Posted by: ramonamom | May 26, 2008

Reasonable Expectations – Training Your Newly Adopted Child

Often, older institutionalized children have been “taught” nothing at all, or very little. They may have no foundation of training/teaching from a responsible adult early in their lives.  Kids are great at picking things up, and they learn a lot in that manner, but when children are in an abusive home, or in an orphanage along with many other children, they do not get the one on one attention which is conducive to good teaching and training in the early years. 


One of our adopted sons did not know how to eat from a plate, when he was brought to the orphanage around the age of four.  To the orphanage worker’s credit, they did teach him basic table manners, thankfully.  Many other basic life skills went untaught, though, and he came to us very withdrawn, scared and nervous, at the age of 8.  We thought we would be helping him when we brought in a Russian speaking person to communicate with him.  However, we were quite surprised when he refused to communicate with this person.  Rather, he cracked jokes in monosyllables and laughed nervously the whole time.  We found out later that he really did not even have a full grasp of the Russian language and nothing we could have done to him would ever have made him do what he was not capable of doing – talking to this man. 


Not having had these children from day one, it is very important to understand that they need to be taught and trained in very early skills sometimes.  I remember well my Dad sitting in our living room when we were young and showing me and my brothers how to roll the toothpaste tube us as we used it.  It seems comical to think of now, but he was very serious in his desire to not waste the toothpaste and, as a parent, I have a great deal of respect for “frugalness” now!  But, do you think any of these children have ever been taught such things?  Oh my!  We are blessed indeed if they have been taught how to simply brush their teeth.  Many are not sure where to throw the toilet paper (not in the trash can) or when to change their underwear.  Table manners, hygiene, etc. – these things need to be gently taught, but not expected to be mastered for quite a while.


A daughter who came to us at the age of 14 from another adoptive home had never lifted a finger to do a chore before she came into our home.  One of the biggest arguments she had been in with her former adoptive mom had to do with putting sheets on her queen size bed.  Her mother had given her the clean sheets and told her to put them on, but she refused and they got into a huge fight.  It took a bit of digging, but we finally discovered that she had never been taught how to put sheets on a bed and she was not willing to admit that she didn’t know how to do it.  So, rather than admit her ignorance, she refused to do the work! 


Another daughter who came to use at the age of 11 from a different adoptive home has really struggled with math as long as she has been part of our family.  After over three years of painstakingly walking her through math lessons and writing reference pages for her to go back and look at, we have come to the conclusion that she most likely has a learning disability in that area.  In her case, a different type of training is going to need to take place, so we are in the process of researching how we can best help her. 


My husband has taught six of our 11 children how to drive.  Not one of them hopped into the driver’s seat the first time and took off, knowing all there was to know about driving, although that certainly would have made his life much easier!  Rather, he began their driver’s training in a parking lot each time, with them driving in a small and confined area where any mistakes would not cause damage.  After a couple of weeks in the parking lot, they worked up to quiet neighborhood roads and eventually onto the highway.  The training was done bit by bit, though, carefully making sure they understood what they had been taught so far before they moved on to something new. 


Here are some points to consider regarding training an older adopted child in the early days of their time in your home:


1)      Accept them and their history, as a package deal.  Every older adopted child in a foreign orphanage has a sad story to tell about their life before adoption.  Otherwise, they would not be in need of a new family.


2)      Find out where they are in learning basic life skills, go back a bit from there and work forward.  Give them an opportunity to show you what they do know how to do.  A few small successes will go a long way in building their confidence, even if it is doing basic addition and subtraction or sweeping the kitchen floor!


3)      Don’t be surprised when they make mistakes or do something differently than you do.  In the things that “don’t matter”, let them show you how they learned to do something in their native country.  Be open to learning things from them. (For example, I learned a new way of putting pillow cases on pillows from our Russian born children.)


4)      Choose your battles carefully.  Is it really so important that they wear clean socks each day and that the socks match?  Or, is it more important to begin building a relationship with them?  Some things are worth standing up for and insisting that they be done correctly, but most things can be done more than one way.


5)      Remember that they cannot learn too much at one time.  And since they are already being immersed in a completely new environment, give them time to get used to it while you slowly start training them in the items that really matter.


6)       Love them, unconditionally, as they struggle to make the necessary adjustments.  Many older adopted children go so far as to “test” their new parents to see just how much they care for them and how much they will “put up with” before rejecting them. 


7)      Forgive them for the mistakes they make, and pray that God will also forgive you for yours!


Keep in mind that these guidelines will most likely need to be amended as time goes on and you and your child get to know each other better.  These are simple and basic ideas for the initial adjustment period after bringing your child home and as they begin to adjust to their new culture and environment. 



  1. I appreciate the post on reasonable expectations. We have just recently adopted an older child from Russia (about 10 months ago). She is 11. I do have a question if you would please comment on. How do you handle a child who continually (almost everyday) comes up with bad behavior she knows you don’t approve of to try to force you to give her attention? She gets a lot of attention, but she wants to always have all of the attention and tries to force others around her to show her attention by manipulating the envirnment. She does this in public as well. She’ll act up or try to start a fight with her siblings, etc. I have talked with her to try to help her understand that this is unacceptable, and have tried to help her understand that when it is her turn to get attention we will spend time together ( I have other children in the home as well). However, she says “Okay” and acts like she’s going to be different for a couple of days but goes right back to the very thing she got in trouble for the last time. She acts like she repents and is sorry for her actions, then in a couple of days does it again. When I ask her why she did it she says ” to get attention or “because I wanted to”. She seems to have no conscience. I have prayed for God to give me wisdom and I would appreciate some helpful advice.

  2. Newmama – this is very typical behavior for an adopted child her age. I will work on a post addressing as many specifics as I can, though, as I know how helpful practical application can be. It will be a few days, as I am working on school subjects right now, but keep an eye open on the blog for this post!


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