Friday, October 08th, 2010 | Author: mjward

Every family has rules. Some are stated clearly like, “You must be home by nine o’clock on a school night.” Often, however, the most important ones aren’t put into words. These involve the way children and adults are treated, the ways disagreements are settled, and many other patterns of interaction. For example, in one family, members may argue loudly when they disagree about chores or curfews. Once the matter is settled, relationships continue as before. In another family, some individuals may become very quiet, go along with a parent or partner, but carry a festering grudge.

When an infant is adopted, he or she learns the unspoken rules of the family just as a child born into the family will do. The situation is quite different in older-child adoption. If children have lived any length of time with their birth families, they will have learned a particular mode of interaction. Often this is dysfunctional. That is, it leads to problems in development or social relationships rather than to healthy growth. One example is the child, usually a girl, who has become a parent to younger siblings because the parent is not providing proper care and affection. The development of all the children, including the parentified child, may be warped because a young teen or preteen does not have the maturity to be a substitute mother. Once children enter the foster care system, they temporarily join other families which have their own patterns of interaction. When they join an adoptive family, these children have their own mixture of unspoken rules learned in multiple families.

When they move to an adoptive family, older children experience culture shock. That is, the rules of interaction they have learned don’t work well in the new family. They are at a loss as to how they should behave. In an article published some time ago*, I describe some of the phases of adjustment to the new family culture. The first is the “tourist” phase. When a person visits a new country, they may be fascinated by the strangeness of the surroundings. In adoption, this corresponds to the visiting and honeymoon period. There may be difficulties in communication. For example, one of our adopted children had a very limited vocabulary, although she officially spoke English and we could not be sure she understood what we were saying. Often the tourist phase is short-lived. The second phase involves hostility and aggression. Children have to learn to live in their new family “country.” Old rules may not work. New ones need to be tested. One of our sons was very aggressive. On one occasion at a public beach, he launched into a string of profanities when another child took his water toy. I was grateful that he used words rather than fists. At least it was a small step in the right direction. It is useful if parents put the most important rules into words. That way they help children learn the new family forms of interaction. Both parents and children, old and new, will probably benefit from a support group such as one designed for members of adoptive families. The third phase is resignation. The children decide that they are going to stay with the family; so they might as well put up with it. They may grudgingly accept the need to tell their parents where they are going and with whom. The need for support still exists. Finally, children come to accept the customs and ways of their new family. Now will come a sense of stability and self-worth as they learn all the family cues to interaction. The child will be at home.

Culture shock is not a one-way street. Parents also experience it. As they learn to care for their new child, the most successful ones incorporate some of the child’s “foreign” ways into their own family interaction and give up some of their old norms. That is, they move toward the child. One of the simplest ways this happens comes with new food habits to accommodate the children’s tastes. The adaptation process is more extreme if a sibling group joins the family because they reinforce the patterns of behavior they have learned in their birth family as well as foster families they have shared. The weight of numbers matters.

When adoptions are the most successful, parents and children share the unwritten rules. These rules provide a platform from which young people move into adulthood.


* “Culture Shock in the Adoption of Older Children,” The Social Worker/Le Travailleur Social, 1980, Vol. 48, no. 1, pp. 8-11.

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