Realistic Expectations: Child Preparation

Most parents adopting internationally have at least a year or more to prepare themselves for the arrival of a child into their lives. They go through home studies and read parenting books. Hopefully by the time they step off the plane in a foreign country, they have had lots of opportunities to process their feelings about building a family through adoption.

For the child, however, there is often little preparation for what will happen to them when they walk through the doors of the Civil Affairs office, and so adoptive parents must anticipate every possible scenario. Some children are inconsolable with grief and crying, while others become so panicked about being taken from their caregiver that they react with kicking or biting in a desperate fight for survival. Some will immediately go to their new mom or dad, while others might be afraid to show any emotion at all and go into “shut down” mode. But again and again, I hear parents ask the question, “Why couldn’t my child have been better prepared for adoption?” It seems so simple, doesn’t it?

We picture in our heads a loving nanny explaining how wonderful it will be to live in a family, while patiently showing the child the photo album we have sent to China with pictures of our home and dog and of course mom and dad. Parents get upset when they discover that the gifts or photo albums they have mailed were given to their child just moments before arriving at the government office, or else not at all. They find it ridiculous that an orphanage wouldn’t have prepared a child better for meeting his or her family. What could be so hard about that, right? Well…often a lot, actually. Today I would like to share some discussions I have had with both orphanage staff and foster parents about why they are often hesitant to discuss adoption with a child.

A few years ago we had a beautiful little girl in one of our programs who wanted a family very much. She was chosen off of an agency list, and I was actually the one who told her in person that she would be getting her own mom “very soon.” She was overjoyed, and I know she started counting the days until she would have a family of her own. Unfortunately her family-to-be didn’t seem to have the same burning desire to get the adoption completed. Months went by without home study visits being done; each time the agency would call to ask if they were still continuing, then the family would do one more minimum piece. Six months turned into a year, and then two, and the little girl was still no closer to having this family actually come get her. The older children in the orphanage, who were no longer eligible for adoption, began taunting the little girl to release some of the anger they had in their own hearts over never being chosen. They began telling her daily that of course no family was coming, as who would want HER. Despite the nannies’ best assurances, of course the little girl slipped into a deep sadness. After the family finally backed out, I discussed what had happened with the orphanage director, who told me he would never again tell a child a family was coming “until we are walking into the doors of the government office to meet them.” Of course that was an extreme response, but adoptive parents in the West need to understand that orphanage directors and nannies regularly see families who stop adoptions. Whether it is from divorce, or money issues, the loss of a job, or a death in the family, sometimes adoptions fall through. Many orphanage officials feel in their minds that they are protecting a child from future heartache by withholding information about a family until that family actually arrives in China. They also might feel like they are protecting the child from hearing taunts or even threats from other children in the orphanage who are dealing with their own feelings of not being chosen.

Many adoptive families feel that if their child is in foster care, that of course the foster mom and dad will be preparing the child properly for an upcoming adoption. Even if your child is in foster care, however, I think you need to prepare yourself for the reality that adoption might not have been openly discussed with your child. Recently one foster mom learned the news that a little girl in her care for almost five years was on an adoption agency list. When I asked how she was feeling, the foster mom told me, “I know I need to be preparing her, but it hurts my heart too much to even consider, and so I just keep thinking that if I ignore this news, perhaps the day will never come.” This was a mom who knew financially that she could not afford to adopt the child in her care. She knew intellectually that she should begin the process to explain to her foster child that they would someday have to leave each other. But emotionally she could not bring herself to even think about it and so she remained silent. Other foster parents have told me that they don’t want to tell the child “too early” as it will only make the child anxious or upset. Still others have told us that they don’t discuss international adoption openly because neighbors, unfamiliar with modern child psychology, have said things in the past to children adopted overseas such as, “They will make you dye your hair blonde to fit in” or “If you don’t do everything your new parents say they will sell you to a factory.” To many rural foster families, America or Sweden or the Netherlands seem as far away as the moon, and it is hard for them to explain international adoption to a child when they don’t fully understand it themselves.

