Thursday, March 12, 2009

Renaming the Older Child

Internationally adopted children face a host of dramatic changes when they arrive in their new homes. New families, a new culture, and new language. Sometimes parents choose to give their new child a new name, either because of pronunciation issues, to help them feel that the child is more ‘theirs’, or simply because of personal choice. However, changing the name of an older child can have profound psychological effects.

Many adoption agencies and adoption books make no reference to the psychological implications of changing an older child’s name. I’m not referring to a baby or an infant, who has a pre-verbal concept of him/herself. For an older child, her name is a part of who she is.

Much of the reading I have done teaches that when we change the name of an older child, we are sending her a message that we are not truly adopting her, as her own person, but rather that we are expecting her to become the child we actually wanted in the first place. Changing the first name of an older adopted child can be experienced by that child as a message of profound rejection, however unintended this message may be. This is the opinion of all of the mental health professionals I have spoken with about this subject. The subject of changing the names of older children is even assigned as major discussion topic in the MAPP (Model Approach to Permanency Planning) foster parent training method, a methodology used by many social service agencies across the United States.

There are certain circumstances where it is almost necessary to change a child’s name; I once read online about a Haitian girl whose original name was ‘Jemima’ – hardly a suitable name for a person of African descent in the United States! An infant whom we placed was named "Dieusete" - a name unprounoucable for most Americans. I myself had a foster daughter who at sixteen felt the need for a new first name in order to distance herself from the horrific abuse she had endured with her original name. She chose to actively use the disassociation from self that a new first name brings an older child as a therapeutic measure. However, these are exceptions. For many of our children, their names were expressions of love from a beloved birth parent’s lips, and they are a very real way for our children to accept, embrace, and feel connected to their Haitian heritage.

A name can be a part of a child's self-concept. My oldest Haitian daughter's name is Myrlande, which is pronounced "Mee-lahnd". When she first came home at age ten, people kept calling her "Meer-lahnd". We discussed changing the spelling of her name, but never quite got around to doing it. Now, at age fifteen, Myrlande is proud of her exotic French name. She is quite comfortable with correcting mispronounciations, and has no interest in changing the spelling. For Myrlande, her unusual name, difficult spelling and all, is part of being the proud Haitian-American woman she is becoming.

What if your older child has a name that is extremely difficult to pronounce, or if you already have a child in your home with the same name? Nicknames are quite common in Haitian culture. Before your child comes home, check with his caregivers to learn if your new son has a nickname that he can use in your home. Several of our families have chosen to add the nickname as a new legal first name and kept the child's birth name as a legal middle name.

It is important for parents to be aware of the very serious nature of changing the name of someone with a self-concept, a heritage, and a past life of her own. This is especially critical for any child who may already be struggling with attachment and grief issues. It is going to be even harder to attach to her new family if she ‘isn’t really herself’ anymore. Letting a child keep her own name gives her the following messages:

1. We really wanted YOU in particular.
2. We respect you as a developed, unique person.
3. We respect your birth mother, your culture, and your heritage.
4. We do not deny your past and your life before you met us.

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