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Dr. Rebecca Nelson is a clinical child psychologist who specializes in working with adopted children and their families. She maintains a private practice in Glenview, Illinois and offers child assessment and family consultation services. Additionally, Dr. Nelson is an adoption educator and community liaison. Her research focused on the developmental impact of early institutional rearing. She also works at Evanston Hospital's Infant Special Care Unit's Developmental Clinic, assessing infants and children born at-risk. Dr. Nelson was adopted from South Korea at the age of five and has a unique appreciation for the psychological and developmental complexities that can challenge adoptees and their families.

Timing Birth Country Visits by Dr. Rebecca Nelson

April 15, 2005

Parents often ask me about when might be a good time for their child to visit her birthcountry. I like hearing this question because it means parents are sensitively thinking about their child's adoptive experience in a developmental context.

Ideally, multiple visits across the lifespan provide a wonderful way for a family to stay connected to a child's birth heritage. If more than one visit is doable, the first trip can be taken when the child is relatively young (4 or 5), assuming she was adopted approximately before the age of 2 and familial attachment is secure. Before the age of 6 or 7, a child is too young to have the capacity to understand the differences and similarities between biological and adoptive relationships. So, parents might want to think of this trip as providing a comfortable initial exploration of a birth culture. This birth culture will probably be rather foreign to your child, despite it being her place of birth. Having this trip be rewarding from a child's perspective is important. It will create a lasting impression and influence whether your child wants to return when she is older, when questions about adoption and her origins will surface. This early trip can be made fun for a child by engaging in activities that celebrates her ethnic heritage and that are especially appealing for her. For instance if your child really enjoys Chinese food, make this a point of emphasis through adventurous dining (e.g., trying a variety of eateries) and conversation. If your child likes Chinese dresses, a dress or two bought from places of meaning, such as a specific region, to facilitate positive associations. Also, providing your child with her own camera will likely give her a sense of empowerment as she will gain a positive sense of control with tangible pictures of what appeals to her individually about her country of birth. Allowing your child to create her own photo album in addition to yours will provide further support of her individual experience and facilitate positive memories. Again, the goal of this early visit is to make it a rewarding and enjoyable experience that will provide a foundation for future, more meaningful visits.

If only one birth country visit can be planned, the ages between 8 to 10 is most appropriate with the specific age dependent upon your child's emotional maturity. By this age, children have greater ability to thinking about themselves and others in a more dynamic and complex way, and tend to have a keen interest in understanding how they came to be adopted. Questions about birthfamily, country of origin, and other adoption related matters are likely to make themselves apparent with greater frequency and degree of intensity than before. Children aged 8 to 10 are still dependent upon their parents to assist them in sorting out experiences, relationships and ideas. This makes a birthcountry visit a prime opportunity to learn about themselves and further a positive adoptive identity within a guided and emotionally supportive context.

For children 8 to 10 plan similar activities as already described, but also recognize your child will have thoughts and feelings about their adoption and birthcountry that may be dissimilar to yours. These differences can be sensitively addressed by actively involve your child in the planning phases and itinerary, such as places and people they would or would not want to see. Because this can be an emotion-filled trip for you and your child, make sure to plan some relaxing down time. Free time is a good way for everyone to reorganize and reenergize. Bringing one or two emotional comfort objects from home is also recommended. This might be a favored blanket or stuffed animal that your child can snuggle with when feeling tired or stressed.

Generally, pre/adolescents can be reluctant to visit their birthcountry due to immersion in their existing social world and an increased sense of self-consciousness. Many transracial adoptees feel conspicuous in their families. Visiting a country where their families will stand out even more is not likely to be appealing during this stage of heightened self-consciousness. However, if a pre/adolescent shows interest in visiting her birth country, then it can be a rewarding experience if planned to fit the pre/adolescent's individual interests and temperament.

Of course, there are always circumstances requiring particular sensitivity. If a child was adopted at an older age or has a relatively complex preadoptive history, the family will benefit from being especially planful when preparing a birthcountry visit. In these instances, parents may benefit from prior consultation with an adoption professional.

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