Back up so your child can move forward


Claudia Fletcher
Focus on Adoption magazine

A child welfare expert, and adoptive mom to 12 children, explains how retracing developmental stages helps older adoptees heal.

During college I studied Erik Erikson, a Pulitzer prize-winning psychologist known for his work in the mid-1900s on identity and psychosocial development. Decades later, I noticed remarkable connections between his theories and parenting older adopted children. The key part of Erikson’s theory is that until a person completes one developmental stage, they cannot go on to the next stage.

Erikson’s first four stages applied to youth--from the time of placement to the time they get ready for independence--can teach parents how to help older children heal.

The first 18 months

Research has shown how important it is for children to attach. Even so, in the first year after placement, we new parents still make the mistake of dwelling on behaviours instead of attachment. Things can change if we view a newly placed children of any age as a newborn. Can a newborn give back emotionally? Do chores? Know how to have a reciprocal relationship? Of course not. Neither do older kids in a new family. If expectation changes, so does the response. Instead of thinking a child is refusing to comply, assume she is unable to complete the task. This nurturing, teaching approach often nets better results, whether a child is being oppositional, or is truly incapable.

Until a child is attached, behaviour will not change. If the child cannot bond with anyone, why would he want to please anyone? Too often adoptive parents expect compliance outside the context of a relationship. Without that relationship, however, a child has no incentive to behave better. To help children attach, learn to gently correct behaviours without over-reacting. Picture yourself as a new husband or wife, trying to please the other, and be genuinely attractive and worthy of attachment. Long lists of rules and consequences that require consistent behaviour management should not be the focus of this first stage.

As much as possible, create good feelings for the child whenever you are around. Use lots of laughter, pop a Hershey’s kiss in her mouth when she sustains eye contact, and give as much affection as she will allow. When the child misbehaves, stay calm and point out that the behaviour is not appropriate, while redirecting her to a new activity with you by her side. Reactions like these promote bonding.

18 months to 3 years

Once an adopted child learns to attach, he is ready for stage two: the “terrible twos” in typical development. For a child placed at 11, this stage can coincide with puberty. Complicating matters further, we parents find it exceedingly hard to muster the emotional response we would offer a tantruming toddler when confronted with a tantruming older child.

During Erikson’s second stage, as Arlene Harder explains, we can “build self-esteem and autonomy as we gain more control over our bodies, and acquire new skills, learning right from wrong.” And one of our skills during the “Terrible Twos” is our ability to use the powerful word “No!” It may be a pain for parents, but it develops important skills of the will.

Parents are often so relieved when it appears the child is attaching that they begin to panic when defiance kicks up a notch. They wonder if the attachment isn’t real, but according to Erikson, only when children complete the attachment stage can they enter the willful stage during which the need to question, tantrum, and act out dramatically multiplies.

Responding to an older child’s tantrum as if she were a two-year-old is tricky. Remembering that her actions are as impersonal and unplanned as a toddler’s can help us overlook much of it.

In the midst of a tantrum, children cannot reason. Do not try to discuss their behaviour or redirect them by speaking more loudly. That only escalates the situation. If the child is safe and doesn’t pose a danger to himself or others, the best choice is often to leave the room, and give him time to finish the tantrum. If safety is a concern, sit down and remain silent or talk softly. Active listening is much better than trying to reason with them.

Consider a raging child who goes into the “nobody likes me” mode. Our instinct is to assure her of our love, but that just gives her a reason to argue. A better response is, “It sounds like you are feeling sad or feeling like you aren’t loved.” To de-escalate tantrums, listen actively and rephrase the child’s thoughts.

3 to 5 years

Erikson links the third psychosocial crisis to the “play age,” or later preschool years. During this time, the healthy developing child learns to imagine and broaden skills, through active play of all sorts, including fantasy, to cooperate with others, and to lead as well as follow.

Healthy preschoolers can explore and develop social skills fairly easily, but the same lessons are much harder for an older child. Using the example of a boy who is 10 at placement, let’s go through his adolescence according to Erikson.

For 18 months after your family welcomes the child home, until he is 12, the boy is working on attachment. Then it is time for his defiance phase. Until the child is almost 14, he is oppositional, argues with everything, and has fits of aggression. Now he’s entering high school, and it is time to learn the social skills his peers learned in preschool.

At this stage you must allow for failure, and set up ways he can test skills without being embarrassed. Scouting or martial arts classes, where multi-age groups participate, can offer children a place to connect with whomever they feel comfortable. Preschoolers love hanging out with “cool” older kids. Allowing older children to master interactions with much younger children can be beneficial for both. Some of our oldest kids enjoy spending time with the youngest ones. Finding situations in which the youth can be a leader and follower may help during this stage.

Failure to resolve this stage, Erikson explains, causes immobilizing guilt. Children may be fearful, hang back from groups, rely too heavily on adults, and have a limited ability to play. Thus it is key to guide children through stage three so they can face stage four without fear or guilt. Rushing them through stages because they are behind their peers is counterproductive.

6 to 12 years

Years after their peers, many adopted children reach a stage where they can make future plans. Up to this point they have had a sense of inadequacy and inferiority that has eroded feelings of competence and hurt their self-esteem. Fortunately, with the support of dedicated parents, youth can still work through stage four and learn to feel good about themselves.

Children who hit this stage at age five have years to test a variety of life choices. Older children who still need to discover talents and interests must try many different things in an abbreviated time frame. It’s important to give youth plenty of chances to succeed and offer a lot of encouragement. Tasks that your children do with you can increase their confidence and receptivity to new activities.

Music, sports, drama, and other classes enable children to explore many avenues. We allow our stage four children to try a lot of activities and ask only that they participate for one season before electing to opt out.

Keeping in mind Erikson’s stages has helped me to parent my children more effectively, and better prepare other parents as they plan to adopt and work through the first few years of placement.

Each stage often takes longer than we might prefer. But just as we cannot expect a healthy two-year-old to act like a 10-year-old, we cannot expect a 10-year-old child who is emotionally two to act his age. When we slow ourselves down, celebrate small victories, and walk through this journey with our children, there can be healing for us all.

Reprinted and excerpted with permission of