Monday, July 28, 2008

Bonding & Overcoming Language Barrier in the Older Baby Adoption

At last, I'm going to try and share some thoughts on "Bonding and Overcoming Language Barrier" in the older baby adoption.  Beware, it's gonna be jumbled.  So bear with me.  I know many of you adoptive families are traveling SOON (we are SO excited for you!!) and you're probably like I was, searching for every/any bit of info to prepare.  Let me first start by saying that EVERY adoption is different and EVERY child is unique.  So I'll just share our experiences with you about Arsema and hopefully you'll find some of it beneficial.

As many of you know, adopting a toddler baby can be one of the most challenging ages.  They are older than "baby-baby" and very aware that every single thing is changing in their lives.  And they are not into the "preschooler" stage where you can have someone help to prepare them with words what is about to happen.    I was always afraid of toddler adoption.  That would be one reason for the age we requested.  I felt I was simply not up for it.  

Well, when sweet Mary called us with our referral, she had two reservations.  One was Arsema's health (she was finishing up treatment for TB) and one was her age.  She was at the very, very end of the age we had given them and with not knowing how long court process would go, obviously she was only going to get older.  Right away David and I said, no problem (to both) and proceeded.  We trusted more than ourselves and knew God had planned everything.  Now having said that, which is deeply true ........ I had this weary pit in my stomach.  Fears of her not accepting us, concerns of how to communicate with her.  At times it tried to even rob my joy.  We'd received the "infamous updates" saying how leery of strangers she was, how we'd have to work at the relationship, etc.  I just wanted to GET THERE and begin the process and I felt so out of control in the situation.

Arsema held up to her "image" so to speak.  She was extremely leery of strangers, even many that were "familiar" to her.  In some ways this was a good sign for me .... smart girly ... nobody was gonna trick her!  But it is truly hard to prepare your heart to finally see your child and have him/her handed over to you and feel their stiff and reserved body in your arms.  

Bonding came s-l-o-w-l-y.  But as I look back now, just 3 months later ... I am just in awe of how far we have come as a family of 7!  WOW!  We went through SO many stages between then and now.  Here are a few things that worked well for us and really helped get to where we are.  

1) Feeding - We kept her on her current feeding schedule, which was primarily bottles til she was ready to accept new things.  This means you throw out the "U.S. normal" and just watch and listen to your child.  I had to constantly just lay aside her "age" and treat her at her current emotional/developmental stage.  As we did that, she learned to trust us and before we knew it would be inching her way towards progression.  She was plenty plump!, and did not need as many calories as that many bottles would provide, so we diluted her formula down, which also helped with her constipation issues she had when we got there.

2) Sleeping - I'm well aware there are many opinions on sleeping and babies/children.  I'll just share with you what really helped us and Arsema.  We moved her crib into our room before she arrived home.  We wanted to be the first ones she saw when she woke so she could learn to trust that we were there to meet her needs.  This really seemed to help her, as she would wake frightened, yet often too sad to cry.  She'd kinda stare at us like ... hhmmm ... so you're still there ... this dream is still happening.  But over time (like within a couple weeks) those "sad looks" faded away more and more.  We would also bring her to our bed often in those early days and have her sit between us in the morning as we were all waking up.  This helped her to "accept" her daddy as part of the package (see previous post during after our homecoming for more on this).  

David got a really bad, nasty respiratory cold after we returned home.  That's the LAST thing we needed to spread around.  So he actually slept downstairs in another bed for several days.  During this time I had both girls on two floors of the house at night by myself (older sis with the same nasty cold upstairs) and Arsema up at night also.  During this time, I just brought her to bed with me when she first woke up.  We also spent some of her naps like this.  I have to say this was a HUGE key in me bonding with her.  Everything was really starting to get to me a bit.  Carrying that BIG baby around so much and not "receiving back" much affection .... well, it can make a momma's heart grow pretty sad.  So if she wouldn't "snuggle" with me awake, she would when she was sleeping!  Finally David got better and didn't appreciate her feet kicking him at night ... I was so sleep deprived at this point, I never even noticed her feet!!, I was just enjoying SWEET SLEEP!  Ha.  So we eased her back into her own bed again and it went just fine.

3)  Carrying - that's a big help to the bonding process as well.  I used a sling some which was a nice change of pace for the weight being more on my body, instead of my arms.  Just keeping them close to you helps a lot.  This may sound really weird, but some kids need to "learn" that they like being held by you.  Oh, she preferred being held, no doubt .... but she had to "learn" that she "enjoyed" being held.  Not just that being held was better than being sat down.  Along those same lines, we had to really work with her to show affection.  I knew it was in her ... she had attached to her caregivers, but it was going to only come by earning her trust.  We started slow and safe by "blowing kisses".  About 2 months plus into it she would give us real kisses and hugs.  This took a LOT of work and coaxing.  By this time it also REALLY helped that she grew jealous of her sister.  Yeah!!! ... this is good!  :)  Thankfully Naomi is extremely cuddly to us, so she got to see this a lot.  Finally she decided it must be good stuff and started giving hugs/kisses and some cuddles on her own initiative.  I never envisioned so many tiny parts to this process.  But as each new phase would come it felt like huge victory.

