Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Traveling for Adoption

No, not me this time. But, a very good friend of mine will be traveling to China, hopefully very soon, to bring home their four year old boy!

She asked me a while ago if I would write a blog post with a list of suggestions of what to pack. I said "sure!" and was very excited about the thought, but then got busy with this, with that, and I was shamefully neglecting my blog, and forgot about the notion.

We just got back from a wonderful dinner with my friend and her family, and I remembered....oh yeah! list of what to pack.

So here it is. Packing suggestions for traveling to pick up an internationally adopted child. (Not baby, child. Babies have a whole other set of needs.)

Making him feel more comfortable--

A few small, interactive toys to use as an icebreaker. Toa of Boy was scared to death of us when he was first turned over to our care. We had visited him the night before on his own turf, surrounded by people he knew and trusted, and he was having a ball playing with us then. He even called me "Mommy". I was *thrilled.* So, it took me off guard the next day when he was brought to the room where we were staying and just sat on the floor, frightened. We sat on the floor, a little ways away from him so as not to crowd him, and played with a small, foldable cloth frisbee. Passing it back and forth between us and Sweetling and talking and smiling and encouraging Sweetling. After a few minutes we braved a pass to Toa of Boy, who snatched it and tossed it back. We gradually pulled him into the game that way, and he became more comfortable and animated with us. Having something fun and nonthreatening like that was so very, very vital.

A present just from his new sibling. Often, children warm up to children faster than they warm up to adults. Toa took a birthday card and small present from Sweetling almost right away. (Before we had even started the frisbee game.) Plus, being the first person in the family to give the new family member a present gives the sibling an important task and reaffirms the pre-existing child's sense of belonging and value within the family structure. It shouldn't be wrapped, because the new child might not ever have had any experience with unwrapping a present, and the prospect of tearing paper might be confusing, since they've likely been taught that tearing something is a huge no-no.

A small bag with his name on it. This should be something small enough to fit in his backpack later, but easy to get things in and out of. With Toa, I quickly realized that he was afraid to put down his card from Sweetling or his stuffed Nemo, or some other little thing that he had attached to. He was trying to walk around and hold onto all of these little things to keep them safe. I took a gallon sized ziplock bag and wrote his name on it in permament marker and showed him how his things could go in it. He was thrilled and it was much easier to carry around than all the little things were. In retrospect, I wish I would have brought a small canvas bag with handles. (We had to keep a close watch to make sure he didn't try to wear the plastic bag on his head. Yeah, I know. Don't call child services on me. He's still alive.)

A picture communication card. A card (or a strip) with simple pictures on it to help him communicate basic needs. We didn't need this for Toa, because Toa spoke some basic English. But, for a young boy without any background in English, you can relieve a lot of the stress and scariness of communicating a simple need (like I have to go to the bathroom) by having a card with simple pictures on it that he can point to, letting you know what he needs. I'd suggest a picture of a toilet, a picture of a bowl of food (something that he will recognize like a bowl of rice or a bowl of noodles), a picture of a cup or glass to represent something to drink, a picture of a bed or pillow to represent sleep. You keep one copy with you, especially if you are out of the hotel room, clipped to the outside of your purse or worn as a lanyard around your neck. You keep one copy with him, clipped to the outside of his backpack. And you keep a couple of spares in your suitcase in case one gets lost.
You use the cards a lot when you are talking with him. "Are you hungry?" "Do you want something to eat?" (If you know the Chinese word or phrase for food or hungry, you can use that with the picture and with the English.) With a lot of repititions, he'll pick up on if he's hungry, he can bring a card to you and point to the picture of the food. Later, he'll learn the English words for all these things. But right now, your main concern is helping him feel safe and cared for. It will help him bond, and once that basic emotional need is met, he'll be more able to tackle a language as alien and strange-sounding as English. 

(Alternatively, you can use simple infant signs for some of these basic concepts. This has the advantage of not needing a picture card. It has the disadvantage of he needs to remember the sign to be able to use it.)

A safe zone in the room you'll be staying. Ok, this isn't something you can pack and take with you, but establish an area (an armchair, a corner, a side of a bed) that is his safe zone. With Toa, that was the lower bunk of the bunkbeds he and Sweelting were using. When Toa climbed up on the bunk, that's where he could go to be left alone. He needed a safe place where he could retreat when things got overwhelming.

