Sunday, April 28, 2013

Small Victories

One thing I have learned about having an adopted son is that it is all about the small victories.

Back when we first started the behavioral chart, they tended to be heavy on the "X's" and light on the stickers (for good behavior). As time progressed, we watched as the behavioral charts became a balance of both. Each week, however, I prayed and prayed and prayed that we would have a week that was nothing but stickers. Week before last, Cava had a week that only had two "X's" on it and I was excited and hopeful. We knew Cava could do it and, this past week, he finally did. We are so proud that Cava had his first of, what we hope is many more, all stickers week. From the photo, you can see how proud he is of his achievement as well.

Along with this victory, last week, when I dropped Cava off at his school one morning, Ms. W., his teacher informed me that Ms. Scarborough, her assistant, was out sick. I left and went to work, but my thoughts were still with Cava and school. Typically, when one of his teachers are out, that is when Cava tends to act out in an attempt to get attention. Thankfully, I didn't get a call telling me I needed to come and pick Cava up. Still, when I went to pick him up from school, I was still highly nervous about what Ms. W. was going to tell me. To my delight, she told me that not only did Cava do his classwork, but he also helped her. She said that he was her best student that day. Upon hearing this, I wanted to cry, hug Ms. W, and celebrate all at the same time! I was so excited to hear news like this after the last few months we've had.

These small victories are achievements we cherish greatly because it means that Cava is not only changing but that he is growing, developing, understanding and, more importantly, developing a sense of peace and love.

I also know that Cava needs this because he gets validation from his achievements. Holding up this behavioral chart covered in stickers was a huge step for him. I could see from his expression that he understood that this meant he could do it. Before, he beat himself up for his inability to contain his anger and aggression. He was talking about himself as "pogano." Now he can see himself as something else, as a child who is capable of stopping, thinking about what he should do, and acting accordingly. This is a huge step for him and I will treasure this behavior chart like a first place trophy because, for Cava, it is.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Happy 45th Birthday Papa!

Happy Birthday Papa!!!
Papa, I love you so much beyond the point you could not believe.
"I love you from here all the way to the moon and back"-Little Nutbrown Brown Hare from Guess How Much I Love You.
Papa is amazing and is always there for Cava and I.
We recently had a black-out and Cava and I were both scared.
Papa came to the rescue and comforted Cava and I.
He is always there for me.
He always helps me when ever I need help on a project for school.
Me and My dad share a special song ("You Got A Friend in Me" from Toy Story) that whenever we hear it I run to him and he holds me in his arms.
He is truly amazing.
Whenever Cava is tying to say look. He says "divetcha".
My friends mother who speaks Russian said when he said it the way he says it means little miracle.
I would definitely say BIG "divetcha" about my Papa.
I love you Papa!!
Happy Birthday.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

A Year Ago

I fall into that generation that knows the initials "J.T." as James Taylor and as Justin Timberlake. So, as I get ready to turn another year older I reflect on the past year.

What strikes me first is that it was a year ago that we started the adoption process.

Wow! What a year!

The decision to adopt was one that we arrived at after much thought, discussion, investigation, and, most importantly, prayer. At the time, Benjamin had just turned 12 and I was about to turn 44 (so you can do the math on my age as another birthday approaches!). Kelly Clarkson's "Stronger" was number #1. With its chorus of, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger" that song is very apropos.

There were people who supported us, people who tried to talk us out of it, and people who thought we were crazy (in both camps).

Despite being an extremely private person, I also started a blog to document our journey. I would never have guessed that it would be read beyond a few friends and family members. I certainly wouldn't have imagined that a year later we would have over 70,000 hits.

What a journey it's been so far.

There were all the ups and downs, rushing and waiting of the adoption process with the home study and all of the paperwork ("Mount Paperwork" as we knew it) that had to be filled out, notarized, and apostilled (A year ago I didn't even know what apostilled meant!) and would become our dossier.

Once the Ukrainian SDA had received our dossier we had to wait for the invitation to come over. There was the soft rejection of our dossier and the re-submission. Finally, the day arrived when the invitation came and then came the mad dash to get ready for our trip.

For those who have undertaken this journey, you know how emotional it really is. I have never been so profoundly changed by a trip before in my life. Not only did I have the amazing experience of meeting our new son for the first time, but I met other children whose beauty and joy broke my heart and made me want to promote adoption even more strongly than I had before. As I have written numerous times before, not a day has passed that these kids aren't in my thoughts and prayers. I cannot ever forget them. I am also thankful to those of you who have e-mailed me inquiring about different kids that we met. I pray that they are adopted into loving families. As the beginning of Psalm 68:6 tells us, "God sets the lonely in families . . ."

Of course the real journey began not in Ukraine but once Cava came to live in our home as part of our family. Many people asked me if I was going to continue blogging once this happened and I answered with a resounding, "YES!" To me, this is where the rubber meets the road. The journey up to meeting the child is like those romantic comedies you see about the couple getting together, but those films always end just where the real story is. And the same is true of our adoption.

Unlike when you have a biological child, there are no What To Expect When You're Adopting books. Instead, I have read many, many books about parenting adopted children and we continue to go through the challenges that is involved with raising a child who has spent most of their formative years in different orphanages. By the way, thank you to all of the people who've offered suggestions on books and articles to read.

When people hear our story, we get a variety of responses (some of which I've written about), but most of them tend to fall into the "More power to you" sort or the, "Wow, I could never do what you guys are doing" type. And, if you had asked me a year ago, if I could deal with what we have dealt with during these first few months, I would've said that I couldn't either.

Some have commented that I have far more patience than they do and that was why God knew to put Cava in our home. I have to correct them. No, it's not because I have more patience that God gave us Cava, but because I needed to learn patience. And I struggle to learn that lesson every day. But more than teaching me patience, God gave us Cava because Cava needed us. I will repeat what I have said before, "He wasn't born to us but he was born for us."

