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I have adopted a child who lived through the earthquake in Haiti

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What are my child's possible reactions, and how can I support him?

The earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12, 2010 was an especially dramatic and unusual event because it was sudden and unforeseen, and because of the extent of the casualties and losses it caused among the Haitian population. A disaster of such severity disrupts the daily lives of those affected, on physical, material, psychological and social plans. The intensity of reactions in the wake of the earthquake may vary from one child to another and may have an impact on their daily activities and relations with those around them.

The earthquake has accelerated the adoption process for a number of Haitian children. These children have been living through a series of stressful events and are faced with losses of various kinds. In addition, the arrival of an adopted child means an intense, emotionally charged period that generates stress and disrupts the daily life of the parents and other family members. A transition period is necessary so that all concerned can adapt to the new reality.

As new parents of a Haitian child who has lived through the earthquake, you may be wondering about the distinctive features of his culture, possible reactions he may have, and ways to help you adapt together to your new life situation.

Distinctive features of Haitian culture

To help you understand your child's reactions and achieve a certain degree of perspective concerning them, it may help you to be familiar with a few features of his culture in order to ease the adaptation process.

Generally, people of Haitian origin are sensitive, proud, likable and blessed with a great ability to adapt. They express their emotions spontaneously through laughter, song, dance, verbal language and, in some cases, by screaming out. Emotions are also expressed more subtly through looks, smiles, touching, facial mimicry, body gestures, onomatopoiesis (words created to imitate a sound), silence and tears. Weeping does not necessarily express sadness, but frequently joy, pride, achievement, or acknowledgement of a kindness. You should therefore avoid consoling or comforting excessively, without understanding the meaning of these tears.

In Haitian culture, the parent-child relationship is loving, protective and reassuring, although it is often brusque and authoritarian. Family and social networks are very important. These networks often include members of the extended family, those of the spiritual family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. Even after many years of life in their country of adoption, people of Haitian origin remain strongly attached and sensitive to anything related to Haiti. They rarely lose this attachment, feel concerned when Haiti is discussed, are sensitive to criticism of their country and often dream of returning there. The spiritual dimension is important to them, consoling them, and helping them accept situations, enjoy life and socialize, and giving them courage. This means it is important that you show openness to your child's culture.

What might my child go through, and how can I help him?

Everybody has the strengths and the ability they need to adapt to a new reality. Initially, you will be in the best position to identify your child's reactions. You are also the best person to identify the strengths and resources you have which you can use to help him.

Here are a few questions to help you pinpoint your own strengths:

  • Which of my child's reactions worry me, and what is he is trying to express?
  • What do those around me see as my strengths? What strengths can I put to good use in the current situation?
  • If I already lived through a disaster, what measures did I take to help me overcome the situation? Which of these could I use to help my child?
  • What do I know about my role as an adoptive parent that could be useful to me?
  • Who in my circle or community can I turn to for support (listening, relief, information, material help, etc.)?

Here are some examples of strengths and resources:

  • Collaboration and consistency between both parents.
  • My knowledge of the international adoption process and of my role as an adoptive parent.
  • Access to a support network including other adoptive parents.
  • My ability to express my own feelings.
  • Patience and constancy.
  • An open-minded attitude to my child's culture of origin.
  • My ability to ask for or accept help.

Your child will react differently depending on his age, personal characteristics and environment. His experiences prior to adoption, good or bad, will also influence the way he adapts to the new situation. In spite of whether or not there has been any preparation for his arrival in the home of new parents, he will experience the transition from his former life to his new life as a shock.

Here are some usual reactions that you may observe in your child during the first days or weeks after his arrival in the country, together with measures that may help you. These reactions may be related to the earthquake, or to international adoption, or to both events. The measures presented are merely suggestions - have confidence in your parenting ability and trust your own judgment.

Because of the earthquake, my child may... As a parent, I can…

Reactions when the child feels he is constantly reliving the event:

  • Have recurrent, overwhelming recollections of the earthquake (images, thoughts, perceptions).
  • Be afraid of another disaster happening.
  • Have flashbacks – sudden mental images of what happened (rarer in younger children).
  • Feel distressed and experience intense, uncontrollable reactions on seeing images of the earthquake, or hearing it being discussed.
  • Show unexpected behaviour, as if the earthquake was about to recur (for example, hiding under a table).
  • Feel guilty for having survived the earthquake, while many others died.
  • Talk about the event obsessively.

Avoidance reactions:

  • Make efforts to avoid anything that might remind him of the earthquake (thoughts, feelings, activities, conversations, television images, etc.).
  • Feel that there is no future.
  • Be unable to remember the order of events.

Physical reactions and hypervigilance reactions:

  • Be overexcited.
  • Have palpitations, trembling, sweating.
  • Display startled reactions (be “jumpy”).
  • Be very sensitive to noises that may remind him of the earthquake (for example, passing trucks, falling objects, emergency vehicle sirens, etc.).

Note that the duration and intensity of the post-traumatic reactions mentioned above indicate whether it is necessary to seek help. For assistance, see the section. When should I seek help?.

