Lotus Travel specializes in adoption travel since 1995. We work closely with adoption agencies in the United States and have close ties to orphanages in China. Our goal is to provide outstanding travel arrangements for adoptive families and their travel companions, and at the same time strive to make a difference within the adoption and Asian communities. We have consulted clinical child psychologist Dr. Nelson, a Korean adoptee, to address important issues concerning adoption and its impact on adoptees. Her research articles might be useful for adoptive parents to help their children establish a positive identity and build up confidence. To comment or request permission to reprint these articles, contact Iris.
Dr. Rebecca Nelson is a clinical child psychologist who specializes in working with adopted children and their families. She maintains a private practice in Glenview, Illinois and offers child assessment and family consultation services. Additionally, Dr. Nelson is an adoption educator and community liaison. Her research focused on the developmental impact of early institutional rearing. She also works at Evanston Hospital's Infant Special Care Unit's Developmental Clinic, assessing infants and children born at-risk. Dr. Nelson was adopted from South Korea at the age of five and has a unique appreciation for the psychological and developmental complexities that can challenge adoptees and their families.
How to Emotionally Prepare Your Child for A Birthcountry Visit by Dr. Rebecca Nelson
March 20, 2006
Not long ago I was working with a 9 year-old girl who had been adopted from China as an infant. Sarah (not her real name) and her parents had recently visited China, and so I asked what she thought of her trip. In a decided tone Sarah replied that China was " creepy,"and remembered most that there were "a lot of beggars." I felt sad that Sarah's birthcountry visit left a negative indelible mark on her. She was going to have a challenge ahead of her in accepting her birthcountry as being an important and meaningful part of her identity and heritage. It also was not likely that Sarah would desire to return.
As a young adolescent I also had the opportunity to visit my birthcountry, South Korea. In fact, I lived in Seoul for a year with my adoptive parents and I was wholly unprepared for this surreal experience. I felt like a foreigner in my birthcountry despite having lived there for my first 5½ years of life. The native Koreans noticed, too. My features may have been classically Asian, but I walked and talked like an American. I received many looks, stares, and what I interpreted at the time to be disapproving judgements. Despite that my circumstances were very different from Sarah's, like her, I felt very little connection with my birthcountry. Instead, I felt bewildered and conspicuous, and less Korean than I could have imagined.
Both Sarah and myself would have benefited from thoughtful emotional preparation for a birthcountry visit to facilitate a positive and meaningful context for our experiences. Any life event such as, getting reading for school, starting a job, a birthday party, or adoption, involves preparation. When we don't prepare for an event or important experience, we often find our attention divided with juggling multiple tasks or becoming overwhelmed with details, which can take away from the positive or deeper aspects of the experience. In terms of a birthcountry visit, emotional preparation relates to the exploration of thoughts and feelings about China followed by organized and purposeful behaviors related to ensure a meaningful visit.
Emotionally preparing children can be daunting for adoptive parents, as it includes talking with children about serious matters that can involve complex or ambiguous feelings. That is, while adoption is a wonderful way to create families, it also means that, at some point, a child must come to terms with China as part of her adoptive identity. Following are some suggestions in emotionally preparing your child (and yourselves) for a birthcountry visit to facilitate a meaningful visit.
1. Cultural Perspective Taking : The political and socioeconomic forces that have made China the primary source country for international adoptions is unique. What it means for Chinese adoptees is that, for the most part, there is less ambiguity about why their birthfamilies could not care for them. There are many academic and authoritative resources that speak to this, but two which most eloquently and supportively address these complex issues and are specifically written for Chinese adoptees are " When You Were Born in China " by Sara Dorow, and " Kids Like Me in China " by adoptee Ying Ying Fry, who was a 3 rd grader at the time of publication. Both of these books utilize photographs of children and adults in China in naturalistic settings relevant to orphanage and adoptive histories. Also important, both books emphasize that families in China love their children. Sometimes, no matter how many times children hear this from their parents, this point can really hit home when communicated through other avenues. Additionally, it is helpful if both similarities and differences are highlighted in a relatively even manner. Some children may be comforted to know that some aspects of their life are relatively universal (e.g., hotels, McDonalds and restaurants). Taking this concept one step further on a more meaningful level, it is helpful for children to know that the larger social context is also generally universal such as, family constellations and social class. For example, Sarah would likely have benefited from exposure to the idea that impoverished and homeless people (beggars) exist in every country as well as working class and "white collar" professionals. I would have benefited from a few casual but specific lessons in social etiquette when I spent time in my birthcountry (I'm sure this would have reduced the number of "looks" and "stares" that I may have overpersonalized at the time). By imparting a range of social conditions, children are provided with greater perspective from which to view their birthcountry and themselves.
