Why are they hard, and what can we do?
Our children who came to us through adoption have often lived in a world in which uncertainty is the only constant. For them loss and transitions have been stressful, if not traumatic. They have lost their birth parents or have been separated from their birth family; and they have often moved from foster home to foster home, or from one orphanage to another.
Many times, transitions are not planned ahead, and there is no collaborative process that engages the child in the decision-making that leads to moves and losses, leaving our children feeling uncertain, with limited or no control over their reality or circumstances. It is because of these compounding experiences that adoptees often struggle with transitions big and small and can experience great anxiety surrounding changes.
In my work as a former adoption parenting coach and therapist within the foster care system, and in my current role at WACAP, I’ve met, and continue to meet with families and children dealing with change: parents seeking support with how to respond when their children are exhibiting some challenging behaviors; and children responding to new changes, on top of a history of flux and uncertainty.
These transitions and intersections are both difficult for adoptees; and substantial changes such as moving to a new place, attending a different school, or changing school grades can stir anxiety within these children.
What may children experience?
Our kids may experience a global sense of insecurity and as a result, respond with active resistance to changes in routines or environments. These feelings and the response they evoke can make them seem fearful, anxious, and sometimes even angry or hyperaroused (emotionally and physiologically tense and reactive). Hyperaroused children are hypervigilant and incapable of adequately interpreting the emotional aspects of a situation, which can result in inadequate social interactions with both adults and peers.
In addition, children that have lived in environments where they have not felt safe may perceive threats where there aren’t any, but we must understand that to them, school changes, moves to a different house (even if in the same town or city), or disrupted routines can have deep effects on their sense of safety. For these kids the world can seem unsafe and unpredictable, and disrupting a known routine can have a significant emotional impact.
What can you do?
Be proactive – When you know your child is about to undergo a transition, plan ahead; engage the child and provide opportunities for them to feel some sense of control.
Provide an environment that is structured and predictable – Create routines that give your child a sense of safety in knowing what happens next.
Provide opportunities for self-expression – Giving your child outlets to express their emotions can have positive and long-lasting effects upon their ability to manage stress. Suggest drawing or journaling, both can be private means of self-expression that the child or teen can share if they so please, but not otherwise.
Focus on the root-cause of the behavior, and work to help your child identify ways to honor their past – Adoptees can benefit from having parents that understand how important it can be to talk about their losses, and how the grief they experience can trigger feelings and behaviors that we could all recognize as challenging.
Eliminate unnecessary stressors – Whenever possible, minimize the number of transitions your child would experience within short periods of time. For example, if your son is beginning a new school year, it may help to wait to engage him in new afterschool activities.
Teach your child relaxation techniques – Don’t just teach them, model it for them. Whether it is breathing exercises, mindfulness practice, coloring, running, or another activity, engage your child in practicing techniques that have a calming effect on them.
Seek professional support – If your child doesn’t already have a trusted therapist, this may be a good time to seek out help. Yes, it’s another transition, but hopefully a positive one. Maybe you can start the process with family therapy leading to individual therapy sessions for your child, or maybe you can do both concurrently.
Along the Way
A number of resources are available to support you and your child in understanding of the feelings and tendencies that transition and change bring. Author and family therapist Lesli Johnson explains:
Separations, relationships, and transitions can be difficult hurdles throughout the lifespan for those whose earliest experience was separation from their birthmother. Attuned parents can help their children and adolescents navigate these events and ideally these experiences will be integrated along the way. In time, adoptees can eventually acquire what Dan Siegel calls “Mindsight” or “the kind of focused attention that allows us to see the internal workings of our minds and examine the processes by which they think feel and behave…” As adoptees understand the details of their story, make sense of their feelings and triggers as they relate to adoption, they can cultivate resilience and learn to respond rather than react — a skill that offers more freedom of choice in day to day actions and provides an overall sense of well-being.”
About WACAP’s Clinical Director, Zoila Lopez: Zoila joined WACAP in 2016 as Clinical Director. She is an adoptive mom, a former foster parent, and has an extensive work background as a therapist and adoption coach, working to support all members of the adoption triad.