Jeltje Simons 
Article Title
One boy who called an orphanage home 
Posted Date
The child sits quietly staring at the airplanes, having very little idea that soon he will lose everything what was familiar, including most of his history. Later, much later when he speaks English, he may be able to share some memories, but knowing what is real, fantasy or half-truth is difficult.

I'll tell you my story of bringing home a little boy from Bulgaria less than 4 weeks before his 6th birthday. Visiting and removing a child from the only place they have ever known, their home - an orphanage - is exciting for the new parents, but it is an overwhelming experience for the child.

Moving out of an orphanage is something not to be underestimated. Just take a moment to think how many changes the child will face. The child's adoptive parents speak another language and communication is difficult. He will wear new clothes that smells differently and he will eat food never tried before. For the first time they sleep in a hotel or apartment, eat in restaurants, are taken into shops, etc. Then traveling in a car and in an airplane, having to wait in line with hundreds of people around, changing planes, traveling to the new home, maybe meeting new people, first time sleeping in his new bed, maybe alone. The list of new and first experiences is endless and will be all cramped into a few days. This is not really preventable, of course, but there are little things you can do to make it a bit easier for the child.

They are likely to miss their caretakers, the routine of the orphanage, the other children, and even the man who did maintenance and always gave a wink when walking by; they will miss the smells, the sounds of the building and certain privileges or status they had gained.

Orphanages are bad places for children to grow up, but they do not know it; orphanage life is all they know, often with no other experiences outside to compare. International adoption is about gains for the child and for their new parents, but it's also about loss, especially the first year when all the changes and losses are recent, but this is a theme that will come back time and time again when the child matures. It might not seem important and you forget about it, but earlier or later children will ask questions about their culture, their ethnic heritage, their country, their birth families, their abandonment or removal, and much more. Some questions you may be able to answer, others will stay unanswered forever, but it is important that we, as adopters, realize that there are huge losses involved, even when it appears to us that everything will be 10 times better than the child was used to.

Everyone is your best friend and how to avoid this

It is good to be aware that when your child is in transition from orphanage to home, the behaviours you observe might not be the entire picture. The child can appear to be up to anything, smiling golden smiles at you, be comfortable receiving care from you, and cuddle and hug, but their real acceptance of the new situation may amaze you. I was surprised how easily my son let me touch him, how often he smiled, how 'happy' he appeared. Only to realize that he had no interest in me as soon as other people were around, that he stared and stared at strangers, trying to get eye contact and then smiled intensely at them.

I remember my mother asking if he was attaching to me, letting me hug him, if he would give kisses, etc. My answer was "yes", but the only problem was that he attached to everyone, smiled to everyone, touched everyone, and was happy to be cuddled by everyone, if I let him. You too might feel uncomfortable when you realize that everybody, even a stranger at a supermarket gets those golden smiles, that your child has no preference when it comes to who does the caring. These are post-orphanage behaviours, there is nothing personal: the child has learned that he would gain the most by smiling and being super friendly. It's likely during the first weeks and months when the new parent is just another caretaker for them, as these children often have no frame of reference about what parents are, what families are.

My son thought that every child lives in an orphanage, and he was asking where the children lived if we visited friends with children in their own homes. He assumed they were there to visit too and would return 'home' to their orphanage in the evening.

From the outside it looked good, and though it 'did not matter' for others that he was indiscriminate with affection, I knew he needed to understand boundaries. As a 6-year-old still has a 'cuteness' factor, it does not look totally inappropriate for the outside world if the child wants physical contact. My child is a magnet to any adult who is a bit 'needy' , any adult who wants to be 'liked by a child' and any adult who wears their emotions on the sleeve. These people would feel sorry for him, and even if I told them why, they still would ask why he was not allowed to hug them or sit in their lap.

What helped my child to understand the rules of social interaction a little better was a paper with everyone we knew being placed in a special circle. Start with the child and parents in the inner circle, then the next outer circle is for close family members like grandfather and grandmother, close aunts and uncles, may be also for close friends. Then the next circle is for friends and 'further away' family, maybe doctors and therapists, teachers, children in school. The outer circle is for strangers.