2. Support Identity Continuity : Related to the suggestion above, a core issue that challenges adoptees, especially international adoptees, has to do with the phenomena that they were born in one country to a particular family, but are now living in an entirely different country with a family completely unrelated to them. This can stir insecurities at the most basic yet complex level - identity. For the most part, Chinese adoptees do not have the benefit of knowing their ancestry, let alone their immediate birthfamily, or being told what they were like as an infant or young child. For many adoptees looking backwards in their history, it is as if their existence began at the time of adoption. For children who were adopted beyond infancy, this can be quite unsettling as school-aged children naturally think about where they came from, and how their life began and dramatically changed. Adoptive parents can facilitate continuity in the identity of their children by sensitively and openly talking with them about their lives before adoption. By doing this from a very early age, children become comfortable with the concepts of adoption and birthcountry. This comfort will help children feel secure when going to their birthcountry. The two books mentioned above are good vehicles for opening this type of discussion, as are open-ended questions when a child is in a calm and receptive state. Granted, little is known about a child's preadoptive history; however, creative and affirming questions or statements, (" I bet your birthmother had beautiful eyes like yours .") show positive support of adoptees core struggle with an ambiguous beginning.
3. Developmental Age : Developmental age or how a child behaves can be vastly different than a child's chronological age. When addressing emotionally laden issues, use your child's developmental age to direct their interests and experiences. For example, younger children need to eat more frequently, have a shorter attention span, and are less able to regulate their behavior and emotions making them more dependent upon their parents when coping with stress. Depending on your child's developmental age, families will want to plan for strategic "quiet" or "down time" to allow children to process the experience in way that does not overwhelm them. For some children they may include structuring their sensory experiences (e.g., carefully planning the number of outings, avoiding particularly crowded or noisy situations or alternating active and sedentary activities).
4. Learn About China and Chinese culture : You or your child may have expectations that she will "blend in" once in China. Often times the opposite is true. The reality is that Chinese adoptees are mostly raised by Caucasian families. As a result they will probably impart a Western (or other) culture in their demeanor, which often contrasts with the subtle and indirect general communication style of Asian culture. By exploring Chinese culture as a family before the birthcountry visit, your child (and you) will become more comfortable with cultural similarities and differences, which are important in facilitating realistic expectations. Causal educating statements, such as, " Did you know China has the world's largest population ?" or " Did you know spaghetti was invented in China ?" are usually intriguing segues for conversation, which can lead to more meaningful discussion about their birthcountry. One resource for books, videos and more is www.asiaforkids.com . Most children readily learn about new places when provided tactile experiences. A globe or large world paper map can be used to show where China is located, along with your child's province of origin, where the family will be staying.etc. Children usually enjoy using markers to designate these special places, and it also provides them with a readily understandable visual reference that can make the experience more relevant for them.
5. Special Needs Children : Whether by inborn temperament or life experience, some adoptees have special needs with respect to their ability to process strong or ambivalent feelings in an adaptive manner. These children will need particular sensitivity in how they are prepared for a birthcountry visit, and it is recommended that parents consult with an adoption mental health professional to facilitate this process. Undoubtedly, these children will need a more structured itinerary and opportunities for supported quiet time. Some potentially challenging experiences such as, an orphanage visit, may need to be reserved for another birthcountry visit when the child has acquired more mature coping skills.
