Jeltje Simons 
Article Title
The expectations and realities of parenting a post-institutionalized child 
Posted Date

Before adoption I never fully realized how much of careful planning and organizing would be needed to spend a quiet day at home or take my children to places, meet people etc. Before you adopted you too might have had ideas how your child would have friends and would be able to decide where to play in an afternoon without much of your intervention. I thought I would take my child to a swimming pool and it would be a relaxing experience and he would enjoy swimming, and my child would be attentive to me, and of course, my child would cooperate and be happy to be hugged by me.

Then it turned out that I cannot leave my child just to get on with anything, and if I do, he causes trouble, hurts my pets, breaks toys, steals food or other family member's belongings. Swimming is not that much fun either, he resents hugs and physical contact on my terms, yet is pushy and heavy-handed when he demands hugs on his terms.

My 8 year old needs a supervision level of a 4 year old and it is sad and worrying but true. In reality this means that he cannot just walk in and out of our backyard whenever he wants to play, he cannot play with other children without adult supervision, he cannot be left alone with his older but more vulnerable brother longer than 5 minutes, he cannot go upstairs to his bedroom during the day whenever he feels like it as he 'stores' food and other 'taken' things there. When he uses the toilet, the rule is that the door is slightly open, as he may eat cat food there and other things he gets his hands on (yes, I do feed him well!) - I want an access whenever I think he is up to something.

Of course there are adopted children who adjust more easily to their new families, and after an initial period they manage it quite well. Unfortunately a lot of adopted children have been not only through the trauma of abandonment and have acquired institutional behaviour that is now deeply ingrained, but they also have various degrees of brain and nervous system damage. And those children are very tricky to parent and it takes a long time and a lot of intervention to give them the best chance in life.

When I look at my child's and my own life as a child, there are a lot of differences: I could go to play at friend's houses whenever I wanted as long as my mother knew where I was, I could play in my bedroom whenever I wanted, I was allowed to cycle around the village, play outside by the river or on the street, I was free as long as I was home at 5 o'clock and my mother knew where I was. I was a "free range" child. When I compare the things I was allowed with what I allow my children to do, there is a world of differences.

My oldest is allowed certain freedom like cycling alone to visit my(!) friends (he does not have his own really). But my youngest child is very restricted even it is perfectly safe for other children to play outside in the place we live: it's necessary to keep him out of trouble and safe to function in my family. I prefer to prevent things going wrong instead of fixing the problem after the fact. And that is really what most post- institutionalized children need: not freedom but structure, and boundaries, and preventive parenting until they prove they are able to deal with more choices and ultimately with more freedom. Set up situations for them so they succeed, not fail.

I have to say there are periods when I feel my child can deal with more freedom, and I give him a tiny bit more of it, but at the moment when I write this, I just took all this newly gained freedom back (he was allowed to cycle in front of the house alone during the last 2 weeks or so) as I just discovered that he had broken my car's window wipers.

The answer was: "Because I felt like it'.

Straight back to parenting that 3 year old: no more cycling or playing alone outside for a while. And he gets to do some chores to 'pay back' the money I'm forced to spend to get the wipers fixed.

I have friends and acquaintances who do not agree or understand the rules I impose on my child. They see a very compliant, sweetly smiling boy and find it harsh that my child is not allowed to play outside; after all he asked so politely: 'Mom, can I please play outside?' I feel slightly uncomfortable saying: 'No darling, not now, you can play with the legos or read a book'. And of course he asks it at that moment when he knows I do not have full attention for him.

I get their questions, but I do not really want to share that last time he was alone outside, he took the garden tools and threw them in the ditch 500 meters away from my home, that he cannot be trusted as he leaves gates open, that he climbed on the car hood and scratched it with his boots, that he ties up the dog, that I found a lot of money under the bin outside, that he throws stones in the drainage pipes, etc, etc.

I quickly learned that the whole world has an opinion on how to parent my children, but they do not live with them 24/7 and attend meetings with the teachers who have no clue, and are not there to pick up the pieces when my child is overwhelmed by experiences at school, has a tantrum and is uncooperative and challenging. So, in case you do, stop feeling guilty that your child's life is restricted. Stop giving your child more freedom than he can deal with because you were allowed those things when you were a child, or your birth children or neighbor's children of the same age are allowed, so you feel it would be unfair not to allow the same to your adopted child. The reality is that it would be unfair towards your adopted child to allow them freedom they cannot deal with right now. Hopefully over time it will get better and they will learn to regulate themselves.

