When Things Change

Change, even positive change, can be hard for any child to deal with. Here's how to help them cope.

Adoption expert Lois Melina on talking with adopted children about unknown birth family information

You’re sending your little ones off to school, or your family is moving to a new city, or you’re returning to work after a stint as a stay-at-home parent. In times of change, you may be concerned with how your children will handle the transition. Perhaps your natural parental concern is heightened because you’ve heard that adoptees have more difficulty than other children with change. If that’s true (and we don’t know that it is), it’s probably because all change — even positive change — involves loss. Anyone who hasn’t sufficiently grieved for the previous losses in their lives may react more strongly to new ones.

Most of us like change. That is, we like what it promises: adventure, new friends, new opportunities. What we don’t like is to give up familiarity, security, comfort. If we could take with us the people who know our faults and love us anyway, the certainty of success on a new job, and the view from the back deck, we’d probably have little trouble moving on.

The same is true for children. Though adults sometimes dismiss the effect of change on children, believing that kids are resilient, psychologist David Elkind, author of The Hurried Child, says children are much like adults in their emotional responses.

Children appear to “go with the flow,” but that’s because they have little choice. In reality, they are attached to their blankets, their toys, the smell and feel of their own beds.

Even in abusive family situations, children have difficulty letting go of the familiar. Foster parents often find that abused children grieve for the family they left behind. Their previous life may have been difficult, but at least they knew what to expect.

A child adopted in infancy may not consciously remember the move from his birth family to his adoptive family. But he experienced change through his senses. Smells were different. Language was different. Food tasted different. The people who first held and comforted and nurtured him were no longer there.

Psychologists and social workers have come to recognize that infants register these changes as loss, and grieve for what they are missing. Grieving can show up in infants as disrupted eating and sleeping patterns. Older infants sometimes display behaviors described as “longing.” For example, a toddler may stand by the door or look out the window for hours waiting for a missing foster parent or birth parent to return.

These reactions don’t mean that the child doesn’t feel loved by her new parents, or that she rejects them. She simply misses what had been the world she knew.

The love and care she receives in her new home don’t take away these losses — a reality that sometimes takes adoptive parents by surprise.

Acknowledging Feelings

In preparing their children for a change, parents sometimes try to get them to focus on the positive. “You’ll make so many new friends.” “You’ll have your own room and you get to pick the color.”

Kids know that all that stuff is great. The problem is that they won’t have their old friends and their old room. Familiar smells. Comfortable routines. The people and places of their memories. For adopted children, the loss of these comforts may bring up feelings associated with earlier losses — feelings that may seem out of proportion to the situation at hand.

As parents, we don’t like to see our children unhappy. So, all too frequently, we don’t invite our children to talk about their sadness; sometimes we don’t even acknowledge that it exists. We may know enough not to say “Don’t cry.” But we send the same message when we try to divert them from their real feelings.

One way to help your child work through his grief and move forward is to help him identify what he’s sad about leaving and to come up with his own concrete way to either stay connected or to say goodbye.

Perhaps your child’s plan to stay connected to friends involves e-mail. Encourage him to think of a way to put that plan in action, such getting a notebook in which to write his friends’ e-mail addresses. For a younger child, prepare envelopes addressed to their friends, and provide paper and crayons so they can draw letters to send.

The child who’s afraid her friends will forget about her can come up with a way to create a lasting memory. She might decide, for instance, to take pictures of her friends and have them take pictures of her, which can be exchanged after the photos are developed.

If your child is changing schools, his classmates (in conjunction with the teacher) might put together a memory book in which each child in the class contributes a page with a drawing, a photo, or a personal memory about your child.

If you’re the one who is leaving — perhaps returning to work after a hiatus or going on a trip — encourage your child to devise a plan for staying connected with you in a way that will comfort him and is practical for you.

Some children are helped by a “transitional object” — an item that represents all that is familiar and secure. The child who is going off to school for the first time or spending the night at grandma’s might want to take something that represents mom and dad. Transitional objects can be powerful.

Keep in mind that creating a photo album or compiling a list of e-mail addresses is less important than the process of helping your child identify what she is feeling and coming up with her own solutions. As tempting as it is to want to “fix” your child’s grief, you serve your child better when you help her learn to understand and manage her own feelings.

Be aware if your child seems stuck in the feelings brought on by transition. Sometimes talking about sadness feeds it rather than relieves it. This might happen if she is “rewarded” for feeling sad — getting hugs or other loving attention. If you suspect this is happening, consider whether your child feels loved and secure when life is chugging along smoothly — or only when she’s in crisis.

Temperamental Differences

Let your child’s temperament and personality guide you in preparing him for changes, like the first day of school or the arrival of a new sibling. Some children like a lot of time to get used to the idea, to prepare emotionally, and to ready their physical environments. Others get anxious, no matter how much time they have.

While there has been little research into how adoptees process change, some experts believe that their experience with transitions allows them to adapt more quickly.

Your Experiences Matter

Adoptive parents should recognize that we bring our own experiences with change to our parenting. Those who have struggled with infertility, pregnancy loss, or the unpredictability of the adoption process can become reluctant to be separated from their children or anxious about new situations. And if we are anxious as parents, our children pick up on it.

If you are feeling anxious about a change, or your child seems to be, take a moment to check in with yourself. Are you reacting to a situation rather than responding to it? In other words, are you letting your emotions dictate your actions, instead of thinking about the appropriate thing to do?

If you’re racing around the house trying to find your son’s Teddy before vacation because you expect him to go bananas without it, it may be your fear, rather than his, that’s driving you. Your anxiety, and the way you cope with it, can have an impact on the whole family.

As parents, it’s important to understand how we’ve been affected by changes in the past — and to recognize that current situations can trigger our emotional memory. When we own those feelings, other members of the family won’t feel compelled to take them on. And when we acknowledge our feelings and deal with them in healthy ways, we demonstrate a valuable skill to our children.


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