So as I turn another year older, I will answer what I am continually asked by people, "Knowing what you know now, would you still do it all over again?" ABSOLUTELY!

Adoption is not about getting a perfect child, but getting the child God has for you.

I don't know what our first year together as a new and improved family has in store for us, but I do know and trust that God is continuing a good work in all of us and that our hope is, ultimately, in Him.

Thank all of you who have been following us through this first year of the blog. We deeply, deeply appreciate and value all of you and the love, support, prayers, e-mails, and comments we have gotten. There are days when we have felt alone and down and your comment or e-mail has provided us encouragement. We are so grateful for all of you.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Returning To The Land Of Where The Wild Things Are

When I was younger, one of my all time favorite books was Maurice Sendak's classic book Where The Wild Things Are. Back in 2009, a film adaptation was made. Unlike the children's book, the film has a darker tone as it navigates the land of the wild things, which are merely representations of the young boy Max's psyche.

The film starts with young Max struggling to control his fears, anger, and aggression as his divorced mother begins dating a new man. Max, unsure of where he will fit in, lashes out at his mother, climbs onto the kitchen counter, yells at her, and ends up biting her on the shoulder. She screams, "OWWWW! That hurt, Max! What's the matter with you? Why are you acting like this? This is not acceptable behavior!" Max realizing what he's just done, runs away.

It is by running away that he finds the boat which takes him to the land where the wild things are. There he meets Carol, leader of the wild things. He represents Max's fear of being unloved and rejected who channels that fear into aggression. At one point, Carol's anger gets so uncontrollable that he chases Max through a forest and threatens to eat him.

Later, Max has a conversation with the nurturing, mother-like K.W. Disgusted about Carol's behavior, she says, "Can you believe him?"

Max replies, "He doesn't mean to be that way, K.W. He's just scared."

"Well, he makes it harder. And it's hard enough already."

"And he loves you. You're his family," Max continues.

"Yeah. It's hard being a family."

Now I had seen this movie at the theater when it first came out, but re-watching it now, I found myself in tears. That was Cava. He loves us, we're his family, but he's deeply scared.

A couple of weeks ago, before Cava started taking his ADHD medicine, The Schiele had a free Tuesday and, as part of that, they were showing a sneak preview of the PBS film Curious George Swings Into Spring. Since Cava loves Curious George, I thought this would be perfect for him. We got there early, got a front row seat. Mrs. Beverly, the local PBS personality (she appears in the short segments between shows with Seymour Goodstuff the elephant puppet) was there and she asked who would like to be interviewed after the film. Benjamin, of course, was the first to shoot up his hand. Then came Cava. As Mrs. Beverly took down there names, Cava started talking to her in Ukrainian. 

"Where's he from?" she asked me, so I told her all about the adoption and how Cava loves Curious George.

They had a raffle and both boys won prizes: a Curious George book and a tote.

All of the kids who won had their photos taken. Then they showed the film. Cava being Cava couldn't sit still the whole time. During one of the songs in the movie, he got up and danced. He also kept telling me, "I love Curious George."

When the film was over, all those who weren't going to be interviewed filed out of the auditorium. As the cameraman was setting up his camera, Cava kept trying to touch the camera and the equipment. I kept asking Cava to please come and sit with me while they set up and wait his turn to be interviewed. He couldn't do it. He got defiant and, in the end, I had to take him out so that I could try and calm him down. As I bent down to speak to him, he hauled back and punched me in the face. That was it! I explained to him, that, while Benjamin could stay and be interviewed, since Cava hit me, I would be taking him out. 

Since it was a free Tuesday, The Schiele was packed. And Cava began screaming, kicking me, scratching at me and struggling to get free from me. Not a proud moment for me as all eyes turned on us. Hoping to calm him down, I sat down on the bench near the T-Rex and held him to me. No matter how soothingly I spoke, Cava's fury would not be abated. All he wanted to do was get back to that room and be on camera. When he realized I wasn't going to let him, he began crying and telling me repeatedly that he was sorry. I told him that while I appreciated his being sorry this would not change the fact that I was not taking him back to the auditorium. He grew upset with me again and I knew he was accusing me of favoring Benjamin by letting Benjamin stay to be on camera. I told him, "No, you aren't going to be on camera because you hit Papa, and kicked and scratched me. Your behavior is the reason you're not going to be on camera."

Sitting there, holding this child in his animalistic rage, I kept praying, "Lord, please help us. Both of us." 

What I really wanted to do was disappear from all of the observant eyes. I am a very private person and hate being stared at as a spectacle. Yet here I was, praying and desperately trying to calm this child in the midst for all to see.

Cava finally broke into tears and, even when Benjamin came out to meet us and it was time to go, Cava refused to leave the museum. I had to physically carry him out to the car, still with all eyes of passer-bys on us. 

Once again, feeling that I was keeping him from something he wanted, his anger and aggression got the better of him and he could not snap out of it. He began to hit my car door violently, tried to hit Benjamin, and kept threatening to either unbuckle his seat-belt or open the car door while we were moving. 

Like Carol in the movie, it's only after his rage subsided that Cava realized what he'd done and he wept.

An outing that was meant to be one of enjoyment was anything but and I came home exhausted, embarrassed, and defeated.

Many people who've heard me say that God gave us Cava, question that and ask why I would believe that a loving God would give us such a difficult child who has, so many times, upset our household. Because God knew that Cava needed us. We are Cava's family: something he's always needed but never had. He was put in the baby house as an infant. He has been in three different orphanages in his 8 years. So he's afraid. And, in his fears, he acts out. Like Max and the wild things, he does so out of fear of being unloved, unnoticed, unwanted, or rejected. God never said this would be easy. 

Like Max told K.W., "And he loves you. You're his family." And KW. saying, "Yeah. It's hard being a family."

To help Cava adjust to being a part of a family, Danelle and I are constantly relearning how to parent. This means not only reading books on how to parent an adopted child but getting help from trained professionals. Cava goes weekly to a play therapist and we have also taken him to a behavioral specialist. Another thing we are actively seeking is for him to be cognitively tested. As parents we are learning a whole "new view" about parenting, as Heather Forbes terms it in her book Beyond Consequences, Logic and Control:A Love Based Approach to Helping Children With Severe Behaviors.

