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Advice on socialization for internationally adopted children

Boris Gindis, Ph.D. Chief Psychologist Center for Cognitive-Developmental Assessment and Remediation

We know from adoptive parent surveys, research and clinical practice that too many internationally adopted (IA) children--particularly those who were adopted after the age of 5, also called older adoptees-- fail to establish and maintain age-appropriate peer relations during their formative years. Indeed, teachers, parents and international adoptees themselves report that too many IA children are less socially successful than their age counterparts.

In all periods of childhood, but particularly during the pre-adolescent and adolescent years, peer interactions and friendships constitute the core of socialization and provide a feeling of belonging and self-validation, a context for self-disclosure and emotional security. Inadequate socialization causes adjustment difficulties, emotional instability and anxieties. Rejection by peers is a psychologically traumatic experience that inhibits a child's self-esteem and contributes to the development of loneliness and depression.

Rejected children often gravitate towards one another, thus escalating each other's depressive or acting-out behavior. International adoptees have a tendency to associate with younger children, children with learning or behavior issues, and those who are the least popular. If this issue is not properly addressed, IA children may accumulate the experience of being rejected--a typical cause for future emotional and behavioral problems.


Do

Do understand the major causes of difficulties in social interaction

Rejections may occur for a variety of reasons. As noted by their parents, a typical reason for rejection of IA children by their peers is their aggressive, odd, quirky or strange behaviors. Because of their immature and sometimes challenging behavior, IA children may require more supervision and thus are less likely to be invited to the homes of friends.

In turn, adoptive parents are concerned about their child's behavior when they cannot monitor it, so they also are reluctant to permit playdates away from home. Rare after-school contacts do not facilitate companionship and offer no opportunities to develop the closeness between friends, which encourages self-disclosure and the provision of emotional support. So, what is behind the “atypical” behaviors in IA children and what are its manifestations?

Aside from personal qualities, there are objective circumstances in the former and current environment of IA children, which make it difficult for them to acquire new social norms and skills. By the time of adoption, their psychological profile already includes many characteristics that can hinder interpersonal connections. These characteristics include:

  • Developmental Trauma Disorder, adversely affecting the maturation of the child
  • Poor self-regulation
  • Hyper-arousal
  • Post-institutional behavior (controlling and avoiding behavior, pro-active aggressiveness, extreme attention seeking and feelings of entitlement)
  • Lagging social language development
  • Difficulties with identifying other individual's feelings and viewpoints
  • Differences in cultural background and values

Do teach social skills and values

It is necessary and possible to increase social interactions for international adoptees by explicitly teaching them specific, new and often culturally different social skills and values. This will raise their awareness of the need to see another person's perspective. Consider the following methods:

  • Take the role of an instructor in friendship “know-how” by modeling, explaining and practicing specific social skills, such as greeting, parting, welcoming and declining, according to the child’s age. Model appropriate behavior when your child has classmates or neighborhood kids visiting your home.
  • Selecting skills valued by peers and teachers increases the odds of their use and reinforcement. Pay special attention to social skills that are of critical importance, such as sharing, accepting criticism, giving and receiving compliments, taking conversational turns, respecting others' personal space, following directions and controlling anger. Teaching skills can be embedded into everyday life activities or become "special sessions” during quality time when alone with the child.
  • Model how to be emotionally aware of other person's feelings by recognizing your children's emotions, listening to them empathetically and trying to understand the situation from their perspective. Validating their emotions does not signify approval, just understanding. Your interpretation of their emotions and the causes of these emotions could be instructive educationally and healing therapeutically.
  • Teach your children how to deal with bullies. Despite the school’s effort to prevent bullying, harassment can be subtle and still painful. Many typically developing children experience the stress of bullying and rejection. It is a part of normal maturation. However, IA children experience this stress to a much higher degree than can be considered normal.
  • At an age-appropriate level, try to provide social skill analysis, discussing with children after the fact what they did, what happened when they did it, what the outcomes were (positive or negative) and what they will do next time.

Do educate kids using computer games

There are a number of interactive, developmentally appropriate computer games that develop social skills. Most of these technologies have been developed for children with autism spectrum disorder (see http://www.sst-institute.net/au/parents/computer-game-pack/ ). However, some of these programs, particularly those designed for high-functioning autism, are useful for international adoptees.

Some, such as the Anger Control Games (http://www.researchpress.com/product/item/5231/) have been highly praised by many parents of IA children.

