I don’t drink any more because it freaked out my daughter at first, but also because I don’t want her to ever drink alcohol. We keep wine and beer in the house for guests, but I don’t partake. Other parents handle that by just drinking a beer when they are in a restaurant. You’ll just have to find your comfort level.
Be aware of food issues, and prepare.
My kids had never eaten a lot of meat. I had to really fuss at them to get them to eat meat. They needed the protein to grow, however.
I also had to get them to take a vitamin every day. It was vital they take the vitamin, as they were so malnourished. They didn’t like the chewable vitamins, which I found out the hard way.
Find out what your child is used to eating and have it for them, at least at first. If necessary, find a specialty grocery store and get foods they like. We have a Ukrainian grocery store nearby and I keep pilmeni [Russian dumplings] in the freezer. My kids love those. We go there sometimes, as a treat, and they get to choose a food item.
Grilled meats and lettuce salads were immediately hated by my kids. They wanted familiar, soft meat, and Russian salads, which are just cold, chopped veggies, often pickled. My kids will eat raw cucumbers and tomatoes really well. We have them at almost every dinner.
Michael didn’t want to eat at first. He had been told “All Americans are fat, and if you eat a lot you will get big and fat, too!” So he wouldn’t eat. For weeks, we had issues. Finally, he told his sister, in Russian, what he feared. That helped a lot, because once I reassured him I wasn’t fattening him up, he relaxed and started eating a reasonable amount. If he had not had his sister there to translate, the issues would’ve continued.
Because they had both been hungry so much when they were small, my kids’ hunger mechanisms were off whack. Make sure you pay attention to when the child eats, and how much, and don’t let them go more than a few hours without a snack of some kind. They will get very cranky.
Dental issues are very common.
My kids weren’t used to brushing teeth every day. I didn’t have to really fuss at them, but I had to tell them every day to brush [cheest yah zooby!]. My daughter’s dental visits were fine, but my son had 6 cavities. He also had gaps in his mouth where baby teeth had been prematurely pulled. He was terrified of the dentist. I looked for a kindly older man dentist and he has been a blessing.
If you don’t have dental insurance, I urge you to get it, and make sure kids will automatically be covered once they get home. If it’s not available, set aside some $$.
Just like newlyweds, your new child will have a Honeymoon Phase.
For a while after the child comes home, everyone will be on their best behavior and things will be just fine. Then, since nobody can keep that up forever, you will eventually see the real child. My daughter’s phase ended when I found her pouring shampoo down the tub drain because she didn’t want to wash her hair. She was faking showering. I went ballistic. I totally overreacted.
Hoarding food is also common. Kids who have never had enough to eat will often do this, sometimes for months, until they feel comfortable. Instead of fighting, I just urged my daughter to keep the food in a bag or container so bugs wouldn’t get into it. I also keep a big bowl of fruit in the kitchen so she can snack whenever she wants.
Night fears are very common.
Getting my kids to sleep was really tough, at first. They both had nightmares. They both wanted me to stay with them. My son, at 10, didn’t want me to leave his room, or he wanted to sleep in my bed. For months, I stayed in his room with soft music playing, rubbing his back, until he was almost asleep. He had to have the overhead light on for months.
My daughter talks in her sleep, and sometimes walks.
I personally feel it’s best not to co-sleep with older kids, because once that’s done, it’s a hard habit to break. I know a 16 year old who still sleeps with her single mom.
Therapy is vital for older kids. VERY IMPORTANT!!
Most older kids have histories of abuse and neglect – probably 98% of them. Find a therapist who specializes in adopted kids, and preferably speaks their language. The child will really benefit, and you will benefit. Our therapist has been a godsend.
The Nancy Thomas Attachment Parenting website is a great source of information about therapists.
If the child doesn’t work through their anger and grief and abandonment issues, they will likely suffer the rest of their life. You have to find the right person to help them process everything. A therapist is an absolute necessity, no matter how “good” your child is.
My kids’ therapist has made me a much better parent, and my kids have flourished under her care. I cannot stress enough how important it is to see a therapist.
Don’t Listen [Too Much] to Advice from Non-Adoptive Parents
Well-meaning friends and relatives will often tell you they are experts on your child because they have a child the same age. Unless their child was in an orphanage or in foster care, they are wrong. Listen, but don’t rely on their advice.
Make a list of rules, in their native language, and go over it with them.
When Alesia came home I had posted, in Russian and English, on the fridge, her rules. They were very basic, like, do what I tell you, turn off lights when leaving a room, eat what you’re given, bathe every day, wear clean clothes every day, etc. I knew those might be issues.
When she actually got home, I had to add to the list. I had to write in “Do not walk on the furniture” and “When in a store, do not touch everything.” Any keypad device she saw on a store counter, she would run over and start punching keys. This created some really embarrassing situations in stores.
Do not expect your child to become instantly American.
Your child might learn English at lightning speed, eat peanut butter the first day, and embrace all things American within a week, but don’t hold your breath. If your child is under the age of 8, they will probably become indistinguishable from any other American child within a year or less, by appearance anyway. If the child is 8-12, it’s iffy. If the child is over 13, there will always be some differences. My son and daughter speak almost unaccented English, and you cannot tell by their appearances they weren’t born here. However, they definitely don’t sound like they’re from Atlanta, Georgia. They prefer hanging out with mama to hanging out at the mall with their friends. They eat raw tomatoes like apples. I am fine with all that, and all the ways they are different. They are products of two cultures.