She lists 4 key principles:

1. All negative behavior arises from an unconscious, fear-based state of stress.
2. There are only two primary emotions: love and fear.
3. There is both negative and positive repetitious conditioning. We are all conditioned to behave in various ways, both good and bad.
4. Negative and positive neurophysiologic feedback loops exist beyond our conscious awareness. They occur at an unconscious, physiologic level, and we have the ability to change or add to these feedback loops.

There are many childhood traumas that can effect all of us, but Cava has already faced some of the worst: being abandoned by his mother, loss of caregivers, bullying, and physical abuse. Even adoption is a major trauma. Heather Forbes writes that, "When seeking to understand children of trauma, we must fully comprehend that at their deepest core is an emotional state of fear."

All of Cava's negative behaviors: anger, defiance, arguing, aggression, screaming, and tantrums are all caused by the underlying sense of fear. When he hit me at the Schiele, beneath his act was the fear that I was taking away from him the chance to be on camera. He did not see that I was attempting to remove him from the setting to calm him down.   

One night, after he'd gotten in trouble, Cava  got so angry that he told us, for the first time in a long while, that he wanted to go back to Ukraine. He told us Ukraine was good and America was "pogano." It did not matter that we told him how much we would miss him, he went to bed that night unwilling to respond to our love. The next morning, he awakened and was still convinced that he wanted to return and that he was unhappy with us. Until Danelle asked him if he wanted a waffle for breakfast. Cava stopped, thought about it, and he said, "Yes." 

As she started to fix him a waffle, he finally said, "Mama." 


"I'm sorry."  

She went over to him and hugged him, "I'm sorry to. But it's a new day. A new beginning. I love you."

"I love you."

In her book Molecules of Emotion, Candace Pert wrote, "If you look underneath your depression, you'll find anger. Look underneath your anger, and you'll find sadness. And under sadness is the root of it all, what's really masquerading all the while - fear." 

Because Cava has felt rejection his whole life, when he got mad at us, he translated his fear into rejecting us and threatening to return to Ukraine. As Forbes stated in her book, "There is no such thing as willful disobedience or manipulation without first seeds of fear and distress."

In the film Where The Wild Things Are, Judith, one of the wild things, and Max get into an argument. It breaks down with Max mockingly imitating her. She gets upset and tells him, "You know what? You can't do that back to me! If we're upset, your job is not to get upset back at us. Our job is to be upset. If I get mad and want to eat you, then you have to say: "Oh okay. You can eat me. I love you. Whatever makes you happy, Judith." That's what you're supposed to do!"  

Cava is the same way. When he gets upset, it only escalates if we get upset back. Instead, we have to communicate calmly to him. If we raise our voices, then, in fear, he feels threatened and it escalates. We have to model behavior to teach him how to react and behave in order that he can learn to self-regulate, which is something he has been unable to do. So when we start to notice that he is getting frustrated or angry, we have to become a calming influence, like Mister Rogers. Proverbs 15:1 tells us, "A soft answer turns away wrath."

In the end of the film, Max leaves the land of the wild things to return home. When he enters his house, he is nervous and apprehensive. Then he encounters his mom. She bends down and hugs him. Her expression is one of relief and sadness. She is nearly in tears. But she kisses her son and pulls the hood of Max's wolf suit down so that he is just a boy and not a wild thing. Then, they sit at the kitchen table. Starving, Max hungrily wolfs down his food. His mom rests her head on her hand. She's exhausted and begins to fall asleep. Max stops. He looks at his mom and a gentle smile comes across his face. He realizes now, to some degree, what it's like for her. He has gained a small glimpse of understanding about her love for him and he loves her in return. It's a poignant moment and one that brought tears to my eyes (surprise, surprise).

Loving a child who has behavioral problems is far from easy, but to truly love someone is to be fully present in the moment with them, even the bad ones and loving them still. We have to be in the moment with Cava and love him, no matter how he acts or reacts because we understand that, at the base of all his actions, is fear. 1 John 4:18 says, "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear." Through Christ, this is our goal for Cava. It is only then, that Cava will leave the land of the wild things behind and embrace his new home.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Has It Really Been Three Months?

It's hard to believe that 3 months ago today, Cava arrived in the United States as our son. Today it doesn't seem like it's been that long (other days I might not feel that way). When I told Cava how today was 3 months to the day that he arrived in America, he responded in typical Cava fashion, "Really?"

Certainly there have been lots of ups and downs during this short period of time, but Cava appears to be hitting his stride now (with much love, patience, and prayer; along with the help of trained professionals and, most recently, ADHD medication).

For awhile, he would tell us that he was going back to Ukraine with his puzzles. More recently, however, he has been distancing himself from Ukraine. He tells us that he is "American, not Ukrainian."

When he speaks of Ukraine, it is negatively, usually with the term "Pogano" or "bad." Some of this, we believe, is out of fear that he will be sent back. This has been especially true since we sent our dog, Chloe, to stay with my Dad. We believe that Cava began to fear that, if we'd send Chloe away and she's been with us much longer, then he could be sent back too. To allay his fears, we constantly remind him that he's a Blackwell now and that we would all be very sad if he wasn't with us. Then we list off all the people in his life who would be sad if he were gone. He likes hearing this list. As we constantly remind him, with this adoption, there are:

A short time ago, Cava confided in me that other kids had beaten him up in the boarding school because he was smaller and an easier target. Now, he has a tendency to exaggerate how many (all of the kids, all of the adults, and even the bugs in Ukraine). We realize he is creating this ugly portrait of where he came from so that we wouldn't want to send him back since we have told him that we would never want anyone to hurt our Cava. Once more, the word "Pogano" gets used a lot. The people there, even the ones we knew were his friends, the teachers, the caregivers, and the food all get called this. This may also be part of his grieving process, in that, he does not want to think of any of the positives or good memories he has about his past.

