The following is our answer to a question that we were asked about supporting a particular 3-year-old adopted child. Although our answer was in reference to particular circumstances, we hope that our suggestions will be useful to other parents in similar situations.
The question was: My partner and I adopted a little boy from the Ukraine when he was 18 months old. Jan’s start with us was rocky — he seemed so frightened. That has settled down, but now that he is 3, he still seems to be insecure. How can we help him forget and move on?
We answered: Your child is fortunate to have parents who are sensitive to the effects of his earliest years. There are many things that you can do to help him feel more secure in his life, all of which begin with understanding his special challenges.
Before his adoption: We cannot know everything about what those first 18 months were like for Jan. His basic biological needs were probably met, but likely in a way that was not optimally suited to his individuality or within the context of a close relationship.
Children are biologically programmed to establish their basic judgments about the safety of the world based upon the nature of the loving relationships they do or don’t establish in their first several years of life. Children also build many of their personality qualities on the basis of this first relationship, as they take in and make their own the ways they felt treated by loved ones in the earliest years. Children in international orphanages may have insufficiently stable or self-regulatory capacities. This is especially important for Jan, because children use their ability to self-regulate to manage anxiety.
Implications of early experiences: Some children who have spent their first 18 months in an orphanage are so adversely affected that their ability to form relationships is greatly impaired. These children are described as having reactive attachment disorders.
Fortunately, most children’s problems are not that severe. Yet, these children, like Jan, also face an extra challenge. Here are some suggestions for how to help Jan.
Simplify daily life: Children feel confident when they understand themselves and their world. For this reason, they need to be presented with only as much as they can reasonably be expected to master and integrate. Jan already is faced with a complex set of questions, including whether things that once happened are truly over, whether his new parents will stay the way they are, not become like the people he was first exposed to, and whether his early life assumptions about the world are really true. At the tender age of 3, he must overturn assumptions that he made in his first 18 months about himself, others and the world — to remake himself, in effect. It is a testament to the resiliency of children and the love of their adoptive parents that most children find a way to accomplish this enormous task.
Other children, who don’t have to grapple with these dilemmas, grow from experiences such as trips, new activities, play dates, videos and occasional hectic days. As you make choices, think about making Jan’s life simpler and less complex. Imagine you are raising him 75 years ago in a small town with a slower pace and more routine and predictable days. Modern life is not the same, but if you provide as low-key an environment as possible, Jan will have the emotional space to focus on what is particularly important for him at this point in his life.
Parents who adopt a child older than 4 or 6 months, which seems to be a critical window, should avoid placing that child in full-day care for as long as possible, ideally through the preschool years. Asking such a child to surmount the hurdle of forming a love relationship in a relatively few hours each day, while being left anew each day, can be a special problem for these children. Furthermore, full-day child care presents many complexities for a child and would work against the goal of simplifying Jan’s life.
Helping Jan move on: You wish Jan would forget and move on, but that is not possible. His experiences are in him, even if there are few, if any, conscious memories. To help him, and allow him to love you in the deepest way possible, you must be open to the fullness of what he endured during those first 18 months. In other words, he cannot forget and move on. In some fundamental sense, he must remember and move on.
There is no precise road map of how to best support Jan because every child differs in this journey. Jan may come to you with surprising recollections, or he may have nightmares that suggest memories. As you offer reassurance that the painful states of his infancy will not be repeated in his family life, you also need to feel deeply with him. Your ability to tolerate the fullness of his experience, past and current, will provide the loving intimacy around which a sense of safety and security can grow.
Jan will be grappling with his history and differentiating it from his new life for years. He is on a path, and with his parents as loving, patient, attuned guides, he will achieve a sense of security.
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