When we adopt older children, they often arrive to our homes with various worries, insecurities, issues, or emotional gaps. Sometimes these issues are serious enough to require counseling to help them grow into healthy, well-developed, secure children. Other times, they just might need a little “at-home therapy.”
In the three years that Hannah has been in my life (adopted at age six, she’s now nine), I’ve tried to provide her with opportunities to learn about families, become empathetic, express her emotions, and deal with her grief. I’ve listed a sample of the at-home therapy we’ve done.
Learning to Play
After three years in an orphanage, Hannah did not know how to play by herself—I had to teach her. I sat on the floor and played by myself, letting her watch. I set up stuffed animals and did skits with voices and appropriate sounds. I drew pictures, all the while talking out loud to myself about what I was drawing and what I thought about it. I rolled cars across the floor, with loud “vrooming” noises, and created garages, bridges, and parking lots.
Hannah’s past is very much a part of her present. Even when she was barely able to write at age six, I bought her what we called her Adoption Journal. I explained that it was a place where she could share her feelings about her birth family and about other adoption-related topics. I suggested that she could draw pictures, write letters, or write a list of words.
The telling and retelling of our story is part of our history. “Once upon a time there was a woman named Susan. In Russia, there was a little girl . . .” In an effort to help affirm that she’s my daughter forever, I always project the story into the future with positive speculations about getting a dog, taking trips together, going to college,and me visiting Hannah at college.
Fill in the blank
I write four or five short sentence stories with blanks to be filled in by Hannah. They relate to a topic or issue that we’ve been discussing or that she’s been stressed over. “One Saturday, there was a very sad dog named ______. He walked with his head down thinking about ______. After a long walk, he realized that he wasn’t really sad, he was ______. He decided to go and talk to ______ about his feelings. After their long talk, he said, “______________________.”
Hannah had not been exposed to adults who took the time to teach her about emotions. Additionally, as she learned English, she needed to relearn the few emotion words she did know in Russian. We got a sheet of paper from a therapist with multiple faces showing not only sad, mad, and glad, but lonely, worried, frustrated, annoyed, and more. We mimicked them, discussed them, and play-acted the emotions. We also took turns making our faces into various emotions and having the other person guess the emotion.
In addition to Hannah’s rage that stemmed from her attachment disorder, she had never been taught how to properly express anger in an appropriate way. (In her orphanage, any children having a tantrum or expressing anger were medicated.) When she was calm, we had anger practice. I would have her pretend to feel anger, then resolve it by running up and down the stairs, pounding on the bed, kicking a pillow, and taking deep breaths.
Our older adopted children sometimes need extra assistance as they learn and develop. Doing your own version of at-home therapy helps you bond with your child, and helps her to grow into a comfortable, confident individual.
Susan M. Ward, an older child adoption specialist who provides parent coaching and resources for adoptive families. Susan’s training is focused on adoption issues relating to attachment, grief, and parenting. She’s also the adoptive parent of a child healed from RAD (reactive attachment disorder). Her website is olderchildadoptionsupport.com.