You can customize it to suit your situation, maybe add more circles or use pictures if the child cannot read. You have to decide what the child is allowed in each circle. Write this down and go through the diagram with them daily or after every time they behave inappropriately with other people.
For example, Mommy and Daddy: hug ->yes, kiss ->yes, sit in the lap ->yes, hold hands ->yes, talk to ->yes, and so on. When you apply this list to strangers, every answer is probably 'no'.

For the other circles you have to decide for yourself what you allow your child to do. I have shown our diagram to friends to make them realize where they were for the child and what they should allow or discourage. If my child had his way, there would be one circle on that paper and everyone would be in this circle: he knows no strangers. I noticed that some friends took it rather personally and wanted to be moved closer to the middle in this circle; well, not all wishes are granted.

Your child's life before the adoption - do they have memory of it?

I am sure there are some orphanages that keep some sort of photo album for the child; 'my' orphanage did not even have one baby picture of my son though he arrived there just a few days after his birth. I did have the referral pictures and one when he was about 3 or 4 - there was of course no date on the photos. Even before my first trip to see him I knew that there is a good chance that I would bring him home with me, but other than some basic information about his diet or a few remarks like: "He is such a good boy," there would be nothing for him in 10 years to look at and remember. No pictures to hold, nobody to tell him what a beautiful baby he was, and that he was so quick when he learned to walk, or what the first 6 years of his life were.

Children remember something about themselves of course, but in a traumatized mind memories are not reliable. My child tells me how he and his friends cycled to the local swimming pool in Bulgaria! He could not ride bicycle when I picked him up and he never was in a local swimming pool. Yes, he visited a few places with me in Sweden, but in his memory he went with the staff and children to Holland, to the zoo, to the ski slope etc. So I prepared a clean note book and a translated letter for the staff of the orphanage, introducing myself and saying that I want my child to have memories and you are the ones who have them. I asked them to write down memories about him because when he leaves, we would have nobody to ask anymore. Write down a song you sang with him, write your wishes for the future for him, the food he liked, describe a day, pictures etc, etc. I was moved that 14 staff members wrote about him, at least now he has something from his past, from people who saw him grow, who knew him and cared for him and maybe loved him. I thanked them for giving him this special gift.

Orphanage - as it is

My child's orphanage was apparently a good one: the children were clean and well fed, the place was old but they had done their best to make it look child friendly. I was allowed to see only the visitor's room and the garden, the hallway looked inviting. The staff was friendly but reserved and appeared to care about the children. I started to wonder if a good orphanage was really that bad. For sure this one was very different from those in Rumania that I had seen in documentaries, but the problems were apparent anyway. Please look at the video.

Rocking was a clear sign of emotional neglect. Of course I knew that orphans display those behaviours, but there is a difference between knowing and seeing it happening in front of you. Of course I called his name, touched him, was trying to distract him, but nothing really worked. After seeing this it was not difficult to imagine a room with 6 or 8 children, all doing their own silly rocking rituals to go to sleep. Should you work there, you would no longer pay attention or worry about it, as that is just one of the things those children do constantly. It is called self soothing, it happens when you prop up bottles, when children are left to cry until they stop crying because nobody comes, and when the child is not able to build meaningful relationship with the adults who care for him. So sad, so lonely, and so common in an orphanage. This is just one behaviour your child is likely to bring home. My boy is nearly 2 years at home and still body rolls himself to sleep. When he's stressed it is more frequent, and it's easy to see hair on the back of his head getting frizzy and damaged.

I had prepared a list of questions to ask the orphanage director, but the answers were short, and they told me what they thought I wanted to hear - that was my impression anyway. I asked a question about his birth family and the answer was opposite to what I found later in the court papers. I am telling you this to be aware that the information they give you at the orphanage might be not the real picture.

The first visit that lasted 4 days was very superficial; I was left in a very hot and small room and they brought in a crying child. As he was totally focused on his caregivers, they did not leave us alone, which made it very difficult for me to interact with him. Whenever they tried to leave, he would start crying again, and this was a sign for them to return. Unfortunately the translator saw it as her task to endear herself to him, so after day 2 he thought she would adopt him. It was very unprofessional but there was not a lot I could do, as I did not want to rock the boat while the child was not adopted yet. We were allowed into the back playground, deserted and with broken equipment. We were not allowed in the nice front playground or anywhere else in the building. We were not allowed to take him to the local shop on the opposite side of the road to buy an ice cream or take him out for a walk; our choice was a small room with +30C temperature or an old playground.

