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War in Ukraine and Our Adopted Children

Putin's bloody aggression against Ukraine keeps the entire world in tension and anxiety. But your situation is special: your children, now mostly in their adolescent or even young adult years, were adopted from both Ukraine and Russia! Some still have biological relatives or friends in both countries.

Let me give you two specific examUKRAINIAN CHILDT=REples. There is a family I started working with well before the Russian invasion. Their son Nicholas is a 15-year-old boy adopted two years ago from Ukraine. Second is Alex, a 13-year-old, who was adopted 10 years ago from Russia. After February 24, Nicholas developed difficulty sleeping, lost concentration and interest in school and became preoccupied with thoughts about the other children still living in his orphanage. He worried about their survival and about the welfare of his God-mother in the village where he lived before the orphanage.

Alex came home from school this past week. He seemed very upset, walked to his room, and just sat there, refusing to speak. He later revealed that his classmates had told him he was evil because he was Russian. He felt embarrassed about being Russian, and worried if he really is bad because he is Russian. What if everyone hates him now and in the future? Nicholas and Alex's stories reflect the huge spike in anxiety, sadness, guilt, fear, shame, and worry we are seeing among both Ukrainian and Russian adoptees. I will return to these two boys' story as we proceed.

I expect that most children in adoptive families will manage this current situation with your support, even if they show signs of anxiety and confusion. However, some children, like Nicholas and Alex, may have more intense emotional reactions, up to the point of disruption of their day-to-day functioning. Some adolescents who are older and recently adopted from Ukraine may follow news on social media and feel desperate and frightened that the places where they lived before their adoption are now destroyed. What actions can be taken to support the mental health and psychosocial wellbeing of our children? Let us restrict our conversation only to the family situation and only to older children between 12 to 18 years.

Emotions: What emotions are our teenagers or young adults (and some adoptive parents) currently experiencing while the war in Ukraine continues? We see evidence of such intense negative emotional conditions as sadness, confusion, anger, irritability, aggressiveness, lack of concentration, and withdrawal from activities and friends. Let me describe two more emotional reactions, less often mentioned - a mental state known as survival guilt and the attitude known as dual loyalty.
Survival guilt is a particular kind of self-reproach that develops in people who have survived and escaped a situation that turned out to be deadly or horrifying for others. It is usually viewed as one of the cognitive and mood-related symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress syndrome. Older children, like Nicholas, adopted recently from Ukraine and living now in a safe place in your homes, may feel as if they don't deserve the privilege of safety while other children in Ukraine, and particularly in their orphanage, are in danger. Nicholas definitely demonstrates signs of survivor's guilt that includes self-blame and isolation (avoidance of interaction), angry outbursts, obsessive thoughts about the events, appetite changes and difficulty sleeping. The survivor guilt is dangerous state of mind because of a misplaced blame that can trigger engagement in unhealthy coping behaviors such as drugs and/or alcohol.

Dual loyalty is an allegiance to two separate interests that potentially could conflict. To the best of my knowledge, the issue of dual loyalty in the context of international adoption has never been researched, although it has significant practical importance for thousands of international adoptees, particularly young adults. Loyalty to a family, to a group, to a nation is an integral part of inclusion, connectedness, and acceptance as the fundamental human need. It is also a key element in formation of personal identity and self-image. It is a well-known fact, that adolescent adoptees are struggling with their identity more than their peers born in American families. For many of adopted adolescents the war in Ukraine waged by Russia is a personal matter because of the issue of self-identification and loyalty. These adoptees may be asking: "Am I a Ukrainian or American? Am I a Russian or American? Can I be both? Where is my true foundation? Who will claim me? Who do I want to be claimed by? Are my feelings toward my former motherland justified?" That is what both Nicholas and Alex asked themselves and their social surrounding being overwhelmed and frightened by the external events in their lives. Some adoptees feel suddenly patriotic or protective of their birth countries without understanding why. Others, like 13-year-old Alex, may disengage from his peers and even family, fearing being associated with the wrong people by national identity if there is a sense of wrongdoing or shame in events occurring in their country of origin. Alex truly does not want to be seen as aligned with something that others see as bad. But at the moment he feels as if he does not fit anywhere but is an outsider.
It is imperative that we, as adults, understand how this search for identity becomes compromised and complicated by the current tragic events unfolding day by day in Ukraine. The severity of the negative impact of these events is related to:

  • The degree of trauma the child had experienced,
  • How long the adoptee had lived in his/her birth country,
  • Whether the adoptee has met or connected with other members of his/her birth family,
  • The adoptive parents' level of commitment to honoring the home country's national identity and culture.

