Does the thought 'How will he ever manage in life?' sometimes cross your mind? Maybe the thought 'Will I have to manage those behaviors in the coming 10 years?' also make you worry. When the children are young and cute and you're three times bigger, you may not worry about their future too much, but it is better not to sit back and wait in the hope the children mature and gain skills, necessary to live independently, hold on to a job and have healthy relationships with other people. Most adopted children cannot afford the wait and see approach, there needs to be some sort of plan, and waiting until they are 15 before starting to think about their future is a bit late for most. You should give it some thought simply because you need to develop their strengths and interests, and this takes a lot of 'preliminary steps,' so it is better to start as early as possible.
My child feels generally pretty useless; he does not believe he can do a lot, and he's not totally wrong here, as for him to learn anything, he needs to invest more efforts than 'Jane Average'. He makes comments like 'I do not like myself', 'My birth mother has thrown me away', 'Nobody likes me', etc. Low self-esteem, - and that is understandable and also very sad. He is like many other adopted children. That's why it is so important to find activities where they can flourish, feel good about what they do.
My son presents quite able: most people on the outside world see him as capable and cute and have no understanding of the difficulties he faces. They think he can move on to higher education because he plays violin so well, but in reality this is not possible simply because he lacks the intellect, the motivation and perseverance.
Only yesterday he puts himself down saying he has been practicing violin for months and still makes mistakes. 'Of course,' I told him, we started practicing this concert 5 weeks ago and now he can already play the three parts from memory, and that's amazing. It needs to be played from memory as he will play in a festival later this year. Of course he still makes some mistakes, but it is a huge accomplishment, even for a child without his learning difficulties. He then continues about his birth mother, as if he feels that his discontent has nothing to do with his violin. What can you answer when a child says 'My birth mother has thrown me away'? I try to minimize the meaning of these words, tell him it's not really like that, tell him that his birth mother did not see any other choices etc, etc. But the reality is that he lives with me and not with her. She left him in the hospital.
'She did not want me' is the next thing he says. I tell him I think that his birth mother had a lot of problems and could not care for him. No matter what anyone is going to say, it will not make him feel better about himself instantly. He is too young emotionally to understand the circumstances around his abandonment, he comes quickly to very wrong conclusions with the little information he has.
So how can we make our children feel better about themselves? Praise in itself can be good if you really mean it from the heart, but it can make children also dependent, wanting the adult's opinion to know if they have done something right all the time. They work for the praise but not the satisfaction from the activity. Insecure children come every two minutes asking if you like the five new lines they put on paper. Too much praise also loses its impact; praising the skills the child was already able to demonstrate three month ago desensitizes the child and undermines the parent's trustworthiness.
As every parent, I want my son to feel good about himself and about what he does. In the hope, of course, that if they feel good about what they do, they will feel better about themselves as well. So when can children feel good about their participation in activities? At the moment they start doing it with confidence and it goes well. At this moment they receive praise (this can be at any level, as long as the children try to their best ability) and can feel the parents are proud.
For children to feel good about themselves, we also need to try to build up a close relationship with them. You need to spend time together, a lot of time. But what to do when the child is not thrilled to have you around, how can this work then? This can be achieved by spending blocks of time with the child and then taking emotional distance in between.
Maybe your child will not leave you alone for 15 minutes despite you telling her that you just need to read a chapter in your book and when you finish then you'll be doing something together again. In that case you might want to teach the child to have a moment of rest in their bedroom, a special corner in the lounge or drawing at a kitchen table. The idea is to work with the child (this can be anything from giving attention to helping to read), then have a mini-break, then start again. The attention span of most children needs to be trained to become developed, so starting with short sessions and building it up is an good idea. Also some physical motion between moments of concentration is good. When do parents get a break if you work intensely with your child? Well, school is the moment of the parent's respite, as well as the time after the child is in bed.
Even if your child is 8 at adoption, they still need closeness of a five year old. You don't give the freedom to cycle around the neighborhood the whole afternoon or allow to play with friends every day to a five year old. Think about them as being younger, treat them as they are younger - in their choices and freedom, and in your expectations.
When you are in the middle of activities with your child or give them attention, please do not allow to be interrupted by a phone, just switch the thing off - this is time for your child. I see young children everywhere with parents who appear attached to their mobile, more so than to their child, one might wonder. Those same kids get their parent's mobile when they start whining. Some of those toddlers know exactly how this mobile operates. This is not a good parenting and there is no need to be available for the outside world all the time. Adopted children need real contact, they do not need computer games or electronic toys in place of parents who are distracted by mobiles 10 times a day. They need you, and you need to find ways to make this possible.
If you struggle to keep the interactions positive, investigate why the child can make you so angry or upset and find ways to prevent it. Sounds simple, but removing yourself from the situation even for a short period is often helpful: foreseeing how the child may react and preventing it, emotionally stepping back, simply counting till 10, making a conscious decision not to shout at the child, etc., all these can help.