6. Practical Dos:
· Family Emphasis : Do emphasize the birthcountry visit is a family trip, not a sacrifice the parents have made for a child, as this can place undue pressure on a child who may not want to upset her parents or may feel guilty about the allocation of time and expenses. Additionally, emphasis on the family imparts a positive message to the child that the family considers her birthcountry to be an important aspect of her identity and the family's as well.
· Active Participation : Most school-age children love to participate in family plans. It makes them feel important and valued. Providing thoughtfully pre-chosen options is one way to structure their participation in a productive manner. In a previous article specific ways to engage your child in the birthcountry visit such as, having her create her own album using a camera, keeping a travel diary or journal. For some children the opportunity to videotape matters of interest to them can also be valuable.
· Transitional Object : Allow your child to bring a beloved object from home to help them feel more comfortable in a country that may feel completely foreign to them. (e.g., favored stuffed animal, blanket, or pillowcase)
In summary, with emotional preparation, a birthcountry visit can provide an invaluable familial experience that imparts cultural knowledge and perspective. However, most importantly, it is an opportunity or a stepping stone for your child to learn about herself, and be able to meaningfully come to terms with her adoptive identity.
Timing Birth Country Visits by Dr. Rebecca Nelson
April 15, 2005
Parents often ask me about when might be a good time for their child to visit her birthcountry. I like hearing this question because it means parents are sensitively thinking about their child's adoptive experience in a developmental context.
Ideally, multiple visits across the lifespan provide a wonderful way for a family to stay connected to a child's birth heritage. If more than one visit is doable, the first trip can be taken when the child is relatively young (4 or 5), assuming she was adopted approximately before the age of 2 and familial attachment is secure. Before the age of 6 or 7, a child is too young to have the capacity to understand the differences and similarities between biological and adoptive relationships. So, parents might want to think of this trip as providing a comfortable initial exploration of a birth culture. This birth culture will probably be rather foreign to your child, despite it being her place of birth. Having this trip be rewarding from a child's perspective is important. It will create a lasting impression and influence whether your child wants to return when she is older, when questions about adoption and her origins will surface. This early trip can be made fun for a child by engaging in activities that celebrates her ethnic heritage and that are especially appealing for her. For instance if your child really enjoys Chinese food, make this a point of emphasis through adventurous dining (e.g., trying a variety of eateries) and conversation. If your child likes Chinese dresses, a dress or two bought from places of meaning, such as a specific region, to facilitate positive associations. Also, providing your child with her own camera will likely give her a sense of empowerment as she will gain a positive sense of control with tangible pictures of what appeals to her individually about her country of birth. Allowing your child to create her own photo album in addition to yours will provide further support of her individual experience and facilitate positive memories. Again, the goal of this early visit is to make it a rewarding and enjoyable experience that will provide a foundation for future, more meaningful visits.
If only one birth country visit can be planned, the ages between 8 to 10 is most appropriate with the specific age dependent upon your child's emotional maturity. By this age, children have greater ability to thinking about themselves and others in a more dynamic and complex way, and tend to have a keen interest in understanding how they came to be adopted. Questions about birthfamily, country of origin, and other adoption related matters are likely to make themselves apparent with greater frequency and degree of intensity than before. Children aged 8 to 10 are still dependent upon their parents to assist them in sorting out experiences, relationships and ideas. This makes a birthcountry visit a prime opportunity to learn about themselves and further a positive adoptive identity within a guided and emotionally supportive context.
For children 8 to 10 plan similar activities as already described, but also recognize your child will have thoughts and feelings about their adoption and birthcountry that may be dissimilar to yours. These differences can be sensitively addressed by actively involve your child in the planning phases and itinerary, such as places and people they would or would not want to see. Because this can be an emotion-filled trip for you and your child, make sure to plan some relaxing down time. Free time is a good way for everyone to reorganize and reenergize. Bringing one or two emotional comfort objects from home is also recommended. This might be a favored blanket or stuffed animal that your child can snuggle with when feeling tired or stressed.
