Adoptive families are common in the expatriate community. Global nomad families don’t see borders as barriers, and are often in positions to offer resourced, loving homes to children who have had very difficult starts to life for a variety of reasons. Many of us know adoptive families making their way around the globe, and living in beautifully diverse multicultural, multi-racial, enriching environments.
So, why write about adoption in the global nomad community? And isn’t that hard to do because there is no singular adoptive family experience? It is true that there is no singular adoption story, and….research shows that there are some trends in distinct things that adopted children and adoptive families need to thrive.
Challenges for all adoptive families
The one thing that all adoptees have in common is the loss of the primary caretaking relationship. Newborn babies are known to be able to recognize the smells and sounds of their mothers, and even infants adopted at birth experience a change in sounds and rhythms following an immediate adoption (Sullivan 2018). Research is increasingly pinpointing the fact that a singular traumatic event (such as the separation from a primary caregiver), and/or protracted multi-generational trauma, appear to impact the growth and development of a baby’s nervous system (Gray, S. 2017). This has real implications for adoptees.
If a child’s nervous system is wired for a heightened stress response, then they are likely to experience more anxiety (rigidity, distractibility, reactivity) than other children. As an adoption specialist and an adoptive parent who spends a lot of time in community with other adoptive parents, there are also indicators that early stressors can impact sensory systems as well. In other words, adoptees may have heightened reactions to sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches when compared to others.
Finally, statistics in the US suggest that adoptees are overrepresented in special education classrooms and there is some thought that early developmental stressors might impact neurology in a way that impacts learning (Brodzinski, D 2005).
How to deal with the unique challenges for expatriate adoptive families.
To be clear- I know there are scores of healthy, happy, thriving adoptees whose lives were not tangibly negatively impacted by caregiver changes, or nervous or sensory system issues. Yet, this piece is for families moving around in the global nomad community who are parenting children with heightened stress responses, distinct sensory needs, and varied learning differences. Expatriate living (and moving) can pose particular challenges, and offer unique opportunities, to an adoptive family.
1. Acknowledge the challenges.
It is okay to acknowledge that there are some distinct challenges in parenting a child who experienced the loss(es) of significant caregivers. Minimizing challenges you may be having often leads to parents feeling isolated and children feeling that they are a disappointment to frustrated parents. Seek additional family support from an adoption competent therapist if that seems appropriate. Or find an adoptive parent support group on line. There are some great ones out there that offer both emotional support and practical parenting strategies.
2. Create frequent family rituals.
Children who have experienced relationship loss often struggle with change. Think about that for expatriate children who may move every 3-4 years when parent assignments change. Or whose teachers rotate in and out of the school community with greater frequency than most. Most moving parents have already learned the wisdom of rituals and preparation for change. In general, it makes sense to enhance the rituals and the preparation for children who are adopted. When you are in your new environment, it becomes especially important to set up familiar rooms, pictures, towels, and routines. All of this “sameness” is especially comforting in the midst of change. Create frequent family rituals and name them as something the “Smiths love to do.” Creating an additional sense of family identity can be especially comforting for adopted children.
3. Be explicit that the adoptee is moving with you.
Depending on the age of your child and how long they have been with your family, do not be afraid to name directly for your child that you are all moving as a family. Show them pictures of the new home they will move to. Talk about where their room will be and where they will go to school. It may sound silly, but “kid brain” often scrambles logic and its possible that an adoptee could have a lurking sense that they may not transition with you. Even if that sounds batty, trust me, and have some conversations.
4. Don’t hesitate to talk about your adoptive child’s birth/first family.
The latest thinking and research in the world of adoption suggests that there are many benefits to open adoption (that is a whole other article topic). This is relevant for global nomad adoptive families because in my clinical experience, it is common for adoptees to worry that birth/first families will not know where to find them if they move. This is an invitation for adoptive parents to continue to commit to talking, wondering, and sharing about birth/first families directly with your child. Start these conversations at very young ages.
If there is no information about, or contact with, your child’s first family, its okay to name out loud that you wish you had more information for your child. You could take steps to make sure that your adoption agency (and/or in-country contacts) has your contact information and let your child know you have done your part to keep communication open should their birth/first parents contact the agency. If your family is in an open adoption, reassure your child (don’t wait for them to ask) that you will let their birth/first family know how to contact your family. It is entirely possible that your child is not wondering about their birth/first family……but clinical experience suggests that adoptees wonder a lot more about their birth/first families than they share with their adoptive parents. Adoptees commonly perceive that it will hurt their adoptive parents’ feelings to ask about their first families. This is an invitation to start conversations and consider how your child’s sense of connection to their birth family may be impacted by a move.
5. Maintain relationships you left behind.
Work hard(er) to maintain relationships that are left if you move posts. Leaving others and being left can be especially tricky for adoptees. Do the legwork to keep kid connections going through letters or face time, or class pen pal assignments.
6. Notice if your child has any specialized sensory-related needs.
Does he freak out in a crowd? Hate the feel of certain fabrics? Really not like the sound of loud music? React strongly to the smells of market food cooking? Know that sensory integration issues can be a challenge for children with adoptive histories. Carry chewy snacks so that the heavy chewing is soothing. Don’t be embarrassed to let them use headphones in public. Let them wear a heavy backpack to help soothe them. Let them carry the corner of a silky blanket in a crowd. Understand they are not just being “spoiled” or “whiny” when they fall apart in certain very stimulating situations. If any of these sound like your child, consider getting an occupational therapy consult to establish what kinds of sensory input challenges your child, and what might soothe them. Other adoptive parents I know have found sensory- informed behavioral interventions life-changing.
