Q. Do you have any tips on how to handle issues in kids’ movies? Yesterday we saw [movie title] which was fine until they showed the servant girl being abandoned as a baby (!) quite graphically, and then reunited with her birth dad. Honestly, I didn’t touch that one.
Today, we saw [another movie title] which my daughter said she didn’t like due to the foster parents (who are horrible). There are many things in this movie that bothered me. We did discuss this movie today and I think she is processing ok, but . . .Why do so many movies have these themes?
-Internationally Adoptive Mom, Littleton, CO
A. Hey, Mom!
You’re right . . . it’s amazing how themes that can be so tough for kids (especially kids with trauma histories) creep into “kid” movies. I think ideas around how to handle it depends on how your girls are responding – what kinds of things are you seeing/hearing that make you concerned? If you’re not seeing any behaviors that you think could be related to reactions from their trying to process events that may have been triggered by movie themes, I’d just talk honestly with the girls, sharing your values and modeling methods of sifting through challenging information. This could be helpful for [daughter], especially . . . Do you feel comfortable sharing your reactions? Something like: “You know, I didn’t really like that one, because those foster parents seemed mean, and I know that some foster parents are nice. That movie made it look like all foster parents are mean, and that isn’t true!”
Let’s keep talking . . . These themes can be difficult to avoid and often catch parents by surprise. Be open to the girls’ experiences of what they see, but remember – they’ll be looking to you and your husband for cues about how to integrate their feelings on the subject.
More to share?
Q. How can I best support kids who are transitioning into my home?
- Respite Care Providers, Domestic Adoption/Foster Care Programs, Denver, CO
A. This is a great question! The transition process can get pretty routine for those of us who are used to seeing kids periodically come and go. Even for a child who should be “used to” moving because he/she has had to do it so much (even if just for respite care), it can still be a scary time. Here are some things to keep in mind as you support these little ones in leaving one family to join another:
1. Tell them what’s happening! Once you have the approval of a child’s treatment team, it’s important to talk with them about what is happening in their lives. For children whose language is developed, this will give them the opportunity to ask questions and hopefully, to have some of their fears soothed. Even for children in infancy, this is an important step. Just because a baby can’t talk with you about their story doesn’t mean that he/she doesn’t have feelings about having to move around. They can use the rhythm and tone of your voice to gain some understanding about what is happening in their lives. This is part of how they already communicate with you about other things, so remember: Babies deserve to be told, too!
2. Let the dust settle. Since we can be used to moving children in and out, we often forget that it’s best for them if we go s-l-o-w-e-r. This can take extra time and effort, especially for families that are so busy. If a child is being introduced to your home for respite or on-going care, be sure that the foster parents or caseworker (whoever is facilitating the transition) stay with the child for some time after arriving at your house. An abrupt drop-off could be experienced as another abandonment by the child. Also, for children who will be in longer term care, make every effort to minimize the stimuli (especially in the first few days) so that they have a chance to adjust to their new surroundings. Use your best judgment for respite care activities. If the child seems withdrawn, quiet, sad, scared, or overly hyper, it may make the most sense to have a low-key respite stay. The rule of thumb – if you are new to the child or don’t have a relatively comfortable and established relationship, being slower about the transition and consider minimizing stimulation (crowds, lots of tv, big groups of kids, hyper kids, outings) until the child’s had more of an opportunity to adjust.
3. Whatever can be kept the same, keep it the same. Because our kids bounce around a bit, they are constantly adjusting to the expectations and rhythms of new families. As much of their routine as you are able to maintain, do so. This can even apply to objects such as toys, clothes, bed linens, etc. Especially for children who are pre-verbal, it’s important to provide them with consistent sensory stimulus. Because our sense of smell is so strongly tied to our memories, consider keeping some things that will retain the smell of the environment the child came from (especially if it was a secure and loving place). Be sure that you take some time to talk about the child’s routine so that you are armed with information about how to keep things predictable as possible for this youngster.
4. Ask yourself, “How are you doing?” It can seem silly, but highly emotional times require us to be more and more “in touch” with ourselves. If you are being honest with yourself (and with a partner, friend, or other member of your support network) about what you’re experiencing during a child’s transition, you’ll put yourself in a better psychological position to support the kids in your care.
Thank you for all of the hard work, blood, sweat, and tears you put into our kiddos. Their lives are forever changed and improved for having had you as parents!
What should I expect in terms of the adjustment of my child once we return to the U.S.?
