Over the years, psychologist Dr Peter Hotz has worked with scores of adoptive families. He tells me that he has seen adoption from every angle. I’m at his Vancouver office to talk about international, cross-cultural adoptions. Dr Hotz has worked with several the Belonging Network’s families. I can tell immediately that he has synthesized all that experience into some fundamental messages for parents considering adopting a child cross-culturally. Much of our discussion relates to older children who may have experienced trauma in their country of birth; all of it is useful for parents or professionals involved in cross-cultural adoption.

How might an older child from a different race and country react to a new home in Canada?

Well, adaptation is usually extremely slow. There’s no way a child can jump straight into a new civilization with ease. These children have no history with their new parents, they stand out in their new family and community, and they feel hugely separated from what they’ve left behind. Not only are they experiencing emotional loss, but, on top of that, overwhelming change. Whilst many parents can understand this in theory, they may still not be prepared when the child’s anger and frustration turns onto them.

Parents need to realize that they not only have an english as a second language (ESL) child, but also a culture as a second culture child. Of course, the child will arrive in Canada with long-term habits, cultural behaviours, and probably a significant language barrier. The child may eat with his or her fingers, not want to wear shoes, etc.

How might parents deal with this?

At least for a while, they may have to let go of their expectations. Rather than tell the child to eat with utensils, why not let him or her eat as they normally do? Eventually, by a sort of osmosis, they will do the same as the rest of the family. Cross-cultural parenting takes an unconditional, positive regard and acceptance of whom the child is and where he or she comes from.

What about the other children in the family?

A fundamental error that parents can make is to assume that the new and existing children in the family will blend easily. Bringing a new child into the family has an immediate impact on the other children and can produce resentment and anger toward the parents for changing the family structure. It’s like dropping a rock into a lake; there will be lots of ripples. Even if you try to tell a child, “This is what our family stands for,” you can’t “make” a child love the new arrival.  Parents must prepare for a less than positive response, talk to their children, and problem solve as they go along. Of course, reactions differ, some siblings accept the new child quickly, but it should not be expected.

How should parents handle the transition to school?

The child will have absolutely no awareness of what the school requires, and he or she will stand out at school. This can cause frustration, and distress very quickly. The danger here is that the child may end up deciding, “I can’t do this. Nobody helps me. I can’t understand,” and then act out and get into trouble.

I would recommend that parents have a neuro-psycho-educational assessment done as soon as possible so that they can get a baseline of their child’s abilities and understand how he or she learns. Then they can discuss schooling options.

If the child has experienced trauma in their birth country, say losing a parent or being a witness to or a victim of  violence, the trauma will affect the child’s ability to take in and process information, and to remember and understand it. If you can’t understand something, then you quickly shut it out.

Years ago it was believed that a three-year-old wouldn’t able to remember traumatic events and would outgrow them. As to whether trauma can ever be overcome completely, that’s questionable. However, when the child is in a much better and more stable situation, and has a strong sense of belonging and comfort, the good generally takes over the bad and the trauma becomes part of their history—history is okay, as long as you can transcend it.

How can parents help?

Before the child starts school, a parent could arrange what I call a “visual pre-briefing.” They would meet the teacher, and tour the school. After that, they might have a “de-briefing” with the child and ask, “Is that what you expected? How do you feel about what you saw?” All this is about acquisition of comfort for the new child. It’s also about trying to reduce surprises; parents definitely need to be ahead of the game.

Parents should also try to recognize that the problems that will arise will be unpredictable and also that they should see themselves as problem solvers. The child needs to have a very early level of comfort that if he or she has a problem, the adults around them will help and it will get fixed.

How can parents help themselves?

They need to understand that in such adoptions there are no certainties. They must be aware of the potential pitfalls and find ways to avoid or overcome them. Many of the parents I have met are doing a wonderful job, but they definitely need a good support network. In some of the adoptions that I have encountered I have told parents, “I don’t want to see your child for a while, but I do want to see you.” Meeting other adoptive parents with similar adoptions is also hugely important.