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Speech and Language for the Adopted Child

The number of foreign adoptions in the US continues to grow every year. Children who are adopted may be at greater risk for speech and/or language difficulties. Occasionally, this is secondary to a congenital disorder and, at times, the difficulties are secondary to the abrupt change in the child’s primary language. It is important to be aware and know what to expect with an adopted child.  

When Should An Adopted Child Start Speaking? adoption and speech

Speech/language should be closely monitored for the first 12 months. This is approximately enough time for a child to “catch-up” with their native speaking peers if adopted before age 2-2 ½. Adopted children that are older than 2 ½ will often catch up quickly as well; however, it may take a longer period of time to acquire the language.

How “Age” At Adoption Makes An Impact On Speech:

The orphanage conditions have an impact on the exposure and quality of language and interaction that your child received during these very important years, therefore, the longer the child was exposed, the longer amount of time the child may require to readjust. Unfortunately, some research by Gunnar & Quevedo (2007 ) indicates that prolonged exposure in these orphanages may have permanent effects on stress that can impact the memory storage and retrieval areas of the brain associated with language. The younger the child is when adopted, the better outcomes predicted.

Children adopted during the preschool years have minds that are uniquely prepared  to absorb language, regardless of their birth language. In other Read more

10 Do’s and Don’ts for Talking about Adoption

“Where do babies come from?” This question can feel overwhelming for any parent to tackle, but when adoption is a part of your child’s story, this question can become more complicated. Understanding adoption as a part of one’s identity is a life-long process. As your child’s understanding of family, relationships, and society develops, so will her ideas about her own adoption. Talking to your child about her adoption requires empathy, validation, openness, and courage. Here are some tips you can use along the way.

DOs and DON’Ts for talking to young children about adoption

  1. DO begin talking about adoption with your child at an early age.  Talking about adoption with your child early on can set the tone that adoption is a comfortable and safe topic to discuss, which canadoption family encourage children to ask questions and develop their adoption stories as they get older. See below for a list of activities you can do with your children when talking about adoption.
  2. DON’T use adoption as a descriptor for your child.  Using terms, such as “our adopted child” can make children feel inferior to children who are raised by their birthparents. Instead, use adoption positive language, such as, “We are so happy we adopted you and that you are our son!”
  3. DO start at the beginning.  When first telling young children about their adoption, start at the beginning of the story with their birthmother and birthfather. For toddlers, use simple explanations about why the birthparents made their decision (ex. “They loved their baby but couldn’t take care of her and wanted to find a mommy and daddy who could love and care for her”) and why adoptive parents wanted to adopt (ex. “We really wanted a baby girl to love and be a part of our family. We were so excited to meet you and are so happy you are our daughter!”) Be sure to emphasize that there was nothing “wrong” with your child, but rather that her birthparents could not raise a baby. Also, emphasize that adoption is permanent, as children may fear that they could be placed for adoption again. Note: Families have varying circumstances and reasons for adoption, and parents can include these unique details into the adoption story as they see fit (ex. Domestic adoption, international adoption, transracial adoption, foster parenting, adopting relatives, adopting infants/children/teenagers).
  4. DON’T minimize loss and grief.  An adoption story begins with a loss for children-loss of the birthparents. As children reach preschool age, they may start to question why their birthparents made the decision to place them for adoption. They may have questions about their birthparents and feel sad when they do not have answers. They may also feel out of place among their peers when they realize that most of them live with their birthparents. Also, with comments, such as “You are such a lucky girl to have been adopted,” a child may think that she should feel grateful and not sad. As parents, normalizing your child’s feelings of loss and grief is vital. Children need a place where they can feel safe discussing these difficult feelings.
  5. DO pay attention to your own feelings.  When your child makes statements, such as “You are not my real parent” or “I wish I could meet my birthparents,” you may understandably feel sad and confused. Having a space to discuss your own feelings as an adoptive parent is important. Children in general, both adopted and non-adopted, make comments, such as “I hate you” or “I wish you weren’t my parent,” but these statements may feel more loaded when they are made by a child you adopted. Attending to your own feelings can ensure that when your child makes these statements, instead of taking these comments personally, you can provide validation and empathy for your child’s feelings of loss, confusion, grief, and anger.
  6. DON’T lie to your child.  While there are some parts of the story that children may not be ready to understand, you can add these details to the story as children get older.
  7. DO add more to the story as children become older.  As children get older, they may have more questions and thoughts about their adoption. Adding more developmentally appropriate details to the story is important, so that children can process more information when able. Also, adding to the story can encourage children to continue to ask questions as they have them. Adoption experts suggest that children should know all of the history and facts about their adoption by their teenage years.
  8. DO initiate conversations.  Initiating conversations about adoption is a great way to provide an open, safe space for children to talk about their adoption. Some children may not ask questions or talk about adoption on their own, but this does not necessarily mean they are not thinking about adoption. Opening the conversation as parents models to children that adoption is a comfortable, appropriate topic to discuss and can allow children to initiate conversations in the future.
  9. DO encourage questions.  Children may need prompts from their parents to ask questions. They may think that it will hurt their parents’ feelings if they ask questions about their birthparents. When able, use concrete, simple language to answer questions. If children ask questions you do not know the answer to (ex. “Do you think my birthmother is looking for me?”), be honest and empathize with and validate your child’s question (ex. “I can understand why you want to know that, but I don’t know either. It must be hard to not know. Would you like to talk about it?”).
  10. DO reach out and educate yourself.  Adoption is a life-long process, and more questions and issues may arise as children get older. Learning about potential conversations to expect as children get older, as well as strategies to provide validation and empathy for your child, can help with this process. One way to reach out and educate yourself is to join support groups. There are parent-child support groups, as well as separate groups for parents and children. These groups can provide a safe, understanding environment, as well as promote community and belonging. Here is a website that can help you search for support groups based on state, county, and family type (any, U.S., international, foster): http://www.adoptivefamilies.com/support_group.php