Generally, pre/adolescents can be reluctant to visit their birthcountry due to immersion in their existing social world and an increased sense of self-consciousness. Many transracial adoptees feel conspicuous in their families. Visiting a country where their families will stand out even more is not likely to be appealing during this stage of heightened self-consciousness. However, if a pre/adolescent shows interest in visiting her birth country, then it can be a rewarding experience if planned to fit the pre/adolescent's individual interests and temperament.
Of course, there are always circumstances requiring particular sensitivity. If a child was adopted at an older age or has a relatively complex preadoptive history, the family will benefit from being especially planful when preparing a birthcountry visit. In these instances, parents may benefit from prior consultation with an adoption professional.
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Why Talking About Adoption With Children Is Important by Dr. Rebecca Nelson
"Only by moving away from preconceived notions about adoption and entering the world of the adoptees, can researchers [adoption professionals and parents] ever hope to understand their experience and be helpful to them when needed." (Brodzinsky, 1993) [emphasis mine].2005
An estimated 120,000 domestic adoptions take place each year in the U.S. Additionally, In 2004, nearly 23,000 children from abroad were adopted by Americans with Illinois ranked sixth among states with the largest population of intercountry adoptees. Despite the significant and progressively growing number of adoptions, a need remains for on-going, post-adoptive supportive structures that address the arising and changing needs and issues specific to adoptive families.
While outcome studies often present conflicting results regarding the well-being and adjustment of adoptees, it is generally agreed that the multifaceted issues inherent in adoption pose unique challenges. Adjustment to adoption is a process that is influenced by children's perceptions of themselves and their families. Self and familial perceptions are also affected by societal messages as well as preadoptive history, experiences, and developmental maturity. Incorporating past ambiguous relationships and histories, coming to terms with adoption related losses, reconciling fantasies with facts, and securing a sense of familial belonging are just a few of the complex issues adoptive children encounter.
Families who talk about adoption openly and nondefensively support positive adjustment in their children. Yet, talking about adoption may not come easily. Feeling unskilled in facilitating adoption related conversation can hinder parents from engaging in important and meaningful dialogue with their children. Additionally, parents may be unaware of how developmental maturity influences children's knowledge about adoption and perceptions of themselves as adoptees.
Middle childhood is often the period when being adopted is first seen as a problem . realize[s] there's a flip side to his beloved adoption story - that in order to be "chosen," he first had to be given away." (Brodzinsky,1992) At what age can a child most benefit from exploration of their adoption status and related adoption issues? Clinically and empirically based information strongly suggests middle childhood (6 to 12 years) is an appropriate time given greater cognitive capacity, more mature verbal expression, increased self-awareness, and the emerging ability to think abstractly about relationships and ideas. While younger children benefit from familiarity with adoption language spoken in loving terms, children in middle childhood use emerging abstract thinking and reasoning skills to try to logically make sense of their world. Newly acquired problem solving skills are actively applied to all facets of life, including the interpersonal.
Middle childhood is also a time when ambivalent or negative perceptions, feelings, and realities related to loss through adoption may surface and may conflict with the joyful adoption story relayed by parents.
Prior to middle childhood, children may have easily accepted information about their adoption told to them by parents. In many cases information may be little or fragmented given ambiguous or complex pre-adoptive histories. During latency, children can feel a strong desire to make sense of this preliminary information surrounding their origins and subsequent adoption. They may experience themselves as a mystery. Uncovering, understanding, and sharing one's unique adoption story are important passages for children attempting to come to terms with the meaning of being adopted. Putting together the pieces of one's adoption story is a challenging developmental task.
Within the family, qualitative changes in the parent-child relationship also occur during middle childhood as well. Increased independence, full-day school schedules and greater investment in social relationships and activities can result in less familial communication, especially related to adoption matters. Thus, the need for supportive adoption dialogue during middle childhood is critical. Sensitively addressing children's emerging thoughts, feelings, and experiences related to adoption can assist in providing a firm foundation for further healthy identity development and a more secure adoptive family. Open, empathic dialogue within a supportive milieu can facilitate this process.
"Story" is term often used in the adoption nomenclature and is based on an individual's historical or relayed information, which is consolidated into a meaningful life narrative.
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