Language was a p-r-o-c-e-s-s.  I could tell right away that she could only handle so much English chitter-chatter without feeling overwhelmed, or just kind of looking at us in a fog like what are you saying!  :)  We began using a few words that were a part of our everyday life and just using those very, very often.  Ex. "puppy" was one of the first, because our dog Honey's kennel was just outside the kitchen window.  Before long she was saying "puppy" back at us wanting to go over to the window to see.  She'd get SO excited when she said the word and look at us like "Hey!! ... see? ... I said your word!!".  It was so neat to see the little lightbulb of her mind shining brightly at familiar words.  Same with "milky".  Each time it was feeding time I'd say, "Let's get some milky", or "Do you want milky?".  One evening I was leading a class for some ladies and said that to her on my way to the kitchen, having NO idea how familiar she was with that routine.  I got side-tracked and turned around the other direction to go get something for someone.  She LOST IT!!!  After a minute I realize what had happened.  It was then I realized how much progress we were making with language.  So I kept that up adding a couple new words each week.  It's amazing how much this has helped.  Not just in teaching her the language, but in bonding and connecting with her .... communication, what an important thing! 

Another thing we worked with early on was coaxing her to respond to us.  For example, each time I'd go get her out of her crib, instead of just picking her up (after we were home settling in) I would hold out my hands to her and wait until she'd reach for me.  Just these little things were really helpful so we could "praise" her and help her see it was a good thing.  :)

One thing to really keep in mind if you end up with a child that is slow to warm up to you is to remember they are not rejecting "YOU".  They have just had every bit of their life turned crazily upside down!!!  And at this age, no one can explain to them very well what is happening.  They are facing trauma.  But day by day, it will get better.  And before you know it, you'll be weeks/months into it enjoying many snuggles and affection with the one you traveled across the world to bring home.  

Looking back, while it was challenging in some ways to adopt a baby/toddler .... it has been SO rewarding!!!  I have learned so much on this journey.  It brings me such joy to be the receiver of Arsema's wet kisses.  To look into those deep eyes that once were full of SUCH caution towards me .... now shine back at me with joy and happiness ... well, I can't quite imagine a better sight.

It's still a process, but I have no doubt there are more "victories" ahead.  


solas4me said...

Thanks so much for sharing this. We will now doubt be facing some of the same issues soon (Lord willing). We have gained so much from your willingness to share your journey with everyone.


The Darlings

"A Darling Life"

chrisandshasta said...

Thank you so much for this post! We are leaving on Saturday to pick up our boy who will have just turned 14 months. We're excited and nervous at the same time. I appreciate this advice and insight! -S.

The Albertsons said...

This is WONDERFUL advice Shelly!!! It makes my heart smile to see such good, rich, true advice. I may copy this (with your permission) and give it to my clients who will be bringing home older kids... it's a lot of what their books say, but with you, it's real and it's personal. Thanks for taking the time to write this out!!!

graceling said...

Thank you so much for this post! I know my little Sparrow will probably be facing many of the same issues, and I look forward to using some of your techniques!

I can't thank you enough! Any more hints or tips you have would be priceless!

Anonymous said...

You are on the mark with your comments. We went thru that with our daughter, whom we adopted at 18mos. I'd add, biting to the list. Her frustration with the language barrier was huge. Plus, she didn't want anything to do with me at all. Now, she's a momma's girl and those eyes reflect back the love she has for us. It was a rough 6 months on our part. BUt the rewards are such that we are doing it again. Her brother will be almost 15 months old when we bring him home.


Carol said...

We need to have this post ready to share with all families who adopt kids in the toddler range. Outstanding advice, and something I know a lot of parents are seeking. Thanks for the great post!

Kimberly Baggett said...

thank you for this honest post! many of these things are ones i have been thinking about with our little ones who will hopefully be home soon! such great advice and great for preparing a momma's heart to know to embrace patience in this process to reap the rewards of it!

coffeemom said...

Excellent Shelly, as usual!!! Totally spot on and very important. Toddlers are very different from small babies or big kids, it's unique age and these things, all of them, are key! Great job!! Thanks! lvoe M

Rebecca said...

Thanks for sharing your stories. I know how helpful and encouraging they are to read. And what amazing progress Arsema has made! What an amazing journey to make together!

Kristy -Mom to 4 and soon to be more! said...

Hi Shelly,
You know that I have had lots of questions and this is such a geart and informative post!
Thanks you so much for taking the time to write this invaluable post! Now I am even more prepared to get that phone call to get our girls! :-)

sparkz said...

My computer keeps crashing as I try to post- so hopefully you'll end up with one post when everything is done! I love your ideas, very creative. It sounds like things are coming along slowly but well! The pets that we've rescued have had bonding issues- its hard. I can't immagine what it's like with a baby. Our dog just learned how to "ask" to be petted. Its really funny and cute! I always wondered how it would be to adopt a toddler. I also love that each step is a celebration and that she was so excited to say words! :) I bet the language was REALLY overwhelming! Thanks again for the post. Very informative!

Anonymous said...

I loved your advice. Our experience adopting our daughter at 18 months was different -- she was always the life of the party and she really started to give affection and bond right away to us. She did want to be carried around and never lose sight of us for the longest time... actually, at almost 4 she still just wants to climb on us and play around us but is adjusted so well and loves going to school, playing with friends etc.
It's so important to hear advice about what to do if you don't get that immediate response. We are adopting again and trying to think about not expecting everything to go like the first time, since our new guy will be his own person and we'll need to learn his needs.

Farmboy and Buttercup said...

Beautiful post, Shelly!

It IS such hard work at times, but you showed such love and patience despite the exhaustion I am sure you were experiencing, too. What a wonderful mom!

Take care!

Wife to the Rockstar said...

Awesome tips and info!! We faced a lot of this with j-man.

jendabi said...

What a great resource for those of us adopting toddler age and up. Thank you so much for this wonderful advice.

Alia said...

Thanks for writing this.