Initial Adjustment of Adopted Children

Dellory Matthews
Mother of Katy, adopted at age 7, and Emily, adopted at age 9 1/2
Reprinted with permission.


There will be an initial adjustment time for any adoption, the intensity and length of which will depend on factors primarily out of the parents' control. Factors may include the age, personality, sibling status, and background of the adopted child. As parents, we need to be educated about these issues so that we don't exacerbate the situation. It is in our power to prepare for this adjustment time, so that we can act, rather than react. While we are often concerned primarily with the adjustment of the adopted child, we must also realize that each family member will go through a period of adjustment because of change to a family's structure. Even the family pets will have to adjust to children who smell like strangers and may have no idea of how to behave around animals.

There are many excellent books and support groups that can help adopting parents prepare. Use that waiting time before you adopt to get caught up or ahead on anything in your life that causes stress, so the first few weeks home won't be as hectic.


Adopting parents had months to go through the emotional and mental adjustment of becoming parents or of increasing the family size through adoption. Somewhere in the world you know there is a child that will be yours and you think, plan, worry, hope, pray, prepare and work to make this happen. But, life goes on as usual for the child and even children old enough to understand may not be informed of the adoption until very close to the court date.

Adopting parents are more likely than the kids to have formed a healthy concept of family roles. The adopted child probably hasn't. The kids in Eastern European orphanages call all the female caregivers "Mama". They have natural human cravings for love and attention, but don't understand what a family is. Some are even afraid of men, because they haven't seen many of them. Give it time. And, don't make the mistake of expecting any form of gratitude, even from a child old enough to understand what's happening. At best, that won't come from any child, adopted or not, until young adulthood.

You may be at your best - emotionally ready, physically healthy, and with a support group behind you. But the child may come to you malnourished, physically ill, emotionally scarred, scared, apprehensive, with no resistance to our viruses, and in many other ways ill prepared for this big change. For our daughters, it wasn't just coming to America to join our family, but it was also practically a time warp. They'd lived in a tiny village and had never seen a traffic light, an elevator, a banana, and much, much more.


For many families, there is a honeymoon period where not only children, but also parents, are on their best behavior. Our adopted daughters kept their room neat as a pin at first. My husband took them swimming twice every week and I cooked breakfast every morning. Months later, we had all slipped into more normal behavior. Now, the children, who need to be reminded to be tidy, have to ask for Daddy to take them somewhere special, and I cook breakfast only a few times a week.

Though a honeymoon period may occur, more often it is negative behaviors of the adopted child, which are the most common manifestation and concern of the initial adjustment period. These may include, but are not limited to: sleeping problems, immature or inappropriate behavior, excessive crying, aggressiveness, fits of rage, biting, hitting, eating issues, manipulative behaviors, disobedience, lack of respect for others, and their property, stealing, hoarding, and running away.

Even mild adjustment problems may include children becoming little bulls in your china shop of a home, as they explore their new environment in ways of which you never dreamed. Children who have been institutionalized are often socially immature for their age. If an odd or annoying behavior would be normal in a younger child, don't worry about it at first.

New sights, sounds, smells may overwhelm the child - don't add to it by over stimulating them at first. Expand the child's new world slowly.

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For those with other children: If you have carefully chosen the age of your adopted child in relationship to the ages of other children in the home, you can minimize emotional trauma for all. Most social workers will counsel a family not to displace their own oldest child, and usually not the second oldest either. Children have a firm idea of their place in the family.

Once integrated into the family and a new life, children adopted at an age younger than three often retain no conscious memories of their former lives. Initial adjustment issues tend to be less dramatic with this age group. A baby or young child may cry inconsolably, sulk, show a poor appetite, cling to one parent and spurn the other, avoid sleep, regress, or otherwise exhibit initial distress at being in the care of strangers. But young children often quickly transfer their attachment to the new caregivers. Those adopting from Kazakhstan, where extensive visitation is required before the court hearing, have reported fewer initial problems than those who have taken custody of young children they barely know. Americans, ever mindful of the clock ticking, often avoid such a situation (requiring a lengthier trip), even though it's undeniably better for the child.

Many report that children ages 4 to 5 years have the most difficult time adjusting. They are aware, but haven't reached the age of reason. They don't really have a concept of life outside the orphanage with a family as a desirable goal. Kids this age may feel like they were kidnapped by aliens. A long plane trip, people who can't speak their language, and a whole new world - this is frightening rather than desirable. Temper tantrums are a common response.

