Ten years ago, when my middle daughter entered preschool, I entered the mystifying, frustrating world of parenting an adopted child with major school anxiety--a world where the anxiety didn't abate with lots of mother love or the quick fixes proposed in regular childcare books or magazines.
It was Mommy Education at it's finest (meaning: I was handed a difficult opportunity to become a more knowledgeable, empathic parent and I wasn't AT ALL thrilled with the situation!). I learned what I needed to know the slow, hard way, and I was able to help my child ever-after...but it would have been so much easier to understand what I was dealing with upfront. I needed an adoptive mom mentor to sit me down with a glass of wine, and explain the over-the-top kid freak-outs surrounding school, change and separation.
So, pour yourself a whoppin' glass of Merlot and read on for the two-minute heads-up I wish I'd had in August 1999...
"Anxiety and difficulty with Transitions (such as starting School) often go hand in hand. When I talk about making transitions in my workshops, I am talking about Empowering a Child to Face Change. A child’s easy transition to new circumstances is based on an infancy and childhood of complete trust. While transitioning seems like a natural skill, it is really an outgrowth of temperament, a child’s trusting belief in a safe, secure world, and her unshakeable faith in her invincible parents! An adopted child has experienced loss and understands the terror of vulnerability; she knows that change isn’t necessarily a positive event, and deeply fears that it could mean losing parents, friends and home. It has happened before. Change forces anxieties to the surface. Understanding the real, underlying source of the anxiety is a child’s first step to coping with it.
Talk to your child about her or his anxiety and teach your adopted child that it is rooted in LOSS. Help her to understand WHY she feels and reacts the way she does. This is the first step to empowering her—helping her to consciously make OVER-RIDE CHOICES about her behavior and her physiological reactions. How does debilitating anxiety affect her: flight, fight or freeze? Let her know that she can still act and still make choices even when she is afraid. Knowing ‘why’ she feels the way she does will help her re-frame her self-image, and may eventually help her to push through fear triggers. Role-play possible scenarios in advance, so your child has an arsenal of responses to fall back on...
Let your child know that bravery means ‘doing or acting’ even when a person is afraid, and be sure to reinforce her bravery over any small steps forward--even if the step forward is accompanied by a half-step back."
It sounds so simple, doesn't it? Well, it's not an easy process. But with work and time (and outside professional help, if indicated), our children can heal. With our help, they can learn to cope, and they can select and internalize the tools to recognize, acknowledge, then obliterate, their fears.
My traumatized preschooler has grown into a spectacular 13 year old, and has a keen awareness of what she needs in order to feel comfortable in this world. She will be starting high school in the fall, and is experiencing a normal level of anxiety--along with anticipation and excitement.
Oh wait...did I say high school??? Someone, quick, please pour me another glass of wine... :)
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