The Harm Orphanages Can Have on a Child’s Mental Health

Published on: 17 Dec 2015
orphan dirty hands cardboard house

When Monique Prince and her former husband had trouble conceiving, they decided to adopt children from a Ukrainian orphanage. Because adoption laws are different in the Ukraine, adopting children from this orphanage did not risk a potential custody battle with the biological parents.

“We didn’t want the children to be taken from us after we adopted,” Prince told Talkspace during a phone conversation.

These children desperately needed the kind of home Prince wanted to provide. The temperature in the orphanage was barely above the freezing point, Prince said. No one held the babies or gave them any sort of affection. The staff did not have the training or energy to properly address basic needs such as diaper changing and bottle feeding.

Ukranian orphanage nursery cribs
This is a photo from a Ukranian orphanage similar to the one Prince described.

According to Lumos, an international nonprofit that works to end the institutionalization of children in Europe, 80% of children in orphanages and institutions are not actually orphans. They are separated from their families because they are poor, disabled or from an ethnic minority. Parents believe they are giving their children to people who can provide better care, but most orphanages do not live up to this expectation.

Prince adopted Angelica and Charles, saving them from further neglect. She had the family she dreamed of, but the challenges were only beginning.

It is common for children who are born into or grow up in institutions or foster homes to have attachment issues and sometimes a diagnosable attachment disorder [reactive attachment disorder]. Not forming an attachment with a parent or caregiver during infancy and early childhood often causes adopted children to exhibit abnormal social behaviors or reactions to warmth and care from a guardian.

This was one of Prince’s toughest obstacles in raising Angelica and Charles. They did not warm up to her at first, Prince said, frequently avoiding eye contact, showing disgust or shoving her away when she was affectionate.

“I wanted to hold them, but they hadn’t been held.”

It goes beyond behavior, though. Attachment deficiencies affect brain development; this makes it harder for adopted children to form relationships later in life. Nonetheless, parents and professionals can help foster children form healthy attachments. Think of this process as healing an injury in their brain, allowing the tissue to grow back stronger.

“You have to be understanding and develop their undeveloped part,” Prince said.

Originally a theologist, Prince attended college to become a licensed clinical social worker [LCSW], in part because of her children. She now works with families who struggle to raise their adopted children and deal with a plethora of mental health issues via her project, Tame Your Wild Child.

Prince believes in being patient with adopted children, who are more likely to misbehave and put stress on parents. Punishing them too harshly for negative behavior can make forming attachments even more difficult.
Going Beyond Attachment

Surviving poor foster care is traumatic as well and has lead to trauma-related symptoms and post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD].

“People working with children in foster care should always take a trauma-informed approach,” said Shannon Battle, Clinical Director of foster care and mental health organization Family Services of America.

Because the government removes children from their homes in cases of abuse or neglect, guardians who adopt them need to understand how to adapt their parenting and ensure the children receive psychotherapy.

Orphans are also more vulnerable to depressive and anxiety disorders. Anxiety usually sets in first, according to psychologist Lynn Johnson, Director of Brief Therapy Center.

“In a way, anxiety is more helpful,” Johnson said. “Fear means there is a belief something can be done to restore safety.”

The child’s mental health risks become more severe if they stay at the foster care facility long enough to lose this anxiety and descend into losing the hope or desire to form an attachment. This can be difficult for parents, Johnson said, because they adopt the children with excitement and the expectation of being close with them.

Tackling New Issues as They Grow Up: Living with Biological Children and Meeting Biological Parents

Prince continues to work with her children to improve their ability to form attachments. Angelica and Charles are now in their teens, and Prince has a biological daughter, Catherine.

Angelica and Charles have struggled with being jealous of Catherine, Prince says, but they see her as family and are trying to bond more. It’s more than the blood relation, though. Because Catherine came from a mentally healthy environment compared to her siblings, it was easier for her to accel in school.

Then there’s the elephant in the family: will Angelica and Charles meet their biological parents?

“It’s always been an open conversation,” Prince said.

Angelica and Charles can meet their biological parents once they turn 18, but whether they will want to is up in the air. Either way, Prince is happy to help them connect and learn more about their identity.

Medication is another issue the understanding mother might have to deal with as her children mature. People often misdiagnose mental illnesses for youth from foster homes and overprescribe medication, according to Shay-anne Razaire, a resource specialist who works for Forward Paths Foundation, a foster care organization. Razaire recommends therapy rather than only medication, especially for children suffering from PTSD.

How to Heal their Wounds

Parents who adopt children should ensure they see a therapist. The parents can also help their children by practicing the patience Prince encourages, educating themselves on relevant mental health issues and demonstrating positive behavior.

“Children are heliotropic, that is, they turn towards the light,” Johnson said. “Raise your personal happiness and they will eventually turn towards you.”

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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