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Issues in International Adoptions

Kathryn Patricelli, MA

Additional issues faced by those adopting internationally may include language barriers or language delays, special health issues, questions about the child's age, and cultural issues.

Language Issues

If the adopted child is already a toddler or older, he or she may already speak at least some words in their native language. Ideally, one or both of the adoptive parents will speak some of this language in order to communicate with the child. It can be helpful for the family to take language lessons in order to allow the child to keep and preserve the language of their birth culture.

If the child speaks their birth language and no English at all, the family will need to begin teaching the child basic words for communication. They may want to use the services of a professional teacher or translator initially to make the process a little smoother. The family also needs to be aware that language-related learning delays may occur depending on the age of the child at the time of placement. Because of the way our brains develop, languages are easily and spontaneously acquired in infancy and later become far more difficult to learn as people get older. New language acquisition is by no means impossible for older children and adults, but it takes far more time and effort to accomplish than would otherwise be the case.

Overall, English is often known as a difficult language to learn due to ways that verbs are conjugated and sentence structure that can differ from other languages, as well as words that may not have a translation into the birth language. Children from European backgrounds may have a small advantage in that they natively speak a language that shares common root word structures with English; this can make recognizing and learning English words and phrases just a little bit easier. Children whose native language is unrelated to English may have a more difficult time adjusting.

Although language acquisition issues can be difficult to resolve, they are not insurmountable. The family and child will get through this period of adjustment and learning with time and effort.

Special Health Issues

Adopted children may have special health needs and issues that require professional attention because of the care they received in their birth country. They may not have received adequate nutrition or attention in the institutional environment where they lived, and/or may have been exposed to other children who were ill. New adoptive families should visit with a pediatrician immediately after the child arrives in the United States in order to check for health conditions that must be addressed.

Age of the Child

For a variety of reasons, the internationally adopted child's birth country institutions may not have been able to supply the adopted child's actual date of birth, or the circumstances surrounding how the child came to be institutionalized. In such cases, the adoption agency or a pediatrician may be able to help make a "best guess" about the child's age. A new birth date can be chosen and celebrated for future birthday celebrations.

Cultural Issues

Behavior and beliefs that are birth-culture appropriate may contribute to some adjustment problems within children's adopted families when older children are adopted internationally. Children may have been taught cultural or religious beliefs and behaviors that are appropriate in the birth country, but that may be seen as inappropriate in the context of the United States. For example, some countries teach children that it is disrespectful to look others in the eye when having a conversation, while just the opposite is expected in the United States, where a conversation without any eye contact at all would be considered disrespectful. Parents can help ease their child's transition to their new cultural environment by learning as much as possible about their birth country and culture, explicitly teaching their child about the differences between how they were first taught to behave and what is now expected of them in their new culture and location. Adoption agencies may provide referrals to special classes or support groups where this sort of information may be learned.