It seems obvious to say, but orphanages are not families. Behavior that is successful in one is not behavior that is successful in another. But knowing this and living this are two very different things. For parents with children who spent significant time in orphanages, it can be easy to forget that our children’s experiences did not prepare them for family life. Living in a family is second nature to those of us who grew up in homes, but it is a learned set of skills for children who did not.
Making the transition from living in an orphanage to living in a family can take time. It is a process that will not be a straight path, but filled with setbacks and successes, frustration and hope. Parents who are educated in the ways that orphanage life differs from family life and have a long-term view of moving from one to the other will be setting a strong foundation for future family life.
Here are seven areas that new parents need to be aware of to help their child navigate the transition from an orphanage to a family. And keep in mind, every orphanage, orphanage worker, and child are different. What may be an issue for one child may not be an issue for another.
1. Free time. For a child coming from an orphanage, the whole concept of free time is non-existent. We good American parents have filled our homes with educational and enriching toys. We fill our homes with toys that our children think are fun. We have books, games, art supplies, outdoor play equipment, puzzles, and more toys. We have enough potential entertainment in our homes to keep dozens of children happy and occupied for hours. We bring our new child home and are unprepared for a child who has no idea how to fill his time, even in the face of this plenty.
This problem is two-fold. The first is that children coming out of orphanages have no idea how to pick from a wide array of toys and activities. Choice is hard and having to choose from too many choices is harder. The best thing we can do for our newly home children is to not overwhelm them with too much. Sure, keep out a few things, but don’t overwhelm them.
2. Play. A corollary to the inability to entertain themselves is that often children coming from orphanages have no idea of how to play. Even if you have narrowed down the toy choices to one, there is often no skill in playing. We don’t really think about it, but the ability to play is a learned skill. It is also an incredibly important skill to gain. We will do our children a huge favor if we take the time to play with them and model the whole idea of play. This is not a onetime event, either. This playing with and modeling play for our children will take many hours before these skills are acquired.
3. Bedtime. Sleep can be particularly difficult for a child newly home. Everything is different . . . different sounds, different bedtime routines, different smells, different sleeping arrangements. It can be scary and hard to relax. This is particularly true if a child has slept with many people in the same room and is now in a room all by herself. Be attuned to your child’s needs. It might mean that you practice co-sleeping for a while as your child acclimates to all that is new. It might mean that you put a mattress on the floor of your bedroom so the child doesn’t have to sleep alone. It might mean many sleepless nights as you constantly reassure your child that all is well and that he is safe. In addition, parents have reported that in the morning their child has learned to not get out of bed or to call out if they need something. They learned the lessons of the orphanage well and wandering freely and calling out were not acceptable. Don’t assume your child is “just so good” about not getting up, when fear is the real root of the behavior.
4. Pain. Another lesson from the orphanage is that it is best not to let on that you are hurt. There is an odd phenomenon that many adoptive parents have experienced: An adopted child can be significantly injured and never reveal her genuine pain to anyone. We have spent a lot of time bandaging, caring for, kissing, and soothing every large or small, real or imaginary owie that we see our children experience. Over time, they learn that we do care, that we can make it better. In my sometimes-backwards world, I rejoice the first time a new child cries over some physical hurt. Real and appropriate emotion is always something to celebrate, even if you are sad at the pain.
5. Meal times. If your family eats dinner together regularly, as ours does, it quickly becomes apparent that very different eating habits are on display. Children coming from orphanages, especially if food has been in less than abundant supply, can exhibit a host of eating issues. Some don’t want to eat anything. Others will be put off by new foods, smells, and tastes and will be exceedingly picky. Still others will eat and eat and eat and eat and then eat some more. Food issues can be extremely tricky and reading up on potential food issues would be a great way to prepare for your new child. (Love Me, Feed Me: The Adoptive Parents’ Guide to Ending the Worry About Weight, Picky Eating, Power Struggles and More by Katja Rowell would be a great place to start.)
But it is not just about what and how much a child does or doesn’t eat, there is also the whole matter of basic table manners. Be prepared for a child who doesn’t understand about sitting at the table, chewing with one’s mouth closed, or any number of other generally accepted mores about eating together. For our family, we have chosen to let things slide at first and then very slowly, as we grow in our relationship together, to begin to work on the dos and don’ts of table manners.
6. The wider world. Remember that children who have spent significant time in an orphanage have not seen much of the bigger world. Their worlds have been very small with very few people. Their day to day lives have been filled with routine and very few surprises. Just being in a home, in a different culture, using a different language, eating different food, can be overwhelming. If you then add in going lots of places, meeting lots of new people, and being exposed to lots of new things—well, it can just be too much to manage.
Be aware of how much “new” you are exposing your new child to. Give them plenty of time to rest. If you have ever been to a foreign country, then you know that just doing simple things . . . finding a place to eat, catching a cab, going to the post office . . . require a lot of mental energy and cause a lot of fatigue. This is your new child’s reality. While you don’t have to hole up and never leave your house for weeks at a time, your new child is not going to be able to navigate a lot of transitions and new (to them) experiences in a day. If you are a family that likes to go and do things or has an involved schedule, please slow down and take some time off from things for a while.
7. Time. Give your child and your family the benefit of time. Take the long view of this transition of adding a new child to your family. There is so much that is new and different for your child and, frankly, there is so much new to you, the parent, as you get to know your child. These relationships and adjustments do not take place overnight. You will do everyone a favor by thinking in terms of months and years instead of weeks and days, especially if you adopted an older child. Their previous life was not created in a matter of weeks and the new one will not be, either. By acknowledging that all this takes time, you give everyone in the family room to relax and take things as they are able.