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Welcome Home Woo Hyuk
Part Two

The Stages of Adjustment in a Toddler Adoption

By Barb Burke

Return to Part One

Testing Phase

"A ‘testing phase’ is often described as a period of time where a child misbehaves on purpose to see if the adopting parents will continue to parent them anyway despite their behavior. Although it can strain the patience of the adoptive parents, most parents do survive this period. Finally the child will assimilate into the family and seem like a regular member, not overstressing the family but making reasonable demands on it." The Encyclopedia Of Adoption by Christine Adamec and William L. Pierce, Ph.D

Those first couple of weeks Woo Hyuk needed to be watched very carefully or he would run into trouble. He had not formed a full attachment to any of us, and could easily slip off in public, and was more than willing to go off with another person and not look back. He was intensely exploring his new environment at home and was into everything! I would go and clean up his recent mess in one room, while he was in another room making a new one! We decided to restrict him from parts of the house by closing the doors of bedrooms and bathrooms. He had a frenzied, way of going from thing to thing, never really playing with any one thing fully. His restlessness was a result of feeling unsettled in his new surroundings and with us.

I think the hardest part is to spend the entire day with a child, nurturing and caring for their needs, and getting nothing in return. There were a couple of moments that I wondered what were we thinking of adopting this child. I felt like our entire family was turned upside down. In retrospect, I can see where I should have prepared the children in the family more regarding Woo Hyuk’s initial reaction into our home. The children waited with anxious anticipation for his arrival, and had no knowledge that he would at first, balk at accepting us. My daughter, who has always been a great communicator regarding her feelings, cried a lot those first couple of days. She thought that she was not a good big sister to Woo Hyuk and blamed herself for his unhappiness. I tell parent’s now, who have children in the home, to explain to their children that the new child may initially be very unhappy because they are sad over the loss of what they had to say good-bye to in their birth country.

Woo Hyuk would test us by deliberately doing things he had already learned the family rules about and had been following. An example of that would be pouring water over the side of the tub, never looking at the water spilling on the floor, but intently looking at you and seeking a reaction. Before that, he had learned NOT to do this and was compliant. He did the same with throwing food at the dinner table.

At night, he remained in our room, sleeping in the toddler bed and went down nicely at 7:30pm and sleep soundly through the night. Again, this little ‘creature of habit’ needed many routine rituals to be followed to the letter "T" before going down. He needed his bottle of water, his music box, a good night kiss from everyone, his bath at the same time after dinner, and a little play after in the family room before going off to bed. If one were missing, he’d let you know about it!


Gabe and MattWhen this happened, it was genuine and real and there was no mistaking it. He started to fall in love with each member of the family, one at a time. Mom was first, since she was his full time caregiver. Woo Hyuk had come down with his first cold and this started some positive change of events. He came to me and accepted more cuddling and rocking, and was tired enough to take a nap without putting up a struggle. That was his first nap and he has continued to take a nap to this day. When he woke up from his nap the day he was sick, he immediately started calling my name and I overheard him at bed that night whispering, "mommy, mommy…" in a loving way. After that day, he settled in and the phase of testing seemed to vanish over night.

During that time, I did use the time-out approach by having him sit in the living room reading chair for 3 minutes to help reinforce my "don’t touch" or "don’t hit" discipline. Where communication lagged, the time-out chair definitely made its point! Firmness and consistency were the key to getting to the point we are at today. I knew he was ‘testing the water’ and had no idea what we’d tolerate from him. The only way he could learn was by ‘trial & error’. Somewhere I once read, a child has to taste a food 9x’s before he is comfortable with it and learns to like it. That seems to hold true somewhat with discipline. It was only through consistency that he was able to bide by the family rules. Things became easier with his acceptance of us because he was more willing to want to please.


Gabe raking.I bring this up because a child’s appetite is closely related to his emotions and does have adjustment issues of its own. The first day or two, Woo Hyuk got by with very little to eat. He was too distraught over the loss of oma to have any interest in eating. What he did eat, he did so quickly, just to take the edge off his hunger. After those initial days, our little boy had a tremendous appetite. At first we thought it was great. He was a good solid looking child and we had read from his Korean reports that he enjoyed food.