If you have to correct your child all the time because you have given him too much freedom, then it is difficult to keep the atmosphere in the house positive. Do not fall into the trap of arguing with your child when they point out that it is unfair that they are not allowed to cycle alone outside while their sister/friend is. You can say: "I understand that it is difficult for you not to cycle outside right now, maybe on another day you can cycle with your sister" or 'When you are 13 (the sister's age), you too can cycle alone outside".

Whenever we go out of the door, we have to deal with strangers; and if your child has an invisible disability this can be tricky at times. Here are some examples of situations you might encounter.

When my oldest was just weeks home he had the habit of running away from me whenever given a chance, so I held on to his wrist to prevent it (he did not tolerate giving hands). The problem came when I needed to pay in a shop: the moment I reached for my purse he was gone. Then I decided to let him fold his hands and stand with his feet together whenever I had to pay. As he has autism, I needed to give clear instructions: "Fold your hands! Put your feet together! Stand here!", pointing just in front of my own feet. It worked wonders but people were looking at us with disapproval. After all they saw a 'totally normal' child, who was made to do such a weird thing.

When children are younger, it's more likely that total strangers would try to 'help' or give opinions when they see a child with challenging behaviours. When children get older the disability becomes often more obvious and strangers no longer think the child is spoiled or misbehaving. A 5 year old who has little eye contact is viewed as being OK (after all there is so much else to see in the world!); in a 15 year old the same behaviour makes people feel that something is 'off'.

We swim in a lake every summer and there is one changing room for the boys and one for the girls. You can lock the door in the changing room, but it is communal so of course you should not do that. Two years ago my oldest had a habit of locking this door; he would open it if people knocked. Obviously I told him a 100 times not to lock but he did it anyway. I choose my battles and did not think at the time that this one was urgent to address. How wrong I was! One day there was a man who wanted to get inside. He knocked and then started shouting 'open the door, open the door'. Knocking changed to banging on the door, his behaviour was out of control. No excuses for my child, he should not have locked that door, and of course the man did not knew the boy needed 20 seconds or so of processing time before he complied with the demand. Of course I apologized on behalf of my child but the whole awkward scene could have been avoided.

My youngest child would walk up to a man sitting on the wooden platform above the lake and sit down in front of him; he can take the hand of a stranger I talk to; he walks up to any stranger who smiles at him ....

How do you deal with children who behave inappropriately and involve strangers in their actions? Do you tell the child's diagnosis? Do you tell the child is adopted (this might be obvious if the child is of a different race). Do you explain the why's, the trauma's? Most people have no clue what kind of challenges adopted children face anyway. It depends. My oldest child has autism and this is a 'good' diagnosis when it comes to getting sympathy of strangers. Of course when I walked up to the banging angry man, he was super apologetic when I told him: "Sorry my son locked the door, he did not mean to let you wait, he has autism."

For my youngest it is a different story. He appears so bright for the untrained eye, his verbal skills are 'good' for the untrained ear. In my experience you can say to people what you want - they will still make up their own mind about your child. The child looks normal so that parent probably has a problem. So I take my child away from the situation (the stranger) and then talk about the rules around strangers, about his behaviour that was not acceptable and how he could have behaved differently in a similar situation (the rule about an arm's length distance, the rule about not talking to strangers, etc). And this is so difficult for him to understand, he knows no strangers. He has made progress to the extent that he rarely displays those behaviours when I am there. But if I turn my back then he's back to his old survival behaviours.

I do not address my child's behaviour with a stranger unless they were affected. I try to forget about it quickly, especially if it was an embarrassing situation and laugh about it afterwards. Like when my then 6 year old peed against the wall inside a car showroom; he thought he was outside I presume! After all cars are supposed to be outside....

Do you get fed up when well meaning friends or even teachers say 'but all children do this'? I know this, but the problem with our children is that their behaviours do not stop, are more extreme, take a lot of effort to correct, and are often appropriate for a child half their age, not their chronological age at all. This means that you should measure them by the norms for a child who is basically half their emotional age to prevent them from failing. In my case, would I allow a 4 year old to lock the toilet door? To play outside whenever they wanted alone? To play with friends alone without supervision? To be unsupervised for long periods of time? The answer is NO. Do I feel the urge to give him more freedom than he currently has? Not really, as he proves me right every time I give him that little more freedom.