One mother remarked about her daughter adopted at age 4: "She would cry uncontrollably and not want anyone to touch her. She would growl and scare all of us that we had brought home an incredibly unstable child. She was unable to tell me why she was so upset (and I don't know if she really knew). It really took about 6-8 months before we saw her true personality of being a strong willed and very loving child."

Though an older child may have the unrealistic idea that adoption means a rich family, trips to Disneyland, and everything good they ever saw on TV, at least they are more likely to understand that being a member of a family is a good move for them. It may still be a frightening experience for them. When my girls are older, I'll tell them how brave I think they were to become part of a new family and a new life.

Some judges in Russia require parents who adopt children older than 3 to have several long visits with the children to before court, to ease the transition. In compliance with a court order, we visited our girls, then ages 7 and 9 1/2, for 3 or more hours, for 5 days before court. On the first day, our younger daughter was practically catatonic with fear. By the time we came to take custody, they were happy to leave with us.

Many parents want to adopt a child as young as possible. Adopting a child who is half grown isn't as appealing to many as adopting a baby or toddler who may adjust quicker to a new life. But over and over, we hear from families who adopted school age children and we hear wonderful success stories from most. The kids do adjust and so do the parents. It can be hard at first, but it usually gets better. Keep a journal and you'll prove that to yourself.

Over time, these are the comments I heard from one mom:
First day home: (I went over to explain in Russian what time out was to a newly adopted 7- year old boy. He was very active and they had to lock him in the house at first. ) "We have no regrets, but there are hard days in the process."
Day 10:" We have wonderful times and terrible times. He has quite a temper and can be violent, and stubborn. . . He is hugging and kissing everyone all the time."
Day 15: "Some days I'd still like to give him away, but most days are better."
Home 2 months: "He is fitting in very well and doing great! I am just amazed at how smart he is and how fast he is learning things. . . we are having so much fun with him and he is so good. We hardly even have to really discipline him anymore, and we aren't letting him get away with anything either. He is a joy to have in our home. I would adopt more if they were just like him!
Home 4 months: "Adopting him is one of the best things we ever did! He is doing great - he is so wonderful!

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A baby or child may be malnourished - most gain quickly but some don't. Children may have oral aversions from being force-fed or from sensory deprivations. The parent expects to feed the child and see him grow. When this doesn't happen, it can interfere with the bonding process.

The new parents want to hold and cuddle the baby to feed him, but he may be used to being left alone with a propped bottle. Change can be frightening and the baby doesn't differentiate between good change and bad change. At first, he may not want the closeness that the parents crave. An adoptive mother of a 6 months old baby explained, " She wasn't used to being held, loved, or cared for. She liked the food, but wasn't sure about the holding. And I needed that emotional bonding with her that holding her gave me. So she had to adjust to being held a lot, and I had to adjust to letting her play a lot."

Toddlers and preschoolers have no concept of the time and means required to prepare food. It has simply appeared, 4 to 5 times a day, in their playroom, at the table. They may be impatient with you when hungry. Second helpings, food served family style, grocery stores, pantries, refrigerators, bowls of fruit or candy just sitting around - all of this is new to them.

Children may gorge themselves because they've never had the opportunity to do so. Some will even make themselves sick by overeating. They may fixate on certain foods. It may be best to avoid serving meals family-style at first. But, don't worry too much about a child who eats huge quantities of bananas, hot dogs, or other new favorites. With time, they will usually settle down to normal portions.

Hoarding food or other items may occur because children don't believe that the food will continue to be plentiful, or because they have had very few private possessions. As insecurities decrease over time, so should these behaviors.


An institutionalized child never slept alone. (Or did anything else alone!) Now is not the best time to start. Even a school age child may be genuinely afraid of being alone. Parents may wonder about taking the child into their bed, as a way to bond. It works for some families. Establishing a bedtime routine is a good way to help the child feel secure in his new environment. Remember that initial jet lag may take a week or more to overcome. Talk to your pediatrician if the child experiences night terrors.


Adoption is a process that slowly changes you into a family. Your love began to grow when you even have the idea of that child. But the growing together as a family takes place one day at a time. Relax, and don't expect anyone to fall in love instantly. It's a process, not an event. Be consistent and set rules and a routine, but don't expect too much of anyone at first. You might use a picture chart to describe the child's day. Realize that every day you'll communicate better. Try to be consistent with discipline. Choose your battles carefully and only choose the ones you can win. Don't feel pressured to start the child in daycare, preschool, or public school to suit anyone else's timetable. These are individual decisions. Give the child a chance to understand that the parents are the primary caregivers and authority figures before introducing others. You can expect to see your adopted child blossom in many ways, with love, good nutrition, and a good environment.


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