As it can be intense to have a needy child around many hours a day, I do not recommend to make co- sleeping a habit. You need time away from the child, physically and mentally. If you spend good quality time during the day with the child, you need time to recharge, and an undisturbed sleep is necessary for you.
Sending a child to after school clubs, letting them play daily with friends at other people's houses, giving them the same freedom as you would give the same age birth child, is often not an good idea. I understand very well that most people work long hours and use baby sitters and after school groups to cover those hours. This is not ideal for the adopted child, even if they appear independent and do not mind the arrangements. The first couple of years the interactions with friends do not have to be daily, the interaction with the parent is more important.
Coming back to giving the child the 'feel good' feeling. For most children it means achieving something. What can be your child's hobby? Well that's, for most part, is up to you. Ask the child a few months after they are home, and they may say yes to any suggestion or its opposite. Best to start something and see how it goes. Let's say it's difficult: your child is very scared in the swimming pool, like my child was. It does not mean the activity is not suitable. It just means you might have to make sessions shorter and more frequent or facilitate in other ways: something challenging might be of a greater quality and give the child more satisfaction once the skill is mastered.
I chose violin just because my child had motor skill weakness, memory problems, concentration problems, and he had never seen a violin in his life. But he did sing reasonably in tune, and he enjoys music, and I thought it was a good link to his ethnicity beside the fact that I believe that classical music can be very therapeutic and healing. I practiced daily with him, first two times 5 minutes a day, slowly building this up. To be honest, he did not always like it, but that's understandable as it was challenging and he does not have inner motivation. We are four years further, he still plays violin daily, he is not delayed when it comes to violin playing. He quite enjoys it and feels confident about this skill, he plays in a youth orchestra. Even now when he's successful, he still wants to change the instrument a few times a year. This desire shifts from double base to rock guitar - this trend of wanting a change dominates his life: he finds something fantastic one day and 'hates' it the next.
That is the reason why we should decide what a good activity for your child is, and make them stick to it. The child does not have a reference point in judging the activities: they might know sports they have seen on TV, and that's as far as it goes. Most have never seen a cinema, concert hall, theatre or museum from the inside by the time they arrive home. It is also the parent who decides if something does not work out: the difficulty is to choose an activity that your child will be able to do physically, that is challenging but not unrealistic. And you need to like it yourself as well, as you need to motivate them to continue, and you have to pay for lessons and bring the child to the class; in some cases you might have to practice with the child or at least spend a lot of time looking at what the child is doing. Show genuine interest in what your child does. This activity needs to be structured and people who lead it must be sympathetic towards your child's needs. If a part of the practice can be done at home, even better.
Your goal should be to lead the child to become just a bit better than the best child in their class in school and insure that there are moments where they can shine by performing or showing their work to friends and family.
If a child is good in a skill, it is easy to think it's talent, but the reality is that, no matter how much talent your child may have, if you do not practice - you'll not become good. And if you have no talent but practice enough, you'll become pretty good. It does not really matter whether it is sport, arts and crafts, music. Anything what can be practiced often and where the child can be successful is the right for them activity.
As you can read in my previous article Finding an Extra-Curriculum Activity for an Adopted Child, my son started playing violin less than a year after his adoption, and from the moment I wrote the article about this hobby, things have not changed. He still practices every day, I still supervise this practice daily. And slowly but surely he's succeeding and most days he likes it. By now I've been sitting with him at 1250 practice hours but probably more. He also swims: last year he was not allowed in the swimming pool without floaters, now a year later he explains to me how to dive in without slamming your belly and how to breath under the arm while doing breast stroke. He is a better swimmer than I am for sure; he swam 18 meters under water while dressed (one of the things they need to practice to move up the class and get another diploma).
He was scared of water; two summers I swam (read - played in water) with him nearly every day, he learned to swim under my guidance. I enrolled him in a swimming class: initially two hours every week, then during the 6 weeks summer break three hours every week, after that back to two weekly hours until he got three diplomas and became a confident swimmer. Now after this intensive period he swims one hour every week to gain certificates for more skills.
You see, the problem for most children, especially the slower children, is that when you do something like this one hour every week it takes ages, and it also takes ages before they achieve success. So I advise, whatever you do, set the child up to succeed with practice, with some extra lessons, with anything you can do to get over the 'beginner's threshold'. After that often the activity itself is satisfying.
My child likes swimming now because he's the best swimmer in his class. It really does not matter that he will never be an expert swimmer or even win a swimming contest; maybe in a few years he is no longer the best; what matters now is the success he enjoys, his hard work he gets praise for, every diploma he gains.
To live as independent as possible, children need to learn skills to manage their home, their work and their free time. And a lot of those skills can be easily learned in the family, starting with helping the mother - for preschool children, to having tasks to be responsible for - at primary age, to full independence training during puberty. The advantage of starting young is also that children get used to managing tasks, and it will be easier to get them to comply when they are 15 and you have decided your son needs to learn, for example, to cook.