Are you dreading your child having days off from school, weekends and holidays? Do not expect your child to manage a lot of unsupervised time and make good choices at that. This problem is not really about the free time or the holiday, it comes down to how the child's day is structured and it takes a bit of careful planning. Imagine the day as a timeline, with 'build in' activities, those that come back every day like coming out of bed, meal times, toilet rounds for younger children etc. Draw that on a time line. After you take those set times away you end up with blocks of time that need to be filled. Here is a picture of a day-timer.

All the pink areas are activities that repeat every day.

The green areas are time slots for the parent to do house work that can't be done together with the child, prepare meals, sit down and read a book or a post, etc. The child is involved in some activity or plays with minimal supervision meantime.

In the yellow areas the child does an activity supervised by the parent. Here is time for walks, cycling, swimming, games, creative activities, shopping, learning things other children of their age already know (also school activities like learning letters, math, writing), etc. Most parents with neuro-typical birth children never give such activities a second thought - their children do it with their friends or they just play.

It is different for our children as most have no clue how to play or go from one activity to the other. So most of this 'free' time needs to be structured and organized by the parent if you want to prevent poor choices. It is obvious and advisable when children are adjusting from an orphanage to family home that you might need to structure nearly 100% of this 'free' time; over time you give the child more responsibility and let them make choices with what or where to play. As you can read in my other post Finding an Extra-Curriculum Activity for an Adopted Child, I have chosen to fill in a large block of my son's every day with violin practice. This has turned out to be really very, very useful activity as it structures the day instantly. I am not saying that every child has to play an instrument and practice it daily, but find something good for their development that comes back every day. My child never practices alone, I always supervise it. Do not expect that your child can manage those chosen activities alone.

After you have identified the 'activity' blocks and decided what needs to be done (write it down), than you can also build in a 'rest' block. For example every day after lunch there is a 45 minute block where you find an activity the child can do alone. I recommend reading in the bedroom or listening to music, something that is low key and quiet (the 2 year old would sleep). It is important that you are not emotionally available during this time and that you teach the child to stay in the bedroom (or another suitable quiet room in your house) during this time. The bedroom should be a place of rest (do not fill it up with 1000 toys and 100 posters) and positive atmosphere. For that reason never use it to send the child there when you're angry with them or they are angry. This quiet time is not a punishment for the child, it's needed to give their brains a rest as they are likely constantly on high alert. If you find your child is more demanding and generally difficult in the afternoon, he might simply be tired.

It is also good for the parent to just relax for a moment, call a friend, do something you like. Do not forget you're in it for the long run, so if you have a breakdown or get sick from exhaustion who will take over? You need to take care of yourself, it is a marathon not a sprint!

If you are just starting out, you might wonder how long it takes for our children to be able to play like your mainstream nieces and nephews and play with minimal supervision. I am talking about school aged children at adoption as younger ones need higher supervision levels because of their age anyway. The answer is, if your child has 'issues' as developmental delays, brain damage, FASD, etc, it takes years.

My youngest, who is now home well over 2 years, still needs the supervision levels of a 4 year old though he is 8. For my oldest child it took years before he was able to entertain himself; if left to his own devices, he would repeat the same movement over and over again. He had a Lego train set; he would take 2 pieces of rails, put them together and then drive the train over those 40cm rails up and down, up and down, while laying on the floor and looking at the train. This behaviour is typical for autistic children, but if they are allowed to repeat those obsessive movements for many hours every day, their development basically stands still. So I worked with him for many hours every day (from teaching him to read to building Lego) filling every free minute with one activity or another.

As I still needed to take care of our farm animals, a lot of this time was spent following me around and helping. The good thing was that I could genuinely say 'thank you' after he was a good helper. I remember he was opening and closing the gate endlessly while I was taking dirt out, and it annoyed me greatly. So I decided to buy him a small wheel cart and shovel, as I thought he might as well make himself useful. This worked fine, the only problem was that he did not want to use the smaller equipment! So after 3 days he began using the big wheel cart. As he walked on toes bending to the left most of the time, pushing and emptying the oversized wheel cart was very therapeutic for him, and 6 month later he was stable as a rock when walking.

Parenting special needs children (and all children raised in orphanages are with special needs to some degree) is very different from parenting neuro-typical children. It sometimes feels more like a job than anything else, but I accept the fact that this is just how it is and going to be for at least another few years.

I am optimistic about the future as I see progress and I see how they respond to intervention in a healthier way; how my younger one often just tells the truth when he got himself in trouble; how he now accepts consequences without huge crying sessions and tantrums. Maybe one day he can deal with freedom too and make good choices without my help.


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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