We witness a miracle each time a child enters a life. But those who must make their journey home across time and miles, growing in the hearts of those waiting to love them, are carried on the wings of destiny. And placed among us by God's own hands.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Toddler Transition Tips

So I have been thinking again about what the transition will be like for our 12 month+ child when the time comes and there have also been some recent Rwanda referrals for 18 month + kidos. So I thought I would post this. It is long but maybe it will help somone out there. When I wrote it last year it was worded from our experience in Ethiopia, but it would be the same for Rwanda or perhaps any other country for that matter. Here you go:

Toddler Transition in Ethiopian Adoption
·I wrote this in response to questions about our own process and how we adjusted. Our daughter was almost 3 years old when we traveled to get her and we have since found out that she is at least 1 to 2 years older then reported (now 4-5) but I still believe that this applies to any child between ages 1 and probably 5 or so. If you are adopting a toddler here are my recommendations which I have gathered from my personal experience as a parent, a previous family therapist, and a school psychologist:
1) Be prepared for your child to reject you at some point, either at the first meeting or later when home. He or she may develop a preference for one parent and completely reject the other. Remember that this is totally normal and a “survival strategy” from yoru child's perspective.
2) Focus on "bonding" with your child and don't get wrapped up in the "attachment" stuff. I say bonding because really this is what is happening in the initial months together. You can't even look at "attachment" for many months down the road. It takes a typical biological child 10 months to show signs of "attachment". Attachment occurs over repeated and consistent interactions. I heard families talking about “attaching” to their child while in Ethiopia. No one becomes attached to someone else, especially a child who has experience loss, in a week. At best in the few months home your child will experience what is described as a “insecure attachment” to you. This is when they are afraid to be out of your sight, which is not a good thing either, but part of the process.
3) Go to country with a set of activities in mind to do with your child to facilitate the "bonding" process. Bubbles are great. Take stickers and put them on your nose to facilitate eye contact. Play peek-a-bo, alot. Make hand prints on black tag board with lotion. Play the lotion "slip" game where you grab hands and slip away from each other. Many other simple ideas can be found in the Theraplay book. It is for play therapists who do attachment therapy but based on simple activities that many parents do naturally with infants. It is not rocket science and you don’t need to be a therapist to do these natural activities with your child! Many older children still need this "baby type" play games with you to relive those missed early stages of development.
4) Bring a picture book of EVERYTHING with you, include each room of your house, the pets, other children, anything that may be unfamiliar to him or her.
5) Be prepared for the immense difficulty of the language barrier. We found it to be more of a problem with her understanding transitions and routines. So "picture schedules" were helpful. She learned English quickly and then we seemed to hit a road block around 9 months home when she had adjusted and we realized that she was older but her English language development had not yet caught up to her non-verbal IQ. I think kids have a lot of tantrums that may be perceived as “grief” when in reality they are darn frustrated because they cannot express themselves verbally to you and there is a lot of miscommunication going on.
6) Carry your child as long as you can. I brought a sling and put her in it. She loved being carried in it and it really helped with trust and bonding. I also felt better with her in it and on me when in the van in Ethiopia (they have no seatbelts). I used it in public the first few months home and still even now put her in it when she is distraught and needs that security.
7) Expect that at some point you may experience hitting, kicking, pinching, biting, screaming, throwing. This might be fatigue, it might be grief, it might be pure rage, or frustration and fear. Our daughter bit my husband on the airplane home and just recently said to me “mommy I was scared on the airplane because I thought we were going to fall down”. Wow that realization of her awareness hit me like a brick.
8) Safety proof the house as much as possible before you come home. They may not have had experience with hot stoves, outlets, hot water, streets, etc.
9) Keep the rules and limits loose at first and then get tighter as time goes on and he or she gets used to having limits.
10) Use choices, give two choices, if he or she does not choose you choose and ride out any subsequent tantrum. This worked great for my daughter’s issues with clothes, she would want to pick out her own outfits but would get really overwhelmed by all the choices. Same for food and really anything else.
11) Expect that your toddler may be overly clingy or overly independent or go back and forth. Find a happy medium until the trust is built.
12) Expect possible sensory issues. Certain sounds, lights, smells, types of touch may trigger tantrums which seem out of the ordinary.
13) When you toddler experiences something new, he or she may have a tantrum when it is time to end or give it back. This happened with us when it was time to get out of the bathtub!
14) Don't expect that your child will let you know when he or she is hurt. Make it a point to overly respond with affection every time she or he gets a bump or scratch. That way he or she learns that you will respond and care.
15) Don't let his or her feet touch the ground in public until you know he or she will stay by your side. They may have no fear of the street, of getting lost, or being stolen. We put one of those leash/backpack animals on our daughter’s back. Thankfully she thought it was funny and we know that she could not run from us. Who care what other people think.
16) Don’t trust your child around a swimming pool. Our daughter was a fish but did not know how to swim and had NO fear of water. I would drop her to touch the bottom and then pull her up right away so that she would realize how deep it was.
17) Prepare for sleeping problems and what seemes like irrational fears from your child. They will be in a state of hypervigilence and you will need to be there to urn his or her trust. We let our daughter sleep in our bed for the first month, then moved her to a seperate bed in our room, then a few months later moved her into her own room. Many of these kids have never slept in a bedroom alone in their life. Nightmares and night terrors were very common the first few months home.
18) (Specific to Ethiopia) Know that do to various reasons you child may be older then reported. This is really because of a combination of things, not being born in a hospital, differences in calendar (Ethiopia is 7 years behind), children looking younger due to malnutrition, and they do not celebrate birthdays in Ethiopia. After a few months home, if you have a questions about it, get a development assessment to look at fine and gross motor skills. A bone-scan may help but may not be accurate due to malnutrition. If you have access to a child psychologist a non-verbal IQ test may help get you in the ballpark of understanding what your child know without the interference of the language issue. Most importantly get a full set of x-rays at the dentist and this will show what teeth are coming in. Our first substantial data to show that our daughter was older came from the dentist.
19) At home you may notice that your child does not seem to know how to play with toys or do simple activities. Our daughter could not put togethers simple puzzles. This is usually because they just have not had access to many toys. Give it time and play with your child to show them how to use things.
20) Lastly know that things might get easier and then harder again and your child progresses through his or her fears and development. Our daughter started having sleeping problems again around 9 months home after the grandparents came to stay at our house and we went out for one evening. It seemed to trigger lots of fear around the same time that we had started to see signs of separation anxiety (A sure tell sign that you are now in fact “attached”).


  1. Thanks for all this info Kari. I'm going to try to remember to reread this post once we get the the referral stage. Hope you're well.

  2. Thank you so much for posting this. I hope I remember that it's here. These are valuable reminders. I have a developmental psych degree and it's good to be reminded of my child development training. I'm sure you find your degree handy too.


  3. Kari, thanks for the info. We just returned home from Rwanda with a 14 month old and 25 month old. We have experienced much of what you are describing. It's always comforting to know what we're experiencing is normal. Thanks!