Sunday, August 3, 2008

The First Year of Placement

It has been a while since I spent any time with a small infant. Way too long apparently. But we had friends over the other night and I was able to experience first hand a fussy 3 month old baby.

I recently returned from presenting a training for staff at You Gotta Believe in NYC and the topic was covering Erickson's developmental stages as it relates to adoption. My theory is that placement is an emotional birth and thus the first year is spent developing attachment and emotionally the child, regardless of their physical age, is a newborn.

Here is where the biggest mistake of all adoptive parents is made. Unlike with an infant, adoptive parents, because the child is older, expect to get something back. During that first year, parents should respond as patiently with a child, and expect as much from the child, as they would a newborn baby.

Here are some of my observations about my 45 minutes of attempting to comfort a crying baby (whose mother said, by the way, that it wasn't the fact that it was me ... she is like this even with her own parents).

I'm going to write these tongue in cheek but if you replace the word "baby" with newly placed child or teenager, I think you'll understand how ridiculous it is for parents to place expectations on kids.

1) The baby can't do anything. This baby was helpless. Couldn't do anything for herself. I mean, good grief, I had to do everything for her. Even when I asked her nicely, she couldn't do anything.

2) The baby screamed. A lot. She had all kinds of very vocal needs and they were expressed by screaming. I spoke to her in a calm voice and asked her many times to stop acting out, but she simply would not stop.

3) She could not communicate her needs. All of her needs were expressed in the same way. When she was hungry, or had gas, or needed a diaper change, or needed to burp, or wanted to lie down, or sit up, or be held a different way, the only way she could communicate was by screaming. You'd think she could have used some words to tell me what she wanted, but she didn't know any. In fact, there were times when I was wondering if she even knew what she wanted.

4) I had a long talk with her. I tried explaining how her behavior made me feel. I attempted to articulate the ways in which in which it would be helpful for her to communicate better. I told her that her screaming was making me feel a bit anxious. I told her that other babies didn't scream like she did. I was tempted to scream back but I stopped myself, realizing it might not work. I don't think she understood anything I tried to communicate. Her screaming was drowning me out and I'm not sure she really grasped the concepts I was attempting to communicate. In fact, when I suggested that she might have consequences if she didn't stop crying, it didn't even phase her.

5) Even when I was very calm, she still was agitated until she was comfortable. It took a very long time and I had to remain calm and peaceful the whole time. When she could sense my frustration, she raged more.

Let's go back and look at those again from the standpoint of a child being placed in a new home.

1) Emotionally kids at placement cannot do anything. They may revert to a very younger version of themselves. They freeze up and literally cannot do the simplest things. There may be huge regression in every developmental area.

2) Kids first placed are on emotional high alert almost all of the time. While they may not be constantly screaming, they are either constantly acting out or completely shut down. There are rare moments when they are in the middle somewhere, but typical behavior is very emotionally out of control. They are so confused and mixed up that meltdowns of varying degrees and types may occur all the time. Asking them to stop is like asking a newborn nicely not to cry. It simply does not work.

3) At the beginning of a placement a child has no way of articulating their feelings. Even if they are teenagers, they really do not know what is going on inside emotionally. They cannot express what they need, often because they may not be sure exactly what it is they need. They may need distance, or a hug. They might need boundaries or less structure. They may need to be with people or be alone. They aren't sure what they need or how to express it, so meltdowns ensue.

4) Long talks with kids explaining rational things during the first year of placement seldom reach through the emotional upheaval. Explaining how their behavior is effecting them or the rest of the family when there in an emotionally heightened state, really does not work. It's sort of like Charlie Brown's teacher moaning along in the background while they are caught up in an internal frenzy and can comprehend nothing. Threatening consequences when the child or teen is agitated is as laughable an option with these children as it is with a screaming newborn. And, even though we've all done it at some point or another, yelling back never helps.

5) Remaining calm, loving and peaceful will get the best results. It still may result in a screaming child, emotionally out of control, raging endlessly, but it won't be escalated by parental stress. While this is a difficult thing to do, not doing it serves no purpose. A parent's anxious or frustrated response is not helpful to a newborn or infant -- nor is it to a 14 year old who was just placed in an adoptive home and is cussing out their parents.

I realize that this post is fairly simplistic, but it really struck me as I was holding the baby who was screaming just how ridiculous I was during the first placement we had of older children. I was on high alert all the time, responding to 11 and 8 year olds as if they were 11 and 8. I expected them to be grateful, reciprocating, age appropriate children who should consider themselves fortunate to finally have permanent parents. I expected compliance, respect, and cooperation to a certain degree. And I was convinced that if I used enough behavior modification, talked enough, lectured enough, explained enough, that they would "get it" and grow up and move on. I couldn't have been more wrong.

So when that teenager moves in your house, or that preteen, or that school age child, or even that four year old, you may be looking at a larger person, but emotionally you've got yourself an infant. Align your expectations that way, and I'm sure you will have a better first year than the alternative.

Because the alternative stinks. Been there, done that.

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