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
examples. 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
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
- 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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.