- Expectant Internationally Adopting Parents, Colorado Springs, CO
International travel can be tough no matter how you slice it, but bringing a child home is especially exciting and intense. Here are six tips to support your being intentional around the adjustment of your child, especially for the first months.
1. Drink plenty of water. Air travel is dehydrating, particularly for long trips. Staying hydrated can help with jet-lag, which will increase your patience and level of energy for helping your little one adjust to his/her new home. This is key for your time in the air and the first few days after arrival while your body’s “clock” adjusts.
2. Minimize the number of visitors/outings. Other family members and friends will be excited to welcome this new member of your family. Remember, however, that all the months you have been preparing for your child, he/she was not preparing for you. The transition into your home and family is a big one, so plan to keep visitors to a minimum at first so that you can build the relationship with your child and allow them to experience you as their “safe base” before introducing others or taking frequent trips outside the home.
3. Get the right kind of help. While it’s important to keep the number of visitors low, it is also important for you to have support. Be sure Mom and Dad keep the role of “need-meeter” for your child, and ask friends and family who are available to help with the things that keep your household running (meals, errands, laundry, etc.).
4. Keep perspective. While you may be nervous about how your little one is adjusting to your family, realize that he/she is also probably more nervous… and in most cases, these little ones are too young to have the language or cognitive development to make sense of how their lives have changed by joining your family. All they know is that the language sounds different, people and things smell different, and everything looks and feels different. Most children need at least the first 6 months, just to adjust to their new surroundings. You can help by keeping as much the same (and predictable) as possible.
5. Don’t let them “cry it out.” In the early stages of adoption, it’s important that your child has repetitive, consistent experiences of being soothed by you. That ritual between you is the springboard for a healthy attachment. Independence can and will be learned – later.
6. Consult! If something doesn’t feel right, leaves you confused, or feels (in your gut) outside the norm for adjustment, consult with a professional who understands adoption and pre-verbal trauma. Getting the support and coaching you need will help you provide a regulated and calm foundation for your son/daughter’s adjustment and attachment.
Q. My 5 year old son (adopted at 8 1/2 months) does a lot of negative self talk that I am very concerned about. When I need to correct him about his behavior, he often goes into this place of saying over and over and over again, “I am such an idiot, I am such an idiot,” and he can go on and on, maybe saying it 30-40 times. If I try to tell him that this is not the case and he is just learning the appropriate behavior in that situation, he gets really angry and says that I don’t know what is inside of him and that he really is an idiot. It makes me feel terrible that he is thinking this and I want him to see that there is another way to view a gentle correction. Any ideas?
- Internationally Adoptive Parent, Centennial, CO
A. What a difficult question… And I feel for you, because I think that adoptive parents everywhere struggle with how to build self-esteem into their little ones. There are some basic things (giving specific praise, providing opportunities for success, nurturing your child’s natural gifts, etc.) that can be helpful in building a healthy sense of self.
For children with trauma histories, however, the issue of self-esteem can carry a different weight. First, ask yourself, “What is at the root of my son’s poorer sense of himself?” Because your son is adopted, it is likely that at least part of the answer lies in his struggles and grief related to the loss of his birth parents – even if he isn’t talking to you about it. When a child feels poorly about himself because he believes that he was “given away,” telling him how wonderful he is doesn’t begin to get to the core reason for low self-esteem. So, first, understand what is probably at the root of your son’s difficulty in his relationship with himself.
Second, and equally important, ask yourself, “How do I experience my son?” No matter what you say, he is able to read your “vibe”, and your vibe contributes to his sense of self. Dr. Daniel Hughes illustrated this point best when he said, “A child’s sense of self is based on and drawn from the parent’s experience of the child.” Take a deep breath, and try to take that in… your son’s self-esteem correlates directly with how you feel in your relationship with him most of the time. So, in general, how do you experience him? Does he frustrate you? Make you tired or angry? Is he disappointing? Or, do you light up when he comes into the room? Do you see him as competent, loving, and enjoyable? If you are not delighting in who he is, as he is, it will be impossible for him to feel good about himself – especially when he makes mistakes.
Finally, since we know that modeling is the most powerful way that children learn, consider, “What am I modeling for my son with regard to self-esteem?” Many of us hope and expect that the young people in our lives will live happily and healthily. And yet, how many of us are really modeling how to live a happy and healthy life? The same is true for our sense of self. If your son is wrestling with how to like himself, it makes me wonder, what is he learning from you about how well you like you?
I hope this offers some food for thought, and another place to start in terms of building self-esteem in your child. This cannot be an easy task, and I honor that you are committed and attuned enough to him to be asking the question and looking for new avenues for success. Press on!
