Relationship and Communication Development in Children Adopted From Abroad

When my grand-daughter was born, I made a conscious decision to visit her every month. Not only did I want to observe her development on a regular basis, I also wanted her to interact with me consistently so we could build a close and loving relationship. She is now 5 years old and we enjoy a wonderfully close relationship. When her brother was born, she had to share her mother and father with him but she was unwilling to share me. She expected her grandfather to play with her brother so that I could spend all of my time with her. Naturally, our grandson developed a close and loving relationship with his grandfather. To this day when we arrive at their house, he first asks “Where is Grandpa?” and seeks to reconnect with his grandfather before he will interact with me. Now they have a new younger brother and it will be interesting to see how his relationship with both grandparents develops.

Infants learn to communicate within the context of contingent, consistent and sensitive face-to-face communication with their caregivers. They are born expecting developmentally appropriate and nurturing care. In fact, they are dependent upon such care to thrive and survive. Through consistent, appropriate and individually sensitive interactions, infants learn how to trust their caregivers, share emotions, regulate negative emotions, and associate nonverbal communication such as facial expressions and tone of voice with certain emotions (Baldwin & Moses, 1994; Butterworth, 1994; Moses, Baldwin, Rosicky, & Tidball, 2001; Smith, 2005). These early interactions help infants learn that when they are uncomfortable they can cry and most often an adult will make them feel better. Eventually they learn to regulate their distress at the sight of the caregiver’s smiling face, when they hear their caregiver’s calming voice, or as soon as the caregiver picks them up. Infants develop trusting relationships based on the consistent and contingent care they receive from sensitive caregivers and through these relationships they learn to draw inferences from their communicative, cognitive and social interactions.

Unfortunately not all children receive positive, contingent and consistent care. Many children experience maltreatment during their infancy or toddlerhood with the majority of maltreatment cases involving neglect (Children’s Bureau, 2011). The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services describes maltreatment to include: a) physical abuse, b) sexual abuse, c) emotional abuse, or d) child neglect. Physical abuse can be physical harm of a child or placing a child at risk of being harmed such as witnessing spousal abuse. Neglect can include not meeting the child’s physical, educational, health care, or emotional needs (Hildegard & Wolfe, 2002).

Research on maltreated children provides evidence that maltreatment results in poor developmental outcomes (Wolfe, 1999). Children experiencing maltreatment have been reported to demonstrate poorer cognitive, receptive and expressive language performance and social-emotional development when compared with their peers (Culp et al., 1991; Eigsti & Cicchetti, 2004; Hildegard & Wolfe, 2002; Wolfe, 1999). Although placement into foster care families moves children into safer environments, children continue to display weaker social-emotional development and language performance and children who experience more transitions in care tend to demonstrate poorer performance (Pears & Fisher, 2005; Windsor, Glaze, Koga & the Bucharest Early Intervention Project Team, 2007).

Children who are raised in orphanages experience maltreatment (Johnson, 2000, 2005; Miller, 2005) and when adopted by families from a different country, the children often experience disrupted language acquisition.  Orphanage care in countries with few resources or poor economies, provide less than adequate care. Many orphanages operate with large child to adult ratios and provide limited health care, poor nutrition, and little to no social or educational stimulation. Once children are adopted, many of the adopted families do not speak the children’s birth language and may not have resources to provide continued instruction in the child’s birth language. Thus, the children quickly stop speaking and listening to their birth language and become monolingual speakers of their adopted language (Hwa-Froelich, 2009, 2012). Research has documented rapid acquisition of the adopted language (for a review see Hwa-Froelich, 2012). However, recent research provides longitudinal evidence of expressive language delays (Cohen, Lojkasek, Zadeh, Pugliese, & Kiefer, 2008; Gauthier & Genesee, 2011; Glennen, 2007). In a recent meta-analysis, Scott and colleagues (2011) report that international adoptees demonstrate poorer language performance on behavioral measures than on survey measures and when compared with peers rather than standardized test norms. They found that while there was great variability in language performance during the preschool ages, children adopted from abroad were not significantly different from their nonadopted peers. However, there was a greater likelihood of poorer language outcomes at school-age or older ages. In other words, maltreatment and disruption in language acquisition may place internationally adopted children at increased risk of language problems.

