Extreme parenting: When age is more than a number


Claire Iver
Focus on Adoption magazine

Seven years old, but still just a baby

One of my father’s most ridiculous parenting lines was “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.” As if children are just crying for no reason. As if their spontaneous emotional eruptions need to be stopped immediately for their own good.

Clearly, if a child is crying, it’s because something is either scary, or frustrating, or sad, or anxiety provoking, or painful in some way. I can’t always know what it is that my child is crying about, but I never assume it’s nothing.
In the first few months after meeting Ethan, when we were still in transition, his cry made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. It was both utterly strange and hauntingly familiar. He sounded like an angry, hungry infant. Like a cat in heat. Not the kind of cry you’d expect from a seven-year-old.

Emotional wounds need healing too

The sound came straight from Ethan’s emotional wound. It was the infant in him that was afraid that his needs would not be met–-that there was no one around to hear his cry, or that no one would care enough to respond to it. It was the cry of a baby sending his call for help out into world.

In those moments, I listened to what my instincts told me he needed: a soft voice, loving arms pulling him into the warmth and safety of my body, holding and rocking him. I needed to respond intuitively not to how old he is, but how old he was, back when this was the only way he had to communicate and no one listened.

I haven’t heard that cry for well over a year now. The maturation happened more quickly than if he’d actually been the he age felt. He’s able to draw on his eight-year-old’s skills to find more effective ways to communicate.

Learning age-appropriate behaviour

He does still hit, like a three-year-old hits, out of frustration and anger. It doesn’t match his age. It’s toddler behavior. I use the language I heard our daycare providers use years ago, when our first son was a toddler. “Hands are for hugging, not for hitting. Time out on the chair (in the room where I am) until you’re ready to talk.” He tantrums, but eventually he finds the words for what he could do instead of hit. He also bites, like a three-year-old bites. “Teeth are for biting your food, not your friends. Back onto the chair,” I say. Slowly but surely, each of these immature behaviours is being replaced by the age-appropriate ones.

Growing up together

Sometimes I purposefully put my finger right on a point in order to establish the goal. “You sound very young right now,” I’ll say. “I believe there is part of you that’s stuck right here, but together let’s try and heal it and help it to grow up.”

This seems to work well for him. He’s even started to share his thoughts on his advancing mental ages and stages. “Mom I think that I feel five when I do that,” he’ll say; or, “That seemed more like a six-year old, didn’t it, Mom?”

I want Ethan to know that I see when he regresses, that I don’t judge him for “acting like a baby,” that I respect where he’s at, and that I trust that, in due time, he’ll move on. By establishing the goal, we’re all heading in the right direction.

Claire’s 10-year-old son, Adam, was adopted from a Russian orphanage when he was 19 months old. Her second son, Ethan, joined their family from foster care at age seven. In this 12-part series, Claire shares the “fast and furious learning” that she and her family experienced when they adopted an older child.

Read more in the Extreme Parenting series.

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