I know there might be people saying 'But my child will not even make his own bed, how can I get him to vacuum the floor? He's moody and rude when I ask him'. My children sometimes object against tasks, mainly saying they did the same yesterday ('Yes, I cooked yesterday for you as well, how boring'), it's not their turn. I do not really plan their work to be done in turns, as it is so tiring to have endless discussions about who is suppose to do what. I just want them to comply if I ask them to do a task.
One strategy what works well is 'If you refuse, I refuse too'. 'I will start cooking dinner after you are done with your task.' Dinner was delayed by three hours once, and that was fine - it was their choice. I have not had huge opposition since.
Just find something you do for them what can be stopped: bringing them to a friend, cancelling a fun outing, anything will do as long as it makes sense. Be careful not to cancel the activity you've chosen for the child to do weekly with the idea that if they are successful in what they do it will boost their confidence. I never cancel music and swimming lessons, for example.
TV, computer games, anything electronic can be easily used to be 'earned' if the tasks are performed, or taken away by sloppy work. Your child might say 'I do not care, I hate watching TV/playing a game anyway'. Do not go into those discussions, go back to the original request: 'First you vacuum your bedroom then you are allowed to watch TV'. It is not your concern how much they 'do not care' about a consequence, just follow it through anyway.
Tasks my boys are involved in: cleaning their own bedroom, folding washed clothes and putting everything away, mopping the floor, removing muck after the ponies we have, mowing the grass, etc. My eldest cooks once a week (with help), which includes choosing the ingredients in the supermarket. On some days he is allowed to cycle independently to the shop, this is not always possible and depends on his mental state. I plan to start to train him to use public transportation when he's 17, as he'll never be able to get a driving license. He knows how and actually can operate the washing machine. Unfortunately I had to disallow this as it became an obsession for him, and washing was all he could think of and do: when all clothes were washed, dirty shoes, boots, rain jackets, plastic toys - it all would go into the washing machine.....
And then we look further thinking about a profession the child can get into later on. If they have been developing their strengths from a young age, maybe a profession that uses those strengths is possible. When children are young, they tell you they want to be a pilot, or a policeman, or an astronaut, you smile and tell them how fantastic this is. Then there comes a moment, maybe around 8 or 9, that you tell them that becoming an astronaut is very unlikely because..... . Then the pilot's profession 'falls off', because your vision isn't good enough, etc. But there is a huge grey area, when your child is a slow learner and so many professions are not suitable for them. Why? Simply because the child has not enough brain power. I try to avoid saying 'this is not possible', I try to get him to figure that out himself. Yesterday he wanted to be a vet, and I said: 'That's a good profession helping sick animals, but you have to be very good with math. When we talk a bit about it, he asks if he could help the animals in a shelter and pick them up with an ambulance. So now we are talking about much more realistic things, as with perseverance, motivation and determination it would not be totally farfetched.
As an example, a month ago he wanted to work on a cruise ship....... no idea where this came from; again he wanted to be a captain, and after we talked a bit, he liked cleaning the cabins as well, or playing the violin when people have dinner (this comes from a Mr. Bean movie, where he eats in an expensive restaurant and someone comes to the table to play a tune). He is 10 now, and I do not want to blow his 'bubble,' but I want to slowly change his unrealistic ideas to something ambitious but not totally impossible.
My child also has a bleeding disorder that makes certain professions impossible. 'No, you cannot be a football player - that's too dangerous'. Then he'll say: 'I cannot be anything', and I ask him if someone can play violin when they are deaf. I am trying to lead him to realization that everyone has restrictions in their possibilities. I point out at his strengths in search of possibilities.
If your teen shows a clear interest in a certain profession, it is good to look with your child at what this exactly entails. In this respect the Internet is fantastic as you can look up colleges, courses, etc. If you have ideas about possibilities for your child, share them and look into them as well. School will have ideas of course, but it is always good for the family to have a plan to share; for the child it is important to be somewhat realistic rather than live for 12 years with the idea he will become an astronaut when in fact he's three years behind in math and two in English.
I want to end with the advise for adoptive families to form realistic expectations about their children, be active in preparing the child's future and remember that it all starts at home. Teach them the skills they are able to acquire and will need later on. All practical skills to live independently can be learned in the family.
And even if your child will never live independently, then still it is important to make them as self-sufficient as possible and to find the best place where they can be cared for. Do not wait until they are 35: you still need to be hopefully healthy and fit when they move out. Then by that time they will have build up their own social network. If you made a mistake and their current place is not as nice as you expected, you are still strong to fight for a move and find something better. Do not expect school to do it alone, or therapy to solve all problems. You have to be involved and active as a parent and put in a lot of time and effort.
Nobody can predict the long term outcomes for children who have been through so much, but they survived and hopefully they will grow into people who can feel proud of what they achieved.
My name is Jeltje Simons and I am a single adoptive mother of 2 boys. Both of my children arrived a few weeks before their 6th birthday. Both children have significant special needs. Before my eldest's adoption I worked many years as a nurse in residential settings for children and adolescents with special needs in the Netherlands, Ireland and UK. But soon after my older son’s arrived it became clear that in order to meet his severe needs I could not continue working as a nurse - I needed to stay home.
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