However, what is imperative for you as the parents, to communicate firmly and resolutely that "You are our son/daughter and we are Americans. Most Americans in the first, second, third, etc. generations came to US from different countries, but all are now Americans. We (the parents) do understand your feelings about Russia and Ukraine, but your motherland is now America". It is important to stress that even if they were adopted from Russia, they are not responsible for that war and they shouldn't feel guilty. Try to explain your teenagers that there is Russian government that wages this inhumane war and there is Russian nation; there are many Russians around the globe who are passionately against this war and support Ukrainians in their struggle for freedom. This understanding is the key to a psychological health of your children and reduces the confusion and fears in their search for identity in this uneasy time.
Psychological profile of international adoptees: What is in the psychological "profile" of our children that makes them so sensitive to the current situation when Russia (the place of birth for some) aggressively destroys Ukraine (the place of birth for others)? In 2019 I published a book that is called "Development mediated by trauma". In this book I wrote that the core of many issues of international adoptees is "developmental trauma disorder" (DTD). This is a condition "…..caused by repetitive highly stressful events in early childhood that have an adverse, wide-ranging, and long-term physiological and psychological impact on the development and social/emotional functioning". In the opinion of many practicing therapists, other clinicians, and researchers, it is likely that practically all international adoptees, even those adopted before the age of 2, have DTD, although to different degrees. Among the possible psychological consequences of DTD we see:

First, poorly regulated emotions: with traumatic external events, such as the current war in Ukraine, teenagers may respond with misplaced aggressiveness and anger. They often shut down and lack responsiveness to the external world. In general, a reduced capacity for emotional self-regulation is the most striking feature of chronically traumatized children. Second is the distorted perception of the world and of oneself: repetitive experiences of harm or rejection by significant others, and the associated failure to develop age-appropriate competencies. These are likely to lead to a sense of self as ineffective, helpless, deficient, and unlovable and a view of the world as a dangerous and harmful place in which to live. The third characteristic of DTD is hyper-arousal and/or hypo-arousal (dissociation) as the primary means of coping with everyday life. Specifically, hyper-arousal presents itself in excessive vigilance, agitation, irritability, and state of rage while hypo-arousal is evident in withdrawal and disengagement that allows children to escape mentally from the frightening or painful things that are happening to them. The fourth is difficulty forming social connectedness, because early childhood trauma powerfully interferes with the formation of interpersonal relatedness leading to elevated sensitivity to peer acceptance, and confusion with belonging to a peer group. You already know that the feeling of belonging to a particular group, society, family, etc. is one of the primary issues of international adoption, known as attachment difficulties.

What is to be done to address the symptoms and restore functioning: During distressing and complex events in the world like now, teenagers look to their parents as well as to their teachers to make sense of these events. First and foremost, you must define your own position and firmly convey your position to your children with assurance. What is crucially importance: you should sincerely present and justify your own position. It's time to take a moral stand and ask ourselves which is it. We can't help confused children to think straight if we are too concerned with being politically correct; in fact, we can make things worse for them by trying to be ambiguous and indecisive in our judgments. If we can't be sure what's wrong and what's right, how can we hope to make them understand the situation and reduce their stress? Our moral attitudes mold their attitudes.

Start with validating your child's feelings. This means that any emotion your adolescent shares with you is valid and warrants respect. Don't dismiss their emotions by saying things such as: "Take it easy, don't be afraid, it is far away, it will be over soon." Instead, tell them you understand and you are also feeling worried. Nothing will shut down conversation faster than invalidating a question or a response. When youngsters have a chance to participate in an open and honest conversation about upsetting events, it can create a sense of relief and safety. Give your children a chance to ask their questions, to share what they know and how they feel about it. Use such open-ended questions as: "How do you feel about that? What prompted you think about this? Do you have questions about what is happening or has happened?" Take the time to listen to their thoughts. When your child has questions, answer them honestly, simply, and with reassurance. Encourage the child to talk and respond to their worries. Get to the root of their fear. Parents might mistakenly assume that Alex their adolescence son adopted from Russia is worried about the same things they are (e.g. the beginning of WW 3), but in fact, Alex has a different frame of reference: he concerns what his classmates think about him as "Russian", rather than Putin's threats to use the nuclear weapons.