Keeping him entertained--

Now, I'm going to give you a list of things that are nice for keeping a scared, confused little boy entertained and happy in a strange hotel room, in the American Consulate office where you'll be waiting for forever, on the plane, and in the airport while your waiting in the immigration office. Don't give him all of these at once. You will overwhelm him. Give him one at a time, maybe just before you go to a new place. (In other words, don't introduce a brand new toy or activity in the Consulate office. That's just one more new, confusing, overstimulating thing. Introduce it in the hotel room a half hour before you go to the Consulate's office. It will still be very cool and intriguing for him, without contributing to the overwhelming factor.) The twelve hour airplane ride is an exception to this subrule. You can introduce a new thing on the airplane, especially if you've already been on the airplane for a few hours.

Bring the same set of toys for the pre-existing sibling! Being older, the veteren sibling should have a couple of special things suited for her interests, (Sweetling brought books and a couple of her own stuffed animals), but the basic toy set should be pretty much the same. Mark everything with a permament marker, and let each child keep their things in their own backpacks. But having the same set (or at least similar sets) serves a couple of purposes. One, the existing sibling is getting new toys at the same time that the new sibling is. That makes it less "all about the new sibling" and helps the existing sibling remember that this is an exciting time for *everyone* in the family, including her! Two, if the new sibling has no earthly idea how to play with the toys, the existing sibling models appropriate play easily and naturally. Children learn from imitation. Having a good role model will help new little brother. Three, new little brother won't be as tempted to grab big sister's stuff, because the stuff will be the same. Yes, new little brother will pick her stuff up by accident, but that is easily remedied and is much less of a threat or an offense in big sister's book.

Here's some field tested winners of what to bring--

Crayola Color Wonder Markers. These are cool because they only mark on the color wonder paper. Not anything else. Not knowing how much experience or training he might have had with crayons and markers, you might just want to play safe and give him something he can draw with....but only on a certain surface. Bring extra paper. Don't give him the whole pack of paper at once. Doll out just a couple of sheets at a time. (You can bring regular paper and washable crayons and break them out if he seems to be doing well with the wonder markers.)

Cheap tiny animals or dinosaurs. Cheap, because they won't all be coming home with you. One will get lost here, another over there. Take a little bag or special container just for them. Some of them come in a storage tube, but if not, take something. Toa of Boy kept himself enterained for quite a while just taking them out of their container, lining them all up, and putting them back in. Farm animals or zoo animals are good for naming and at least hearing their English names. You could also count them as they come out of the container and go back into the container.

A backpack for travel. His personal things (ie--his new toys) should go in there. His canvas bag with the handles should go in there. (His canvas bag is just for use in the hotel room. Yes, there is a difference. But, he should still have access to his back pack in the hotel room.) He needs something that zips up when you leave the hotel room. His change of clothes, his extra socks, etc DO NOT go in there. Otherwise they will get pull out when not needed and risk getting lost. For long times away from the hotel, a sippy cup or a snack could go in there. (I don't know what the current airplane regulations are on those things.) If he seems worried about where his next meal will be coming from, knowing he has a granola bar in his backpack might be comfort. (Warning, he will eat it immediately. Keep the snack you want him to have later in your own backpack.)

DVDs and a DVD player, or a laptop with a few movie files on the hard drive. Say what you will about this, but there will be a time in the hotel room where its 7PM and no child is sleepy but Mom and Dad are exhausted. (And frankly, both kids might have also had an exhausting, overstimulating day.) A 30 minute veggietale will be your salvation. Don't expect the 4 year old to sit through a 90 minute Disney movie (he might, but likely not). But 30 minutes is a real possibility.

Other possibilities, these might work, they might not, depending on the child. These aren't the sure fire winners of the above list, but if you want a couple of possibilities to hold in reserve, these are it.

Sticker sheets (and paper for them to be placed onto). Be warned, stickers might go everywhere. My recommendation is to save them for the airplane ride. He might need some help 'starting' the stickers. (Pull up just one corner or edge.) But its a good fine motor activity that should keep him quiet and busy. Don't go for fancy stickers with lots of wierd shapes that could rip when he pulls them up. Go for simple shapes that are easy to pull up. Big sister, of course, can have the fancier stickers (or even a sticker story book).