So while many in the West think it would be “easy” to fully prepare a child for international adoption, the reality is that there are a myriad of reasons why the adults caring for them sometimes choose not to say a word until just a few days before the child leaves their care. Adoptive parents need to understand that the child walking through the government office door to meet them might not have any idea whatsoever what it means to “have a permanent family.” Some children are told by the people escorting them that they have to be good or else they will be returned, and so in those initial days many children are either terrified of doing anything that could make them lose their new family, or else they will do everything “bad” to test whether their new parents will keep them. Remind yourself that you had a really long time to prepare your heart and mind for this adoption, and chances are you had your own moments of pure panic along the way. Your child certainly deserves at least as long to process and come to terms with the possibly brand new concept of “adoption.” As mentioned above, the orphanage or foster parents might have had their own reasons for wondering if you were actually going to step through that government door as well.

We all wish that this process could be “perfect” and that every child could be fully and adequately prepared for what they are about to experience. But since adoption involves humans, who all bring their own personal experiences and emotions to the table, it is of course a bit more complicated than that.

~Amy Eldridge, Executive Director

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11 Comments to “Realistic Expectations: Child Preparation”

  1. [...] parenting books. Hopefully by the time they step off the plane in a foreign … … More: LWB Community » Realistic Expectations: Child Preparation ← TAYLOR for the Dewberry Family — Raleigh, NC | Reece's Rainbow [...]

  2. Gracie's mom 7 May 2012 at 12:11 pm #

    Amy, these posts are great and should be required reading for all prospective adoptive parents!

    I totally understand why caregivers won’t or can’t “prepare” the kids (not to mention that I don’t think you could prepare a child, ESP one who has never lived in a family) for something like this)

    I do wish they would change the transition process so that the parents could visit with the child a few times at the orphanage or foster family before taking custody. My daughter did pretty well, but the sudden handoff is brutual.

  3. familynook 7 May 2012 at 2:17 pm #

    I’m so glad you are educating families. I was well educated going into our older child adoption, and even on the day we got him, which was brutal, I remained calm because I knew what to expect.

    But I wasn’t prepared for some of the feelings I had after that, and some of the rejection I got from him. He was actually very prepared, knew who we were, and came up those steps to the Civil Affairs office with a huge smile “knowing what was going on”. But then I think it hit him that this was REALLY happening, and he broke down and it will probably go down in the books as one of the most brutal Gotcha days :) But I’m not sure all the preparation in the world could have made it any better.

    Putting ourselves in their shoes can help a lot. I kept thinking, what if our 9 yr old biological child was having this happen to him, and he would be going home with a Chinese family? I know exactly how he would act. He would be heartbroken, confused, devastated, and would probably thrash about, hold onto the chair, kick, and bite just like our new son did. Some come to us just fine, but we cannot expect that.
    Our first few days with our new son were a little rough, but now that our son is home, he is doing so well. We understand that there will be bumps along the road, but we are ready.
    We like to imagine “worst case scenario” before we adopt, and then be okay with it. We hope for the best, but make sure we are okay with whatever comes.

  4. Leslie 7 May 2012 at 2:53 pm #

    When we met our first daughter, we didn’t get to have her. She was in the hospital in China. At the time, I was distraught and wondered if she would even survive. But as for the initial meeting and then transfer, it was absolutely better. We would visit her for an hour or so (as that was all they would allow) those first 4 days and then on the 5th day, we were finally given custody of her and the permission to leave the hospital with her.

    Though those were tough days on us leaving her in that hospital, it absolutely helped her I think to see us daily interacting with the ayi she knew (who stayed with her in the hospital), that same ayi repeatedly telling her “this is your new Mommy and Daddy” in her own language and us taking photos together (all of us), and us spending moments with her.

    When the day finally came for us to take her to the hotel, we were told we’d actually be going straight to the airport to fly to GUZ instead. Oh my. But you know, she was doing great and I think in large part due to the fact we did just take her in one instant from all she’d known. It was a process over several days and those interactions with her caregivers were priceless to her and to us and for her transition to us.

