Many families adopt children from overseas. There are special issues involved in foreign adoptions. We can provide some guidelines for parents based upon information about child development. Parents should keep in mind that our guidelines are based on the way things often go, but there are always individual paths. Every child's experiences capacities and potentials are unique. Consequently, development always holds surprises.
The earliest relationship: During the first year of life, an infant's major emotional task is to build an inner confidence that the world is a comforting, safe and trustworthy place. The infant achieves this confidence on the basis of successful experience with a dependable, loving, protecting relationship. (Usually with a mother, although that is not always the case.) This first relationship has become known as an "attachment relationship." The phrase is a bit sterile for our tastes, because magnets attach but infants and parents love.
Semantics aside, it is important to know that a successful attachment relationship follows a very similar time sequence and pattern, even across cultures, because the relationship is structured and pre-determined by the gradual unfolding of children's biological potentials. Children and their mothers attach because a mothers respond to their infants' biologically pre-determined behaviors that appear at predictable times and sequences, such as social smiles around 3 months and stranger anxiety around 7 months.
Forming a first relationship is a bit like baking a cake. The ingredients are best added in a certain sequence. They build upon each other and transform at each stage to something different than the mere sum of the ingredients. The potential for forming relationships is most effective at the age and stage that nature intended. If these windows of opportunity pass by, they may or may not be available again in the same way.
The attachment relationship is the necessary first step toward the hatching process of leaving the secure womb to achieve independence. Children who achieve independence on the basis of a strong attachment are unlikely to feel excessively alone or lonely, because the attachment relationship is within them providing a strong foundation.
When to adopt: Although children have special comfort levels with parents and caregivers from the earliest days, the unique connection that we call attachment does not seem to occur to a significant extent until around 6 or even 8 months of age. Therefore, infants who have received humane institutional care and are otherwise healthy will generally form healthy attachment relationships with their adoptive parents. Beyond this period of time, children may face increasing difficulties forming a healthy attachment relationship and achieving satisfactory emotional health. Some children may even begin to close down the windows of opportunity for relationship and construct strong internal barriers against forming relationships.
This is a good time to remind parents that we are discussing generalities that are applicable to varying extents in each individual situation.
How to recognize a problematic attachment: There are two major patterns of problematic attachment. The more obvious type occurs when a child seems not to care what his parents think, is more attached to objects and has insufficient regard for rules and people. The more subtle type occurs when a child is loving, but excessively so, even taking comfort from people whom they know only casually. This kind of over-friendliness is often not built on the basis of a confident and secure attachment; rather, it is a clinging behavior that results from anxiety and insufficient depth of relationship. Such children may stay stuck with a fixed dependency, unable to progress to a place of confident autonomy. Fears, aggressions, oppositional behavior and a variety of other symptoms are often associated with both patterns.
How to build the strongest relationship: Unless adopting a child 8 months or younger, parents should assume that their child will have much ground to make up. We can't be certain that parents will be able to help an older adopted child develop a healthy attachment relationship from which he or she can hatch with confidence - although it is possible - but we can assure parents that they can maximize their child's opportunity to attain these goals with extra effort on their part.
Parents should keep in mind that their child will come to them with an extra burden, likely carrying memories of significant frustrations and deprivations. The child will need more than the usual amount of time, love and consistency. Furthermore, the child may not reach out in usual ways for a relationship; he or she will need parents to do 90 percent of the work. Practically, mindful of the realities that might make this difficult or impossible, we recommend that parents envision a period of at least several years during which their child will have a full-time mother (or primary caregiver with whom the child shares an attachment relationship.
Emotionally strong children with loving and supportive families can manage a long child-care day fine, although there may be differences of opinion about when the day gets too long even for strong children. A child arriving here from overseas may have been through too much and have too much catching up to do to ask him or her to handle the extra strain of institutional child care and do the attaching "on the side" in the evening. Similarly, although we feel strongly about such a recommendation for parents of all young children, we especially recommend that parents avoid prolonged (even overnight) trips away from their child, who will not have the resources to deal with such a strain.
We have worked with many children adopted from overseas in our school and clinics, and in getting to know them and their families, we have learned how much they depend upon their parents to make an extra commitment. When parents have their eyes open, are prepared for some extra work and thought, and know that professional help is available if needed, their child will be prepared for the most fulfilling future possible.
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