Sunday, June 10, 2007


Yes. Children who are adopted from the foster care system are immature. They are behind developmentally and this can be due to many factors. Whether it be early neglect or abuse or organic brain damage due to chemical use during pregnancy, the greatest offender being alcohol, many children do not develop emotionally as they should. This makes them appear very immature.

Erickson's developmental stages certainly apply here. I will attempt to discuss each from the perspective of an adoptive parent, with my quotes coming from the above linked website.

1. Learning Basic Trust Versus Basic Mistrust (Hope)

Chronologically, this is the period of infancy through the first one or two years of life. The child, well - handled, nurtured, and loved, develops trust and security and a basic optimism. Badly handled, he becomes insecure and mistrustful.

Reactive Attachment Disorder is the result of not having that happen, or attachment issues of some kind. I find it interesting that Erickson was not even discussing attachment disorder or adopted children, but that he concludes that in order to develop hope, young children must develop basic trust.

So, in pursuing my theory, if a child does not accomplish basic trust, then they may get stuck in this developmental stage and emotionally may not be much more beyond the age of two even if they arrive in your home at the age of 15.

2. Learning Autonomy Versus Shame (Will)

The second psychosocial crisis, Erikson believes, occurs during early childhood, probably between about 18 months or 2 years and 3½ to 4 years of age. The "well - parented" child emerges from this stage sure of himself, elated with his new found control, and proud rather than ashamed. Autonomy is not, however, entirely synonymous with assured self - possession, initiative, and independence but, at least for children in the early part of this psychosocial crisis, includes stormy self - will, tantrums, stubbornness, and negativism. For example, one sees may 2 year olds resolutely folding their arms to prevent their mothers from holding their hands as they cross the street. Also, the sound of "NO" rings through the house or the grocery store.

I have many times said that parenting a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder is like parenting a very large 2 year old. This is because they have not moved beyond this stage. They either never got to the stage because of their lack of being able to resolve stage on. (Erickson's theory was that "these stages are conceived in an almost architectural sense: satisfactory learning and resolution of each crisis is necessary if the child is to manage the next and subsequent ones satisfactorily, just as the foundation of a house is essential to the first floor, which in turn must be structurally sound to support and the second story, and so on.")

So if a child never learns basic trust, they are not going to be able to learn autonomy. To take this a step further, let's say that you adopt a child at age 8. They are stuck at stage one of emotional development -- basic trust. However, after they are with you for a couple years, they actually do learn to attach and trust you and you think the battle is over. But now it is time to go through stage two with a 10 year old. Tantrums, saying no all the time, etc....

3. Learning Initiative Versus Guilt (Purpose)

Erikson believes that this third psychosocial crisis occurs during what he calls the "play age," or the later preschool years (from about 3½ to, in the United States culture, entry into formal school). During it, the healthily developing child learns: (1) to imagine, to broaden his skills through active play of all sorts, including fantasy (2) to cooperate with others (3) to lead as well as to follow. Immobilized by guilt, he is: (1) fearful (2) hangs on the fringes of groups (3) continues to depend unduly on adults and (4) is restricted both in the development of play skills and in imagination.

One of the most interesting things I've found is that kids adopted as older kids really have no idea what to do with their time. They are perpetually bored. The fact that most foster homes use video games and television as convenient babysitters does not help them developo an imagination or learn play skills. So, until this stage is passed through you will have a child that is unable to play well with others, able to follow, or able to cooperate. Or, if the child has given up at this stage, you will have Anxiety Disorder and at the very least poor social skills. Let's go back to my original thought. Let's say that you adopt a child at the age of 8. You work with them and by the time they are 10 they are attached to you. Then you go through two years to help them resolve their opposition and you finally get them to autonomy. Then you have to begin to teach them to play, to imagine. And this is goign to take another two or three years. So, from 12-14 you spend teaching them social skills.

4. Industry Versus Inferiority (Competence)

Erikson believes that the fourth psychosocial crisis is handled, for better or worse, during what he calls the "school age," presumably up to and possibly including some of junior high school. Here the child learns to master the more formal skills of life: (1) relating with peers according to rules (2) progressing from free play to play that may be elaborately structured by rules and may demand formal teamwork, such as baseball and (3) mastering social studies, reading, arithmetic. Homework is a necessity, and the need for self-discipline increases yearly. The child who, because of his successive and successful resolutions of earlier psychosocial crisis, is trusting, autonomous, and full of initiative will learn easily enough to be industrious. However, the mistrusting child will doubt the future. The shame - and guilt-filled child will experience defeat and inferiority.

This is a stage that is supposed to take six or seven years, and here is where a bulk of the growing up occurs... It's where a child determines whether or not they can obey rules, learn teamwork, mastering school work. Kids who have been parented well, do well here, but kids who had early abuse and neglect do not. But here is our greatest dilemma. We have a 14 year old child who is able to now, after resolving the other issues, to focus on learning the skills of this stage, which was supposed to start when he was 5. No doubt he has not gotten a lot out of school in the past and he is finally ready to start learning the skills. But, in a traditional school setting, nobody else is going to be at his level, so it may have to happen at home.

