Center for Developmental Adoption Medicine
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March 2007
A Sometimes Difficult Transition
Helping Families of Adoption Adjust to a New Life for Everyone

By Mary Ann Romans

When you are adopting, there are so many hurdles to jump, from paper work and home studies, to travel plans and the emotional roller-coaster of finding your child. But what many adopt­ing parents might not realize is that the hurdles can extend to the time after they bring their child home.

"When you are an adoptive parent, the process is such a tenuous experience," says Laurie Rochlin of North Jersey, who with her husband added two girls to their family through domestic adoption. "We were so focused on getting to the end, that we didn't real­ize it was really an evolutionary process," she says. "We were surprised at the adjustment."

The way your family adjusts after adoption can depend on a number of factors, according to Davida P. Harlem, Ph.D., the director of the Center for Developmental Adoption Medicine in Abington, Pa. "It varies according to the age of the child (dramati­cally) and the amount or lack of information that the parent gets about the child's history," she says. Another factor of adjustment can include how much support is available to your family.

Knowledge Can Be Power

Harlem says that the more information you can gather about your child, the more empowered you can be for your family, both during die adjustment period and for life. "In my experience, there are many unknowns, particularly when a child is coming to you from another country. The information you get in terms of the history of the care that the child received can be lacking," Harlem says. "The older the child is before the adoption, die more complicated his or her history becomes."

Harlem says that it is important for parents to realize that living conditions before adoption may be affecting a child's current development and his adjustment into die new family. The child may be frustrated and unable to tell you what is wrong. "The parent has to deal with a child who is somewhat scared and probably doesn't have good communica­tion skills," she says.

Harlem stresses die importance of a good evalua­tion to answer questions for die parents, such as why the child isn't sleeping or eating, or what milestones should be expected of the child. "One of the most important strategies is getting to know as much about your child as you can, such as the level of development." she says. "Many [2-year-old] children haven't had the opportunity to develop what a 2-year-old would typically develop [for example]." That child might prove to be at the developmental level of a typical 18-mondi-old, and an 18-month old has different needs. "Adjusting how you look at that baby makes it easier to bring die child to appropriate development." she says.

Dana and Gary Pinketti of Ridley Park, Pa., are happy they sought an evaluation for their son, Daniel, whom they adopted from Russia. “It seems like others eased into the walking and exploring phase as they got to know their child for the first 14 months,   Dana Pinketti says. "We didn't have that opportunity. Daniel had to get to know us as well. He had so much that he had to adjust to, but I felt he did so well. We took Daniel to the International Adoption Center at CHOP. That was stressful — wor­rying about his health. They were wonderful there and we felt good about his development when we left."

Making Adjustments

Being aware of the history of your child and mak­ing changes at home can greatly help the adjustment period, as the Fitzpatrick family of King of Prussia, Pa., quickly found out. Abbe Longman and Bob Fitzpatrick adopted two boys, Sasha and Roman, from Russia.

"We had the boys share a room for two main rea­sons. First, they were used to spending all day, including night time, surrounded by other children. We thought that sleeping by themselves would be too scary for them," Longman says. "Bedtime was very rough. Sasha was very terrified each night. He also did not want to be touched, held or comforted in anyway. His bedtime ritual consisted of violently rocking himself side to side, which is a very common thing for children who grow up in an institutional setting. Still, it made bedtime very challenging. We desperately wanted to comfort him, but anything we did only made him more upset. Roman wasn't scared of bedtime, but he did not want to sleep."

Harlem says that sleeping and eating problems are very common for newly adopted children. "Most of the' time, especially with out-of-country adoptions, children haven't been exposed to different types of food. Many are just given cereal added to their bottles or other soft, bland foods," she says. "Knowing some of this information can be very helpful for parents."

The Pinketti family did experience some eating problems with their son. "Daniel also had some difficulty with eating when he first arrived home. He wouldn't eat food that wasn't pureed or soft," Dana Pinketti says. "That lasted only a few weeks and now he eats everything!"

"I was very concerned with nutrition, Rochin says. "I didn't have any control over my daughter’s nutrition before adopting, so I felt that I really had to make up for that."

Harlem says that parents may be inclined to try to compensate quickly and make their adjustments all at once, but this can be overwhelming for both the child and the parents. "You have to ease into it without creating too much change at once," she says. "Choose your battles and realize that it is a process."

Gather Your Support

When Jill Miller of Princeton, N.J., and her fami­ly arrived home from China after adopting their daughter, they were greeted with a wealth of support. Their friends had done everything from stocking the refrigerator and providing meals to putting up their Christmas tree and finishing up the family's Christmas shopping. Even with that support, the Miller family wishes they would have had people staying with them to help them get through the first few weeks of jet-lagged kids "jumping up and down the stairs" at 3 a.m.

"For the first couple of weeks home, life was tire­some, and I was not adequately prepared," Miller says. "We had to adjust and make some realistic expectations to our household. I had to give myself permission to rest and allow us some time to bond."

The Pinketti family made a point of keeping in touch with the other adopting families they met in Russia, "We called and e-mailed and compared notes. The babies are all the same age and since we had experienced the whole process together, we could really relate. One of the major benefits for our family is that my sister-in-law and brother-in-law had also adopted from Moscow, Russia."

"I was and still am very involved in a few internet-based adoption groups, which has been very helpful to me," Longman says. "I know some people who adopt from Russia join FRUA (Families through Russian and Ukrainian Adoption) and go to their playgroups so the kids can be around other Russian kids and the moms can bond over their similar experiences."

"I can't stress enough the value of getting together on a regular basis with like-minded parents/families/ experts before and after the adoption," says El McCarthy, the co-vice president of the Adoptive Parents Committee (APC) of Central New Jersey, which offers monthly meetings and socials. "These meetings and the regular social gatherings provide an Invaluable extended family experience in which the parents and children can bond, learn and grow together."