When you see a title like that written by a mother of 12 children, you might expect that you’ll be reading about how her children are all different ages and what it’s like to have that many ages in one home. You wouldn’t necessarily be wrong for assuming this, but some days I feel as though I have a lot more ages running around my house than the chronological ages assigned to my children.
Let me explain. Trauma is not friendly to brains, particularly developing brains. Experiencing trauma can stop a child’s brain at a certain age, stalling emotional development at the age when the trauma happened. Of course, the child’s body keeps on aging, and often intellectual development continues, though it can be sporadic. Then, if a child also happened to spend time in an orphanage or with sub-standard care, there can be developmental delays due to a lack of support when the child was young. All of this can make for a child who is all over the board in terms of behavior and knowledge and competencies.
This means that new adoptive parents can be blind-sided by a child’s behavior when they first meet. It is extremely common that a child will behave in a manner which is much more fitting for a child many years younger. It can be surprising to meet a child you thought was eight and feel as though you were presented with a tall three-year-old. Often parents panic that something is wrong with their child, when really it is just the shock of what is happening along with the expected and typical delays that can occur when a child is in care. These parents then find it difficult once they are home. As surprised as they were by their new child’s behavior, it is virtually impossible to educate everyone they come in contact with about the realities of trauma and neglect.
Time can make things better; it often does. Even now, though, with my children being home for quite some time, some as long as 12 years, we see the evidence of neglect, abuse, and trauma in periods of regression. Most of my children are over the worst of the shock of being adopted and have adapted to family life. For the most part, they all feel safe and secure. They feel safe and secure enough to start dealing with some of their past pain. In practical terms, this means that a child needs to go back to that earlier time and be nurtured through it. It means that I may have a 12-year-old who, emotionally, is actually a three-year-old, and needs to be treated like one. That little three-year-old was hurt and stayed at that stage. By meeting my child where he or she emotionally is, I can love that child in the place where he or she so desperately needs it.
Sometimes these times of regression are just moments; at other times they can last days. Sometimes it will only come out in the ways they enjoy playing. There will be periods where we see a lot of regression, and other periods where we see very little. It’s different with each child. I’ve also watched the age a child regresses to grow up as my child heals. It’s been fascinating and wonderful to watch the regressed age and the chronological age slowly become closer together, but it is a slow process.
Here are my 4 tips for navigating emotional regression.
1. Don’t be surprised. It can be unnerving to see a pre-teen suddenly act like a much younger child, but in some ways it is actually positive. It means you can meet your child where he most needs love and support, and where he didn’t get it the first time.
2. Allow your child to be her emotional age. I know how uncomfortable it can feel when your brain sees an older child and expects one thing, but the child is presenting as significantly younger. It won’t be forever, but let your child be that age. Rock, soothe, and comfort as you would a young child.
3. Develop a thick skin. There is nothing people like better than to give unsolicited parenting advice, especially if they think you are doing something wrong. This is especially true if your child appears to be acting outside the narrow confines of “normal.” Remind yourself what your child needs, and then feel free to ignore all other advice.
4. Remember this won’t last forever. The more a child’s needs are met at the level of need, the more likely it will be that the child will be able to begin to heal and grow and mature. Just because your eleven-year-old needs to be babied now does not mean that he will need this forever.