I took my older son and a friend who I knew for 20 years or so since I met her at work to this trip to Bulgaria. She is a very good friend and very supportive. The first 2 days I went alone and was there with the translator, then I wanted to bring my oldest (he has autism and learning disabilities) and my friend. The first answer I've got was: "No, not allowed". After I insisted that my oldest is a part of my family and I need my friend because of his special needs, they allowed it. So, in case you are single, just be aware that they might not let your friend enter the orphanage!

My youngest was interested in the bubbles we brought with us, and other little toys but this interest never lasted long, he was restless and wanted something else all the time. When we left him to his own devices, he would look for a stick and start "brushing" the dirt. See picture 3.
The same activity, the same movements, over and over again. He was happy to accept raisins and other snacks, but as soon as he finished he would go brushing again. He was looking for an eye contact and when he did not cry he was smiling from ear to ear.

Over the 4 day period he got used to us a little bit. I gave him a little photo book, and a book about air planes, a few T-shirts with pictures of Sweden (a different one every day), and a toy mobile police car, because, as I could understand from the referral video, he was telling something about becoming a policeman. I also gave him a soft cuddly moose and a fleece blanket for his bed - something that he could take home with him later and feel better. It was good to see that he had slept with the moose and that the blanket was useful. Today he still has those 2 items on his bed, the moose lost part of its ear but other than this it's still 'alive'.

The language - are we able to communicate?

I had thought long and deep about the best way to communicate at the moment the translator was gone. I bought and made several gadgets, some useful, others less so.

  • I bought a CD with Bulgarian phrases and English translations on it. In theory it appeared a good idea to 'know' some phrases, practically it was not very helpful as whenever I tried to say something, he would not understand because of my accent or wrong pronunciation. It may be a useful tool if you are good with languages, but for me it did not work. And when he did understand and reply, I had no clue what he was saying and would just nod and smile. Now there is one thing to keep in mind if you adopt a Bulgarian child: their 'yes' head shake means 'no' by us, and the other way around for 'no'. It did took several months before my child got the head shake right. Here is the link to Phrases for children: adoption language tools for English speaking parents site at to help out with Russian, Ukrainian and Bulgarian phrases.
  • I made a little book with "'PECS" for my son. PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) is a visual communication system for children with disabilities and autism. So a simple picture says what needs to be done. A toilet picture can mean: 'Do you need to use toilet?'; a glass with a straw can mean: 'Do you want to drink?' or, when the child points at the picture, it means: 'I want to drink'. This system is always used together with spoken speech: when the child points at the glass, the parent says: "Can I have a drink please". The child should repeat it if they can.
    I used this book quite often whenever he did not understand what I was trying to say, as the visual aid made it much easier for him. He still has it in his bedroom and it is not damaged, so it meant something to him.

Here is a link to the site at
where you can download necessary material

  • I bought a couple of Bulgarian CDs and DVDs with happy child songs and slow moving friendly movies for children. This was very useful during the first month: I allowed to watch movies for 30 minutes every day and listen to the songs whenever he felt like it. I felt it comforted him initially, but in a month he became manipulative, demanding to watch the Bulgarian DVDs and refusing to learn English songs. So after one month I decided to keep only the DVDs and CDs he like best and sent the rest to the orphanage. From that day everything has been replaced by English, nothing Bulgarian except some books to look at. You can find Bulgarian CDs at We also found cheap commercial books at a tourist office, as he still has no problem tearing out some pages whenever he feels like it.
  • I used to use DVDs and educational material with autistic children for presenting concepts, words, opposite notions, etc. This material provides clear images, clutter free presentation, and good speech patterns. As my oldest child has autism, I have a lot of material useful for language learning. You can find such material on the Linguisystems site at
  • A lot of nonverbal communication can be used as simple tasks are easy to understand by pointing at and showing objects or pictures: when you show a comb or a toothbrush hopefully they know what needs to be done. The new language is very quickly learned on this initial level, but it is worth checking anyway if the child really understood, as their first response is often to smile and nod, but this might not necessarily mean they fully understood what you were trying to say.
  • During the first year I read a book for him every night before bed, I read the same book 7 days in a row. To give him the chance to internalize the English language. He never complained about the repeats: toddlers love to hear the same story over and over. My child was 6 but emotionally he was years younger, I think he loved it. You can use Storyline Online at My son likes the book 'Stellaluna' by Janell Cannon best, maybe because the story is about the bat loosing his mother. It is a lovely story with great pictures.

