Our friends are adopting internationally — what can we do to welcome their child?

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By: Syria FreedomCC BY 2.0
A couple I know are currently in Ethiopia picking up their son — a beautiful four-year-old they are adopting. I have been seeing photos of him and hearing of his arrival for months and am quite excited for them! We all live in a small, rural town, so I’m sure I’ll be seeing them frequently. I know he doesn’t speak English yet and will likely be more than a little overwhelmed with his new living situation and experiencing winter for the first time.

As a neighbor and friend, how should I (and others in town) react when I see him? I will obviously be open and smiley, but I find myself not knowing how to act. I want to be supportive to the parents as they experience parenthood for the first time, but I’m not entirely sure where to begin.

I asked the couple and they said we can all play it by ear, but I’m wondering: are there any suggestions from parents of adopted children, particularly those who have adopted children from other countries? What was helpful to you? — Brassica

Comments on Our friends are adopting internationally — what can we do to welcome their child?

  1. I have an academic interest in adoption and immigration, so I’m really interested to see responses to this post. I think it’s great that people understand how complex adoption is and want to do everything they can to help ease the transition for the family.

    I also really hope that some adoptees will be able to contribute their experience. If you are asking how to make the child feel most welcome, then people with personal experience of moving to live in a new culture with an adopted family are really the experts on this!

    My advice for someone meeting a new English language learner is to understand that if the child arrives with no knowledge of English, it will take them about 5 years to become a proficient speaker, and 7 years to become proficient in the academic language required at school, so be patient! Don’t take it personally if the child goes through a silent period and doesn’t speak to you. They are still learning. Keep persevering and showing that you are interested in what they have to communicate, no matter how they choose to express themselves. All the best!

    • I think that that estimate must be for adults or older kids! I went in to serious French Immersion at school partway through grade 1 (before which I just knew the alphabet+numbers, days of the week/months, and the words for how the weather was in French), and on a trip to Quebec the summer after grade 4, a native French speaking adult was shocked to discover my mom didn’t speak French, because I was indistinguishable from the kids in Quebec. And that was with me only speaking French at school, not at home 😉

    • I second this on the English Acquisition comments. Since he is 4, he might be a little quicker to pick it up (since he’s still in that age of development), but he might not — every kid is different! Not being able to communicate can be VERY frustrating for any child, and 3-5 year olds especially. Patience and compassion are key — he may have outbursts of frustration, or become silent and withdrawn, but it’s all a normal part of adjustment.

      Young kids also go through culture shock in their own way. Creating a safe space that is all his own to go to when he needs down time or quiet time can be helpful… but talking with a counselor or case worker for suggestions on how to ease the culture shock phase could be helpful too.

  2. I would make a simple suggestion of making the new family a meal. I have had great success using Mealbaby.com to create meal registries for new families. This way you are helping the new family adjust by bringing a meal and you could add a small gift to the child and start a relationship that way!

  3. Respect their boundaries and privacy! The kiddo needs to bond with his family now, so don’t rush in with lots of hugs and kisses. Don’t be surprised or offended if the family holes up for a few weeks/months to really establish bonding. Also ask if there are any issues you should know about/ways to act or not act around the child. For example, if the child has RAD or ODD or comes from a history of loss and trauma, there might be things you need to be aware of like triangulating you against mom/dad, etc. I would think offering to run errands might be helpful or offering a non-judgemental ear/shoulder to cry on. The months after an adoption can be rough (depending on the child of course), and a lot of times, helpful support disappears after just a couple of weeks.

  4. Using sign language or pantomime as the child is learning English can help the process along.. or will at least elicit a smile.

  5. I don’t have any first-hand advice, but since my friends are in a similar situation I’ve been doing lots of reading! My favorite book so far has been No Biking in the House Without a Helmet by Melissa Faye Greene about her blended family. You might enjoy it (or sharing it!) and I found it really helpful to understand some of the awesome things that both parents and kids get out of international adoption.

