Tips for Early Communication with Your Internationally Adopted Child

Early communication can be tough, so here are a few tips to ease your family’s transition.

Jennifer S. Jones January 08, 2018

I’m sitting on a bed in a small hotel room in Taiyuan, China. The stranger across from me gives me a frustrated look then throws his hands up in the air. I gently take his hands and bring them together. “More.” I say. The stranger looks at my husband. My husband repeats the gesture. “More.” The stranger tries the gesture on his own. “More.” I hand him another graham cracker and his smile lights up the room.

This is what our first days in China were like. Small steps and small victories. For children placed through international adoption, the trauma of joining their forever families is two-fold. There is the loss of familiar surroundings, caretakers, and community – and the loss of language. Early communication can be tough, so here are a few tips to ease your family’s transition:

Know the Signs
1. Know the Signs

According to American Sign Language University, even though children as young as 8 months are not able to speak, they can remember and imitate simple signs, such as “more,” “done,” “eat,” and “sleep.”

Sign language is a great way to ease your child’s frustrations with communication, which will in turn give you the ability to meet their needs.And teaching your newly adopted child sign language can be a great way to build attachment.

Employ eye contact, light touch (positioning their hands to mirror yours), and gently repeat a few signs over and over. We used the book "Sign with Your Baby" to establish early interactions with our son but there are many resources available.

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words
2. A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words

A number of years ago, I spent some time teaching ESL outside Philadelphia. My clients ranged from preschoolers to teenagers to CEOs of pharmaceutical companies. Regardless of age, my number one resource was the New Oxford Picture Dictionary. The dictionary contains everything from pictures of family, to the body, houses, fruits, vegetables, clothing, occupations, sports, and so on. While in-country, we took the book with us everywhere to explain to our son what we were doing and where we were going. Breakfast might be a photo of a banana. Or the playground, a picture of outside. Before long our son was leafing through the pages to point out things he would like to do. Want to go a step further? Simple flash cards are another great resource. You can make your own or find some premade at the Learning Resource.

Carry a Tune
3. Carry a Tune

One of my favorite memories from China is standing in our hotel room singing “I’m a little teapot” at the top of our lungs. Countless research has shown a direct link between music and communication development. Though my son had no idea what a teapot was, he began to mirror and play around with the phonics of the song – which is a springboard to language. Think back to songs you may know in another language. The French I learned in school has long since faded, but I can sing Chat, c’est toi l’chat perfectly. Plus, songs are fun! Singing together as a family is a great way to build attachment.

Learn the Basics
4. Learn the Basics

When I taught ESL we never spoke in our students’ native language. But as an adoptive parent, the first thing I did when we got our referral was to learn a few basics in Mandarin. Our son was just beginning to speak and I wanted to do everything I could to help ease his transition. Though I’m sure I butchered the Mandarin language, our son responded to my attempts at communication positively. Over time we began to introduce the English word, saying, for example, “wo ai ni,” giving our son a hug, then repeating “I love you.” Easy flash cards are a great way to both learn the language and have friendly reminders on hand.

Don’t Panic
5. Don’t Panic

The best advice I can give to any adoptive family is to remember that the first few days and weeks of your time together are not reality. It can take a while to transition, and I will be honest, that transition can be tough. With my son, we struggled hard with attachment issues, and language barriers were a big part of that. When you’re in-country it can be difficult to find support - or, quite frankly, to know which end is up. But rest assured, this too shall pass. You will find your footing. You will bond. You will be the absolute best parent you can be. And your child WILL communicate with you. It may take some time, but with patience and perseverance I promise you and your family will do just fine.

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Jennifer S. Jones

Jennifer S. Jones is a writer, performer, storyteller and arts educator. She holds an MFA (Playwriting) from NYU Tisch. She has written numerous plays including the internationally renowned, award-winning Appearance of Life. Her amazing transracial transcultural family was created through adoption from China and India. She is passionate about the adoption community and talks about the ins and outs, ups and downs, joys and "is this really us?!" whenever she can. She writes about her experiences at

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