Do use IEP goals as a social skill tool

If your child has an Individual Educational Plan (IEP) at school, goals for improving social skills should be clearly formulated and included in the IEP. These goals may look like the following:

a)  John will understand and respond appropriately when others accidentally or intentionally do something he doesn’t like, such as talking loudly or touching his things.

b)  When frustrated, John will choose and apply one of several prior scripted strategies of self-regulation and self-calming.

c)  When wanting the attention of another person, John will wait for the appropriate time to speak.

d)  John will share a preferred object or activity with a peer upon request with minimal adult prompting.

e)  John will be taught how to understand and respond appropriately to the nuisances of unkind jokes.


Don't

Do not expect your child to close cultural gaps without your help

Familiarize your child with American books, stories, games, songs, sayings, jokes, tales and environments, such as Disney characters, which they may have missed by arriving into your family at an older age.

Try your best to close cultural gaps. This alone will help children tremendously with better and quicker understanding of various cultural references used by peers. Go back culturally to the beginning. Everything that surrounds a child born into this culture has to be introduced into your adopted child’s life and reinforced through multiple repetitions and references. Go as far back developmentally as you can, making sure every new piece of information and experience is linked to something they have already acquired.

Do not fail to play games and talk to your kids

Talk to your children. Explain and use double meaning expressions in everyday life. Play word-based games. Ensure that your child understands you correctly. There are a number of special educational programs that facilitate social and cognitive language development. One such program, called SmartStart, was modified specifically for IA children (http://www.bgcenter.com/smartstart.htm). This program stresses the utmost importance of adult mediation, which was lacking in your adopted child's early stages of learning. Be respectful of the child's cultural background, but concentrate on the cultural traditions and norms of this country, since this is what your child needs to understand and internalize now.

Do not overlook the need to provide different activities

Parents can help initiate and promote friendships by creating social opportunities and offering various activities, such as sports, art, music and dance. The goal is to select the right activity and lead children to at least a modest success, in which they can showcase their skills and be appreciated by peers. Every child must be successful in some activity, experience pride and be recognized as an achiever in something. This will build the platform for productive peer interactions.

Use your immediate surroundings, such as your neighborhood, local organizations and other gathering places, to introduce your child to different social activities. Enroll your child in age-appropriate, out of school organizations, such as local Scouts, and involve him/her in different volunteer organizations. Cross-gender and cross-generation interactions should be a part of your child's social experience.

Do not promote your adopted child’s culture

The intentions behind “keeping the child's culture” are noble since diversity leads to social tolerance. When adoptive parents think about teaching their child about cultural issues, they have to understand the entire subject, first and foremost, from their child's perspective and care about their child’s mental health and emotional well-being.

Cultural camps and trips to the country of origin are a mixed blessing, to say the least. They can be a trigger of psychological trauma and do not help in socializing here and now. Inept attempts to keep the original culture of adopted children can be an obstacle in their current acculturation. The appeal to honor an internationally adopted child's heritage and their sense of identity sounds nice, but the problem is that neither the child nor the parents can pinpoint, let alone keep, this elusive identity.

What’s the cultural identity of a Gypsy child from a Romanian orphanage, who was mistreated just because she was a minority? Or a child neglected in an Estonian orphanage simply because he was ethnically Russian? Or a Tatar boy from the Ukrainian orphanage, teased for his almond-shaped eyes and dark skin? For a social worker, a Romanian Gypsy is a Romanian. The same goes for the Estonian and Ukrainian children--even though these children themselves are acutely aware that they are not welcome in these countries. What language and culture should be saved and reinforced in Russian children adopted from Kazakhstan, who speak mostly Kazakh?

Cultural artifacts, along with native language, can be a definite post-traumatic stress trigger for many IA children. Even toddlers associate their pre-adoption language with the orphanage and English with their family. The memory of the orphanage, with its rules, patterns of behavior and poorly understood remote regional customs, is not necessarily something a family needs to cherish to help their child fit in here and now.


Summary
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Social difficulties with peer interactions are quite common among children adopted internationally. There are numerous factors responsible for this situation, including complex childhood trauma, resulting in mixed maturity, hyper-arousal, emotional fragility and learned survival skills (known as post-institutional behavior), as well as a lack of language, culture and age-specific cultural/social skills. A clear understanding of these numerous factors can help parents understand how to approach each issue.


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Boris Gindis, Ph.D.Chief Psychologist

Boris Gindis, Ph.D. received his doctorate in developmental psychology at the Moscow Academic Research Institute of General and Educational Psychology. He completed his post-doctoral training in School Psychology at the City University of New Yo...

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