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Destinations, Dreams and Dogs - International adventure with a fast-track family (& dogs) of Old World values, adopting the Russian-Italian-American good life on the go…!

Ten Secrets of Our Success: Older Child Adoption


Many have commented that our adoption of four older Russian children is a slam-dunk success story. This comes from professionals–agency people, neuropsych, social worker, as well as family and friends who declare that ours is “the most ideal” of a family in anyone’s definition. Not every day would I agree, particularly last Saturday when Sashenka got out of bed to greet her father, her long hair unkempt and still flipped over from the back, obscuring her face and turning her into our very own Cousin It. There are odd occurrences in every family, naturally, but we seem to have escaped many of the serious bullets hitting other adoptive families.

This past week, one of our facilitators from Russia was visiting the adoption agency and they called us.

“Dima cannot believe your family,” they exclaimed, “that these are the same kids-! We showed him some of your latest post-placement photos and he is amazed. They look so happy and well-adjusted. The social worker’s reports of their accomplishments have astounded him.”

To God be the glory. We are no parenting experts, but we have learned to “read” certain cues as to who needs what at any given point in time.

But that begs the legitimate question: Is there a formula for success, or a mindset, or a parenting style that does better for children who have gotten a rough start in life?

Undoubtedly. There are entire books written on the subject. (Read any books by Heather Forbes, Dr. Ron Federici, or Deborah Gray.) What many adoptive parents wish to ignore is that we must first change, if we expect our children to change.  Adoption is so much more than gathering paperwork and hoping for the best.  This is where purposeful parenting comes into play.

There is currently an excellent series on PBS, the first of which will stream for several weeks online. A Long Island Jewish family adopts their second Chinese daughter, after two bio boys, and the documentary follows the eight-year-old girl in China and then during her first 18 months home. Over and over we see the adoptive mom instructing her new daughter, “Tell me what’s wrong! If you don’t tell me what’s wrong, how can I help you?” All this to a child who does not understand nor speak English. It had our kids shaking their heads. Why had the family who went twice to China never learned a word of Chinese to help with the transition phase? http://www.pbs.org/pov/woainimommy/full.php

However, the Sadowsky family’s commitment and love are obvious and overwhelming, despite the many fine points that make one wince–the child being encouraged to forget her birth language resulting in the inability to communicate any longer with her foster family left behind; the sense that she must choose between connection to her current sister versus her former foster sister; and if it’s possible to embrace being American while still cherishing and loving one’s birth culture.

The parents struggle with such questions and issues, and many of their concerns seem par for the course. Is the native culture important to a child starting a new life in a new land? By telling an older child that she is now part of our family, are we negating or choosing to ignore her past? This is an excellent film for families adopting from any foreign country to watch and provide food for thought and action even prior to the adoption.

Here are a few tips to help your older child adoption be that much smoother whether before, during, or after the event:

1. Pray and plan a lot. We all need wisdom from above and we all need a gameplan. Like an engaged couple, you can choose to focus all of your efforts on the wedding itself (the adoption), or the actual work of the marriage and “happily ever after” (adjustments to be made once home).

2. Adopt only when husband and wife are in agreement. Hard times will come, and you don’t need, “I told you so.” It’s okay if that consent ebbs and flows at times. (But not all the time.)

3. Learn a little Russian, Chinese, Amharic, Spanish, Hindi, Creole–whatever language the child currently speaks. You must. It matters not if you’re not the best at languages. This is a non-negotiable. Don’t put all of the burden on the child. Studies have been done even with babies that they recognize the sound and cadence of their birth language, even when they are still non-verbal, themselves. It’s very soothing. Alexandra says: you must learn some of the language now.

Ten words or phrases will suffice up to the age of two. Twenty words or phrases up to the age of four. Over the age of four, aim for thirty or forty words or phrases, along with specifics that are germaine to your lifestyle that you learn from a tutor, whether online by Skype, or with a teacher of Russian at the local college. Google “Adoptive Parent Russian Phrases” (or any language) for a good CD with the basics. You will not need phrases that university students learn, “Do you live in the dormitory?” nor those designed for businesspersons, “I will need a Letter of Intent by the 15th.”

4. When taking custody of the child, learn what foods would be most “emotionally nourishing” to serve. For instance, in our Russian region, we had big breakfasts at the hotel with their normal buffet of salads, fish, sausages, yogurt, bread, eggs, etc. Then we would go to the grocery store to buy fruit and hand-held meat pies for later. Some were stuffed with chicken, others with mushrooms or cabbage. The kids loved these.

