Years ago, I was the social worker on two separate cases that disrupted the same year. With each set of parents I tried to explain a fundamental truth: relationship reciprocity and bonding expectations for a child during the first year of an adoptive placement must be the same as those for a newborn. To heal and thrive, older adoptees must be able to retrace, with their new family, developmental steps they missed early on.
During college I studied Erik Erikson, a Pulitzer prize-winning psychologist known for his work on identity and psychosocial development in the mid-1900s. Decades later, I noticed remarkable connections between his theories and parenting older children. The key part of Erikson's theory is that until a person completes one developmental stage, they cannot go on to the next stage.
Erikson’s first four stages—applied to youth from the time of placement to the time they get ready for independence—can teach parents how to help older children heal while they still live at home.
Stage One: The First 18 Months
Research has shown us how important it is for children to attach. Even so, in the first year after placement, we new parents still make the mistake of dwelling on behaviors instead of attachment. Things can change if we view a newly placed children of any age as a newborn:
To help children attach, learn to gently correct behaviors without over-reacting. Picture yourself as a new husband or wife trying to please the other and be genuinely attractive and worth attaching to. Long lists of rules and consequences that require consistent behavior management should not be the focus of this first stage.
As much as possible, create good feelings for the child whenever you are around. Use lots of laughter, pop a Hershey’s kiss in her mouth when she sustains eye contact, and give as much affection as she will allow. When the child misbehaves, stay calm and point out that the behavior is not appropriate while redirecting her to a new activity with you by her side. Actions and reactions like these promote bonding between parents and children.
One of the most significant pieces of this stage in understanding hurt children is Erikson’s definition of hope: "enduring belief in the attainability of fervent wishes."2 Recognizing that many children who enter care do not believe they can get what they want provides insight into their little hearts. With no hope and no belief in their own abilities, they are victims in a dim dark world. And, according to Erikson's theory, the only way they can develop the ego quality of hope is to attach to another person.
Stage Two: 18 Months to 3 Years
Once an adopted child learns to attach, he is ready for stage two—the "terrible twos" in typical development. For a child placed at 11, this stage can coincide with puberty. Complicating matters further, we parents find it exceedingly hard to muster the emotional response we would offer a tantruming toddler when confronted with a older child having a meltdown.
During Erikson's second stage, as Arlene Harder explains, we can "build self-esteem and autonomy as we gain more control over our bodies and acquire new skills, learning right from wrong. And one of our skills during the 'Terrible Twos' is our ability to use the powerful word ‘NO!’ It may be pain for parents, but it develops important skills of the will.3
Parents are often so relieved when it appears the child is attaching that they begin to panic when defiance kicks up a notch. They wonder if the attachment isn’t real, but according to Erikson, only when children complete the attachment stage can they enter the willful stage during which the need to question, tantrum, and act out dramatically multiplies.
Responding to an older child’s tantrum as if she were a two-year-old is tricky. We can pick up a two-year-old and take her to a safe place to calm down. When a youth is 15, however, that’s not an option. Remembering that her actions are as impersonal and unplanned as a toddler’s can help us overlook much of it.
In the midst of a tantrum, children cannot reason. Do not try to discuss their behavior or redirect them by speaking more loudly. That only escalates the situation. If the child is safe and doesn’t pose a danger to himself or others, the best choice is often to leave the room and give him time to finish the tantrum. If safety is a concern, sit down and remain silent or talk very softly. Active listening is much better than attempting to reason.
Consider a raging child who goes into the "nobody likes me" mode. Our natural instinct is to assure her of our love, but that just gives her a reason to argue. A better response is, "It sounds like you are feeling sad or feeling like you aren’t loved." To de-escalate tantrums, listen actively and rephrase the child's thoughts.
Many of our children have raged over the years, all at different stages and in different ways. They have used foul language, threatened us, and damaged property. At the outset of our parenting journey we wanted to rapidly stop the meltdowns, but that just made things worse. Now, with our younger children, we respond as calmly as possible and wait it out.
Stage Three: 3 to 5 Years
Healthy preschoolers can explore and develop social skills fairly easily, but the same lessons are much harder for an older child. Using the example of a boy who is 10 at placement, let's go through his adolescence according to Erikson.
For 18 months after your family welcomes the child home, until he is 12, the boy is working on attachment. Then it is time for his defiance phase. Until the child is almost 14, he is oppositional, argues with everything, and has fits of aggression. Now he’s entering high school, and it is time to learn the social skills his peers learned in preschool.
At this stage you must allow for failure, let him be imaginative, and set up ways he can test skills without being embarrassed. Scouting or martial arts classes where multi-age groups participate can offer children a place to connect with whomever they feel comfortable. Preschoolers love hanging out with “cool” older kids. Allowing older children to master interactions with much younger children can be beneficial for both.
Some of our oldest kids really enjoy spending time with the youngest ones. We supervise the interaction, and try to keep other siblings’ comments to a minimum. Finding situations in which the youth can be both a leader and follower may also help during this stage.
Failure to resolve this stage, Erikson explains, causes immobilizing guilt. Children maybe be fearful, hang back from groups, rely too heavily on adults, and have a limited ability to play and imagine.
Thus it is key to guide children through stage three so they can face stage four without fear or guilt. Trying to rush them through stages because they are so much behind their peers is counterproductive.
Stage Four: 6 to 12 Years
“During this stage…we are capable of learning, creating and accomplishing numerous new skills and knowledge, thus developing a sense of industry. This is also a very social stage of development and if we experience unresolved feelings of inadequacy and inferiority among our peers, we can have serious problems [with]…competence and self-esteem."5
Years after their peers, many adopted children reach a stage where they can make future plans. Up to this point they have had a sense of inadequacy and inferiority that has eroded feelings of competence and hurt their self-esteem. Fortunately, with support of dedicated parents, youth can still work through stage four and learn to feel good about themselves.
Children who hit this stage at age five have years to test a variety of life choices. Older children who still need to discover talents and interests must try many different things in an abbreviated timeframe. It’s important to give youth plenty of chances to succeed and offer a lot of encouragement. Tasks that your children do with you can increase their confidence and receptivity to new activities.
Schools and communities offer other options. Music, sports, drama, and other community ed classes enable children to explore many avenues. We allow our stage four children to try a lot of activities and ask only that they participate for one season before electing to opt out.
Each stage takes longer than we might prefer. But just as we cannot expect a healthy two-year-old to act like a 10-year-old, we cannot expect a 10-year-old child who is emotionally two to act his age. When we take a step back, slow ourselves down, celebrate small victories, and walk through this journey with our children, there can be healing for us all.
Originally published in NACAC's Adoptalk newsletter in 2009
North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC)
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