When I ask Cava what he likes about America and his home, he responds with a list of all the things he likes here that they didn't have in the Ukraine that he knew: puzzles, chocolate ice cream, parks, Curious George, museums, the library, his own bedroom, DVDs (his favorites being The Lion King and Peter Pan), his favorite foods (spaghetti, mac & cheese, pizza, chips, hamburgers), his school (especially his teachers), Apple (what he calls my iPod), music (see his playlist for samples), and, somewhere down on the list, is Mommy, Papa, Benjamin, Chloe, Granddad Bob, Aunt Kristen, and Aunt Tiana. Quickly, he adds his newest "love" - Just Dance for Wii.

It amazes me to see how much he's changed in this short period, how much English he's already picked up, and how his interests have changed (his new fascination is with bugs and insects). It will be even more exciting to see how much he's changed when the year anniversary comes. Will he still be excited to see a plane? Or spotting a newly bloomed flower?

And what new experiences will he have had by then?

As difficult as some of the days that have made up these last three months have been, I cannot imagine our family without Cava now.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Cava's Playlist

If there's one thing Cava loves "so much" (other than chocolate), it's his "musica."

iTunes likes to have famous  people compile their playlists, so I thought I'd do the same with Cava's.

1. "Hakuna Matata" from The Lion King. I once showed him the YouTube video of this song being sung in Ukrainian, but Cava shook his head, "No, Papa, not right." He only wanted to hear the song in English.

2. "Good Morning" by Mandisa and featuring TobyMac. I love when Cava sings, "Top o' the mornin' to you 'Disa."

3. Speaking of TobyMac, he has two of Cava's favorites: "Eye On It" and "Unstoppable" both off the Eye On It album.

4. Harry Belafonte's "Jump In The Line (Shake Senora)."  And, no, he hasn't seen Beetlejuice.

5. "Head, Shoulders, Knees & Toes" by The Wiggles. I like this song because we get some exercise doing it together. This is followed by The Wiggles' songs "Hot Potato" and "Fruit Salad."

6. "Hello Song" from the PBS show DragonTales. This was one of Benjamin's favorites when he was little, too.

7.  The theme song to Dinosaur Train, which combines two of his favorite things: dinosaurs and trains.

8. Indie songstress Regina Spektor makes an appearance as Cava loves her catchy, upbeat song "Don't Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)". I found a version where she sings it in Russian, but just as with "Hakuna Matata," he didn't want to hear it.

9. The Beatles' "All Together Now":

As you can see, he has a varied taste in songs.  Who knows, maybe one day he can host on one of those college radio stations that have programs with titles like "Eclectic Blend."

Monday, April 15, 2013


Our family would like to congratulate the Brices on their awesome news! After years of waiting, they just got matched with a child in India.

A boy!

When I heard their news today, I was as excited as when we got our invitation to Ukraine.

Again, congratulations to their wonderful family.

To read more about it, go to their blog at:

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Post-Orphanage Behavior in Internationally Adopted Children

Here is an interesting article by Boris Gindis, Ph.D. that was originally posted on the Center for Cognitive-Developmental Assessment & Remediation. Here is a link to their site:

After reading this article, it was amazing to me how many of these our son exhibits. Hopefully this will be a help to others as well.

The psychological effect on child's behavior produced by living in orphanage did not attract the attention of scientists until the first international adoptees from Romania arrived to America. The last US orphanage was closed almost 70 years ago, and the notion of "orphanage behavior" disappeared from the researchers' radar. But when adoption of children from the overseas orphanages reached big numbers during the last two decades, the monster returned but was not recognized. It was given many fancy names, from "institutional autism" to "attachment disorder." In cases of "institutional autism," those children would be later diagnosed with "real" autism or, more often, their behavior would gradually morph into normal family-oriented and acceptable patterns (see my article Institutional autism in children adopted internationally: myth or reality?). The situation with attachment diagnoses was even more complex (see my article Attachment disorder: are we trying to fit square pegs into the round holes? ), as a child's unruly or unusual behavior in a family setting was not necessarily a sign of any medical/psychiatric condition. In fact, in many cases this was a post-orphanage behavior, magnified by an early childhood trauma and reinforced by the abrupt loss of first language and new negative circumstances.
We all intuitively understand that an institutional culture must be the breeding ground for institutional behavior among children who do not get adequate care and proper mediation from adults in their early most formative years, are continuously traumatized, and often forced into survival mode. We do not have any reliable research on these depraving forces, but we do see the psychological effects and consequences of these conditions for children in their post-institutional period, which I will identify and describe based on my observations and on hundreds of psychological assessments I have conducted over 20 years.

Post-Orphanage Behavior (POB) syndrome is a cluster of learned (acquired) behaviors that could have been adaptive and effective in orphanages but became maladaptive and counter-productive in the new family environment. I believe that to some extent we can initially observe some patterns of POB in the majority of post-institutionalized children. As one can see further, some characteristics of POB may even contradict each other (e.g., learned helplessness and self-parenting), but nevertheless can still be found in the same child. In fact, the illogical combination of seemingly opposite characteristics is the very essence of POB.
Though it is difficult to trace the direct link between certain environmental conditions affecting a former orphanage resident with the resulting psychological traits of the growing up person who now lives in the family - it's always a complex combination of biological and social aspects - we have to identify the main patterns of expected and common post-orphanage behavior and separate temporary from long-term psychological problems. Below we will look at several components of post-orphanage behavior. They are most common among international adoptees, but there may be some additional traits which I do not review here like hoarding, stealing, habitual lying, and other anti-social acts reported by adoptive parents.