    I can totally understand now after all of these years seeing and hearing about disruptions why SWI officials would be hesitant to share your parents are coming. It happens all too often that they are not or that they back out for whatever reason, even in China.

  5. The Gang's Momma 7 May 2012 at 3:30 pm #

    On the one hand, I am thoroughly enjoying this series, feeling like it’s equipping me further for the day we finally find and welcome our Brynna to our hearts and home.

    On the other hand? I can’t read it all at once in one sitting. Hardly ever. It breaks me. It’s so hard to read and think through. It’s necessary, I now. But so, so hard.

    But thank you for doing it anyhow. We need it. I need it.

  6. Holly 7 May 2012 at 4:11 pm #

    Ahhh. What a timely post. Thank you for sharing this. As a waiting mother for the 3rd time (5th child but 3rd adoption from China) I understand both sides of the arguement. This time especially, I have felt like I have really come to understand the whys of children NOT being told or prepared. There are a great more disruptions that happen than most of us are aware of, then there are families who back out, whether by choice or force (death in family, loss of home, income, divorce, etc.) and even for familes who DO follow through, which is probably the majority, but still…it is a LONG process now with Hague rules. We did our VERY best and had every single require document for our homestudy agency at our first visit but even still, it was almost 4 months from first meeting until homestudy was written, approved by our agency and ready to be sent to Immigration. It will be about a year from our pre-approval to our adoption day in all likelihood and that IS a very long time to a young child to wait. (Our waiting child was almost 6 years old when we sent in our LOI last summer) It is difficult for both the child and the parents when no preparation has been made with the child but I truly understand the whys. Our child does know about us and some days I wish she didn’t because it has taken so long. We have done everything we can do in the absolute fastest time humanly possible but still…it is taking a long time and there are so many steps to complete. Thanks again for sharing the other perspective. Blessings, Holly…waiting to travel!

  7. munchkincrna 7 May 2012 at 5:14 pm #

    I agree… I have enjoyed reading these posts. It has been a nice refresher for me on what to expect and consider as I get ready to travel for my second Chinese adoption. I remember the look of profound sadness on my son’s face when he was handed off to me in 2006. To him… his whole world had come to a complete stop, and he had no idea what was happening. I was fortunate though…. within a day or two… he was a happy, laughing, and playing little boy again!:-)

  8. Sammy 25 May 2012 at 9:52 am #

    I love these common sense posts LWB is doing!! In July 2010 we adopted two kids. Our daughter who was 10 y.o., later told us her foster mom told her we would only feed her hamburgers and she would get very fat. She also told her we all lived on farms in the US.

  9. Jess 31 May 2012 at 1:37 pm #

    Such great posts! 7 months home with our sweet girl, and it’s been a hard transition starting with a very hard ‘gotcha day’, but all so very worth it and we would do it all again in a heartbeat. Given these circumstances of why it’s not easy to prepare a child for adoption in advance, it makes more sense that it is up to the agencies, social workers, and especially the adoptive parents to educate themselves thoroughly before meeting their child!

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  11. Barbara Hasselbach 11 May 2013 at 6:10 pm #

    This is an exceptional, informative blog. I have been blessed to read it and understand why the adoptive child can act in so many different ways when meeting their “adoptive parents” for the first time. ~~ Our daughter and her husband are in the paperwork process (about 70% finished with it)….to adopt a Chinese little boy, hopefully between the ages of 12 months to 24 months. They already have three biological children. They have asked us to accompany them to China when the “big day” comes in the future, as they are bringing their three children with them. As my daughter said to us, you were there for the ‘birth’ of our three grandchildren and we want you there for the “birth” of your 4th grandchild. ~ I am trying to learn all I can about the Chinese culture and about all the orphans. I an a recently retired teacher of 35 years….teaching little kindergarten children in the USA. I can’t wait, as grandma, to see who God has planned for the McDowell family to have as their little son. ~ Thanks for all you do.


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