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.

 

Comments

  1. Mark HOBRATSCHK says:

    I would be interested in articles explaining whether very young children (< 3 yo) adopted from non English speaking countries like Colombia should be taught both English and Spanish at the same time, or one language before another.

  2. Hi Mark,
    Thank you for your comment. Unfortunately, to my knowledge there is no research documenting which method is best for internationally adopted children. However, there is literature stating that children who develop a strong first language tend to acquire a second language more quickly (Collier, 1987). That being said, there is also much research showing that simultaneous bilingual children learn both languages well (for a review see Kohnert, 2008). Many factors affect bilingual language acquisition such as timing of acquisition, context of input (home vs. school), social status of the language (community preferred or not), differences between L1 and L2, how each language is used, and the individual system’s integrity and capacity for learning. This is information on children learning two or more languages which may not pertain to children who have been internationally adopted.
    For some internationally adopted children, their birth language is emotionally tied to negative memories of life in an institution or situations associated with neglect or abuse. Many of the children I have seen no longer desire to speak their birth language and their parents rarely speak it so they lose their birth language within 2-3 months after adoption. Others have been able to continue their development in their birth language and begin learning English as a second language through a couple of different methods: 1) the adoptive parents speak the child’s birth language and another language or 2) the child attends a school or the parents hire a nanny who continues to speak the birth language and the child acquires the community language.
    I also know that parents from other countries (Norway, Finland, Sweden) have adopted children from Columbia. It would be hard to predict the adoptive languages of children residing in Columbian institutions or foster care.
    I hope this answers your question. Thank you for your interest.

  3. Hi Deborah
    I liked the point made in your article about the children experiencing a “disruption” in their language development. I’ve worked with typical ESL/ELL children and those from foreign adoption. The adopted children do not demonstrate the same language development patterns as the typical ESL/ELL child. These students often appear disabled not just delayed in development. They often do not make the progress that the typical ESL/ELL students make either. The biggest mistake the schools make is assuming that a foreign adopted child is an ESL/ELL issue and don’t intensively assess or provide appropriate services. I highlighted your article on my blog The School Speech Therapist and added a few comments of my own.
    http://www.theschoolspeechtherapist.com/assessing-children-adopted-from-abroad/

  4. Teresa,
    Thank you for your comments and for sharing this blog with others. While many internationally adopted children develop without language problems, there are many who develop language or learning problems both early and later post-adoption. I agree with you that often school districts view these children as needing ESL services instead of recognizing their special learning needs. I am hopeful that by sharing more information about the connection between maltreatment, disrupted language development, and language delays will change this situation and increase delivery of services to internationally children. Thank you for your service and helping to share this information.

    • I actually had to work with kids to truly understand their unique needs. Hopefully at least a few will look at our posts and at least have a heads up about the situation. Something tells me that it is the other educators and administrators that may need this information even more.