Adopting a Pre-School or School-Aged Child
There are special challenges present when adopting a pre-school aged child. Deborah Gray, author of Attaching in Adoption and Nurturing Adoptions presents ten tips for the first year of placement that we suggest adoptive parents take time to read and discuss with family members. Here is an excerpt of her article, Top Ten Tips for the First Year of Placement.
Spend ample time in nurturing activities.
The most significant process of the first year home is creating a trust relationship. Intentional and ample nurturing promotes this goal. Restrict your hours away from the little one. Do not leave your child for overnight trips for this first year.
Meet your little ones needs in an especially sensitive manner. Feed on demand. Respond quickly to fussing. Allow the toddler or child to regress, bottle-feeding, rocking to sleep, lapsitting, and being carried. Play little games that promote eye contact, like peekaboo, ponyride, and hide-and-seek.
Teach children to play with you.
Many little ones have missed the joys of play. Act as an amplifier, teaching toddlers and children the pleasure of play. Most children have missed the experience of having parents express joy as they played. Because of this, their reward centers were not stimulated. This restricted the association of exploration and play with pleasure. Set aside at least thirty minutes a day for play with your children.
Talk to your child.
Parents of infants use exaggerated voice tones to emphasize important concepts. Their “amplifier system” helps children with attention to most important parts of the whole environment. After children move into the preschool age, some of this “cheerleader” amplification diminishes. Continue to use this brighter emotional tone with your child as she understands your shared world even if she is not an infant.
Explain things to him, even though you might think that the meaning of what you are doing is obvious. Not only are you conveying information to him, you are revealing your view of the world to him. Your voice tones guide him to better understand the context. Be sure to use your fingers and gestures to point out important things to him. This helps him to both attend to and understand the meaning of the context around him.
When toddlers or older children have behavior problems, use your body to stop them.
Be gentle, but be consistently and predictably competent in stopping negative behaviors. Gently move their bodies to where you want them to be. For example, if your little one is reaching for an item, move the child or the item. Use the voice for a back up. Do not remind or repeat several times. Instead, describe in a pleasant manner how precious or pretty the item appears to you as you move your child. Teach boundaries of respect from the beginning.
Get enough sleep, good food, and exercise to stay in a good mood.
Little ones who have been moved and/or neglected tend to be irritable, fussy, and hard to soothe. Parents use their own positive, well-regulated moods to help calm and engage these little ones. Your own emotional stability will help to steady your child’s moods. A depressed parent struggles to form a positive, secure attachment with her baby or child. Depression makes the parent emotionally less available. The parent who is tired, eating junk food, and inert by day’s end does not give a child a competent source of emotional regulation. Parents who find that their moods are slipping, even with good self-care, should see about counseling and/or an antidepressant. It is simply too hard to do this essential, nurturing parenting while being depressed.
Be part of an adoption support group.
The relationships between families are invaluable. The relationships can be emotional lifelines on hard days. If possible, find a mentor who is positive, and who likes you and your child. Ask her to be part of your circle of support. We all need to feel understood and authentically accepted. A mentor who can provide that sense of nurture for the parent helps the parent to be a good nurturer. The mentor relationship provides a sense of being heard and accepted, and tips and information. Parents are working harder emotionally when parenting a baby or child who has lived through uneven parenting. Parents need someone who cares for them. Sometimes this can be mutual support, and sometimes one-to-one.
Keep a calm, but interesting home.
Match the amount of stimulation in the home to the amount that is within the childs ability to tolerate. Many children have been massively understimulated before they came to parents. Neglect massively understimulates children. They do not build neurology to process as much sensory stimulation. After adoption, their worlds can suddenly be overwhelming. Things are too bright, too loud, move too much, and tilt too much. Slow things down, buffering your baby or child to the extent that they can process the information coming their way. Often children who are overwhelmed by noise will begin shouting, or those overstimulated by too much movement will begin running with arms like windmills. Lay out predictable, consistent events for the day. Some children find the movement of the car to be disorienting. If your child is having difficulties, try a couple of days limiting the car, determining whether or not this makes a difference.
Explain to children basics of your relationships as they gain language.
For example, “A mothers job is to love you. I will always come back home to you when I leave in the car to go shopping. You will live with me until you are as big as I am. I will not let anybody hurt you. I will never hurt you. We will always have enough food.” One mother told me of her sons relief and better behavior when she told him that she would never allow others to hurt him. “Why didn’t I think to tell him the first year?” She questioned. “He was afraid every time we went to the mall. He has been thinking for two years that just anyone could haul off and hit him.” Another parent told me of the melting smile that her daughter gave her when she said that a mothers job was to love her child. “I just assumed that she knew that. But she didn’t. She looked at my face much more after that.”
Do watch for signs of an exclusive attachment by the end of the first year.
Children should be seeking out their parents for affection and play. They should be showing off for positive attention. They should prefer being with the parent. They should show some excitement about time together. When hurt or distressed, the child should seek out the parent. In a secure attachment, the child will calm with the parent and accept soothing.
Trauma and traumatic grief are the common culprits when children are remaining wary, fearful, and controlling of their parents. Signs of trauma with younger children include regular night terrors, dissociation (child shuts off emotionally and stares away), scratching, biting, extreme moods, freezing in place, and destructiveness. Parents who see these symptoms should be finding a mental health counselor to help their child. If the child is under the age of three, the parent is given special parenting advice. Usually therapy with an experienced child therapist can begin not long after the age of three.
Enter your little ones spacepositively.
This often means getting low and looking up for eye contact. It means trying hard and trying patiently for a longer time. You are the one who has the responsibility of engaging your child positively. Do not use punitive techniques to try to build relationships. After all, no one wants to attach to a mean person. Instead, be strong, dependable, available, and kind. Veer away from advice that is strong, controlling, and mean in tone. Sensitive and kind parents gradually build empathy and security in their relationships with their children. That process takes time and the type of parenting that caused you to want to be a parent in the first place!
To read a more complete version of her article which is extremely helpful for parent’s in this situation, you can find it here. We also wrote another blog post about making a smooth transition when adopting an older child which is a great resource, you can find that here.
Parenting Your Adopted Child as They Grow-Up
Talking About Adoption
As a parent you will share information in an appropriate way for your child’s age and abilities. You have the responsibility to make decisions in the best interest of your child including what to share and when and how to share the information. It is a parent’s job to help the child make sense of the information and that can be done by explaining things in a positive way and answering any questions your child has.
Telling the Story during the Preschool Years
Our friends at Adoptive Families wrote a great piece about Telling the Tough Stuff to your adoptive child. They explain that there are two keys to sharing adoption information with preschool aged children.
- Tell the child’s story as a story, not as cut and dry facts. Make sure your child understands that the story you are telling is true and not a fairytale.
- Tell no lies. You don’t want to risk confusing your child so make sure your story is truthful. At this age you also want to limit the amount of negative details you share.
Elementary –age Kids
As your young ones grow, they make a cognitive leap around seven to nine years of age. They are able to understand the concepts you described when they were younger and will likely have more questions about their adoption story. Kids are highly resilient at this age and it is often considered the ideal age for sharing tough realities.
This is the time to continue to fill in details. Just like with nearly every teenager, parents should be prepared for some rough patches as your child struggles to figure out who he is. If the adoption conversation has been open and honest from the beginning, it is likely to remain so and only expand as your child becomes a teenager. Talking to teens can be a difficult task and we wrote a blog post not too long ago on how to best approach the conversation, you can find post here.