7. Talk openly to your school.
Know when “family tree” and other assignments (like baby picture projects) are happening and work with your child’s teacher to think creatively about developing inclusive assignments that don’t automatically “out” your child as adopted but also don’t force them to choose “which” family to write about or have to field questions about why they might not have baby pictures. Consider talking to your child’s class about adoption (based on your child’s age and willingness to have you do that). You’d be amazed the kinds of questions other children ask adoptees, and its important that your child (and the teacher) feel prepared to educate and/or redirect peers as is appropriate. The WISE UP curriculum is a great one that teaches adopted children options for responding to others’ curiosity about their family formation. Many adult adoptees I know talk about the negative impact of decades of “adoption microaggressions” when they were made to feel “less than” or “studied” because of the cumulative curiosity of others that they did not have the skills to field or understand.
8. Give your child some scripts with which to respond to others.
Decide together how you will answer public questions about your family, or kid questions at school. Actually practicing what to say helps kids not “freeze” or freak out in the face of big and small incidences where they feel visibly different from others. Role plays can make great family fun.
9. A word about transracial adoptions.
Transracially adoptive families are generally pretty easily identifiable – and therefore more prone to fielding questions and comments from others. Experienced transracially adoptive parents recognize that if they are White and they are raising an adopted child of color, at some point they often start to see that the world treats their child of color differently than they themselves were/are treated. I have seen that there is a tendency to minimize the impact of racial identity development in the context of racially diverse expatriate communities. Adult transracial adoptees often talk about “finding out the hard way” how racialized the world was once they left their childhood family homes (or their expat communities). Many write about wishing that their adoptive parents had prepared them to be able to code switch between cultural and racial groups, and to recognize racism and bigotry to be able to combat it actively. Global nomad communities are fantastic places to raise racially diverse families and this is a reminder not to be lulled into complacency, and it is another invitation to have more conversations with your children.
10. Be prepared to react constructively to the “Aren’t you lucky” comments .
Finally, if I had a nickel for every time some stranger (or even acquaintance) told my adopted child directly, “Oh, you are so lucky!” Or said to me in front of my child, “You are such a saint.” First, for the latter, I always think they obviously hadn’t witnessed my frazzled, lousy, normal-human parenting shortly before this exchange. Then I remember that one of the wickedest themes in the lives of adoptees is the “you should be grateful, aren’t you lucky” trope. Whether or not things like economic resources improved in the adoptive family context, no child should be made to feel as if they are “lucky” to have their family. Especially in the context of a loss of another family and/or culture. These messages can be especially complicated when they come from people in the child’s “home” country or culture.
Keep your ears peeled for the messaging that your child is lucky– and therefore not entitled to the full range of real-life feelings ALL children have (resentment, anger, disappointment). Over time, even if your family does have a good gig-of travel and loved ones and opportunity- the messaging that your adopted child in particular is lucky you were willing to, or called to, parent them has a sneaky way of chipping away at their sense of worth and wonder. In response to those comments, I usually look people right in the eye and say, “Truthfully, I am the lucky one to get to be his Mama. And this guy is stuck with my crummy cooking, and goofy sense of humor, and penchant for mortifying public dancing outbursts”, and then I smile and change the subject.
In conclusion, the adoptive family journey is beautiful, complex, winding and inevitably enhanced by global nomad living. Kids and parents grow when we can name these adoption-related dynamics, have conversations with each other, and come up with concrete strategies for coping with presses in our communities. Adoptive parents are invited to be mindful of the ways that the intersection of global nomad and adoptive identities can be both distinctly challenging and wonderfully rich.
Brodzinsky, D. Palacious, J. 2005. Psychological Issues in Adoption: Research and Practice. 2005.
De Bellis, M. D., & A.B., A. Z. (2014). “The Biological Effects of Childhood Trauma.” Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 23(2), 185–222. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.chc.2014.01.002
Gray, S et al. Thinking Across Generations: Unique Contributions of Maternal Early Life and Prenatal Stress to Infant Physiology, November 2017, Volume 56, Issue 11, Pages 922–929.
Schoettle, Marilyn. W.I.S.E UP: Powerbook. Center for Adoption Support and Education. 2000
Sullivan, Regina et al. “Infant Bonding and Attachment to the Caregiver: Insights from Basic and Clinical Science.” Clinics in perinatology 38.4 (2011): 643–655. PMC. Web. 30 Aug. 2018.
About the Author: Dr. Laura S. Anderson has been a licensed child and family psychologist for nearly twenty years. For most of those years, Dr. Anderson ‘s offices have been primarily based in school settings. She has worked with all age ranges- from preschool to high school students- and in international, public, private, and charter school settings. Dr. Anderson has expertise in learning and behavioral assessments, emotional/behavioral interventions in classrooms, supporting adoptive families and helping kids and families cope with emotional stress. Dr. Anderson is currently located in Oakland California and she provides national and international training and support services. Dr. Anderson is an adoptive parent herself, and is considers herself lucky to be on this distinct parenting journey. Dr. Anderson loves her work and enjoys helping families overcome their differences, build on their strengths and thrive. You can find more about her at: https://www.drlsanderson.com
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