We started to become concerned, however, when we saw that he had an ‘endless appetite’ and was eating as much at the dinner table as our two sons, both of whom are over six feet. He had food on his mind all the time. He was having a bowel movement with every diaper change and showed signs of definitely getting chunky. We brought this to our social workers attention on our first post placement visit and she explained to us that this could also be an adjustment issue and that some toddlers get stuck in an overeating pattern to compensate from the loss in their life. Once we realized this, we started limiting Woo Hyuk to a healthy size portion of food, and refused a second helping. His well baby check found him to be at the 50% for height and 95% for his weight. We were not concerned he wasn’t getting enough to eat. He became angry the first and second time we refused him a second helping, but accepted it after that. He still loves food, but now has developed preferences and can walk away when full, leaving food on his plate.


I am sure there is a huge variation in language with children the same age, or any age. Woo Hyuk was a very verbal child, and very language oriented. When he arrived from Korea at 21 months of age, his reports said he was speaking in simple sentences and spoke well for his age. He understood everything said to him. He was talking in our home from day one and would chant things incessantly in Korean, trying to get us to understand him. My eldest son was dating an Amerasian girl and her mother was Korean. She helped a lot with interpreting what he was trying to say. He would ask for food, for drink, to play, and mostly, "where is oma? He even got so desperate that he asked us to "take him to the old ladies." Which we understood, were the many friends depicted in the photo album of Woo Hyuk and his foster mother on outings at the park.

We have picked up many simple words in Korean, which is not difficult to speak, and since he was such a language oriented kid, we’d play games with both the English and Korean words. He seemed to gain comfort by me repeating whatever he said in Korean. Gabe and Korean truck.It didn’t seem to matter that I was unable to answer his questions, as long as I spoke them back to him what he said to me. His foster mother gave him two large, musical trucks when he came and he spent endless hours the first few weeks pushing the buttons, hearing the Korean words and music. I would notice him run from the TV room into the living room with a determined look and choose one of the trucks to listen to. It seemed to me like he needed to hear the Korean words for comfort when the English spoken on the TV got overwhelming for him.

When he made the transition of acceptance, it was visibly obvious that he no longer wanted to hear Korean spoken to him. He stopped playing with the trucks, and when my son’s girlfriend’s mom came over and spoke to him in Korean, he refused to move or look at her. I asked her to ask him something he would have a hard time not responding to. She asked him if he was hungry in Korean. He made no response, looking downcast toward the floor. I asked in English and he jumped for joy saying, "Yum! Hungry", running to the snack bar.

After two months in his new home, he has all but caught up to what he spoke in Korean, only now, in English. He is putting 4-5 words together to form sentences, understands all that is said to him, and does not use any of his Korean.


Woo Hyuk has been with us now for 3 months. He celebrated his second birthday last week. His adjustment is complete. He is like any average 2-year-old. Curious and active, filled with wonder over every new thing, delightful, verbal, fearful, self centered, giving, loving, challenging, and a joy in our lives. He runs with exuberance for hugs & kisses at bedtime, and whenever he needs an "owey" kissed away. He loves with passion and lets his opinions be known with utter defiance.

He speaks in 4-5 word sentences in English, most times starting with the word, "NO"! He is able to feed himself and has started learning to undress and dress himself, and is using the potty on prompt.

He has formed a strong attachment to his older siblings and runs to greet them when they come in from school. He is back to the ‘angelic child’ described of him in his child reports, and is very loving. He asks, "OK?" with concern when anyone gets hurt. He no longer challenges the family rules. He is an accepted member of our family, participating joyfully in family activities. He does his share and helps out by feeding the family dog dinner every night. He picks up his toys, singing the ‘clean-up’ song as he works without being reminded. He stays close to family when out in public, and calls for ‘mommy’ to come and get him up in the morning, even though he can get out of the toddler bed independently. When he does need redirection, he always tells us, "good boy, I am".

He is loved. He is cherished. He is family. And he belongs.
Gabe on his second birthday
Gabe on his second birthday.

Copyright 2001 Barb Burke

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Barb Burke and her husband have 6 children, four joined their family by adoption. She is a wonderful advocate for children in need of families and children with special needs. Visit her website for information on her family, special needs of children and an excellent overview of resources for Financial Assistance for Adoptions.


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