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Meeting Your Adopted Child for the First Time

By Jean Nelson-Erichsen and Heino R. Erichsen

You’ve carried a picture around for months. In the meantime, your child-to-be has not been frozen in time like the photo. The real child may look quite different by the time you get there.

Adoptive parents with high expectations are more likely to experience some initial disappointment with their child than new parents who have few expectations. The happiest parents have disengaged the dream child they carried around in their minds for so long. They have considered the fact that this child not only descends from different ancestors, but has survived in conditions that they have never experienced. They have opened their hearts and minds to let this real child enter their lives at a time and in a place they could never have imagined when they first thought of having children.

In most Asian and Latin American countries, you will usually be presented with your child the first or second day after your arrival. In most Eastern European countries, on the other hand, you won’t meet your child until the final adoption decree is issued. You will be expected to provide his or her going-home clothes and shoes, just as you would for a newborn birth-child. You must also be prepared to feed the child according to the directions given you. You may see your child for the first time at the adoption agency abroad, a foster home, or a hotel.

Placements are joyous occasions. After so much longing, work, and struggle, the placement is climactic. But we express emotions differently. We look at the child with awe. Can this really be our child? Your joy is superimposed upon the birth parents' grief. I remember shedding a few tears. "They look just like I thought they would," I said. (We had not been sent pictures.) Heino said in a voice quavering with emotion, "They are lovely girls."

Your first moments together are cinematically recorded in your memory. Even newborns lock eyes with their new parents. A month later, they focus on faces and in response to your voice, will babble and coo. This is where differences in language and ways in which various cultures talk to babies begin to make a difference. For example, the Chinese clap their hands before they pick up a baby. Babies are distressed by extremely loud noises and soothed by quiet sounds. Unfortunately a quiet place is difficult to find in the frenzy and clamor of most cities.

Wear something soft the day you first meet your baby or child. Holding and rocking becomes an even more enjoyable experience when you feel soft and cuddly. Studies confirm that infants are more sensitive to developing attachment behaviors between four months and six months. Hard plastic baby carriers and infant seats should be used as little as possible. The child needs holding to promote bonding.

Between six and nine months, relinquished and abandoned children may not be fearful of strangers. Most likely, they have been cared for by many people, and try to keep a mother figure nearby with smiles and coos, since the urge for attachment is extremely strong. Adoptive parents at this stage must interact warmly with the baby, showing approval for this behavior, and must not reject clingy and whiny behavior. To reject this negative behavior will only intensify it. Your goal here is to promote attachment, which in turn will help them relax. Then they can play and learn.

Children between eighteen months and three years of age are able to recognize that they are separate individuals. Institutionalized babies spend most of their lives cooped up in a box or crib, simply observing. When they finally climb out, they seek out adults, watching them work, and imitating their motions. They have learned there is no one to go to for comfort if they are hurt or afraid. One of your tasks is to win the child's trust and to prove that you are now there to give aid and comfort. Children are now able to talk and to understand most of what is being said in their native language. Suddenly they must learn a new language and a new routine in a new environment.

School-age children have all of these challenges and, in addition, must submit to the discipline required for a formal education. Formidable!

Many excellent books address adjustment issues for children of all ages. Please see the bibliography (in the book How to Adopt Internationally) for recommendations.

Book review | Author interview

How to Adopt on AmazonJean Nelson-Erichsen and Heino R. Erichsen are the authors of How to Adopt Internationally, a hands-on book loaded with practical information for families who seek to complete an international adoption. The Erichsens are the founders of the Los Ninos International Adoption Center in Texas and the parents of four children adopted from South America.

Copyright ©2000 by Mesa House Publishing. All rights reserved.  This article was originally published in How to Adopt Internationally, by Jean Nelson Erishson and Heino R. Erichsen. Used by permission of the publisher.
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