Poor self regulation
A peculiar combination of rigid routine with ongoing uncontrollable changes in the environment is typical for foreign institutions: constant turnover of caregivers and frequent transfers of children between institutions create unpredictability in living arrangements and lead to a tremendous sense of instability and lack of control. On the other hand, children's everyday routines are fixed with rigid schedules, virtually no personal choices, and no private possession of toys or other goods. As a result of this everyday routine combined with sudden uncontrollable change, there is a minimal need for behavioral self-regulation, long-term planning, or a need to practice goal-directed consistent behavior. The orphanage residents live in a "reactive" mode, surviving "one day at a time." Immaturity in self-regulation of behavior and emotions can be seen in such behavior patterns as:

  • Difficulties with sustaining goal-directed behavior, independent generating of problem-solving strategies and methods toward achieving goals, carrying out multi-step activities and following complex instructions, monitoring/checking and keeping track of performance.
  • Emotional volatility - the inability to modulate emotional responses. These children are easily aroused emotionally - whether happy or sad, the speed and intensity with which they move to the extreme of their emotions is much greater than that of their same age peers; they are often on a roller coaster ride of emotions. As observed by one parent: "When my 8-year-old is happy, he is so happy that people tell him to calm down. When he is unhappy, he is so unhappy that people tell him to calm down."
  • Reluctance/unwillingness to perform tasks that are repetitive, uninteresting, require effort, and that have not been chosen by the child (but that is what life in general and school learning in particular consist of!). It is very hard for them to shift (to make transitions, change focus from one mindset to another, switch or alternate attention) and to inhibit, resist, or not act on an impulse, including an ability to stop one's activity at the appropriate time.
  • Difficulty with delaying gratification and accepting "No" for an answer. In this respect many post-institutionalized children are rather similar to much younger children than to their peers.
These are only a small sample of the characteristics of immature self-regulation, which, being a part of POB, may appear as symptoms of ADHD and other neurologically-based disorders.

Mixed maturity
Poor self-regulation often comes across as phenomenon of mixed maturity, when the same post-institutionalized child at times may demonstrate the behavior of an older child and at times of a much younger one. For example, in terms of self-care and performed chores, a child may be well advanced for their age, may tend to interact more with older children and have interests advanced for their age, but in reaction to stress and frustration they may behave in a way that is usually expected from a child several years their junior. This obvious inconsistency is very confusing for parents and teachers.

Self-parenting in adopted children (not to be confused with the psychological technique of "inner talk" promoted by Dr. J. Pollard) is, in essence, an attempt to assume the role of parent, thus denying the actual parents their major social role. Post-institutionalized children may:
  • Constantly attempt tasks that are normally beyond their age level abilities and skills.
  • Resort to taking "justice" into their own hands in their relationships with peers instead of appealing to adults in resolving conflicts as is expected at a certain age.
  • Try to reverse the child-parent role by "supervising" parents and generally "bossing around" both their siblings and adults.
Although sometimes looking "funny" and even "cute" (when a seven year old girl teachers her mother how to use makeup or a nine year old boy gives his father instructions on how to drive a car), these patterns of behavior can be quite annoying for parents. Such behaviors may impede the bonding process and negatively affect biological children. In essence, such inappropriate social skills reveal an attempt to prove one's own self-esteem and self-worth and are an intrinsic part of POB.

Learned helplessness
This behavior seems to be the opposite of "self-parenting" but can be found in the same child. Both patterns of behavior are clearly "learned skills" in origin. Children in orphanages have been conditioned to get more attention from caregivers when they appear helpless: the more independent children in an institutional environment are, the less attention they receive. Some post-institutionalized children have deeply internalized this behavior and manage to appeal to a wide audience with demonstrated helplessness. This behavior has also been observed in abused children, who would rather have negative reinforcement than no attention at all. Learned helplessness is tolerated by society much longer than acting-out behavior. Many of these children actually have the needed skills or knowledge, but are resistant to any attempt to encourage them to act independently. There is, of course, a genuine need for help, but sometimes the line between learned helplessness and real need may be rather thin.

Controlling and avoiding behavior
Another important characteristic of POB is a global sense of insecurity that results in controlling and avoiding behaviors. It takes different forms in school and at home. In school, with their fragile and vulnerable sense of competence, a former orphanage resident feels (subconsciously) that it is better to be perceived as being uncooperative rather than an underachiever. Being insecure and too sensitive to failure, these children tend to avoid classroom assignments or activities that they perceive as "difficult," hence their refusal or noncompliance. It can be open defiance or hidden sabotage, but it is rooted in their overwhelming need to be always in control, to be on known and manageable "turf." This is an obstacle in their learning: to be a good learner means to take risks, to step into unknown territory, to be sure of one's own ability to cope, and to be prepared to accept help.
A substantial part of controlling and avoiding behavior comes from separation anxiety that may be a bizarre form of fear of being sent back to the orphanage, being passed to another family, or just being left alone. For a long time this fear stays in the mind of many international adoptees in spite of verbal assurances of their adoptive parents, and it may interfere with normal functioning in school and in the family.

The early childhood experiences of deprivation and insecurity force a post-institutionalized child to fight for control at home. This fight may assume ugly forms and can be very upsetting for parents. Controlling and avoiding behavior is often considered to be the core of "attachment disorder." The question remains to what extent this "disorder" is a learned survival skill for achieving security as understood by a traumatized child.

Self-soothing and self-stimulating behavior
A consistent state of abandonment, deprivation, and neglect of basic emotional needs "educates" orphanage residents on how to "take care" of their own emotional needs with self-soothing and self-stimulating behavior, which might have been copied or arrived at independently by a child. These might be:
  • Withdrawal/aloofness with finger sucking, hair twisting, full-body spinning and rocking, head spinning and banging, covering ears to block out even ordinary sounds.
  • Active resistance to any changes in routine and environment, excessive reaction to even ordinary stimuli, extreme restlessness, obsessive touching of self and objects, unusual reaction to some sensory stimuli (taste, smell, touch), making unusual, animal-like sounds.
Hyper-vigilance and "pro-active" aggressiveness
Children who are neglected and traumatized during early formative years tend to display higher levels of aggressive behavior (Gunnar, M., & Van Dulmen, M. (2007). Behavior Problems in Post-institutionalized Internationally Adopted Children. Development and Psychopathology, 19, 1, pp. 129-148). "Hyper-arousal," a heightened alertness and vigilance combined with an inability to correctly interpret the emotional side of the situation, is typical for many post-orphanage children, and it often results in inadequate social interactions both with peers and adults. Perceived threats can objectively be typical day-to-day events (like a new environment, loud re-direction, the mother's simple request to clean the table, disrupted routine, perceived rejection by peers, etc.). In such situations boys can be "tough" and proactively aggressive in their urge to dominate peers and protect themselves from the "expected" hostility of their environment. Girls can present themselves in a seductive and promiscuous way, trying to control the situation by means unexpected in their age group.