These measures can be taken to help with any
reaction associated with the earthquake:

  • Try to remain calm, or at least to appear calm.
  • Frequently reassure my child that he is safe.
  • Remain positive and optimistic about the future and draw attention to the good things in life.
  • Limit my child’s exposure to news and images from the media.
  • Avoid rumours, sensationalism and, above all, images or remarks that could remind my child of the events of the earthquake.
  • Entertain my child with simple, concrete activities suited
    to his age and abilities.
  • Pay attention to talking among adults about the earthquake when my child is present.
  • Avoid asking my child questions about macabre details
    of the earthquake.
  • Reassure my child that the other adopted children he knows are safe.
  • Give my child small domestic chores so that he
    feels useful.

Because of the adoption, my child may… As a parent, I can…

Feel deeply insecure as a result of a rapid change of smells, tastes, images, sounds, sensations and people around him.

  • Try to integrate into my environment elements of Haitian culture or my child’s lifestyle habits (language, music, dance, food, cultural objects, films).
  • Create a moderate bedroom, without excessive clutter (not a “department-store bedroom”).
  • Avoid offering my child too many choices (menu, activities, etc.), because generally he will have known a degree of hardship.

Be afraid of white people (in many cases, this is a child’s first contact with a white person).

  • Allow visits from family and friends gradually so that my child doesn’t feel like a “specimen” under observation.
  • Watch out for remarks that can hurt my child, for example comments on his appearance, remarks about Haiti, etc.
  • Lack trust in me and other members of the family.
  • Have difficulty bonding with me or other members of the family.
  • Cling to me desperately or, alternatively, show indifference to me or ignore me.
  • Fear being abandoned or rejected and frightened of being away from me or separated from me.
  • Allow my child to see and handle various documents (photographs, plane tickets, hotel brochures, etc.) connected with the adoption.
  • Wait before sending him to school or daycare. When the time is right, favour progressive integration.
  • Tell my child whenever I have to leave, reassure him that
    I am coming back and leave him with people with whom he has developed a bond.
  • After a period of adaptation, create a community life with other adopting families.

Experience eating difficulties: eat too much, try to store up provisions, or be unwilling to eat.

  • Make mealtimes enjoyable.
  • Prepare some Creole meals (for example, Creole rice).
  • Reassure my child, and avoid putting pressure on him at mealtimes.

In either situation, my child may… As a parent, I can…

Seek attention or insist on being held.

  • Display affection, for example by taking my child in my arms, looking at him, stroking his cheek.
  • Reassure my child often.
  • Establish and maintain a daily routine.

Have difficulty sleeping (refuses to go to sleep, have
nightmares, experience night terrors, sleep restlessly, etc.).

  • Allow a longer time for the bedtime routine (stories, songs, etc.).
  • If my child has a nightmare and wakes up crying, listen to and comfort him.
  • Leave some light on so that my child knows where he is.

Repeatedly play games that express themes or aspects of the earthquake.

Play with my child or observe him when he plays alone; worries are often expressed in play.

Have difficulty expressing emotions.

  • Take the time to talk to my child about what happened, about the meaning he attaches to these events, and – even if he is very young – help him to see things in a different light if his interpretation may be harmful.
  • Use a level of language that is appropriate for the age of my child and present a version of events that will enable him to form a realistic perception of what happened.
  • Learn to recognize what my child is feeling and trying to express through onomatopoiesis.
  • Give short but honest answers to his questions.
  • Help my child to put what he is feeling into words.

Complain about physical ailments (headaches, tummy aches, etc.).

Pay attention to my child’s physical complaints. Consult a health professional if needed.

  • Be agitated.
  • Have aggressive reactions (hit and kick, use threatening or insulting words) designed to establish his authority and elicit respect.
  • Exhibit surprising behaviour, for example rocking himself to sleep, being naughty to get attention.
  • Be understanding with regard to inappropriate behaviour, without accepting all such behaviour, but reinforce desirable behaviour.
  • In the face of surprising behaviour, stay close to my child, validate his emotions and help him to put what he is feeling into words.
  • Encourage my child to engage in activities that allow him to burn off excess energy positively, and also relaxing activities.

Regress to earlier behaviour such as using baby talk, wetting the bed, etc.

Show patience and perseverance: my child will rediscover his abilities and develop new ones.

Withdraw alone into a room in the house, not want to be in the same place as me.

Depending on my child’s age, respect his silence and desire to be alone. However, make a move to re-establish contact if necessary.

 

  • Trust my own judgment.
  • Recognize my limits and ask for help when I need it.
  • Reach out to my social and family network.


Haitian people show great adaptability. In addition, most of the children adopted will successfully overcome the difficulties associated with adoption and impacts of the earthquake. Your child may equally experience more positive reactions such as:

  • Forging new relationships
  • Discovering new strengths (stress tolerance, ability to adapt, etc.)
  • A strengthening of values, or the acquisition of new ones
  • Closer links with “cousins” in the Haitian community who also survived the earthquake
  • Acquiring new knowledge
  • Developing a bicultural identity

However, in spite of the measures you take to handle the situation, your child’s reactions may persist or intensify. Here are some possible warning signs.

When should I seek help?