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International Adoption and Speech-Language Development

According to the U.S. Department of State, approximately 11,059 children were adopted internationally in 2010.  Over 88% of these children were likely raised in an orphanage prior to their adoption (Johnson & Dole, 1999).  Research has well-documented that children raised in orphanage care are at a Baby Reaching Out Handhigh risk for language and developmental delays (Johnson, 2000).  For expecting parents, this may sound overwhelming and even intimidating.  However, research also says that adoption can often counteract the effects of orphanage care.  Understanding what the research says can be a liberating guide for parents as they support their child through the adoption process.  Knowing what to expect can reduce anxiety and empower parents to plan and prepare with confidence.

What Language Skills Can Adopting Parents Expect?

  • Children who have spent time in orphanage care often show delayed language skills.  It’s important to know that delays are not just in the new language, but in their birth language as well.  These children may vocalize or babble less frequently, have limited vocabulary and use of phrases or sentences, show difficulty understanding spoken language, and have poor speech clarity.
  • Most children raised in orphanage care have strong non-verbal social interaction skills.  This includes skills such as making eye-contact, using facial expressions, smiling at others, showing toys to adults, pointed to or reaching for desired toys, and pushing items away that they don’t want.
  • In most cases, language delays are a direct result of limited one-on-one interactions with adults while in orphanage care.  As children learn to speak, their sounds and words are reinforced by caregivers who model, respond and encourage language.  Without this individualized care, children’s communicative attempts become stalled.  Even in caring and well-equipped environments, less available adults per child will likely result in language delays.
  • It’s important to keep in mind that there are always exceptions.  While most language delays are a result of limited interaction with caregivers, some children might have underlying developmental disorders that are not a result of a orphanage care.  It’s important to seek guidance from a licensed speech-language pathologist to determine if your child needs intervention.
  • After adoption, children will likely loose their birth language quickly (unless their adoptive parents speak their native language).  The child’s birth language is likely to be lost before their new language is fully acquired.  During this period of time when language is temporarily arrested, a child might feel more frustrated when they can’t communicate effectively.
  • After adoption, children will quickly begin to acquire their new language.  In fact, research suggests that children adopted under the age of 2, often develop language skills that are within normal limits one year after adoption (Glennen, 2007).  Skills will continue to progress after the first year, although, the majority of language acquisition occurs during the initial year following adoption.

How Can Parents Help Their Child Develop Language Skills?

One of the most effective ways to counteract the effects of orphanage care is adoption.  Parents and caregivers play a critical role in helping their child develop communication skills.  Create a language-rich environment for your child, and enjoy one-on-one time together.  Here are specific ways to promote speech and language development in your toddler:

  • Play with your child!  Come down to their level, and sit face-to-face while you play.  Model, encourage and reinforce their communication while you play.
  • Encourage your child to imitate your actions, gestures and sounds. Make animal sounds or environmental noises (e.g. beep beep, moo moo, etc) or sing songs with gestures (e.g. Itsy Bitsy Spider, Wheels on the Bus, etc).
  • Label various objects and actions. Describe objects or actions in the environment, or read picture books while pointing to different pictures.
  • Narrate what is happening in the environment.  Use simple language to describe what you see or what people are doing (e.g. Bear is sleeping! Mommy is jumping!).
  • Play turn-taking games, such as passing a ball a ball back and forth or sharing a toy.
  • Reinforce your child’s communicative attempts by responding to and repeating what they say.

For more tips to encourage language development in toddlers, visit the blog “Encouraging Your Infant to Communicate“.