  6. A great question. Good friends of ours are adopting internationally and will finally be matched with their adoptive daughter early in the new year. I’m very interested in what others will suggest.

  7. Don’t be surprised if wee dude picks up English faster than you think, kid brains are rediculously plastic and can pick up things aduts can’t. Also, step up and correct people if they refer to him as ” X’s adopted son”: he’s their child, how he got there is irrelevant.

    • So true, but it doesn’t occur to people. No one would ever call my kid “Nate, Amelia’s vaginally delivered son.” Pointing out how someone joined a family is not remotely important or helpful.

  8. Here are some tips, but I’m hoping others will chime in as well!:

    -Use “positive adoption language” which is what @Amelia and @VIsland were mentioning. I’m not sure if we are allowed to post other links on here, but if you google that phrase, there are a lot of resources.

    -Don’t be hurt if your friends can’t hang out with you right away or for a few months. This sort of move is going to be OVERWHELMING to their new little one, and they will probably want to go very slow and make sure he feels safe within their family first.

    -On that same note, maybe remember to offer them help…in 6 months after they get back. (I’m not saying to ‘not’ offer them help now, but you know what I mean). By that time, they may have more of a routine, but be EXHAUSTED both physically and emotionally. (Happy, but exhausted!). Again I’m not sure about posting links but if you google the phrase, “After the Airport,” there’s a great blog post about it.

    That’s all I have for now – you’re a great friend to be thinking of these things! 🙂

  9. This is slightly off topic, but does anyone have a sense of why some countries serve as large sources for children for international adoption? About a decade ago I remember it was Guatemala. Now it seems to be Ethiopia. I am wondering what the relationship is between supply (ie. children who need homes), regulations, absorptive capacity in country, and demand (ie. desire for children of a particular race or ethnicity). I ask here because I wonder if increasing general knowledge around this will also help more openly welcome new children into our communities.

    • I’m again hoping others will chime in, I would say the short answer is that it is mostly dependent on the regulations of each particular country.

      When the regs change, that affects how many families can adopt in a certain year, if single people can adopt, etc. So if a country says “we now allow single people to adopt,” then you would obviously see more adoptions per year in that country.

    • It’s related to various regulations, both from the country of origin and the country of adoption. Guatamala was a source of adoptions, but it was found out that many of the children had been kidnapped or families felt pressured to relinquish because of economic situations. There are several news stories about Guatamalan adoptees who match the DNA of children who had been reported kindapped by their mothers.

      http://adoption.state.gov/hague_convention/overview.php is a good resource for information about how adoptions are trying to be regulated.

  10. I second Melissa’s meal suggestion, but with a caveat: I would suggest looking into what vegetables/dishes are commonly made in Ethiopia when choosing your meal. I’m not suggesting that you try to make Ethiopian food (unless you know a good recipe, in which case go for it!), but it’s easier to adjust to new foods when the vegetables/flavors are at least somewhat similar to what you ate at your old home. For example, American desserts often taste too sweet to someone who doesn’t grow up with them, and serving sizes are often different, so don’t feel bad if he only eats or drinks a small amount of whatever you offer. For a real-life example, my mother-in-law would eat pizza with ketchup and is the only person I know who thinks that a 12 oz bottle of soda is “too big”.

    I know this seems small, but when my mother-in-law visited from India she found it helpful to be able to identify what was in a dish without having my husband translate ingredients for her.

    Other then that, my basic suggestions are to speak slowly, learn a couple basic words in his native language (hearing a greeting in your native tongue is always nice, and the family should be able to tell you what language he learned in the orphanage), and always offer to take photos of the family together. After all, they can always use another family photo for the album 🙂

  11. If you can/want to, offer to throw a baby shower/welcoming party. One of the adjustments I’ve had to make with accepting that I may not be able to conceive is knowing that with adoption of older children (even more than adoption of babies) I may not get that baby shower experience of which I’ve always dreamed. It sounds so greedy when I say it “out loud” like that, but I have to assume that I can’t be the only one to feel that way about adoption showers. Just as was stated above, how the kid joined the family doesn’t matter. And it’s not like mothers who are birthing their babies don’t occasionally have showers after the baby is born anyway, for one reason or another, so I don’t see the problem with the kid being there to help open their gifts.

