Your adopted child’s early life experiences may have caused a delay in their emotional development. Child and family counsellor and behaviourist, Carol Olafson, explains how paying attention to emotional development can help you and your child.
Emotional development is thought to be one of the most important factors in individuals being able to function well in the world. In fact, researchers have coined the term “emotional intelligence” to refer to how well a person uses both his or her cognitive and emotional development to succeed as adults. In recent years, researchers have come to believe that “emotional intelligence” is more important than intelligence in being a successful adult.
Emotional delay can be caused by unmet needs at a developmental level, traumatic disruptions in a child’s life, and, in the case of children with FASD or other brain injuries, the brain pathways may be unable to adequately process tasks required. It is very common for adopted children and those in foster care to be significantly behind in their emotional development.
Emotional development is a process that occurs in stages. At each stage, there are important milestones to be passed in order to successfully move on.
The first milestone is to have needs met on demand.
When a baby cries and someone soothes her, changes her, feeds her, she is having her needs met. This teaches the baby that adults can be trusted, and that she is also worth having her needs met. When this doesn’t happen, a child may have difficulty trusting, and may believe that she has less value than other people.
The next milestone is to attach to one significant person and prefer Mom and Dad above all others
This is what leads to stranger anxiety--a healthy response! If an infant has been moved between caregivers, this attachment may be impaired, or not occur. Normally, over time, a baby learns that she can wait to have her needs met because she has learnt that even if there is a delay she can count on her caregivers to respond. As an infant becomes a toddler, she is able to differentiate between having needs met and wants met, and learns to delay gratification and to accept that not all wants will be met. In a healthy toddler or preschooler, you might see five short tantrums in a day when wants go unmet, but with a child whose emotional needs were unmet, you might well see 20 tantrums, and they may last longer.
A common mistake adoptive and foster parents make is to relate to their child on the cognitive level at which he or she is functioning. So, if Claire is ten years old, and clearly has the cognitive ability of an eight-year-old, her parents expect her to respond relationally like an eight-year-old. Yet, if Claire has the emotional development of a five-year-old, she will respond like a five-year-old. She may need a night light because she’s still afraid of things under the bed, or have difficulty distinguishing between fiction and reality. The balance can be difficult because Claire knows that she is supposed to think like a ten-year-old but, inside, she feels like she’s five. In such cases, I would suggest using language that meets her cognitive level, but keep your expectations of her responses at her emotional level.
To help an adopted child past this stage, you may have to respond to her in some ways as if she were at her emotional age, rather than her cognitive age. When your adopted child moves in with you, you may need to go to her frequently, and reassure her often in the way you would have had she been an infant. She needs to learn that she can count on the adults in her new home being there for her and that she is worth having her needs met. This doesn’t mean that you have to cave to demands for things that are wants (a new toy, candy), but meet her genuine needs as quickly as possible and as positively as you can with reassurance that will help her to reach the goal of emotional maturity. When you can’t meet a demand, say, “I know you’re upset because you want the toy. Mommy loves you and knows what’s best for you.” Stay in charge, stay with her, and reassure her, but don’t give in to a tantrum.
Remember that if you have a child with FASD, there may be delays in emotional development that will carry through their teen and early adult years because of brain injury.
Take emotional development into account in your activities and other expectations as well. When playing a board game such as Sorry or Junior Monopoly with eight-year-old Jill who is at a four-year-old emotional level, although Jill will understand cognitively the rules and strategy of the game, emotionally she may not be able to handle seeing others get ahead and herself bumped back to home. It would be better to choose a simpler game, such as Don’t Spill the Beans, or Go Fish. Choose a game geared to her emotional development.
When another child has a birthday or special celebration, it may be very difficult for Jill to see her sibling getting so much attention. It may be helpful to provide a small gift for Jill and perhaps a photo of her own celebration to remind her that she had a special day, or that she has one coming up. The same is true of tasks such as waiting patiently, taking turns, and sharing toys.
Try to assess your child's emotional age and adapt your expectations accordingly.