Adoption 101: Chronological and emotional/developmental ages don't always match

Children who have been deprived of normal developmental experiences still keep growing, but they age while missing key milestones. Without those milestones, they will have difficulty becoming a mature and functioning adult. One of the things which often surprised new adoptive parents is that their new child will very likely seem much younger than the age on their paperwork. Some parents panic at this and think something is severely wrong. Nothing is wrong. Well, nothing is wrong with the child. The child is behaving in a way that makes sense if you factor in a less-than-ideal background. Given the proper support, these children will go back and pick-up the experiences and developmental/emotional work they missed the first time around. But this work must be done for a healthy child to develop.

This is why for the past week we have been living with an eleven year old 2 year old.

When a child experiences safety and consistency and love and support, that child is finally able to start to grow. For R., due to how she processed and experienced the radical changes that happened in her life with her adoption, she regressed to about the level of an 18 month old. I've raised a few children that age, and everything she was doing, how she was behaving, screamed 18 months old. So that is where we met her. I rebought toddler toys, which she loves to play with. I tried to keep all tasks and learning at an early toddler level. We gave her the same amount of support and structure that we would a toddler.

The most difficult thing about doing this is that your brain sees an adolescent girl and interprets her behavior as being out of sync. The disconnect can be hard to reconcile and it is a constant effort to override one's emotional expectations. But it seems our hard work is paying off. Because now we have a two year old.

You know, the terrible twos.

There have been some pretty impressive temper tantrums around here for the past few days. I'm an experienced therapeutic parent and know when my child is in a completely disregulated meltdown. There is no turning back from those. There is no awareness of what is going on around them. There is not choice but just to suffer through it with the child. A temper tantrum is a different being. A tantrum is purposeful with a goal in mine. One day the goal was to complain about the bowl she was given. During the tantrum, I would notice a pause every now and then to determine if anyone was paying attention and was it working. A tantrum can be turned off. These have most definitely been tantrums. It's been loud.

Here's the good news. It means that R. has reached a new developmental milestone. It means she is aware of her surroundings, which she most definitely was not for the first six months or so, she was too disassociated. It means she has an idea about what she wants and does not want, and also feels she has the power to do something about it. I attribute this ability to her wonderful foster family who spent the last two years nurturing her. In contrast, it took H. nearly three years to be able to express any sort of desire. It means she feels at least a little secure enough with us to let her emotions show. These are not small achievements.

But like a two year old, it also shows us the road R. still has to travel. Language continues to be an issue, and the desire to communicate, but the difficulties with language are, like for any other two year old, at the root. Also like a two year old, the development of self-control is still emerging. It is oh, so much easier to whack the sister who got you the wrong bowl instead of collecting yourself and using words to ask for a different one.

So parents who are adopting an older child, be prepared. Few older children will be as delayed as R., but delays are normal. They are also not the end of the world. Be prepared to meet your child where he or she is. Let them experience what they missed. Support them where they are rather than pushing them to a level or developmental phase they are not ready for. There is no rush. There is not rule that says a child has to be completely done by 18. Allow them the time to grow and mature and to experience love that they missed at the beginning of their lives.


Katie Coons said…
Thanks for the update.
Katie Coons said…
Thanks for the update here, we have a 2 year old too, one that R was around when she was born, so I can only imagine what this is like! Jia you.

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