I was thinking the other day about how we parent our little girl, and I realised that it’s become a bit of a balancing act. Now all parenting involves endless balancing in numerous situations, but I think that adoptive parenting has some additional balancing going on due to our children’s backgrounds and needs.
One way in which we balance our parenting is between chronological age (e.g. when the child was born), and their emotional/social age (e.g., where they’re functioning at at this time) These ages are not always the same, as there may be delays in some areas, as well as advances in others. Generally adopters are told to ‘think younger’ in the way they parent their children, and I often have remind myself of this.
For us, I think our daughter is probably spot on or a bit ahead academically. She is very bright, and picks up new learning very quickly. She is able to recognise, read and write her name. She got her phonics sorted ages ago, and recently she started being able to sound out words to begin to read and write. She needs quite a lot of stimulation (e.g. reading books, puzzles), and we have lots for her to do. She seems to like doing these activities, and is very proud of her achievements, so we encourage them. Helping her to start to learn to read has been one of my greatest parenting joys, I just love seeing her world open up right in front of her. Her ability to learn amazes me, it’s fascinating!
On the other hand, she is functioning a bit lower than her chronological age of 4 in her emotional/social development. She often displays behaviour, and needs parenting more on the level of a young toddler/baby. This is where I find we balance parenting most. This is the reason we do some things that other people may feel she’s too old for. That other people may feel are unnecessary, and may be holding her back. I don’t think they are, I think they are helping her to fill in those possibly missing gaps in her development. We don’t really know much about her baby/toddler experience of life, we don’t really know what she had and didn’t have. So we kind assume she didn’t and we work hard to fill those gaps. Below are a couple of the ways in which we parent her (at a much lower chronological age than she is), and the reasons why we do what we do
Play/sensory: When our daughter came to us (age nearly 2 1/2) she brought with her a few toys. These were mostly aimed at baby/young toddler (e.g. musical toys, stacking cups) We still have all of these toys, and she still plays with them. She loves sensory toys, they seem to help relax and regulate her. Although she has plenty of age appropriate toys, she still needs these basic ones. They let her explore with her senses (sound, lights, oral) , which is exactly what a baby needs and does.
When the post adoption social worker came, she brought some fruity scented playdoh. Our daughter put a bit of each one in her mouth before she realised they didn’t taste very nice, and didn’t do it again. The social worker pointed out that thats what a baby would do, they explore their world orally. Our daughter is very sensory seeking. Anything and everything will go in her mouth, even if she’s been told a thousand times not to. To try to help this we have special ‘chewy toys” These are ones she’s allowed to chew, and most of them are made for babies (we are careful as she has teeth, so we watch closely so she doesn’t bite bits off). some are made specifically for older children/adults who need to chew, so they are more heavy duty. Chewing on these seem to help with her emotional regulation as well as satisfy her sensory seeking to some extent. Although she is capable of using cutlery, we have relaxed her table manners, so she’s allowed to fully explore her food as a sensory experience, The idea is that once she’s moved through that developmental phase, she should be able to catch up, otherwise she may be stuck in that phase for a lot longer.
We still do tummy time, which you’re meant to do with very young babies. This is to try to encourage her undeveloped vestibular and proprioceptive systems. I wrote about this specifically before, see (here).
Nurture: As with play, we do some things with our daughter that you would normally do with a baby/young toddler rather than a pre-schooler. Again, the idea is that it helps to filled in missed development gaps and nurture activities. It is also so important to encourage and improve attachment between a parent and child. We missed out on 2 1/2 years of giving our daughter nurture, and developing an attachment to each other, so anything we can do to help this can only be a good thing.
Nurture is a lot about meeting the most basic of needs, so if you can show a child you want to and can do this, it goes a long way in helping them to trust and believe that you will look after them and meet their needs. Some children come to adoption having missed out on these opportunies to be ‘babied’, and almost seem too independent or grown up than their years. On a selfish note, it allows me as a mum to to have some of those experiences I didn’t have because I never had a small baby.
One way we’ve fairly recently started to do this is offering our daughter a bottle. She can choose if she wants it, so she’s in control of if she wants to receive nurture in this way or not. Actually, despite being 4, she normally does choose to have it, and loves it. If you think how feeding a baby promotes nurture, then it’s exactly the same with an older child. It’s a chance to have that special 1:1 quiet time. It promotes eye contact and closeness. It’s meeting one of the most basic of needs. I wrap her tightly in a blanket and cuddle her close. The first time we did it I found it quite emotional as it felt so special, and I really wished we’d done it so much earlier. We tried to introduce a dummy (I know against all mainstream advice),, but she hasn’t really taken to it as she tends to chew instead of stuck. She does however know its there if she want or needs it.
We still sing her lullabies (rock-a-bye-baby and special version on twinkle twinkle little star) at bedtime. She sleeps with a nightlight and soft music. She has a baby monitor if we’re away from home. This way, we can quickly respond to her if she needs us. She needs to know that we are there to comfort her if she needs, and we do go back to re-settle her after bedtime. Sometimes she needs to be close to us at night, so we have a mattress on the floor in our room. If she needs she can come to sleep on it, and she usually settles back off happily. These all make us readily available to her, and she learns to rely on us.
As she gets older and bigger it may get harder to mentally put aside the thought of ‘she’s too old/she shouldn’t need that anymore’, but as long as she needs us to parent in the ways that we do, we will. She’ll make it clear when she doesn’t want or need them anymore. She’ll be able to move on in her own way and time, but not until she’s ready, and it’s important we give her the chance to be a really little girl still.