The danger comes with parents who expect their adopted children to instantly look, sound, and act like American kids. I know of one mother who adopted a young teen from Eastern Europe and listened only to advice from other moms of teens, and expected her teen adopted daughter to behave exactly like those kids. The girl was unable to meet those expectations and became obviously depressed. I would give the mom advice based on my experiences as an adoptive mom – which she requested – then she told me I was wrong, or her daughter was completely different, and ignored my advice. I felt incredibly sorry for her daughter.
Expect that your children are going to resent your authority
Older kids are used to doing what they please, even if they’ve been in an orphanage. Orphanages don’t have many rules. My kids also were with neglectful birthmothers their first few years, and not used to authority. The biggest battles I have had with them revolve around getting them to accept my authority and do what I say, without arguing.
In my kids’ pre-adoption world, “Mama” was always unreliable. Mama drank a lot. She disappeared without warning and left them in unheated places with no food. Mama could never be counted on for anything. They could only rely on themselves. So why should they trust new Mama now??! Their heart might say trust this nice lady, but their brains just can’t do it. They want to make their own rules and do what they please. Trusting new mama to really take care of them is very, very hard. You have to be patient. A good therapist can help.
Expect that simple things may be new to them, and confusing.
My son had never been taught the proper way to hold a fork. My daughter had never used a napkin. My kids had never owned any toys, so they had no concept of keeping toys neat or unbroken. They had almost never used toothpaste, and rarely seen it. My daughter, at 13, had no idea of menstruation or how her body worked.
Younger children may hit, bite, and scratch you when they feel stressed out. You will need help from a trained therapist to deal with that. It’s important not to lose control or lose your temper.
My daughter wasn’t used to putting used toilet paper down the toilet and flushing. In Russia it’s often put in a wastebasket next to the toilet. I had to have it explained to her several times, in Russian, that it was OK to flush TP.
Your children will likely want to wear the same clothes, day after day, like they do in Russia. You will need to explain to them about wearing clean clothes every day. Bathing every day will also be weird to them.
Teach your child your address, full name, and phone numbers, as soon as they come home. If they get lost, they need to be able to tell someone how to find you.
Don’t try and force affection
Your child has likely never been hugged or kissed, or that hasn’t happened a lot. Don’t grab them and hug them all the time. Don’t expect them to be happy to cuddle. Introduce it slowly. My son, who is very affectionate, wasn’t at first. I would kiss his cheek when he went to sleep. We hugged, lightly, every day – I had told him the first time we met that I needed a hug or two every day. In time, though, he became super affectionate. I didn’t force it. It comes with attachment. Looking into his eyes, rubbing his back when he was falling asleep, doing the things you’d do with a baby – all these things helped him feel loved and secure, then the affection came.
I learned the Russian phrase I love you, [ya teeb-ya loo-blue] and I have said that to each of my kids every day, from day one. They had never heard it before. I wanted them to know our relationship was based on love, and help them start learning what love really means, from a good mama.
Keep to a routine
Orphanage kids are used to routine. Try to stick closely to sleeping, eating, and bathing times, especially at first. My kids asked me all the time, at first, what are we doing next? Uncertainly breeds fear. Routine is comforting, something they can count on.
Do not expect or demand gratitude
Children adapt to where they are, and they do not have the maturity to think wow, I am really fortunate to be adopted. After the honeymoon phase, they are not going to forever be grateful, striving to be perfect for you. If they are, there’s a problem. They need and deserve to feel they are your child, not a charity case or a supplicant.
Talking to Other Adoptive Parents Can Really Help
Other adoptive parents of older children have “been there, done that” and they can be a great source of information and comfort. Two good internet resources are FRUA [Families of Russian and Ukrainian Adoptees], and Yahoo groups. There are also two newer websites I like, Adoption Voices, and Adoption Under One Roof.
I started a very informal support group for parents in the Atlanta area, and we meet twice a year and visit while the kids play, either at a picnic or a pot luck dinner. Everyone always has fun. If there’s no FRUA chapter in your town, consider starting your own group. It’s not that hard.
One of the greatest gifts adoptive moms can give one another is simply the gift of sharing. When you read blogs by other moms who have had similar issues with their kids, you don't feel so alone.
Three blogs which I read every day are by seasoned adoptive moms and they are a wealth of great information and inspiration:
My friend Stephanie's blog 10 in 2010 has great tips and gives a realistic picture of adopting older kids, and many of her kids have RAD and other issues, which she discusses honestly.
My friend Cindy LaJoy adopted a friend of my son's, Angela, and her sister. Cindy is a gifted writer and an amazingly good mom and I read her blog for inspiration and insights.
My friend Cindy Bodie has adopted more than 30 children from the foster care system, and she writes very honestly in her blog Big Mama Hollers about her challenges.
Thanks SO MUCH, Cindy L, Cindy B, and Stephanie, for your awesome support and friendship throughout the years! There are special crowns in heaven waiting for you all, and a total of NEARLY 50 children who have been given a new chance in life with an amazing family, due to your generous and open hearts!