This is part two of the blog series about the Russia-Ukraine War and the effects on children and youth across the country and around the world. You can read part one here. Reprinted with permission from Nathan Monell, CAE, National PTA.
Sasha, adopted from Ukraine 14 years ago, was unable to sleep, pay attention in school or want to do anything with her peers. Last evening, her mom found her wide awake in the middle of the night, on her knees praying. This teen was immobilized by anxiety, fixated on the children she once knew from her orphanage and everyone’s safety.
Robert was adopted 10 years ago from Russia. He came home this past week, stormed into his room and did not want to talk. Kids at school had told him he was evil because he was Russian. He felt so mad at Putin, embarrassed that he was Russian and worried about his birth family. Were they fighting in the war? Are they safe? Is he bad because he is Russian and what if everyone hates him now?
“Sasha and Robert’s stories are reflective of the huge spike in anxiety, sadness, guilt, fear, shame, and worry we are seeing among Ukrainian and Russian adoptees,” reports Janice Goldwater, founder and CEO of Adoptions Together, one of many American agencies who supports families who have adopted children from Russia and Ukraine.
Understanding why war happens is challenging and managing feelings related to war is complicated. With the Russian aggression toward Ukraine, two countries steeped in a collective history, it is even more thorny. For many children in our school and community this is personal because they were adopted from these countries. Latest numbers available from the State Department document that more Americans adopted from Ukraine than any other country in 2020. While Russia has banned all current adoptions to the U.S., Russian adoptees over the last two decades number 60,000.
“Children who are now thriving as members of families may have a deep connection to their homeland,” Goldwater adds. “Helping these children navigate the complicated feelings about this war requires adults to be attuned to their needs.”
Debbie Riley, LCMFT, CEO of Center for Adoption Support and Education (CASE), told me adoptees from these two countries are struggling to manage resurfacing feelings of loss re-triggered by the losses they are witnessing on TV minute by minute. Many were seeking support to heal from the psychological losses of their birth family and now they fear the finality of these losses. Questions swirling in their minds are, “Are my biological families dead? Have I lost any hope of reconnecting with them in the future? In this massive evacuation, will I ever find my family again? Will my birth father, brothers, uncles will be harmed as soldiers? What will war and sanctions mean for their survival? How will they pay for food and housing?”
Local news reports across the country report the interruption of adoptions in process for Ukraine, one of the greatest fears or adoptive parents and orphans. There are also media reports of adoptive parents fleeing Ukraine just in time.
Many adoptees worry if the other children still living in orphanages will survive. They ask, “Will the orphanages they came from be bombed? If evacuated, where will the children be cared for? Will they ever be able to come to America now that all flights are canceled, and travel has stopped?”
As we watch Ukrainian parents taking their kids to safety at the border and returning to fight, or when we see dead Russian soldiers lying in the snow, they wonder, “Will even more children become orphaned when parents are killed by the war?”
Some adoptees are young and still trying to make sense of the whole concept of adoption. They worry they could be sent back to their home countries—that they may worry that they do not belong here after all.
As an adoptive dad, I am well aware of adolescent adoptees struggling with their identity, a necessary rite of passage for all youth, but even more so for those with cultural and family heritage they have not experienced first-hand.
Adoption agencies deal with this identity formation all the time in their support groups. These adoptees may be asking, “Am I Ukrainian, Russian, American? How does this all fit together? What should I feel at this time of international crisis?”
“Some adoptees feel suddenly very patriotic or protective of their birth countries without having words or understanding why, explained Riley. “Others may disengage fearing being associated with their national identity if there is a sense of wrongdoing or shame in events occurring in their country of origin. They do not want to be seen as aligned with something that others see as bad. Some may feel they do not fit anywhere but are outsiders, foreigners. ‘Where is my true foundation? Who will claim me? Who do I want to be claimed by?’”
Our children need us to understand how complicated this is. It is hard to navigate this journey of identity formation under normal circumstances. It is imperative that we as adults understand how this search becomes compromised and complicated by the current tragic events unfolding day by day in Ukraine. The severity of the impact is related to the degree of trauma (adverse childhood experiences) the child has experienced, how long the adoptee has lived in his/her birth country, whether the adoptee has met or connected with other members of his birth family, if the adoptee has had the opportunity to visit their birth country and the adoptive parents’ level of commitment to honoring the home country’s national identity and culture.
Nathan R. Monell, CAE is the executive director of National PTA, the largest and oldest child advocacy organization in the country and is the proud father of two adopted teenagers.
What can we do to help?
“During challenging times, the presence of aware and empathic adults can make all the difference,” Goldwater told me. “Parents and teachers need to be aware that while all children are impacted by war, children from these countries are exceptionally vulnerable and historical trauma may be ignited. During this time, I recommend that you handle these children with extra care, kindness, empathy and recognize the extra level of stress they are experiencing. Being curious about what is behind the behavior will help keep the door open for communication and help to manage the traumatic nature of the situation.”
Both experts encouraged the necessity of finding the fine line between caring and being invasive. As community leaders, fellow parents and educators, we must show a quiet sensitivity that lets someone—the student, or the parent—know that we care. We should be mindful and not allow our curiosity to overwhelm our concerns for the people we care about.
Unfortunately, some of our kids will face bullying which often feeds on finding some presence of “otherness.” Just being adopted is different, but one’s national heritage can be another source of “otherness” especially during times of international stress like we are now experiencing. In the days ahead, we need to be aware that Russian adoptees may be faced with adverse experiences directed to their nationality and culture. They may be subject to slurs and bullying about being Russian and may be blamed for the war. One Russian adoptee shared that he worried that he would be bullied like his Asian peers during the COVID pandemic who were taunted and blamed for the virus. He wondered would his friends say, “Russian people start wars; they kill people for no reason.”
The mere anticipation of bullying affects children’s mental health surfacing their feelings associated with depression, anxiety and stress. (You can find PTA’s anti-bullying efforts here.)
These experts share, “Instruct children to tell someone if they are being bullied. Be proactive, anticipate with them how in times of these types of crisis people often due pick out someone to hurt, to blame when they themselves feel sacred or afraid or threatened. Share some comments or ways others might bullying them so they can prepare. Role-play ahead of time on how they can respond.” My younger children knew it well: tell an adult, walk away, stand up for yourself and move to a crowded area where other people can observe and assist.
As a National PTA community, we are always grateful for our partnerships with experts in the field like Goldwater and Riley. May our commitment to every child bring out our most empathic response for the adopted children from Ukraine and Russia. May they and their adoptive and birth families know that our hearts bend to theirs during these challenging days.