Clothes to wear

The agency made it clear to me that I needed to bring my own clothes when picking up my child. I did not like this idea as I cannot imagine that a child, who has just left behind 'their entire world,' would be comfortable in brand new clothes that smell strange and look and feel different. As I brought a lot of clothes to the orphanage on my first and second trip, I made the request that he was sent away in whatever he was wearing. After a lot of 'huffing and puffing' they acquiesced. It was important because it gave me a possibility to introduce his new clothes gently, first day - underwear, next day - my trouser but the same jumper. So he had something familiar on during the first 3 days. The additional thought behind it all was that the child might otherwise perceive it as "My clothes are not good enough for my new parent, maybe I am not good enough either". With this in mind, I keep a worn pair of woolen tights he came in from the orphanage...

Memories to take with you

My child had nothing, so every item was precious: the shells found on the beach, the memories his caregivers wrote down for him, a cone he found on the playground while living in the orphanage. I also wanted him to say good-bye to the children and caregivers; this they organized lovely, with the children singing, with tea and some cake. There were a lot of his caregivers that day, and I saw children from his group for the first time. I found it important for him to see that I was there in his world even if it was only for 15 or 20 minutes and no pictures allowed. After this I signed some papers and we left for the hotel. My child was very sad, holding a little bottle of rose water perfume that he got from one of the caregivers and crying the whole day. We did go out for a walk and to buy Bulgarian children's DVDs, but mostly we stayed at the hotel, where my oldest had a great time swimming, and my youngest was having his first swimming pool experience.

Bathing the first time

I put him in a tub on the second day. Not being sure if he knew about baths in a tub, I did put my oldest in before him so he could see how much fun it was. Then I lifted him and set him in the tub and he was seating there like a statue, did not move even a finger, totally paralyzed. He did not cry, he did not laugh. It took weeks before he became so comfortable that he could lay down, dip his face in water, or just play in water.

Activities while in the hotel before going home

Go for little walks several times a day. Prefer a park over a busy shopping center. Be aware that your child is not used to walking long distances, look for a little playground where the child can swing or climb. Be aware that the children have poor muscle strength and balance problems, so most are prone to fall down often. Those children have not moved, run, jumped and climbed enough. They often have poor judgment when it comes to danger. Keep the child close at all times.

Try to avoid busy places as much as you can. If you eat at a restaurant, let the child sit with the back to the wall and family members on both sides so there is no need for the child to turn around. The child can see what happens, but he is less likely to be spoken to by the staff or visitors, or get up and walk around. Choose something the child is likely to eat: these children know very little when it comes to different food, they know what soup and bread are,

but other than that they have no idea what to choose. You decide what the child eats, with very limited or no choice by the child. When you are home, there will be plenty of time to experiment with foods and see which preferences the child has if any. My child will try to eat anything and it is always 'delicious': rice, vegetables, potatoes, pasta, paper, yogurt, pieces of plastic, ice cream, cat food, salad, really anything...

Do not overfeed children, even if they ask for more after having eaten a child size portion: they might not be aware when they have enough, their meals were likely portioned. It might feel good when your child wants another plate, especially if they are very slim, but eating too much can make them sick as they are not used to restaurant food, spicy or processed food, etc. The last thing you want is a child getting sick and not feeling well physically.

When your new child is with you in a hotel, it is not the right time to visit all local attractions: these children are so easily over-stimulated and they encounter enough without added 'fun activities'. Do not be afraid that the child will be bored; they have so many things to process and a few days at the hotel should be time to get used to each other. They might say they are bored, play with every toy for 2 minutes and be 'done', but this does not mean that you need to provide more entertainment. Use this time also to prepare the child for the flight home, make a visual calendar with days to go before travel. Play simple games, look through picture books, include different sensory experiences with water, play dough, crayons, etc.

Flying home

I tried to prepare my son for the flight by showing a book about airplanes and a toy airplane. Here is a free resource at to prepare young children for different situations, including going on a plane. The site is very useful and gives the parent a possibility to talk with the child about what happens in the pictures. Good for language learning as well.