Early maltreatment and poor relationship development can have persistent effects on children’s communication development. Therefore, it is important for professionals to recognize, identify and report cases of maltreatment early and persistently to prevent and stop maltreatment of children. Agencies and professionals must try to provide safe and consistent caregiving environments for children removed from their families and children living in orphanages. Once children have experienced maltreatment, professionals must work closely together with children and their caregivers to facilitate the development of close, safe, and loving relationships as well as the children’s cognitive, communication, and social-emotional development. Consistent assessments to evaluate cognitive, communication, and social-emotional development longitudinally are needed. If children demonstrate developmental delays then early intervention may benefit children exposed to maltreatment and disrupted language acquisition, such as children adopted from abroad.

Disclosure: Some of the information included in this blog was taken from Hwa-Froelich, D. A. (2012). Childhood maltreatment and communication development. Perspectives on School-based Issues, 13(1), 43-53. The author discloses financial benefit from book sales.

References

Baldwin, D. A., & Moses, L. J. (1994). Early understanding of referential intent and attentional focus: Evidence from language and emotion. In C. Lewis & P. Mitchell (Eds.) Children’s early understanding of mind. Origins and development (pp. 133-156). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Butterworth, G. (1994). Theory of Mind and the facts of embodiment. In C. Lewis & P. Mitchell (Eds.) Children’s early understanding of mind. Origins and development (pp. 115-132). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Children’s Bureau. (2011). Child maltreatment 2010. Retrieved from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/stats_research/index.htm#can

Cohen, N. J., Lojkasek, M., Zadeh, Z. Y., Pugliese, M., & Kiefer, H. (2008). Children adopted from China: a prospective study of their growth and development. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 49(4), 458-468. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2007.01853.x

Eigsti, I-M., & Cicchett, D. (2004). The impact of child maltreatment on expressive syntax at 60 months. Developmental Science, 7(1), 88-102.

Gauthier, K., & Genesee, F. (2011). Language development in internationally adopted children: A special case of early second language learning. Child Development, 82(3), 887-901. doi:10.1111/j1467-8624.2011.01578.x

Glennen, S. (2007). Predicting language outcomes for internationally adopted children. Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research, 50, 529-548. doi:10.1044/1092-4388(2007/036)

Hildeyard, K. L., & Wolfe, D. A. (2002). Child neglect: developmental issues and outcomes. Child Abuse & Neglect, 26, 679-695.

Hwa-Froelich, D. A. (2009). Communication development in infants and toddlers adopted from abroad. Topics in Language Disorders, 29(1), 27-44. doi:10.1097/01.TLD.0000346060.63964.c2

Hwa-Froelich, D. A. (2012). Supporting development in internationally adopted children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Johnson, D. E. (2000). Medical and developmental sequelae of early childhood institutionalization in Eastern European adoptees. In C. A. Nelson (Ed.). The Minnesota Symposia on child psychology: The effects of early adversity on neurobiological development: Vol. 31. Minnesota Symposium on Child Psychology (pp. 113-162). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Johnson, D. E. (2005). International adoption: What is fact, what is fiction, and what is the future? Pediatric Clinics of North America, 52, 1221-1246. doi:10.1016j.pel.2005.06.008

Miller, L. (2005). The handbook of international adoption medicine. NY: Oxford University Press.

Moses L. J., Baldwin, D. A., Rosicky, J. G., & Tidball, G. (2001). Evidence for referential understanding in the emotions domain at twelve and eighteen months. Child Development, 72(3), 718-735. http://www.jstor.org/

Pears, K., & Fisher, P. A. (2005). Developmental, cognitive, and neuropsychological functioning in preschool-aged foster children: Associations with prior maltreatment and placement history. Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 26(2), 112-122.

Smith, A. D. (2005). The inferential transmission of language. Adaptive Behavior, 13(4), 311-324. doi:10.1177/105971230501300402

Windsor, J., Glaze, L. E., Koga, S. F., & the Bucharest Early Intervention Project Core Group. (2007). Language acquisition with limited input: Romanian institution and foster care. Journal of Speech-Language-Hearing Research, 50, 1365-1381. doi:10.1044/1092-4388(2007/095)

Wolfe, D. A. (1999). Child abuse: Implications for child development and psychopathology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

 

Deborah Hwa-Froelich, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, is a Saint Louis University professor and Director of the International Adoption Clinic with interests in social effects on communication such as culture, poverty, parent-child interaction, maternal/child health, and disrupted development.