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Wednesday, 24 February 2021
Safety & Security Begin With a Small World Print
When a newborn arrives home, his world is very small. He isn’t given many freedoms because he simply isn’t ready. The primary caregiver, usually the mother, provides him with necessities such as food, clothing, and shelter. Since he isn’t yet able to self-regulate, she gives him emotional stability and a sense of well being by keeping his body close to hers. As the child gets a little older, his world gets bigger. He is able to venture out beyond Mom, at first tentatively with frequent check-ins, then more confidently, first with the near environment, then with family members and close friends, later by venturing out into the world of school, jobs and beyond.

In a similar manner, parents often find it helpful to think of the newly adopted child in light of his emotional age, versus his chronological age. Consider the length of time he’s been in the home, as if emotional “birth” began at placement. Even an older child, although far from looking like a baby, will need close proximity and the sense of safety incurred by having his basic needs anticipated and met by the parents until he has had time to adjust and attach. Just like an infant, as an adoptive child becomes more and more secure, he will be emotionally ready to handle a “larger world” with freedoms closer to that of his chronological age.

A newly arrived child of any age needs to sense that mom and dad are in control. This is critical to the child’s sense of security! A predictable schedule, with bedtime and meal routines, helps to promote an environment of security. The child needs to have minimal choices, but ample opportunity for fun times with mom and dad. Small-scale fun like singing songs, dancing, reading, and fingerplays benefit even older children. Large-scale, sensory baths like amusement parks and big vacations need to be saved for the future. Again, it is most helpful to think in terms of the world of the newborn. Would I take my newborn baby to Disneyland? On a 2-week vacation? To a room full of friendly, inquisitive people? If the answer is no, it’s probably not something that a newly adoptive child would benefit from either.

After the child has been home and given time to adjust, the parent reflects on whether the child is ready to have a slightly larger world:

  • Is my child making wise choices most of the time?
  • Is she sleeping and eating well?
  • Is he able to follow basic directives from mom and dad?
  • Does she seek me out when she is hurt, tired, or disregulated?
  • Is his emotional state generally positive and balanced?
  • Is she able to accept love from her parents?
  • Is he able to maintain eye contact with his parents?
  • In new situations, does she show appropriate deference to strangers and preference to parents?

If the answer is yes, the parent may give the child a few more freedoms. Perhaps an older baby or toddler begins to spend a little more time on the floor playing with siblings and a little less time in a front pack carrier. An older child may have the opportunity to have a short play date in the backyard with a neighbor for the first time. If the child does well with these new experiences, parents will gradually add to his repertoire until he is fully participating in activities deemed typical for his chronological age.

Yet, after his world begins to get larger, there may be times that he becomes emotionally disregulated. When the parent recognizes this, she can pull the child in closer, where he is able to derive calm. Perhaps she holds him or has him sit in a chair in the same room where she is working. Sometimes, even after the child has been held, the parent can sense that he is still not ready for complete independence. She may spread out a small blanket or rug and give the child a small container of Legos or Dublo blocks, explaining that for now, he and his toys need to remain on the blanket, close to her. If the child is able to follow instructions for a period of time, the parent sees that he is ready for a slightly bigger world; perhaps getting off the blanket but still remaining in the same room as the parent.

Although these methods may seem punitive to a secure child, parents of children who’ve experienced early trauma, like separation from the birth family, find that such techniques help the child to feel safe. That doesn’t mean that the child won’t complain; in many cases he will, mightily! But over time, proximity to a strong, loving parent will help the child’s heart, so damaged by early loss, to grow strong.

-A4everFamily in consultation with Kali Miller, PhD
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