Manage information intake. Due to social media and online sources, young people have access to more news sources than ever. Managing how much news they take in is not easy. If your child is over-sensitive to graphic presentations, try to monitor television viewing and social media. In some children, by reducing the time spent watching TV or looking to social media coverage, you may limit their worry and agitation about the war in Ukraine. Please understand me correctly: I am not suggesting that you block the information, but, rather, I am suggesting that you ensure that your child is supported and understood, and that you are able to help your child properly digest the information they see or hear. You can create a family rule that you will only watch or read about the news at a certain time of the day and when you can do this together.

Normalize emotion through taking action: Validating feelings and providing opportunities to talk are the first steps to normalizing state of mind for your youngsters. There are known ways to treat anxiety/fear in self-help psychology during a dire situation: take small actions that have a clearly measurable effect. This is a real defensive mechanism against anxiety and stress. Here are only a few possible actions to be taken with your children as share/joint activities:

  • Make (or purchase) a Ukrainian flag and install it near your home.
  • Sit with your child and write a letter to your congressman and/or senator or even to a local newspaper in support of the struggling Ukrainian people. For example, in your letter you can urge your members of Congress to open wide America's doors to Ukrainians fleeing Putin's war.
  • Donate money (even a small symbolic sum) to a Ukrainian charity. When children are given the opportunity to assist others, it gives them a feeling of power, which can be comforting.
  • Older children adopted relatively recently from Ukraine may do a presentation to their classmates or to their church group about their former motherland.
  • Join a local peace protest with your children to show your solidarity with Ukrainians and the brave Russians who demonstrate against the war in Moscow.
  • Stay informed and spread fact-based accurate information about the Russian invasion in Ukraine with your friends, family, and social media followers.
  • Make a parcel for a refugee camp for Ukrainian children, sending children clothes and toys.
  • Become a pen-pal (likely through the Internet) with a child in a refugee camp in Poland or other country.

The bullying issue. I am aware that some middle and high school students, known by their peers to be adopted from Russia, have been subjected to teasing and provocative questions. In the days ahead, we need to be aware that Russian adoptees may be faced with adverse experiences directed at to their origin and culture. One Russian adoptee, my former patients, currently a teacher's aide, shared with me that she worried that adoptees from Russia might be bullied like their Asian peers during the COVID pandemic. So, what can be done:

  • Be proactive. Prepare your teenagers for these unfortunate events. Role-play. ("what if" scenarios): coach your child on how to react to bullies and how to respond. Create a list of responses and practice phrases your child can use to tell someone to stop their bullying behavior. Role-playing is a way to build confidence and empower your child to deal with challenges.
  • Tell your children how to behave, such as moving to a high-traffic crowded area where other people can observe and assist, walk away, tell your friends to support and protect, tell the counselor in the school and definitely to parents.
  • Contact the offender's parents and, of course the school administration and teachers.

Boris Gindis, Ph.D.

The Book
by Dr. Gindis

Rehabilitation and Remediation of
Internationally Adopted

This book presents specific methods for the physical rehabilitation, mental health restoration, and academic remediation of post-institutionalized international adoptees. The focus of the book is on the neurological, psychological, and educational consequences of complex childhood trauma in the context of a fundamental change in the social situation of development of former orphanage residents. A discussion of after-adoption traumatic experiences includes a critique of certain “conventional” approaches to the treatment of mental health issues and different disabilities in international adoptees. Using his 30-year background in research and clinical practice, the author expertly describes and analyses a range of methodologies in order to provide an integrated and practical system of “scaffolding” and “compensation” for the successful rehabilitation and remediation of children with ongoing traumatic experiences. This is essential reading for researchers and practicing clinicians concerned with childhood trauma, remedial education, and issues of international adoption.

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The Book by Dr. Gindis

Child Development
Mediated by Trauma:
The Dark Side of International Adoption

Bringing up and educating the internationally adopted children is a formidable task.
How to deal with their developmental delays, emotional vulnerability, "mixed maturity," cumulative cognitive deficit, and other challenges? This book is filled with insights, rarely found in many overly optimistic publications on international adoption. Based on clinical experience and written for professionals and parents alike, this book poses the questions and gives answers on many unavoidable issues of a traumatized child.

The New Book
by Dr. Gindis and Dr. Lidz

Developing a Foundation for Learning with Iinternationally Adopted Cchildren

Family-Based Activities for Remedial Learning and Attachment

This practice-focused guide introduces The SmartStart Too/box as a remedial program to help mental health professionals and adoptive parents promote the educational and social development of internationally adopted children aged 4— 8. This text will benefit researchers in child psychology, as well as clinicians, family therapists, social workers, and educators with an interest in child development, cognitive and language enhancement, and adoption and fostering more broadly. Adoptive parents will also benefit from this book and its focus on themes of attachment, parenting, and the development of social cognition.



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