Adoption – delayed emotional development

Here’s another post about parenting difficulties, especially those faced by parents of children adopted from orphanages. Both my children pose challenges, but Karen has been especially difficult for us at times. She still seems to cycle in and out of moods where she regresses and seems to act like a 2-3 year old.

Most of us know that children from orphanages have many types of delays. We are used to having those issues dealt with by doctors and specialists. Some PT, good nutrition and healthy physical activity and the child improves quickly. Emotional delays are harder to deal with and continue to affect the child long after speech and physical delays have been resolved.

With Karen, behavioral triggers can be any new, especially emotional, development in her life. A hurtful scene at gan, and suddenly we have a few weeks of hitting, intentionally breaking things, destroying clothes, etc. Ok, some are funny, like when she puts her feet on the table while she’s eating just to see if I still have the energy to say, once again, “Karen, please take your feet of the table”; “feet with shoes off the furniture”; “please stop wiping your hands on your clothes while you are eating. There is a reason you have a napkin”. These are the funny ones. Not so funny is when she’s intentionally rough with Matan, or says really hurtful things under her breath. I stopped taking her to the supermarket after she whispered, “You’re stupid”, while standing in line and staring at the checkout clerk.

Lately, I’ve been reading some good books on adoption which my sister sent me when we got home with Matan. I wish I had read some of them earlier, much earlier, like maybe 3.5 years ago when we adopted Karen. One theme I’ve found very relevant is the thesis that adopted childrens’ emotional age will depend on how long they have been with their adoptive family. This is a rough estimate, but means that if Karen was adopted at age 2, and today she is 5, then her emotional age is around 3. That would account for her meltdowns over minor issues, especially those resulting from fights with girlfriends who are usually more emotionally mature.

Right now I’m reading “Parenting Your Internationally Adopted Child – from the first hours together through the teen years”. I strongly recommend it to anyone considering an international adoption. Includes good case studies that follow the development of a small group of internationally adopted toddlers.

Parenting Your Internationally Adopted Child is a wonderful, thoughtful resource for adoptive parents. As both a therapist and a parent, Patty Cogen offers valuable, practical advice with hands-on suggestions and great tips. This is a book that will grow with you as you navigate your parenting journey. –Carrie Kitze, author of We See the Moon and I Don’t Have Your Eyes

5 responses to “Adoption – delayed emotional development

  1. As always beautifully written thought provoking post. I think you put a lot of thought and care into raising your kids and trying to see how you can help them with their issues. I have no personal experience with adoption but it makes a lot of sense to me that an adopted child’s emotional age may lag behind those of their peers and this could have a connection to the amount of time a child spent in an orphanage. They often say that premature babies development is consistent still with their ‘due date’ than their actual date of birth meaning that for instance a premie born months early will lag about two months in thier early milestones and this is considered within the realm of typical development.

    I think at least to some extent, what your experience with Karen is typical for kids her age. All kids push their limits and especially at around 5-6 years of age, I think all kids are kind of enamored by their independence on the one hand but still feel insecure and regress at times. Certainly Karen wiping her hands on her clothes and putting her feet on the table at dinner seems just like regular pushing your limits behavior. I think still at this age tantrums can happen with varying degrees of frequency and intensity. Maya’s tantruming has greatly reduced and doesn’t so much consist of her throwing herself on the floor anymore or throwing things across the room, but more standing toe to toe with outright refusals to listen, but every so often she will throw herself on her bed or on the floor and have at it.

    I think as a parent it is also important to take a look at things from a distance from time to time. If you go through everyday it can be easy to be discouraged, when you see your child behave in an undesirable way and particularly if it interferes with your child’s ability to succeed in their social surroundings. For me it was so easy to just be totally focused only on Maya’s problems and to be discouraged most of the time. Then I started trying to look at things not from just each day’s perspective but looking at ‘now’ compared to six months or a year ago and it really helped me to see how far Maya has come which also made me relax a little about the other stuff. I know that Karen is dealing with something different than Maya but maybe this will help.

    Keep writing, your love for your kids just shines through with every post!

  2. Would it make you feel better to know, that my non-internationally adopted 5 year old behaves the same way as Karen? Sincerely, I think there’s something to this age. Emotions are out of control sometimes, and I often feel she’s competing with her little brother, emulating his 2 year old behaviour hoping for the same results he gets. She’s genuinely hurt and shocked when it’s different for her. Her tantrums seem to come in waves, some weeks nothing, then weeks of huge outpourings. Wishing us both strength through this!

  3. Thank you both for commenting. I know your situations, and I’m sure you can totally empathize 🙂 It feels so good to hear that I appear to be a good mom. Self doubt is my buddy.

    It seems that with each age, or development level, children exhibit stress behaviors as they mature and come into contact with new ideas and concepts that may make them uncomfortable. I know a lot of children have anger management issues, not just those adopted from an orphanage, but I really want to find out what is the root cause, if you will, of her anger.

    I guess if someone had left me to spend my first two years in a Ukrainian orphanage, I’d be bitter too. Often, they blame the adoptive parents, mostly the mother, for not coming to get them sooner, or so I’ve read. Karen doesn’t speak much about adoption. Even our trip to Ukraine, and attempts by me and and our social worker to get her to talk, have been totally unsuccessful. We don’t push, just make space for adoption talk and occasional references that give her the opportunity to pick up the string. Instead, she will suddenly change the subject.

    Ina, you should check out Dana’s blog, I think you’ll find you have something in common:

    Yeah, Karen’s behavior issues also come in waves. They seem to get worse during times of “getting to the next level”, in terms of development.

    The conversion rabbi said, “G-d only tests the strong”. Was that supposed to make me feel better?

  4. Don’t forget Karen is young, she may not be able to verbalize what her fears are, she may not understand them. She may not really remember her day to day life at the orphanage, but just the feeling that she didn’t get the love and compassion that all children really need. She’s gone through a lot in her short life and don’t forget she has just gotten a new brother which always throws kids for a loop.

    The most important thing you can do is love her, just keep loving her and don’t let her push you away. Try as much as you can to build her confidence as I think this is key to getting a child (as well as an adult) to set their fears aside and embrace a new way.

    Don’t forget too that all of us have good days and bad days, even kids. Some days just sail along and some days feel like a siege. You’ve also been home for months on end which I am sure has been wonderful but you are totally submerged in the situation which also makes things seem more impossible. It may actually be good for you to get back to work and have something to else to focus on, it may help you breathe new life into your situation.

  5. Pingback: Search and you shall find | Zendette

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