Q. My 8 year old daughter and 5 year old son are constantly fighting with each other until my husband and I want to tear our hair out. Although I am sure that some of it is normal bickering between brother and sister who are fairly close in age, it seems to have a disturbing nature to it. It seems like they constantly perceive the other as a real threat to their existence – like the fact that the other exists makes it a certainty that they will not get what they need. Anything that is not exactly equal is perceived as unbelievably unfair, and when one does absolutely need more attention than the other (physically hurt, emotionally hurt, achieved something great), the other goes absolutely ballistic. What can I do to calm some of these issues?
- Internationally Adoptive Mom, Denver, CO
A. Yikes, Mom! I can feel how stressful this must be for your entire family! There are no easy answers to your question, but I do have some thoughts to share, which I’m hoping, can begin to shift this pattern of conflict between your children.
My first thought is: What does each of them know about their adoption story? And if they are cognitively “educated” about their lives in their home country before joining your family, have you helped them to make connections between their feelings toward their sibling(s) and their life before your family? This can be important, because many adopted children who spent any span of time in an institution prior to adoption do see other children as a threat. Sometimes, this shows up as conflict with siblings, and other times it shows up at school, day care, or play group as bullying or poor peer relationships. In any case, the underlying theme is usually the same – when your children were young, and didn’t have the words to ask for what they needed, and living in an orphanage, chances are high that your son and daughter’s needs weren’t being met consistently. Even in the best orphanage situations, the ratio of children to caregivers is far from ideal.
So, if we jump into your little guy and gal’s shoes, and try to feel their early experience with other children, chances are, they were overlooked, passed over, ignored because of other children. When other kids were getting attention, they weren’t, because there simply wasn’t enough adult attention to go around.
Looking through that lens, consider that your children probably don’t understand their strong reactions to one another. They know the reaction is big, and it’s likely that it feels uncontrollable (after all, it keeps happening, and no doubt – you’ve talked to them a million times over, and nothing is changing). So, in a time when the situation is calm, I wonder if it would make some sense to help them understand where those strong reactions come from? It will be very difficult for them (or you) to address the bickering between them until we have established “knowing” for everyone about where this survival instinct comes from. If they can begin to make the connection – when they’re calm – that these strong reactions are responses that they learned as a baby (which were very natural for the environment in which they were living), it’s possible that you will be able to minimize the threat they feel in those moments of fear. As part of this conversation, help them see the differences between the orphanage and your family (not as many kids here, two parents, this home is forever, etc.). While children may be able to articulate these differences in calm conversation with you, they will likely have difficulty with recall during the height of stress. Your greatest power in these moments might be helping remember that the things they learned as a baby are getting triggered, and their body is confused! Their body is telling them they are in danger, with the same stressors they had as a baby. Those stressors may have been necessary when they were a baby, but life is totally different now, and the things they learned as a baby aren’t true in this home… this Mom and Dad have enough love, time, and attention for all the kids in the family. It may not be at the same moment, because when we give special attention, we have to do it one at a time, but this Mom and Dad will always make sure everyone gets what they need.
If this foundation is laid in moments of calm, with understanding and empathy provided by parents, children can begin to understand (and grieve, if necessary) the lessons they learned as youngsters. Then, “reaching” them in those moments where they perceive danger can become easier.
Instead of addressing the fighting, telling them to stop, wait their turn, or whatever, as Mom and Dad, you can start noticing what is happening in the moment that probably links to something old. For example, “Oh my goodness, buddy! I think this is one of those moments when what you learned as a baby is scaring you… It’s ok… I know why you’re scared… It didn’t used to be safe for you to have to share grown-ups with other kids… If you can, try to hear me tell you that our family is not like it was when you were a baby. I won’t forget about you or leave you alone for too long. You are going to have your special time, too.”
While this will probably not be a catch-all for your kiddos’ fights, it may start laying a foundation of understanding about their behavior and give you a new springboard for problem-solving. Their fighting, sometimes, is probably just regular old sibling rivalry. In the other moments though, the moments when your gut tells you that there is more at stake for them, there’s a good chance that the old trauma of the orphanage is being triggered. Your feeling that they perceive one another as a threat is right on! So, go with that. Speak directly to it. If you can, experiment with this different approach for the next 4 weeks or so, and let me know what you learn. There may be additional tweaking to do, but I think your deeper understanding of the depths of their fear is a valuable place to start changing the patterns of relationship between your kids. If we go after “the root,” we have a much better chance of positively influencing behavior over the long run.