Let's say we play catch up and we can get our kids to pack 6 years into three. We still have a 17 year old with a few stages left to go.

5. Learning Identity Versus Identity Diffusion (Fidelity)

During the fifth psychosocial crisis (adolescence, from about 13 or 14 to about 20) the child, now an adolescent, learns how to answer satisfactorily and happily the question of "Who am I?" But even the best - adjusted of adolescents experiences some role identity diffusion: most boys and probably most girls experiment with minor delinquency; rebellion flourishes; self - doubts flood the youngster, and so on.

Erikson believes that during successful early adolescence, mature time perspective is developed; the young person acquires self-certainty as opposed to self-consciousness and self-doubt. He comes to experiment with different - usually constructive - roles rather than adopting a "negative identity" (such as delinquency). He actually anticipates achievement, and achieves, rather than being "paralyzed" by feelings of inferiority or by an inadequate time perspective. In later adolescence, clear sexual identity - manhood or womanhood - is established. The adolescent seeks leadership (someone to inspire him), and gradually develops a set of ideals (socially congruent and desirable, in the case of the successful adolescent). Erikson believes that, in our culture, adolescence affords a "psychosocial moratorium," particularly for middle - and upper-class American children. They do not yet have to "play for keeps," but can experiment, trying various roles, and thus hopefully find the one most suitable for them.

As you can see, many kids from the system, If they ahve been adopted in time and had parents willing to work through the stages, they can catch up. But many times parents don't even realize what they need to do until after a child is in their home for a considerable amount of time.

So, for the sake of completion, let me tell you the last three stages:

6. Learning Intimacy Versus Isolation (Love)

The successful young adult, for the first time, can experience true intimacy - the sort of intimacy that makes possible good marriage or a genuine and enduring friendship.

7. Learning Generativity Versus Self-Absorption (Care)

In adulthood, the psychosocial crisis demands generativity, both in the sense of marriage and parenthood, and in the sense of working productively and creatively.

8. Integrity Versus Despair (Wisdom)

If the other seven psychosocial crisis have been successfully resolved, the mature adult develops the peak of adjustment; integrity. He trusts, he is independent and dares the new. He works hard, has found a well - defined role in life, and has developed a self-concept with which he is happy. He can be intimate without strain, guilt, regret, or lack of realism; and he is proud of what he creates - his children, his work, or his hobbies. If one or more of the earlier psychosocial crises have not been resolved, he may view himself and his life with disgust and despair.

This post is entirely too long as it is. But let me make a few closing remarks.

Kids from the system are immature because they are stuck in a developmental stage. They need adults to help them move out of it. In a sense, I almost believe that newly adopted children must go back to stage one, but that if they have already successfully passed through the stages, they can go through them much more quickly the second time around.

The trick in parenting these kids is being able to respond to them according to their developmental stage. For example, if I walk into the kitchen and I find my three year old child with cookie crumbs all over his mouth and I say, "Did you have a cookie?" and the child says, "No" I'm going to chuckle and laugh and say, "Of course you had a cookie. Look at the crumbs all over your face. Look at the crumbs all over the floor. Silly boy. Let's clean you up" and we might say, "You need to say sorry for taking the cookie without asking and for not telling the truth."

But, if I walk in on my 15 year old who is already 5'10" and weighs 220 pounds and he has cookie crumbs on his face and I ask if he had a cookie and he says no, my automatic response is not going to be to chuckle. My internal response is going to be, "You sneaky little theif. You are such a liar. You have cookie all over you. I am so sick and tired of you stealing and lying about it. You are going to have severe consequences for this. I can't beleive I can't trust you."

The better approach would be to determine the developmental age of the child and respond to that age. And the chuckle, wiping the mouth, and the say your sorry approach might actually be more effective.

They have a reason to be immature. And the only way for us to help them not to be immature is to guide them through the developmental stages one at a time, no matter how long it takes.


Process said...

I think I might disagree with Erickson (how dare I!) I think that it might be possible to go through the stages out of order. Could this be the case with parentified children, children who are very successful academically, children who have (the appearance of) excellent social skills, etc.

Also, when talking about RAD, I think it's important to remember that the child is reactive TO attachment--it wasn't just that s/he didn't learn to trust (ie, an absence of trust), but an actual fear of trusting--trusting is DANGEROUS, trusting gets you hurt.

Claudia said...

Good points. As I was thinking about this today and writing this (basically, writing as a way to think out loud) I was hoping that Erickson could have been wrnog and that the stages didn't have to be sequential. So good point.

And yes, a fear of trusting is even more dangerous than a lack of trust. I think there are several kids who missed that stage but it has not gotten to the extreme of RAD -- the fear of trust.