  12. My twin younger brothers were adopted from Ethiopia (to Australia) in 1994, at the age of about 18 months. So they were still “babies” but the arrival and meeting the family did confuse people a little.
    When we came home from Ethiopia I remember people giving us meals and supplies and balloons just as you would welcome a new born, biological child I suppose. However obviously different the situation may be I think that the most comfortable we ever felt was when people treated it as much as possible like a “normal” arrival.
    Do give the child space because an international trip and leaving a home they have known for a long time is a massive deal for them. But really, the complexities surrounding the new relationship and adoption are for their parents to deal with and the very best you can do is to approach the situation with the usual love and excitement you would a biological arrival.
    Children absolutely pick up much more than we realise, whether they speak the same language fluently or not. The most frustrating thing for my parents and I upon my brothers’ arrival was the people who would congratulate us on “saving” them or similar, one of my brothers started to repeat those phrases to strangers in the street because he had heard them so many times and it was heartbreaking because he was just as much (if not more) of a blessing to us as we were to him.
    The fact that you are even asking for insight makes me feel you will handle this very positively.

  13. we live in the country of Vop’s adoption, so it’s a bit different, but when we bought her home the nicest things friends did was simply invite us all, as a family, over for a meal. It reinforced Vop’s sense of us being her new family. We had western food, and some local food, so she could choose what she was familiar with, and also try new things. We also received presents of books about adoption, and also books with central figures from her culture, so she had some positive ‘role models’ for bedtime reading. We also normalized her transition as soon as we could. Simply because she didn’t clean her teeth in the village, didn’t mean she got away with it with us.

  14. Many children who are adopted internationally have not ever bonded with a parental figure. They have missed a very important step. Lots of parents intentionally keep the child fairly secluded and in a tight family unit to foster the bonding process. They will spend lots of time working on eye contact, feeding their new child, and comforting him/her. Often, they want to be the only people to feed, hug, and hold the child because they are teaching them how to bond. This may come across as standoffishness. Don’t be offended if the parents don’t introduce him/her or want to visit right away. They are working through a really important process for their son/daughter. As time passes, treat them like you would any other family. Don’t ask intrusive questions or make the child feel like he/she is different from other kids.

  15. We recently adopted, like last week recently.
    We adopted thru DSHS not internationally. Our son has lived with us for the past 17 months. When he first came home, I tried to keep up my social commitments. I couldn’t do it. I retreated into my new family, to figure out how we as a unit were going to work. I really appreciated the support from friends that understood and let us be.
    I also love when people use positive adoption language.

  16. Lots of good advice so far! I would also add that since the family may be focusing on bonding, and the little guy might be overwhelmed by going out to places like grocery stores, it might be good to offer to run errands. Try to make it as easy for them to accept as possible – say “hey I’m running to the grocery (pharmacy, bank, wherever), can I get you anything?” And then don’t expect a long visit when you drop off their goods. If they aren’t able to go out for dinner, maybe get takeaway from their favorite restaurant as a treat.

    If you’re looking for a gift for the new arrival, I’d go with books, especially ones with lots of pictures. Picture books can be great for language acquisition and reading together is a wonderful bonding experience for parents & kids.

  17. We are now in the paperwork stage for our second international adoption.

    As its been said before, the parents will probably try to hole up and bond with their child alone for a little while… but that also means they will be starved for adult attention… 🙂

    A few things that would have been helpful to us:
    – meals, meals, meals… we were so jetlagged that cooking was hard, but we also couldnt afford to go out and eat… homecooked, frozen or even gift cards are great!