My boy was OK the first hour on the flight; then we changed flights and he cried continuously only to stop when we landed. My oldest with his 'sensitive' ears was not impressed with his new brother. I could see that it was annoying for other passengers as well, but there was not a lot I could do about it, except to give him an occasional candy in hope that the child will be distracted, a little toy, a magazine, etc. But at this point of traveling with children we do not know any more than before: we do not speak their language, the child is likely to be traumatized and definitely out of his comfort zone. So just say sorry to the other passengers and smile. Most strangers sensed that something was not quite right, and this was true: you travel with the child who you barely know, who may have your family name but nothing else which is "yours" yet.

The first weeks home, settling into structure and routine

After driving 3 hours home we arrived into the empty house. People who took care of it in our absence have already left. I thought it was important for my child to realize that this was his new home and only his newly acquired brother and I live here. I decided that he would sleep in my bedroom in his own bed during the first few weeks. Sleeping in one room is not really my thing but, as he had never slept alone in his life, this seemed like a good idea. I thought it might also help with bonding and getting used to each other.

I managed to keep this arrangement for 6 weeks after which it was more than enough for me! The rocking, rolling, thumb sucking (including loud sounds) were getting to me, I needed my own space back, having in mind that he was full time in my company during the day as well. Besides that, he was going through all my belongings in my bedroom all the time, and most things he touched would not survive. I also did not want my oldest child to feel excluded, so it was time to move him into his own bedroom. This was not a problem, I told him: "I have my own bedroom, your brother has his own bedroom, and you have your own bedroom, you can sleep 2 more nights with me, then you move." The next day I told him: "Tomorrow you move, how exiting! " Then I moved his bed to his own bedroom and told him enthusiastically that this was where he sleeps tonight. When it was time to go to bed he protested a bit, but I insisted this is how it is going to be from now on. He peed in his bed but nothing he tried changed the sleeping arrangements. Then he started telling me about men who took children out of bed in a bag, and he was scared. This was simply a scary story the caregivers might have told him in Bulgaria, presumably to keep children in bed. But just be aware if your child does not want to sleep or is afraid, this might be for a reason.

I hung a Gro-clock ( see in his bedroom so he knew when it was time to get up. Typically children are allowed out of bed when the sun is out, but we have about 20 hours of daylight in summer, and it can be difficult for them to know when it is still night time.

The first weeks I was basically alone with him except when I needed to pick up my oldest child from school an when we needed to do some shopping. Whenever I was in public with him, I hold his hand all the time as he was staring at strangers until they would begin interacting with him, or he would grab from the shelves and put whatever he fancied in his pocket.

The structure was basically the same every day for months. From day one I have given him tasks to do, as my oldest also does chores and I think it is a good way to include a child in the family. As we have a small farm, we have plenty of tasks involving animals. He helped me with daily feeding of them and cleaning the stables. He had no experience with animals of course and shouted at the dogs, was overly affectionate with the cats - to the point of hurting them. I still do not trust him with animals as time after time he does something to get them to react; he annoys them and he has very limited empathy. So we have very clear rules in our house when it comes to animals. No handling, no lifting, only stroke them when the animal is awake. I also made sure that he was able to play outside daily and we went for many walks.

He watches DVD around 30 minutes every day; I started with the DVDs for autistic children and children with speech delays using material from Baby Bumblebee site at The videos are simple and clear, no distracting images or noises. I also taught him English songs, which we sang with the accompaniment of CD. Another good resource is website which teaches children to read. It has some fantastic features like children's songs and rhymes that are animated so you see what happens in the song.

In the early days my child wanted to do everything I was doing, and in the process things got broken, and he created double amount of work, etc. So I set aside moments when his task was just to watch. I would make a cake when he was sitting at the table and I talked with him. I figured he had never observed those things, and by 'helping' he would get totally distracted by a new task and get super exited but would not know what to do and make a huge mess. For example, a birth child would be sitting in a high chair and observing what the mother bakes, absorbing this experience gradually. Our children have never had such experiences and putting them in situations where they only observe a few times is good for them. Yes, they can break an egg or mix the dough, but that is not the point, they need to sometimes experience that they have no control and that they only 'follow' the lead. From this perspective I give my child one task, like putting butter on a cookie sheet with a brush while I do the rest. And so I build up his awareness until the situation is age appropriate for, in my case, a 7.5 year old. This is an example and it can be used in a variety of different situations. If something is difficult for the child to do it right and they mess it up, tell them: "Your task is to observe" and then you take over.

