Boris Gindis, Ph.D. 
Article Title
Dealing with cultural differences of an internationally adopted child 
Posted Date

The initial adjustment period is incredibly demanding and difficult for all members of any adoptive family, not just the child who will most likely be acting like a much younger one, will be visibly stressed out and over-aroused with everything new that is happening in his/her life. It is a cultural shock in many cases, and even families who are eager to embrace the child’s native culture and would try to learn the language, eat the food and fill the house with the ethnic nick-knacks very quickly realize that it is not enough: culture goes so much deeper than that. So, what is this illusive culture that interferes with our best “thought through” plans to bring the children home and make them happy? Culture is a complex phenomenon that has many different elements, such as customs, values, art, religion, food, folklore, clothes, holidays, heroes, aspirations, attitudes, etc. For our purposes, it is important to understand that culture serves as regulator of behavior--we behave and assess behavior of others according to certain cultural norms and models. Culture creates a "template" of our behavior with many automatic elements that we often do not consciously recognize. It creates the "lenses," through which we perceive the world, and it gives meaning to everything we experience. As Dr. Gaw says (Concise Guide to Cross-Cultural Psychiatry. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing; 2001).

    ...Culture defines the guidelines that provide a contextual basis for our lives. It is through this cultural lens that our own as well as other's thoughts, feelings and behaviors are interpreted and shaped. Culture acts as a buffer of meaning, layered between the biological human organism and the natural environment. Culture also provides a great storehouse of ready-made solutions to problems...

In the case of older internationally adopted children, adoptive families and children represent different cultures, and their relationships will be determined by these differences. It is up to the family to understand these differences and allow them to strengthen rather than weaken the relationships. And the first step, as Beth Waggenspack wrote in one of her postings in an EEAC Internet-based discussion group at, is to remember that

    ...New adoptive parents should keep realistic expectations in mind as they negotiate parenthood. An adult from a different country coming here must contend with overwhelming stimuli, differing cultural and social expectations, and brand-new situations, and most find coping to be a 24/7 task. Our North American conceptions of time (when you do things), food (what you eat/how you eat it), cultural conventions like respect and response, often are so different---alien---that even someone who HAS a strong cultural background from the native country and who understands that they have to learn new things has great difficulty maneuvering here in a socially acceptable way. Our kids don't even have that cultural background. They've lived in poverty, in abysmal conditions, in institutions----none of that is "normal." They haven't had role models, they haven't had experiences, they've been ignored or regulated for all their lives. Change does not come quickly, easily, or on any schedule. There is no predictability. You probably will have to forgo many experiences until a child gets some basics, like how to sit at a table with a family, or how to come to you for help, or how to behave in a store. Adding higher social/cultural expectations is unrealistic.

Very likely that cultural differences will reveal themselves in little things like:

Expression of emotions

Giving hugs and saying casually "I love you too" is almost an automatic behavior in many families in the USA. Not so for children from other countries, where reservation and timidity in expressing feelings is a normal and expected behavior. To say "sorry" and "excuse me" when you unintentionally push someone is also culturally determined behavior; a child from overseas may express his/her feelings in a different way, ex.: saying "oi" and giving you a "guilty" look. In general, the expression of feelings is more controlled and contrived in some other countries.

Interaction with adults

In children coming from Russia, for example, there is a strong understanding of the "social distance" between an adult and a child. A child should never treat an adult as a peer, always maintaining this "distance" by understanding the roles and responsibilities.

Interaction between genders

The notion of gender equality may be not an every day reality to some foreign children. Certain expectations and "roles" could be attached to "male" vs. "female" behavior.

Manners and mannerisms in everyday life

The way people eat, take bath, talk, accept help, or express disgust are different in different cultures; so, before being upset with the child's behavior, try to understand the cultural (automated) component of it. Yes, you may see and hear major meltdowns, tantrums, bitter words and defiant behavior – total change from this cute and love-seeking child you knew back in the orphanage. This may be caused by many reasons, the inability to express themselves is one of them, but in older children you will probably see reactions derived from different cultural assumptions. In the same posting I quoted earlier, Beth Waggenspack shared her experience of getting a better insight into the culture of her children:

    I wish all adoptive parents would do home stays in the country they're going to adopt from. Don't stay in a hotel where you can "escape" and "decompress"---stay with a family, in their home apartment, where you have to try to figure out what is going on, why things smell differently, what the heck you're eating, how you're supposed to behave when you don't understand much of what is being said, and even how to express emotions. Maybe then people would get a taste of what our children go through. I did home stays for all my adoptions---the failed one in Romania, the successful ones in Ukraine and Russia. In Ukraine, no one spoke English and I spoke no Russian or Ukrainian. I was in an apartment where all sorts of people kept coming in and out, and I really couldn't figure out who they were. We ate stuff for breakfast that made "no sense" to me, like tomatoes. And on and on.. And I'm an adult, with a sense of expectation of what was happening, and what my role was. I was disconcerted and bewildered and tired and on edge. Now imagine being a kid in that situation. I mentioned a book I reviewed for Adoption Quarterly called "Russia's Abandoned Children" by Clementine Fujimura that paints a realistic (and gloomy) portrait of who these kids REALLY are, what their situations are, and what their expectations are (as opposed to our expectations). I suggest that you all read it so that you understand why it seems that your kids just aren't "instantaneously adaptable" (like many of your social workers and agencies assure you they will be) and why adopting is the same as starting the socio/cultural imprinting from scratch while trying to erase months or years of opposite socio/cultural/personality learning.

It takes years to change and adjust - not on the surface, but internally, and most of adopted children will do it eventually. And the results may astonish you one day, as it happened with one of the parents, who years later visited with her family the detskii dom where her children used to live:

    How different my kids now are from their peers in the detskii dom in their interests and approach to life. Their former friends didn't talk about dreams and ambitions for the future, while my kids talk all the time about what they want to be when they grow up.

Dr. Boris Gindis is a child psychologist specializing in psycho-educational issues of older internationally adopted children. He is chief psychologist at the Center for Cognitive-Developmental Assessment and Remediation, the lead instructor at Bgcenter Online School, the author of many publications on international adoption issues and frequent presenter at conferences and workshops.
Tel. 845-694-8496
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