Boris Gindis, Ph.D. 
Article Title
Initial adjustment of a school-age internationally adopted child to the new family 
Posted Date

It is difficult to imagine something that could be comparable to the complexity of the adjustment experience of a school-age child adopted internationally. Try to envision yourself amid a completely unfamiliar social/cultural milieu, being bombarded by thousands of novel auditory and visual experiences, and, on top of this, being handed over to adult strangers who are now part of something you may have never experienced before, called "family." That is what internationally adopted (IA) children are going through as soon as they land on American soil.

There are physical, cultural, and emotional/behavioral aspects of the adjustment that the IA children need to make. First, it is indeed a total adjustment to physical environment (water, food, air) and the cultural/social environment. Second, there is a new language, mediating the whole process: language acquisition and communication difficulties are intrinsic parts of the adjustment period. Mix patterns of institutional behavior of a child and various parental techniques and the dynamic of the adoptive family, and you will get an incomplete list of behavioral/emotional factors to cope with. It is only reasonable to expect the adjustment period to be an intense and difficult time for everyone in the family.

In this short article I will dwell only on behavioral/emotional issues that an average family will normally go through during the adjustment period with the internationally adopted school-age child. Behavioral/emotional adjustment has several phases:

Honeymoon phase

This is usually a rather short period of elevated sympathy in people who are new to each other and who have certain expectations of and attitudes towards each other. Many older children have the idea that if they misbehave they may be returned to the orphanage, so they try to control their behavior to the best of their ability. Adoptive parents try to be as nice as possible to their newly obtained children. Again, this period can be so short that some adoptive parents may not notice it. Some children while just traveling to their new home may have tantrums, crying fits, etc., which can be due to the frustrating inability to communicate wishes and needs. Some children may have had not enough sleep, be tired from the excitement of the departure, be scared by the sometimes frightening experiences of being restrained by a seat belt in an airplane, by the series of doctor's examinations, etc. and act out right in the middle of the "honeymoon."

Testing of the limits phase

For IA children, the only way to explore their new reality is to test it with whatever repertoire of behavior is available to the children: it may be angry rebellion, autistic-like behavior, and hectic hyperactive examination of their surroundings by touching, pulling, throwing, etc. It will not necessarily be typical of this child after the adjustment is over. By the same token, parenting techniques to manage these behaviors may also be different. "Testing the limits” means that limits and routines are to be established by parents and learned by the child. Cultural differences (at times no less than “culture shock”) mediate the testing-of-limits process in both parents and children.

Gradual mutual acceptance phase

Although this may be a part of the initial adjustment, it is a relatively long period of reciprocal accommodation and adaptation. This is the period of adjustment when the orphanage behavior will be tried again and again and will be gradually replaced by more functional adaptive behavior. This is the time when intense feelings of anxiety, grief, anger, and other emotional turbulence might take place. This is the time when a new post-institutional way of life (routines, values, attitudes) is being gradually acquired by an IA child. The beginning of acceptance of a new way of life is the end of the initial adjustment period.

How to manage behavioral issues during the initial adjustment period

In order to make the initial adjustment manageable and productive, adoptive parents should follow certain "dos" and don'ts":

  • Keep stimulation to a minimum. No welcome parties, no trips to the mall within the first three weeks, no stream of relatives to see your new addition to the family. Limit toys, choices, outing, etc. Plan no more than one stimulating activity per day (such as the park, store, etc.).
  • Concentrate on establishing a daily routine. Your key words from day one should be structure, consistency, routine. Develop a set of rules and procedures as quickly as possible and stick to them rigorously. Post-orphanage children's personal experience with discipline needs to be changed. The orphanage regiment has, in general, an adverse effect on a child because it does not nurture self-discipline. The child learns to be an object of externally exposed discipline. In the new family the child must learn self-discipline as the base for behavior and social interaction. The discipline should be shared and understood by everyone in the immediate family. Only then it will teach an IA child (probably for the first time) how to belong within a family.
  • Parents should understand that there are things upon which they cannot compromise and there are things upon which negotiation and mutual "steps back" are possible. The first are issues of safety and health: no compromise on those. All the rest may be negotiated. Start working on safety skills and rules, such as crossing busy streets, walking around parked cars, asking owners before petting dogs, finding the way home, if lost asking for help, dealing with strangers, etc.
  • The initial adjustment can be a very stressful time for everyone in the family. Parents should remember the basic rule of airplane safety: put an oxygen mask on yourself first and after that on the one you are going to take care of. Give yourselves breaks from the stress whenever you can. Take care of yourselves.

Most IA children are immature and will demonstrate behavior expected from a much younger child. It will especially be noticeable during the adjustment period. A 5-year-old may behave like a 3-year-old and an 8- year-old will test the limits through behavior that is expected from a preschooler.

Language acquisition has its own dynamic during the adjustment period. Both parents and children become very frustrated due to a mutual inability to understand each other, and children may end up in a temper tantrum. Parents should not expect older children to be impressed with what is available for them now or to be immediately appreciative and grateful to their parents for that. Actually, just the opposite should be expected due to cultural shock. Parents should be ready for ungrateful, unimpressed, and resistant children in order to avoid disappointment.

The initial adjustment may significantly alter the child's "normal" behavior and produce symptoms usually associated with different psychiatric diagnoses. However, patience is needed: it would be a mistake to jump to conclusions about the presence of a specific disorder and begin treatment right away. Some parents with no parenting experience and elevated anxiety may think the way a freshman in medical school thinks, going through the list of symptoms of different diseases: "My God, I had this symptom just yesterday; sure, I have this disease!"

There are so many "behavior checklists" freely floating around (mostly through the Internet) those adoptive parents may read one of those and decide that the child has "all of these." Remember that this is still an adjustment period; certain patterns of troubling behavior may have a transitional nature. There should be a balance between a "wait and see'' approach and an "immediate response" approach.

There is an effective and useful method to reduce parents’ anxiety and structure their experiences: write a diary describing the child's behavior and parents’ reactions, feelings, and attitudes. For this you must be a keen observer of your child's behavior and be honest about your own frustrations and fears. Describe any progress or lack of progress that you see in the child. You should focus on the present moment (here and now) while learning all you can about the issues your child might have. This diary can be an invaluable resource later, if and when you decide to seek a professional consultation.

Dr. Boris Gindis is a child psychologist specializing in psycho-educational issues of older internationally adopted children. He is the chief psychologist at the Center for Cognitive-Developmental Assessment and Remediation (, a lead instructor at Bgcenter Online School (, the author of many publications on international adoption issues and frequent presenter at conferences and workshops. 
Back to list

Copyright ©2003-2023