Feeling of entitlement
Due to the very nature of orphanage life, when "goods and services" come from "out of the blue" and are delivered seemingly evenly to everyone in the group, it produces the feeling of entitlement in the orphanage inmates. The dictionary defines "entitle" as "to furnish with a right or claim to something." Entitlement is a normal stage of human development: when an 18-month-old demands possession of everything he sees, it is a natural and passing stage of growth. However, for a 9-year-old it is not appropriate developmentally: a child should have learned by this time to balance taking and giving. A normally developing child of a certain age (at least by the toddler stage) learns that goods (e.g.: toys) come as rewards for achievements or as presents given in certain situations (birthday, holidays, etc.) and not just because the "thing" exists and he/she wants to have it. When a child whines and screams, demanding a new toy she sees on the store shelf or a new pair of sneakers he has seen his classmates wear, or a new cereal just advertised on TV - this is the feeling of entitlement of which we are speaking. A child who was raised in an ordinary family may also have a sense of entitlement, of course. But children raised in orphanages have this feeling on much greater scale. They are conditioned to the notion that if one member of a group has something (say, is given a pencil or a notebook), other members of the same group are supposed to get the same, too, whether they need it or not. They may not understand the appropriateness of their demand (when a 17-year-old sibling has a privilege of returning home at 10 in the evening, a 12-year-old may hysterically request the same privilege for himself). While a sense of entitlement in children raised in families may result from poor parental techniques (like giving rewards randomly and for no reason), in orphanage residents this is a survival skill determined by institutional care. As such, it is only one small step away from the feeling of entitlement to obtain things though theft, robbery, or deception.

Extreme attention seeking
Adult attention is a rare and most valuable commodity in an orphanage, and children there fiercely compete for adult attention, sometimes through negative behavior (it is better to be punished than ignored). Orphanage residents constantly seek adult attention, approval, and encouragement. Often, no matter what they do, the motivation is to evoke a reaction from the grown-up, not to solve a problem or achieve some goal. This extreme urge to obtain attention is borderline with pathology. Thus, I often observe in post-institutionalized children what I call "person-oriented" versus "goal-oriented" behavior. For example, during testing the child is asked to make a block design according to a model presented in a booklet in front of her. However, the girl will not look at the model but will keep looking at me, randomly moving blocks in anticipation of my reaction. As soon as she infers that I am pleased with her performance, she stops her activity, in spite of the fact that her result is not the same as the model. Her motivation is not to accomplish the task but to please the adult and evoke his sympathy and attention. This urge to win an adult's attention and approval is typical for children in general, but in post-institutionalized children it often reaches extremes at the expense of independent goal-directed activity. It may adversely affect their performance on standardized tests where the examiner's behavior, by definition, is supposed to be "neutral" and "impartial." In such situations, post-institutionalized children may lose interest and motivation to perform: to "achieve" for many of them means to get an adult's approval, not to accomplish the task.

Indiscriminate friendliness with strangers
Orphanage raised children, similar to patients with personality disorders, may show indiscriminate and superficial friendliness with strangers. They may behave inappropriately with complete strangers they meet at a party or in a store. In fact, to their adoptive parents' frustration, they may demonstrate more intimate feelings towards strangers than to their parents. It is always a shock to adoptive parents when I explain them that for an orphanage resident any and every adult is a potential parent, and this disconcerting attitude may stay with them for many months after the actual adoption. I remember a 7 year old boy whom I evaluated after more than a year in the adoptive family. On the second day of testing he leaned over to me and said: "Will you adopt me? I do not like them (meaning his adoptive parents), I'll better stay with you. I am good at cleaning up an apartment." The above behaviors may all be presented in the same child and with a wide range of intensity. There are no gender differences in these behaviors, except withdrawal being more typical for girls and aggressiveness being more typical for boys. Some of these behaviors are similar to those observed in a range of psychiatric conditions such as ADHD, PTSD, and RAD. It is important to note that some POB patterns are mostly found in younger and some in older children.

Managing post-orphanage behavior in your child
After adoption, a child faces the task of transforming his/her orphanage survival skills into functional family/school relationships. The child has to learn new patterns of behavior and new social skills to interact with adults and peers. The time spent in orphanage sometimes, but not necessarily always, may correlate with the intensity of orphanage behavior internalized by the child. The range of individual differences here is very broad. In some adopted children the transformation of social skills and maturation of self-regulation comes naturally with time and practice. In many cases, POB will diminish by itself through observation and participation in family life (social learning) and figuring out what the most appropriate and productive behavior is. Indeed, in some children POB may be very mild and may vanish quickly. In others it may go away quickly, but suddenly reappear under stress. In others yet it takes a long time, great effort, and special help (counseling) to get rid of POB.
It is extremely important to realize that POB has shared symptoms with serious mental/emotional disorders. Therefore, those professionals who have no experience with post-institutionalized children may be easily confused and find a host of disorders from ADHD to RAD and affective disorders in children who may in fact demonstrate just POB. On the other hand, POB may mask, be in addition to, and be reinforced by organic and neurologically based genuine disorders, as can bi-polar or ADHD. In talking about "learned" behavior, by no means do I discount the possibility that some of these children may have childhood depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or ADHD. However, it takes time to diminish the effects of POB in order to understand the underlying emotional problems. Hopefully, a skillful clinician is able to recognize the roots of the issue before putting these children on medication. (For more info about the differential analysis of a host of medical conditions in international adoptees, see my article Cognitive, Language, and Educational Issues of Children Adopted from Overseas Orphanages.)