Reactions associated with post-traumatic stress

  • The reactions mentioned above greatly decrease my child’s functioning in daily activities and in relations with those around him.
    or
  • Reactions persist beyond four to six weeks.

Reactions associated with adoption

  • Doesn’t cry or cries very little when in distress.
  • Is unable to engage in positive activities when left alone.
  • Expresses constant rage, has persistent tantrums.
  • Refuses to be touched, stubbornly refuses to be cuddled.
  • Makes little eye contact.
  • Doesn’t react, or reacts little, to smiles.
  • Is completely indifferent to others.
  • Cannot tolerate any separation from me, or shows affection to strangers.
  • Clings to me excessively and whines constantly.
  • Shows excessive tolerance to discomfort and pain.
  • Shows language-development and motor-coordination problems.
  • Is hyperactive.
  • Presents serious eating problems.

Reactions common to both situations

  • Is extremely anxious when separated from me.
  • Is constantly tired.
  • Has serious physical pain (muscle pains, pressure in the chest, tightness in the throat, migraines, dizzy spells, etc.).

You are not alone in experiencing this situation; do not hesitate to ask for help!

If you notice that your child’s situation is deteriorating rather than improving, or if you feel
that you have reached your own limits, seek professional help.

Where can I get help?

Accredited organizations for international adoption in Haiti

Resources specializing in international adoption (pre- or post-adoption group workshops, support groups, psychosocial and therapeutic consultations).

Montréal region

Lower St. Lawrence region

CSSS Rivière-du-Loup, CLSC Rivières et marées
418 867-2642

Where can I get information?

Telephone

  • Services Québec toll-free line 1 877 644-4545
  • Secrétariat à l'adoption internationale 1 800 561-0246
  • Régie de l'assurance maladie 514 864-3411, elsewhere in: 1 800 561-9749
  • Emergency Operations Centre, Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada: 613 966-8885 (frais virés acceptés), 24 heures sur 24, 7 jours sur 7

Internet

Produced with the collaboration of

  • CSSS de Lac-Saint-Jean-Est
  • Mr. Pierre-Paul Malenfant, t.s., Civil Security Counsellor (psychosocial), ministère de la Santé et des Services sociaux
  • Ms. Maria Ricciardelli, Family-Child-Youth Programs Administrator, CSSS Jeanne-Mance
  • Dr. Monique Jumelle, Psychologist specializing in post-adoption, post-traumatic stress and cultural communities
  • Ms. Sylvie Samson, t.s., International Adoption Program, CSSS de l'Ouest-de-l'Île, CLSC Lac-Saint-Louis

References

  • CENTRE DE SANTÉ ET DE SERVICES SOCIAUX DE L’OUEST-DE-L’ÎLE. Deuils, continuité et transmission, Montréal, 2008. [Unpublished document].
  • CENTRE DE SANTÉ ET DE SERVICES SOCIAUX DE L’OUEST-DE-L’ÎLE. L’attachement, Montréal, 2008. [Unpublished document].
  • CENTRE DE SANTÉ ET DE SERVICES SOCIAUX DE L’OUEST-DE-L’ÎLE. La résilience, Montréal, 2008. [Unpublished document].
  • CENTRE DE SANTÉ ET DE SERVICES SOCIAUX DE L’OUEST-DE-L’ÎLE. Le sommeil de l’enfant adopté, Montréal, 2008. [Unpublished document].
  • CENTRE DE SANTÉ ET DE SERVICES SOCIAUX DE L’OUEST-DE-L’ÎLE. Les enjeux de l’adoption, Montréal, 2008. [Unpublished document].
  • DUCHESNEAU, Hélène, and Domenica LABASI. Adoption internationale: Programme post-adoption – Cahier du participant, Montréal, Centre de santé et de services sociaux Jeanne-Mance, 2001, 140 pp.
  • LE MONDE EST AILLEURS. Abandon, adoption, autres mondes.(Consulted January 29, 2010).
  • LEMIEUX, Johanne, et Michelle BERNIER. Les 12 caractéristiques de l'enfant adopté, 1999. (Consulted January 29, 2010).
  • MALENFANT, Pierre-Paul. “Les réactions des personnes sinistrées: module 4”, in L’intervention sociosanitaire en contexte de sécurité civile, Ministère de la Santé et des Services sociaux, 2007. [Working document].
  • ORDRE DES PSYCHOLOGUES DU QUÉBEC. Intervenir auprès des victimes du séisme en Haïti : une aide efficace pour une population spécifique. (Consulted February 1, 2010).
  • OUELLETTE, Françoise-Romaine, et Hélène BELLEAU. L’intégration familiale et sociale des enfants adoptés à l’étranger, Québec, Institut national de la recherche scientifi que, 1999, 175 pp.
  • THE NATIONAL CHILD TRAUMATIC STRESS NETWORK. Parent Guidelines for Helping Children after an Earthquake. (Consulted February 1, 2010).
  • WILKINSON, Hei S. P. “Psycholegal Process and Issues in International Adoption,” American Journal of Family Therapy, vol. 23, no 2, 1995, pp. 173-183.

More

Different psychosocial information sheet about earthquake in Haiti are availlable:

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