Is This Behavior Normal Or Is It Adoption Related?
Jodi, mother of 5 year old Sasha, voices a common concern, “I am a parent who wonders if some of the ‘issues’ I see in my child are normal or adoption related; I wonder if therapy would help her? I am a wholehearted believer in the benefits of therapy, but I would love to know whether she would benefit from it or not.”
In order to distinguish a behavior as “normal” or related to a child’s history parents first must know and define average child behavior. Unless you studied child development in school, it’s helpful to have a resource on hand. One resource I refer to are the books written by child psychologist, Dr. Louise Bates Ames. Dr. Ames was a pioneer in the studies of child development and co-wrote the series, Your One Year Old. Your One-Year-Old: The Fun-Loving, Fussy 12-To 24-Month-Old“>The books begin with age one and end with a book that includes ages ten through fourteen. Each of the books provide information about general characteristics, relationships, routines, tensional outlets and abilities for the age.
Dr. Ames also co-authored, Child Behavior; this book points out that every child goes through smooth and bumpy times throughout childhood. In bumpy times children seem distracted, easily upset and fussy, and increasingly negative in their outlook. In smoother times, they seem easy-going, positive, focused and overall easier to get along with in relationships.
So, how do you tell if a behavior is adoption related? In therapy, I am looking for negative beliefs the child holds about him or her self that seem to connect back to a history of abandonment, neglect, or trauma. Some common examples of negative cognitions adopted and foster children hold are:
I’m not safe trusting adults
I’m not going to be taken care of (so i must do it myself)
I am not going to have enough . . . food, clothes, toys, etc.
I am not important
I don’t have a voice or I am not heard by others
I am not loveable, likeable
I am also noticing any behavior that is out of range for normalcy in time and duration particularly for the child and his or her development. For example, if a 5 year old child is having temper tantrums lasting longer than 10 minutes or happening more than once a day, they would be out of the expected average range.
Another sign of adoption, foster, trauma related behavior is a child who appears to be recreating their past. As an example, if the child makes comments that don’t fit with his or her current life, or the child makes comments to you that seem to belong to another person, then those comments may be related to events that occurred before he or she came home. When a child’s remarks are related to his or her adoption, history in foster care, or past trauma, then it is adoption related.
Let’s look at an example from Samantha and her 6 year old son, Arthur. Samantha adopted Arthur from a Koran orphanage at 13 months old. They decided to decorate cookies as a Christmas gift for Arthur’s teachers. Because of their busy schedule Samantha waited until the morning before school to decorate them. Arthur asked his mom to promise to decorate the cookies “neatly” and unfortunately, Samantha made that impossible promise. With the slight slip of hand, Samantha messed up the lime green icing on the cookie.
Arthur screamed, “You messed it up; it’s not perfect.” Crying, he turned to his mom and said, “I can’t count on you.” Samantha is a patient and giving mother but doubts herself and her part in this mishap. Blaming herself for Arthur’s upset she confesses, “I shouldn’t have waited right before school; I was rushed. I was trying to make it perfect for her but I went outside the lines.”
Overlooking Arthur’s ghosts from the past, Samantha quickly blames herself for Arthur’s emotional upset, “I’m going to have to make it up to him. I try but I just can’t be perfect.” Undoubtedly, Arthur’s upset is not about the cookies, about his mom being perfect, or whether he can count on her. Clearly, this emotional upset is an issue from the past that needs to be uncovered and addressed in therapy.
**Names have been changed for confidentiality.
Read more on this subject in The Adoptive & Foster Parent Guide at Amazon.com.
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Carol Lozier is a therapist, author, and blogger specializing in trauma; and adoptive and foster kids, teens, and adults. Ms. Lozier is in private practice in Louisville, KY.