The question is, how long do you need to wait for POB to subside before you know "something is still not right, there is a problem"? I have no answer for all individual situations, but the rule of thumb is this: POB has a tendency to recede with time (several months to a year or longer in some cases), while a genuine disorder will stay and get worse. The bottom line is that POB is a "learned" behavior: a set of survival skills that are functional and adaptive in the specific milieu of an orphanage. Therefore, the only remedy is to substitute these orphanage skills with newly learned, different, and at times opposite behavior.

Friday, April 12, 2013

A Sad Statistic

This statistic breaks my heart. I cannot help but think of those beautiful children we met, especially the older ones who will be aging out of the system soon. Not a day has passed that I don't think of and pray for them.

I can't help but think of V., who was 14 when we met her. She spoke in fragmented English, but she was sweet and polite. I also noticed that she helped take care of the younger kids. One of the first things she asked me was, "Will you be staying for the New Years?" There was a hopefulness in her voice for me to reply in the positive. Although all of her clothes were hand-me-downs, it was obvious that she took great pride and care of how she dressed. I remember how she smiled shyly when I commented on how much I liked her sneakers. What stood out for me even more was how she came to our room while I was drawing pictures for the other kids and she handed my wife a small photo album. "What's this?" my wife asked. "Give to him," she replied, referring to me, and when my wife asked her why, she answered, "Out of gratitude." She gave me a possession she prized simply because I drew pictures for her and the other kids. She told me she was 14 then, I don't know if she's had a birthday since, but even if she hasn't, she is only 2 years away from graduating out of the system.

Or T., the 12 year old, who drew in my sketchbook and handed it back to me. There were three drawings, the last of which was a heart. When I came to that page, she pointed to the drawn heart, then to hers, and told me it was her heart for me. I think of how she smiled every time we came into contact and how much she liked that I hugged her. More than this, I remember her tears as we left the boarding school for the last time because she realized we weren't adopting her. I was heart-broken because I had wanted to. I had inquired about adopting her since she was in our approved age range and she was an only child (something that can be quite rare) and was told we would have to start the whole adoption process over again (home study, dossier, etc) and that would take another year and a lot of money that we didn't have.

Since the boarding school was in such a rural and impoverished area (the nicest building in the town was the unemployment office), I asked our translator, "What happens to these kids when they graduate?" "They go to a bigger city like Odessa." "And what happens to them there?" "They tend to end up prey to those who would take advantage of them. Most girls end up in prostitution."

My heart sank. Part of the reason I wept when we left was at the thought of these beautiful children who so desperately need love and of the fate that awaited so many if they weren't adopted. And I knew the dismal statistics on the chances for children their age to be adopted. Many people who adopt either here or abroad want babies or younger children. Every year in this country alone, over 30,000 teens will age out of the system. The numbers for the adopting of older children are half those of younger children and the statistics for boys compared to girls are even worse (64% girls to only 36% boys). Is it any wonder then that so many of the young men who leave orphanages either commit suicide, turn to drugs, or end up in crime?

Even in the United States, 43% of the children waiting to be adopted are over the age of 9, but 72% of the children adopted are under the age of 9 (according to the National American Council on Adoptable Children. Here's a link to their site: And they also stated that the percentage of children 9 and older who are waiting to be adopted has grown from 39% in 1998 to 44% (this means 4 in 10 children are waiting.

For those of you who are considering adoption, please prayerfully consider an older child(ren). Prayerfully consider adopting males. I know in the boarding school we went to, it appeared that for every female that was there, there were 3 males.

If we are the hands and feet of God are we, as Christians, amputating our Heavenly Father by not obeying His command to take care of the least of these? How can we, as Christians, look at the statistic for these kids and not be moved to do something?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Spring Fever Is Sprung!

Since it was in the 80's today, the boys wanted to play in the sprinkler outside. I should correct that, Benjamin wanted to and convinced Cava to beg me, too. How can I resist letting Cava play in the sprinkler for the first time? I couldn't. So I dragged the hose out into the backyard, connected the sprinkler, and turned the water on. The boys were out of the house in a flash.

At first, Cava was reluctant to just jump in the sprinkler and he merely put his hands in the spray.

It wasn't long, however, before he was jumping through it like an old pro.

When he wasn't jumping through the water, he was waiting in excited expectation for the water to hit him as he stood off to the side.

While the temperature outside was hot, the water was definitely cold because it did not take Cava long to go and sit on the swing in the sun with towel wrapped around him.

I asked him if he liked playing in the sprinkler. "Da, I love sprinkler." 

I can't wait to see how he reacts this summer to going to a pool or the beach. He bounces in his car seat with happiness every time we cross the Buster Boyd Bridge over Lake Wylie or one of the local rivers, so imagine what his reaction will be to seeing the ocean for the very first time?

He also loves the flora and fauna of Spring. Every time a new plant blooms, he gets overjoyed and has to take me to see it, whether it's the azalea bushes:

Or the tulips:

It makes me happy that he appreciates these things and actually notices them. Not to mention, makes all of us stop and take notice as well. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

A Room Of One's Own

As I've written before, there are many firsts that we missed with Cava, but there are also so much more that we get to be a part of.

Once Aunt Tiana had gone, we converted what had been our guest room into Cava's. He had been asking us repeatedly when he was going to get a room of his own and the day finally came.

Wanting to be a big helper, Cava used his Spiderman muscles to help Mommy and I take all of his belongings, including his bed and organize them in his new room.

He gathered his few little items and put them in the drawer of his bedside table.

Cava was so proud and had to show all of us individually. It was so cute the tour he gave and how he pointed out each of his toys, stuffed animals, and posters. He wanted to show everything off and to have us approve.

