Question: I have heard that children from orphanages can exhibit peculiar behaviors shortly after arriving in their adoptive home. Can you describe some of these behaviors? What do new adoptive parents need to do to help children overcome them?

Answer: Peculiar behaviors can be observed immediately post-adoption in many children who are adopted from orphanages. They provide self-soothing or self-stimulation. Children oftentimes use them to attract an adult caregiver’s attention.

Some of the behaviors include:
  • Head banging
  • Rocking
  • Head shaking
  • Swaying back and forth
  • Staring at the hands
  • Hand flapping
  • Biting and hitting others
  • Twirling and pulling hair
  • Smelling object
  • Fascination with spinning objects

For neglected children who have been orphaned, the primary reasons for these types of behaviors are the lack of toys, limited human interaction, and the absence of loving parents. While these behaviors appear to abnormal, they are actually a normal response to the abnormal environment these children were raised in.

In an orphanage, getting the attention of the adult caregiver can be difficult. A well-behaved child who does not cause trouble would rarely get any adult interaction. Often, this is why children from orphanages resort to negative attention-seeking behavior. This can include biting, hitting, and other tantrums to earn some extra adult attention. To an isolated child, even negative attention like discipline is better than no attention at all.

Rocking and Swaying after Adoption

I recall the case of a 2-year-old girl from Russia. The parents at the Post-Adoption Evaluation described to me the strange rocking and swaying their newly adopted daughter was doing. I tried to explain that this was normal.

At our next visit, the parents showed me a video recording of the behavior. Their daughter’s rocking and banging was so severe that even I, as a physician, was moved by it. Her movements were so violent that it mimicked seizure-like activity. The only thing that went against the diagnosis of a seizure disorder was the fact that she was completely alert during the entire event.

After a few minutes of this rocking and banging, their daughter would settle down and fall asleep. No more rocking. This ritual occurred for many weeks. However, as the child settled into her new family, the intensity of her episodes decreased dramatically. Finally the behavior mostly disappeared. The mother reported that the behavior would only resurface at times when the child came under excessive stress.

Head Banging after a Car Accident

Another case comes to mind of a 20-month-old boy. He resolved his head banging only to have it reappear after he was in a car accident. During the car accident, his mother was rendered unconscious. The boy sat safe in his carseat. He was strapped in, completely helpless, and his mother was unable to soothe him.

Lots of lights, sounds, and commotion just further overwhelmed him. His rocking and head banging reappeared for a few weeks. But, after he resettled into his normal family routine again, his head banging and rocking once again disappeared. So far, the head banging ritual has not resurfaced.

To Parents of Children Displaying These Behaviors

To new adoptive parents, any of these behaviors can be both disturbing and heartbreaking. While I really do understand how disturbing behaviors like these can be, I assure that these behaviors really do go away with time.

Parents must focus on rewarding the good behaviors while ignoring the disturbing behaviors. It is every parent’s responsibility to make certain his or her child is always safe. Parents shouldn’t allow these behaviors to injure their children. Instead of allowing a child to hit his or her head against a hard wall, parents can place a pillow or something soft to lessen the blow.

These behaviors generally take anywhere from a few weeks to several months to self-extinguish. Nevertheless, they do eventually extinguish after children settle into their new environment. Just remember that these behaviors might reappear occassionally during stressful situations.