In the early days I was very strict in keeping bed times and waking times the same every day. This is not really how it works in a family but that is what these children are used to. When they are unsettled because of the move, it is best to keep those routines the same; this makes them feel safe as life is predictable. Yes, it is a bit boring, but you have to keep one thing in mind: you have to live through these early days in the family only once; your child needs this stability and you may prevent serious problems later on. If your child does not require this rigid routine, nothing is lost by implementing it for a while. After a few weeks you will know when to become more flexible, give the child more choices, etc.

My son still cannot deal with many choice and freedom. At the moment he may appear fine only to go into meltdown later on. This really means it was too much for him. For example, he has only a few toys in his bedroom as he just breaks them and creates a huge mess throwing everything together in a pile. He does not appear to care if things are broken or lost. Why is it so? I imagine, the situation in the orphanage was as follows: when it was playtime, two big plastic boxes with toys would come out of the storage, the children would quickly get hold of what they could grab, brake the toys and use the broken pieces as 'guns' to shoot at each other. Was this true? No idea; all I know is that my child did break the toys and use them as a make-belief gun. Now he's not allowed to 'shoot' in my house, so now when he is cross he makes a gun from his finger and says very quietly "'phhh, phhhh". Not allowed either.

He was very much obsessed with guns, including stories about horrible situations involving guns. I have no idea what he had seen on TV in Bulgaria. Here is one example how fantasy and reality can blend together for those children. There was a situation a few months before he left the orphanage when the children were evacuated. He talked about that, the staff told me. I looked it up and found a newspaper article: the children were evacuated to a school by the fire brigade. He keeps telling me the story that they were evacuated, and there was police (can be true), that the police had guns (possible), and the police took the guns and started shooting children, and all small children were dead. At this point I stop the conversation. I presume a gun makes him powerful in his mind, and when you never had any control over what happens to you, it make sense.

No safety awareness

I made my first mistake when we drove home from the airport - a 3 hour journey. I forgot to put the child lock on the door, and of course he opened the door when I was driving. Happily he just opened the lock and did not have the strength to push the door open, but I was shocked that he did this.

Realize that these children have never lived in an environment without locks. Everything what was not available to them, was locked away. Thus, in their experience it means that everything that is not locked is 'theirs'. They have no clue about being careful with other people belongings or their own. My child who is at home for nearly 2 years, still needs the supervision levels of a 2-year-old to prevent things going wrong. It took a week before I had to lock everything I did not want him to get his hands on, including toiletries, cleaning supplies, matches etc. He also got an alarm on his bedroom door as he started exploring the house during nights.

He expects that other people and animals would step aside for him, and he constantly bumps into people. This behaviour was dangerous with the ponies as he would not step aside when they needed to pass. He would open the gate to the meadow and stand in their way while ponies were rushing out. Of course he has no road awareness, he does not listen for traffic sounds and does not look out either. When he just arrived home, there were funny moments as well, as he tried to play in the cat's litter box; he must have thought that it was like in Bulgaria, where he used to play outside in the sandbox. Of course he had no clue that this was the cat's toilet.

And last but not least important preventive task: check and supervise everything the child does and then check again; treat them as they are years younger than their age; keep expectations low, and smile: if today was difficult, tomorrow will be different and hopefully soon it will be easier. Adoption is about commitment in the first place, not love; it is all right when love takes time and grows slowly.


My name is Jeltje Simons and I am a single adoptive mother of 2 boys age 7 and 12. Both of my children arrived a few weeks before their 6th birthday; my oldest - 7 years ago, my youngest - 18 months ago. Both children have significant special needs. Before my eldest's adoption I worked many years as a nurse in residential settings for children and adolescents with special needs in the Netherlands, Ireland and UK. But soon after my older son’s arrived it became clear that in order to meet his severe needs I could not continue working as a nurse. Now we live at a remote small holding in Sweden where my boys are actively involved in care for the animals, and love the outdoor life style.


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