A koosh ball. The ones that have all those soft rubber wigglies on it and look like squishy sea anenomes. Don't get the ones that are filled with gel fluid. Those will rupture. Trust me. But the squishy sea anemones can be used for a game of catch, they can be used like a rubber band yo-yo, and they are a neat sensory/tactile object to hold and fiddle with.

A simple bedtime story book. If you are planning on using a book as part of the normal bedtime routine, bring it and start it reading it. It should be realitively short, with not too many words per page. But, the more routine you can build into your days up front, the easier the adjustment will be for the child. Part of the stress of adoption, for the child, is not knowing what to expect. Everything familiar has been taken away. If you do the same bedtime routine every night in the hotel room, that will help start building up a sense of consistancy in his life again.

Practical stuff to have on hand--

Over the counter medicines for children and for adults. Trust me, if big sister comes down with a cold and a sore throat, you don't want to be in China trying to figure out how to by a child's cold medicine. Likewise for the grownups, and for new little brother. Put any liquid medicines in a ziplock bag and keep the medicines in the bags you check, not your carry ons.

Motion sickness medicine or ginger tablets, if this is an issue for any of you. I don't know how long its been since your little girl has flown, but even if you and your husband don't have a problem with this, it might not be a bad idea to have on hand in a child's dosage for the two kids.

Lots of boy socks and underwear. I packed a gabillion pairs of socks and underwear for Toa, and we ran out. I don't know how that happened. I packed way more pairs than we had days in Gautemala, but we still ran out.

Pull-ups. Yes, I know your new little guy has been in big boy underwear for quite some time, but this falls under the 'better safe than sorry' column of advice. But you will want to put him in a pull up at night time and for the airplane travel. Let me tell you why. First, many children who have been staying dry all through the night experience bedwetting in response to a drastic change or stress in their lives. At three a.m., you don't want to discover the sheets need changed and the hotel room mattress is soaked, especially if big sister is sharing a bed with new little brother. Much easier to put little brother in a pull up for the night. Second, if you are in an airport or on a plane and suddenly the little guy has to go to the bathroom...but your in the middle of boarding or there's a huge line for the one restroom in the plane and little guy doesn't quite make it... Well, it much easier in those cases to change a pull up than an outfit. Plus, if he is already nervous, scared, and insecure, you don't want to unnecessarily add the drama and stress of wetting himself.

Wet wipes and hand sanitizer. I'm betting you already keep these in your purse anyway. Use them a lot :)

A small toothbrush or nail brush. Scrub like you are going into surgery whenever you wash your hands. After our bout of illness in Guatemala (and we were careful and followed all the traveler's rules), I can't stress thorough handwashing enough. Even in Guatemala, I washed my hands and used hand sanitizer like crazy, but the doctor that we saw down there recommended brushing under the nails. He said that the bacteria can get under the nails and not get washed out when the hands are washed regularly.

Antibiotics for the adults and for the children. We got a presciption filled for each of us and took it to Guatemala with us. And we needed it. Did we ever need it. As bad as our illness was, it would have been so much worse if we hadn't started an antibiotic immediately.

Shoes for the little guy. The ones he will be wearing might be too small for his feet. I had gotten this as a tip before we went to Guatemala, and it turned out to be a good tip. The tip I got was to bring along the sandals that velcro around the ankle and velcro over the top of the foot too. Get them in a slightly larger size than you think you need and then use the velcro to adjust them down as necessary. This worked beautifully for us, but we were in Guatemala in late May, not northern China in January. So, maybe the velcro sandals won't work so well for the climate. Regardless, take along a couple pairs of shoes.

Jacket, clothing, etc. I don't know what the policies are where you will be adopting, but its safe to assume he won't be coming to you with anything but the clothes on his back, so take everything else you think he'll need for the few days you will be in China and for the travel time home.

A camera. Like you needed me to tell you this one. But take lots of pictures and try to document as best you can where he came from and the story of how he came home with you. That's an important piece of his life and of who he is. He will need to have that, to hear that, to look at the pictures again and again. Our Toa of Boy used to wake up in the middle of the night crying. I found that one of the only ways to comfort him and help him settle down was to go back to those pictures, to talk about where he used to live, and to tell him again the story of how he came home with us. In that telling, it helped reassure him of how much we love him and how he will always be with us and how God has always had a special plan for his life.

Hope that helps!

I'll ask the Jedi to read over this and see if he has anything he can think of to add. He's the more practical minded of the two of us. (Big shocker there, right?) I'll tag on any of his suggestions in a separate post.

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