Wisdom Wednesday: Transitioning from Foster Care
As a foster care coordinator and someone who has adopted a child who was fostered, I often field questions from parents about how best to prepare themselves for adopting a child who was in foster care.
Even the most prepared parents can find themselves caught off guard by their children’s behavior. Here are some observations that fellow parents and I who have adopted children who were fostered in China have made.
There is no one way to grieve. My daughter marched right up to us, shook our hands, and said in Mandarin, “Hello, I don’t speak English.” There were no tears or expressions of anger or fear; we were shocked with how well things are going. After a year, my daughter realized that adoption is permanent and went through a period of deep sadness missing her Chinese grandma. Even now, on both American and Chinese holidays, my daughter wishes her Nai Nai (foster grandmother) could be there.
Other children grieve by screaming, kicking, biting, sobbing uncontrollably or by having complete meltdowns. One parent reported that her child’s body was lifeless and her face was blank after saying goodbye to her foster family. Others report their children were completely shut down and withdrawn. One mother said that her child was generally uncooperative and negotiations were required for completing activities like getting in and out of the car.
Regardless of whether grieving occurs in China or once home, watching the manifestation of grief in our new child is stressful for parents. But it is a necessary part of the adoption process. Intense grieving is natural. We are asking our children to trust that total strangers are going to be able to equal the care our children have felt with their foster families in China. I sometimes ask myself, “Could I have taken that leap of faith?” and the answer is a resounding no. I am in awe of my daughter and the faith that she had in our family before she had any tangible proof that we were indeed trustworthy.
It is important to recognize that your child had an established family life before the adoption. Many of the foster children that were in my program continue to speak about their foster families in China, because they felt so loved and cared for in their home. My family had the good fortune to visit my daughter’s foster family this past summer, and it was clear how much they still love my daughter.
They told me stories of her favorite foods, colors, and her love of art and were happy to hear all were still favorites. I was reminded of just how important they were to my daughter’s history and came away with the feeling that they are my family now.
I cannot begin to understand the loss my daughter experienced when she left them.
Many forever families of the children from my program report that the foster parents spoiled their children. I know my daughter was what we would consider “spoiled” by her foster family. While it may seem hard to shape our children’s behavior away from expecting indulgences, I also know from experience that I prefer my child to have been “spoiled” than the alternative: experiencing a lack of attention in institutional care.
Another issue that our children experience is the language barrier which is compounded by learning the rules and expectations in their new family. Imagine how hard this must be when they had a foster family for months, even years, and understood a completely different set of rules. If they didn’t follow the rules, they could talk to their foster family and seek guidance and clarification.
As their new parents, we come to the adoption with our own personal parenting style, but usually not the language to explain our rules. Our new son or daughter may get frustrated figuring out the rules by trial and error (more often than not, error), and then we get frustrated because our child isn’t behaving like we want them to.
I had a Mandarin tutor for over a year when we adopted our daughter, but we still had miscommunications. She would yell “Bu kan! (Don’t look at me!)” when she was upset after a correction, and I would feel terrible that she was so upset. If you don’t have the luxury of living in an area where it is easy to find a Chinese tutor, seek out other resources. Some suggestions would be communication apps, online courses, purchasing flashcards that have pictures as well as English and Pinyin words, and seeking out local high school or college Chinese exchange students for assistance.
Realize that the rituals they had in their foster families with meals, clothing and bath time are potential battlegrounds. Some children will refuse to eat anything at all, possibly because of grieving or to regain some control over the situation. Other children will only eat Chinese food and, not surprisingly, may continue to prefer Chinese food over American food even after adjusting to life in a new country and in a new family. My daughter would take giant bites of food and literally be choking and stuffing more food in her mouth at the same time. She would show her displeasure in our directive to take smaller bites by narrowing her eyes and muttering in Chinese at us. Another parent reports that her child reached for more food right after putting food in her mouth and would eat as quickly as possible, getting upset if someone had more than her.
Some children refuse to wear the new clothes that their parents have bought. One child wore the pajamas she had on under her clothes to bed the first night and the next day would only put on her clothes from the day before. This can be hard for us as parents because we lovingly chose the clothes we purchased. Just remember that the only family your child has ever known thoughtfully dressed them in the clothes they wore on their journey to meet you. I can always tell when my daughter is having an extra hard day missing her foster family as she takes out the red shoes that her foster grandma gave her and tries to put them on, despite the fact she knows they don’t fit.
Some children don’t want to take baths at first. One family used bath toys to entice their daughter into the tub. Bubble bath and tub time with her Jie Jie (big sister) was how we won our daughter over to the tub. But don’t force the issue! Western bathrooms are not like Chinese ones, so this is a new experience for them.
Something that we might consider to be a behavioral issue does not mean that our child has not been raised well. Culture is a contextual experience. I cringed when my daughter spit her watermelon seeds onto the floor in the hotel restaurant. Another parent reported her daughter spitting on the bathroom floor after brushing her teeth. Both of these actions would be acceptable in China if the floors were dirt and not marble.
Children wandering around restaurants and other public spaces seemed fairly acceptable wherever we traveled in China. Partially because of our family culture and partially because we did not want our daughter wandering off, we insisted she remain seated.
Some of our children have played roughly with the toys or electronics we have brought them. It may be the first time they have seen an iPad, baby doll, or deck of cards, and they just don’t know how to manipulate these toys.
Many of us have noted boisterous, loud or bossy behavior in our children. One parent notes that her daughter is very loud and that despite trying hard to use her indoor voice, she simply cannot. My daughter is also extremely loud. I had her hearing checked because I thought for sure it would show she had hearing loss…but no, she is just loud! Other parents report their children demand rather than ask or are overbearing with their friends. Maybe this is just to get their point across when language is limited, or maybe it stems from a need to make their needs known.
If you are preparing to adopt a child in foster care or are newly home with your child, please know that there are resources to help you. Your agency social worker is one person with whom you can connect prior to adoption, while in China and once you are home. There are many great books that can assist you as well. My two favorites are The Connected Child and Parenting Your Internationally Adopted Child. Try to find out if Mandarin or Cantonese is the language your child speaks and learn some basic phrases. Reach out to others who have adopted a child from foster care for reassurance. You can email LWB’s Adoption Advocacy Team at email@example.com, and they can put you in touch with a family who has adopted who has agreed to be a support team member when the need arises.
Remember, no one expects you to parent in a vacuum. If you need support, just ask for it. We have all been there.
The transition from foster care to our families is ongoing. Things look different a week, a month, and a year from the point of adoption. So what should we keep in mind as our children make this transition?
One parent says that, “Adopting a child from foster care comes with mourning.” Our children are mourning the loss of the secure life they knew, and we are mourning that our child may not come running willingly into our arms like we may have envisioned.
But this same parent has reminded me that this mourning is necessary and demonstrates “an attachment that would prove fruitful” in creating lasting bonds with the new family. Reassure your child that it is absolutely okay to love their foster family and that they don’t need to choose. We talk about our daughter’s foster family every day. They raised my amazing daughter for five years, and talking about them acknowledges the gift they gave all of us. Another parent advises that “a rough time is part of the journey, and you just have to hang in there. Keep using common sense and relax…Expect the unexpected and improvise.”
With these wise remarks, I wish you the best in your journey to adopt your child.
~Kerry Palombaro coordinates LWB’s Huainan foster care program and is the lucky mom of two daughters from Huainan.