    – if they have other children, offer to take them out for a little while -the parents will appreciate the bonding time with the new one, and the kids will need a break as well (bringing a new sibling in can be really hard sometimes)

    – offer to go to the store for them… or just drop off a few essentials that everyone needs (detergent, soap, toothpaste, etc)

    – bring them little happies… coffee, smelly soap, magazines, music, candy, ice cream…. they have just spent a lot of money on this adoption and probably cant afford the little extras right now

    – come over and clean for them… wash dishes, do laundry, vacuum, dust… but do this without expecting a real visit

    Also, be aware that the new little one probably doesnt understand the role of parent yet, so please avoid any physical contact with them – hugging, picking up… talk with them and smile… and dont offer them food or candy (this is the role of a parent to be the provider)

    – a welcoming party/shower is a great idea b/c sometimes in the adoption world it feels like no one is happy for you… or at least not as excited as if you were giving birth…. but do give the parents time to feel comfortable around other people before doing this

    • Also, meet them at the airport when they get home with their new child… I cant tell you how much of a letdown it was for us when no one showed up at the airport except for our ride.

  18. When I was little and learning English in a new culture, I was prone to very loud, very violent temper tantrums. Being in a new place where you can’t communicate with people is really scary and I would act out badly when I was overwhelmed. It was frustrating for everyone involved, and super embarrassing for my family as they were trying to do things, like buy groceries. My number one piece of advice is, if you happen to witness a meltdown, or even just a super frazzled looking parent, smile. Offer a little joke, or even just a “all parents have been there.” It’s really easy to feel judged and isolated on both sides of that, and a tiny little act of support can really turn a bad moment around.

    Books are great! There are books out there with no words in them for ESL learners to help develop story lines and comprehension. Of course, I would never want to make any kind of assumptions on someone’s physical characteristics, but it can also be very isolating for a child to not have anyone around the same color/culture/physical shape. Keep a special eye out for children’s books on or about Ethiopia. If you happen to see a doll that looks like the child, that can help alleviate a lot of stress as well.

  19. I read a great, insightful piece about this online once. It was written by a white-American adoptive mother of a child from China. Her advice/requests to others really resonated with me. The main message of her piece was basically to be mindful not point out anything different about the child and their new family. She gave the examples of not pointing out adoption through well-intentionedd, but harmful comments, like, “Is this your mother? You’re so lucky to have her.” or “I think you make a beautiful family.” Basically, her point was to treat the child and its relationship with its family as “normally” as possible.

  20. #1 Be excited for them! This is their child, not their adopted child. We’ve been waiting to adopt internationally for 7 years…yes, we’re patient. The number one complaint is that people don’t treat adoptive parents with the same respect/interest/excitement as if they had a biological child. Showers would likely be welcomed (ask first). All children should be welcomed with joy.

    A agree that meals would probably be welcomed. I disagree with meeting them at the airport unless you have cleared it with them. It is an extremely long flight, they may just want to get home and continue to work on the new relationship they are establishing with their child. I do not want anyone at the airport except my ride. My number one priority will be my child and helping them adjust to what is terrifying and strange to them.

    Give them time, call before you come over. They will be working to attach with their child (it’s a lifelong process) but initially, don’t expect to hold, feed, or change the child. These are things that are really important that the parents do to help foster attachment.

  21. I’m a single mama with a little one who joined our family from Ethiopia last year at the age of two.
    Here are my top three:
    1. support mama from a distance with notes, cards, emails, FB messages, but keep your distance so little one has time to bond to her new parents, I LOVED all the support and love I recieved via text, email, and FB messages but literally could not even answer the door when friends stopped by to visit my new, terrified, traumatized two year old
    2. i arrived home to a freezer stocked with toddler friendly meals, I didn’t even have to answer the door to receive them, they were just already there, and most were laced with a little berbere (a favorite Ethiopian spice) so my little Ethiopian gobbled them up
    3. hand me down clothing, I had tubs and tubs of hand me down clothing, we had no idea what size my little guy would be in so lots of clothes of a variety of sizes were a life savor in those early days

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