When I got to Moscow, I cooked in the apartment. It helped that before we took custody of the kids, we scoped out the local supermarket and made lists of potential meals and ingredients that were easy to buy. As I told someone else recently: Who knew that butter was not located near the milk and eggs?

To give some order to our days, we went “out” every day for “lapsha” (chicken noodle soup). The taste and texture would make any child (or overtired mama!) happy. It was affordable, and enough for a snack.

Despite what 90% of adoptive families do, now is not the time to be introducing your child to pizza and hamburgers as an every day diet-! Take it slowly, and make it a smooth transition.

5. Avoid the lottery-winner lifestyle. We all know that most lottery winners lose their fortunes within a short period of time. Similarly, the overnight rags-to-riches reality may make your kids want more-more-more. Stifle the urge to over-indulge them: limo upon arrival, Disney World the next week, ballet and horseback riding and gymnastics lessons the first month home, etc. Less is more.

Everything is new and stimulation should be kept low.  Focus on relationships, rather than activities or accomplishments.  Keeping the child close and learning about family life should be your first priority, even before schooling concerns.

6. Be willing to talk and discuss issues and feelings a minimum of 30-60 minutes a day with your new child. It sounds like a lot, and it is. Your kids will have an entire “past” pent-up in their heads. Help them to release it when they are willing to talk. For now, you must create the atmosphere.

Have a Russian (or other language) speaker on hand to come to your house at least one hour every week, probably more like one hour, three times a week in the beginning. Explain to the child your expectations, ground rules, beliefs, and let them ask questions and share concerns. The foreign language speaker is there to interpret what you and the child say, not to direct any of the conversations, nor to have the child sit on her lap. Let your son or daughter sit with you, either in a rocking chair if young, or next to you if older. Ask open-ended questions, rather than yes-no ones, and offer up some of your own feelings or observations if the child feels uneasy talking. For instance:

“Sometimes, adopted children feel that if they love their new family, it means that they hate their birth family. But most people have enough love for lots of people and it’s okay with me if you love family members still back in Russia/ Ukraine/ Ethiopia/ China. Are your memories of your birth family, or of the orphanage, usually happy or sad?”

7. Educate with real-life examples. Let them meet other immigrants from their same country (or another), or challenged persons, who successfully made their way in life. Press the point that, if it’s been done before, it can be done again. The language and academic issues may be overwhelming for them in the beginning. Give them some role models.

8. Be a cheerleader. Many of these kids have very poor self-images from years of beatings or beratings, or pure loneliness. Tell them every day what you “see” in them, their potential, their beauty, their uniqueness, and how glad you are that they are home. Some days, this will not be easy. (If you “lose it” and yell one day, don’t beat yourself up, either. Sometimes it may be good for the children to see that we’re human and have limits, too.)

I call this positive brainwashing. You are recreating their persona, their personality, by the words of your mouth.

(Benedetto tries it on me, too, sometimes: “You will now wait on me, hand and foot.”  Never works. My brain was washed long ago, drip-dried, and pressed into shape. Nice try, though.)

9. Have clear expectations and structure to your life together. Tell your son or daughter what you will be doing today, and give a heads-up that “In ten minutes, we will go to the store. Let’s go to the bathroom and brush our teeth, and comb our hair now.” Don’t just spring things on them.

Our first son had to hear, every day, what we would be eating for breakfast, lunch, and dinner from the moment he first woke up. He was unsure that he could expect food each day in his new home. We also kept a bowl of fruit available for him to physically see, and eat, if necessary.

Plan to have time-ins, rather than time-outs, with an adopted child who is misbehaving. They usually cannot stand the isolation and sense of rejection from being sent to their room.

In times of conflict or crisis, breathe! Take deep breaths and if it is extreme, remove yourself from the situation, if need be. Don’t let it escalate. Then bring the young person near you to become regulated once again and reassured that, whatever they are going through, you will be there for them. Traditional disciplinary methods usually don’t work–the adopted child has already been without privileges, and usually been beaten on a regular basis. Love and understanding and talking it through will actually take you further (counterintuitive, I know).

10. Let your own needs go for awhile. It’s not forever, and it’s not about you.  Forget all of the little activities that you might think are absolute necessities to any child’s normal development, but will likely push them over the edge right now.  Take it easy, take it slowly.  In six months to a year, things will even out and become as normal as can be expected. It will be a “new normal”, but very nice, all the same.

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