Patty Cogen, Ed.D., M.A.


A. Five Types of Initial Responses

(in the first weeks/months) of infants, toddlers, and young children after
leaving an orphanage/foster care setting and joining adoptive parents:

Child’s Behavior
Child’s Emotional State

Quiet, withdrawn, observing child may repeat a word (a sound) which may be the name for the former caregiver Anxious, depressed, grieving, or waiting or searching for lost caretakers.
Active, constant movement, friendly, always happy non-discriminatory social behavior (sits on anyone’s lap) Living in a perpetual present, denial of major life change: “died and went to Disneyland”/numbing feelings w/ activity
Rejecting parents, crying, actively searching for lost caretakers Grieving, scared
Spacey, in a daze or trance, falls asleep at unexpected times Overwhelmed, scared overstimulated, reacting to being “handed around”, may be reacting to experiences associated with previous separations
Tantrums, Controlling Behavior Anxious, feels out of control, angry, untrusting

A child may remain in any one state for a long periods of time or may shift from one to another.

**It’s helpful for future situations and for other caretakers to know what
specific situations, objects, etc. bring on spaciness, grief, high activity, or
tantrums. These “triggers” can be often avoided or handled better if they are
identified in advance.

B. What Parents Can Do with Each Type of Behavior:
  • validate the event that is disturbing
  • validate child’s feelings
  • model feelings if your child does not respond appropriately
  • be consistent and reliable
  • keep clear boundaries and roles
  • be predictable; prepare child for transitions each time


1. Withdrawal, observing: Follow your child’s lead and attune your
responses to her level. Stay with her, holding her if possible, or putting her
in a carrier. Verbalize what you observe: “It’s hard to join a family. I see
you are feeling quiet, and just want to watch what’s going on. When I feel sad
or puzzled I like to be quiet too. I know you must be wondering what happened
to your foster Mama…she took care of you so well, but now she has given you
to me/us, because she wanted you to have a family. We are going to be your
parents forever. That means we will take care of you. ”

If you suspect grieving or searching is occurring and have pictures of the
former caretakers, share those with your child. Engage in “womb” like
activities: warm baths together, swinging, rocking, carrying, slow dancing,

2. Active, always happy: Set limits, try to slow your child down, don’t
allow her to engage everyone around them, provide some quiet activity time.
Help child to focus on the life change she has experienced. Use words, photos,
or even a stick-figure drawing, to recall your child’s life history.

This is not a ordinary situation, you can not overestimate it’s impact.
Use words such as “a really big change” or “hard to understand” “scary”
“exciting” “not real yet”. Model appropriate feelings such as “scared”,
“happy”, “sad”, and “confused”. Offer opportunities for play that gives
physical expression to emotion: playdough, water play/baths, puppets.

3. Rejecting/Crying: This is hard for new parents, but it demonstrates
your child’s capacity to be in touch with what is happening. Stay as near as
your child will allow; use a carrier (back or front) as a means to be close.
Verbalize what your child is experiencing: “I can see how sad you are. You
must miss someone (foster mother, caretaker) a lot. She took good care of
you, and she wanted you to have a family. I know it will take time for you to
feel comfortable with me. But I am going to be here for you when you need me.
I will take good care of you too.”

4. Spacey: Sometimes children will become spacey from internal feelings and
thoughts and other times there may be a specific external reason they
“space-out”. Typical triggers are: overstimulation, being handed around, being
picked up by “strangers”, hearing child’s primary language once you’re back in
the USA), riding in cars/planes.

Pick your child up immediately. If you can identify the trigger for
spaciness, do so and remove the child from the trigger if possible. Ask people
in restaurants not to touch your child or speak to her in primary language. Act
as a buffer for your child. Take her to a quiet place. Verbalize what you think
caused the spaciness, or just acknowledge that she is in a dazed, overwhelmed

5. Tantrums: stay near your child. If she will let you hold her, do so and
act as her emotional “container”. After the tantrum is over you might
verbalize briefly how hard it is to feel out of control or so angry. Continue
to set limits for health and safety; pick your battles. A tantrum does not
require a punishment. In general separation is not an appropriate or effective
method of discipline.