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Ask the Older-Child Expert: Overcoming Anxiety

by Gregory C. Keck, Ph.D.



Q:"We recently adopted a five-year-old. She seems so fearful and anxious! How can we help her learn to trust and love us?"

A:You should assume that any older child available for adoption has spent years either in multiple foster homes or in long-term orphanage care. Such a history will impair any child's capacity to rely on others, to understand the workings of a typical parent-child relationship, or to be able to predict what may occur next within your home. Given her early experiences, it is no wonder that your daughter is fearful. Imagine not knowing what might happen to you at any given moment. You would be scared and insecure and wonder when the next shoe would drop.

Your daughter is probably highly aware of her new environment, and, in fact, she may be more hyper-vigilant than anxious. So how can you help ease her transition into your forever family?

Staying steady
In my practice, I help many families whose children struggle with anxiety. To do this, I meet with everyone together. When the time comes for me to meet with the child alone, the parents often begin reassuring the child: "You'll be OK…we'll be right outside. It will be for just a few minutes. Everything will be fine." I can sense the anxiety they've transmitted. After all, if they have to do all this comforting, something bad must be about to happen!

The same thing holds true at home. When you see that your child is anxious, your instinct is to constantly reassure her--but this actually further heightens her fear. Don't say, "You'll be OK, I'm right here in the kitchen. Just come find me if you need something." This suggests to your child that she will need you soon. Better to say, "I'm going to make lunch, and I'll call you when it's ready." This lets your child know that whatever she is doing is OK, and that she'll be OK continuing to do it. She'll also know that you will call her for lunch. A fearful child is in a constant high-alert state, but low-key responses can temper her worry. Your steadiness is critical.

Consider the common response from parents whose children think there are monsters in their bedrooms. The parents look under the bed and peek into the closet. But if there are no monsters, what are the parents looking for? Such actions reaffirm the child's belief that there may be monsters. Bottom line: Frequent reassurance is counterproductive.

Forming the family unit
Demonstrate a strong presence in your family's day-to-day living. Resist frequent verbal reassurance, but show your child that you are taking care of her needs, as well as your own, and that you're not worried about anything. She will begin to mimic your level of security, and, in the process, will strengthen her connection to you.

One mom with whom I worked helped her daughter cope with anxiety about an upcoming trip by telling her that all she needed to do was to choose the toys she wanted to take with her before they left for Grandma's house. The mother also told her that she was getting her things ready to go, as well, and that they would leave in a few minutes. Once her daughter focused on gathering toys, she no longer asked worried questions about the trip.

Be your daughter's cheerleader and coach--show your strength and encourage her efforts to explore new things in her life. Once she asserts control over a small piece of her life, say, gathering the toys she wants to take on a trip or choosing what she wants to wear to school each day, her faith in you will increase.

Over time, you'll notice that she worries less about what you're going to do, and she begins to tell you what she is going to do. This step toward autonomous thinking and behaving suggests that she is moving into a new level of security. Once trust develops, her attachment to you and your spouse will lead to a loving, secure relationship.

Gregory C. Keck, Ph.D., the founder of the Attachment and Bonding Center of Ohio, in Cleveland, has been working with adoptive families for nearly two decades. He's the author of Parenting the Hurt Child (Piñon Press) and Adopting the Hurt Child (NavPress), and
is the adoptive father of two boys.

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