In Ukraine, at the boarding school where we met him, Cava shared a room with five other boys.

When he got to the U.S., we had him share a room with Benjamin since we thought that might help his transition go more smoothly.

But now, Cava wanted to have something he'd never had before: his very own room. A room that he didn't have to share with anyone.

After everything was set the way Cava wanted it, he had me take a photo of him.

Later, he came up to me, hugged me and said, "Thank you, Papa."

"For what, Cava?"

"My room," he beamed, "Thank you so very much."

"You're welcome, buddy."

When I checked on him an hour or so later, he was sitting on his bed, just looking around and his expression was, "Wow! This is all mine. Just mine."

Sunday, April 7, 2013

A Visit From Aunt Tiana

As the boys' Spring Break comes to its inevitable end, they were excited that their Aunt Tiana was coming up from Charleston for a visit. This would be her first time meeting Cava and, between he and Benjamin, both of whom would give me an update throughout the day to let me know what time it was and how much longer it would be until she got here. And, once she had, they were all over her.

With their Aunt here, the calls of "Papa" and "Mama" were replaced by the constant calling for the attention of "Aunt Tiana." It was a showdown of look at me and take my picture. Even Benjamin who normally responds to my taking photos with, "Not again," was begging her to take his photo. What's up with that?

Of course, Aunt Tiana or not, Cava was not about to miss his nightly ritual bubble bath:

The boy loves him some bubbles and posing with them. He is definitely not camera shy.

Come Saturday, they had the whole day to pose and want their Aunt's attention. "Look at me! Aunt Tiana, look at me! Take a picture of me, Aunt Tiana!" Mommy and Papa were invisible. It started with Aunt Tiana doing one of Cava's favorite past times: puzzles. Then a breakfast of pancakes, sausage or bacon, or, in Benjamin's case, both.

To work off our big breakfast, it was outside and swing time!

Cava had me go get my camera so I could take a photo of him and Tiana.

His phrase of the day, "I love Aunt Tiana."

There was a rope climbing competition (Sort of. I'll let the photos speak for themselves):

Aunt Tiana even got in on the posing wearing her fashionable bendable rubber praying mantis accessory that's all the rage these days:

In the afternoon, when Danelle and I took Cava to his play therapy session, Benjamin got some alone time with his Aunt. She took him to two of his favorite places: Radio Shack and Krispy Kreme. I know he loved getting to spend one-on-one time with her and not having to share her attention for awhile.

When we got back, we did what we always do when a family member comes for a visit: we went to a park! The boys started by playing on the elaborate rope course:

But Cava being Cava just had to climb other things as well:

Then they rode the small train:

When I asked Cava if he liked riding the train, he responded with a smile and, "It's really cool!"

Later, as he was walking with me, he told me, "Ukraine: no train, no park. I like America."

Needless to say, he slept very well when bedtime rolled around.

The boys were sad when Sunday came and Aunt Tiana had to return home. 

There was an added sadness to her leaving since our dog Chloe would be traveling with her to Granddad Bob's. She's going to be staying with him for awhile since we've had a problem with Cava being too rough with her. 

Benjamin was especially sad to see his best buddy leaving. He's had her by his side ever since he was 5 and the two of them are inseparable. In fact, the longest they've ever been apart was when we were in Ukraine. 

Still, we know Granddad Bob will be spoiling his grand-dog. 

And we will count the days until Chloe can come back home.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Happy Birthday Benjamin!

I cannot believe it was 13 years ago today that I was holding my son for the very first time. He was 8 pounds, 5 ounces and 21 inches long. And boy did he have some strong lungs! Benjamin wailed until I went over to him and whispered, "It's okay, your Papa's here," and then he got quiet. He knew his Papa's voice.

I had read about a Middle Eastern custom that each person who holds a newborn baby for the first time is to whisper a prayer of blessing into the child's ear, so I had each family member and friend who came by do just that.

I named him Benjamin, which means "son of my right hand" in Hebrew, and he has been just that.

Sometimes I'll tell him, "I can't imagine what my life would be like without you in it," and he replies, "Boring." And boy is he right. He makes my life more interesting with his questions (often deep and complicated ones), his inquisitiveness, his scientific interests (I can't even count how many experiments we've done together over the years), and the fact that he brings a smile to my face when I think about him.

Every night I go into his room while he's sleeping, pray over him, and kiss his head. Not a day has gone by since he was born that I have not told him that I loved him.

His birthday is 23 days before mine, so I have always considered him the best birthday present that I ever got.

It's nice having a son that I not only love, but that I'm proud of the young man he's becoming. While he is very intelligent, what I am most proud of is his good heart. One of his teachers once told us about how Benjamin has a sense of fairness and does not like to see anyone left out. That meant more to me than anything she could have said about his grades. For me, his success will not be in terms of financial or material things, but in how he loves others. When my grandfather, Papa Fred, died, someone said of him, "He never said an unkind word about anyone." That truly is something to strive for and is something that won't be said of me. I hope it will be said of Benjamin.

We try to nurture and encourage him, not only in his interests and passions, but in his faith and his character. That is one of the reasons we took him with us to Ukraine so that he could see that, while we are far from being wealthy, how we are still blessed more than most in this world. And he saw that. I watched as that experience opened his eyes to how little others can have.

I don't know what God has in store for Benjamin's future, but every night as I pray over him, I pray that Benjamin is open to whatever and wherever God leads him. This isn't an easy prayer for me, because I don't want to give him up. I know that, like C.S. Lewis once wrote, there is always "higher up, further in." But I pray that prayer because I know God has a bigger and better plan for Benjamin's life than I can ever imagine.

As I watch my son growing up, I sometimes wistfully miss the times when he was younger, but I also have looked on in amazement at who he's becoming and I often think how he is the young man I wish I had been.

Benjamin, I love you very, very much, I am deeply proud of you, and not a day has passed that I don't thank God that you are my son.

I love you.

Happy birthday.

Your Papa