As a therapist who works with children and their families, I am continually thinking about the behaviors the child is exhibiting and the underlying feelings that are fueling those behaviors. At the same time, I am considering the child in his environment, in other words, ways in which home, school and peer contacts might be impacting the child.
Perhaps this sounds complicated, but in fact, each of you uses the very same mental process daily. The following is a simple example of this: Mom says, "Suzy, it's time to get your shoes and get ready for school."
Suzy overreacts to this simple request, refuses to get her shoes, and begins crying out, "You never help me, you never help me, I have to do everything all alone."
Typical parental reactions include but are certainly not limited to the following:
"Have I been available to Suzy when she needs me?"
"Is she feeling unable and/or overwhelmed?"
"Is she just cranky and just doesn't want to do it?"
"Is something going on in school that I need to know about?"
"Does she really just need to be close to me and feel supported?"
Trying to understand what might be going on with your child is the same mental process I described above as part of my job as a child therapist. The good news is that while it would be nice if you could immediately figure out what was fueling your child's response, the fact is that what is really most important for your child is to truly feel heard and validated.
I know this to be true in my professional and personal life and think you do too. Take a few minutes, right now, and put down this newsletter. Close your eyes and come up with a moment in time when you felt confused, over-whelmed, or just plain tired. Who were you with, your spouse, co-worker, neighbor? What did you say and how did the other person respond? Did the other person jump to fix it, minimize it, "one-up-it," or perhaps, hopefully, just listen. If you honestly take a moment to remember, I think you will realize that what we all need is another person to listen and try to understand. Now add to this understanding the fact that all behavior is driven by feelings. "Listen" to what your child is telling you about his feelings through his behavior.
A child's first day of school is never easy. Spending the whole day in school, with new friends, teachers, and a myriad of rules presents an enormous challenge for the child. Interestingly, many adoptees who joined their families as newborns as well as those who were older have difficulties beginning full-day school.
I encourage parents to consider whether or not their own issues around letting go may be influencing the child's separation anxiety. The point isn't whether or not the parents I am working with, or you the reader, have these feelings, but rather that you are able to identify them and still offer your child what he needs.
Remember, as parents, we need to be meeting our needs while meeting our children's needs first. Exploring what might be going on inside of you and processing that with other adults will allow you to support your child in what he needs to do.
Author Holly van Gulden, in an article addressing issues of school separation, notes, "it's not unusual for adopted children, particularly those who joined their families at an older age, to begin acting out after about the first three hours of the school day." She goes on to explain that the reason for this behavior is that three hours is "about all their sense of object constancy can carry them."
Object constancy is the child's ability to hold on to the image of his parents as loving and caring for him, even when they are not present. When the child loses this sense of being cared for by loving parents, he becomes anxious. His anxiety seeps out into behaviors that do not promote an attention to learning. The child's sense of object constancy develops over time, and he is therefore able to manage longer periods of time away from his parents.
The adopted child who joined his family after infancy often needs time to catch up as he has, in fact, had these loving parents available to him for a shorter period of time. A seven-year-old, recently adopted from Russia, was having trouble managing himself all day in school. Working with the family, I explained that Joey (not his real name) had had less time to be his new Mommy's son than the other boys had with their mommies. In fact, I suggested, maybe we just needed to figure out some ways that he could feel like he "had his Mommy in school" with him. While Joey was delighted with that possibility, obviously Mommy couldn't really be in school with Joey.
How could we "get" a part of Mommy in school with Joey? One way was to promote a sense of Mommy thinking about Joey during the day. During a family trip to Mom's office, Mom took great pains to describe to her son how she sat at her desk at certain intervals during the day and thought about him and about things they would do together later that night.
Following my suggestions, Mom encouraged her son to think about what he was doing, (eating lunch, playing at recess, having an afternoon snack) when she was also thinking about him. In therapy, and later at home, Joey and his Mom pinpointed the times during the day when they would be thinking of each other. Role-playing helped Joey to act out what he would be doing in school and "see" Mom act out what she would be doing at work when they "held each other in their minds." Making that connection helped Joey to be able to "picture" his Mom and "see" them doing things together.
Other helpful activities included having a surprise from Mommy in his lunchbox and carrying a laminated photo of Mom in his pocket. We decided to staple a piece of velvet on one corner of the picture for him to rub on an "as needed" basis. The picture of Mom became an important transitional object for Joey. Joey told me that when the other kids asked about the picture, he replied, "Well, I just need this for a little while. You see, I haven't had my Mom as long as you have had yours."
Ten and eleven year olds may need the same help as younger children but are often unwilling to accept transitional objects that seem too babyish. Suggestions for this age child include wearing something of the parent's, such as a piece of jewelry or an article of clothing. Socks work particularly well as we can usually find something that fits across generations. Imagine for a moment what I suggest to my child-client:
When you want the day to end and want to go home to Mom, squish your toes around in your shoes. Feel the softness of mommy's (or daddy's) socks wrapped around your toes, and your heel and your whole foot.
Notice how the softness and coziness of the socks reminds you of how you feel when Mommy (or Daddy) greets you at the door with a big cozy hug.
Not bad, huh?