Monday, June 20, 2011

Raising a Healthy Adopted Child: Relationships with Adults

On Thursday, we talked about how difficult interacting with peers can be for the adopted child, or any child, for that matter. Today, in a similar yet different, vein, let us delve into the complex relationships our adopted children have with adults. By adults, I mean doctors, evaluators, therapists, Mom's business associate; by adults, I mean strangers, in a sense, to our children.

While we might look forward to our child's well-check visit every year, to most children, especially healthy ones, this is a once-a-year interaction (rather intimate, in some cases) with someone that is essentially a stranger. For many adopted children, interacting with adults they do not know well can elicit a variety of behaviors, many of which we as parents do not understand.

Many times Mae will not make eye contact with my friends, even ones she sees more regularly than once a year. I used to get very upset by this and think she was being rude. It took a dear and wise friend to point out the anxiety an introverted child can have with the intense sensory input of direct eye contact.

This had never occurred to me - that to an introverted child, the very act of making and maintaining eye contact can be emotionally and physically uncomfortable. Once I realized how difficult this was for Mae, I lowered my expectations a little, and encouraged her to make eye contact quickly, then look away. She is much more willing to look directly at "strangers" now, because she is free to drop her gaze right away.

Another seemingly rude behavior was not speaking or responding when spoken to by the adult. Now, for a doctor visit or a speech evaluation, for example, this can be critical information to the doctor, so we would talk at length about responding to the questions. I'll never forget Mae's speech evaluation at Child Find when she was almost three; she didn't speak at all.

The evaluators weren't sure she even had any language, let alone a speech impediment, so I left that evaluation frustrated and worried that Mae wouldn't cooperate. Now, with the gift of hindsight, I see that she was much too introverted to respond to a stranger for that amount of time. Happily, we had her speech tested in Kindergarten, with her teacher that she loves and trusts, and all is well.

I think, with these children, all we can do is prepare them for what will be expected of them, but we can not expect them to cooperate with the same degree of verbosity as an outgoing, fully confident child. Knowing this about Mae has helped me prepare my friends, her teachers, a doctor etc., for what they in turn can expect of my child. Our job, after all, is to advocate for our children; what better way to support them than to stand behind their seemingly idiosyncratic behavior with an explanation and a hug.

One other area that worries me about Mae's interaction with adults is her tendency to obey whatever she is told to do. In an evaluation, while she is silent, she will "do" what she is asked. I notice that in areas of instruction too, such as a testing situation at TaeKwonDo or a command from another unfamiliar parent at a gathering.

I worry that I need to teach her to stand up for herself more, but am I looking too far into the future with this behavior? This desire to please shows itself in all relationships, whether it be with parents, siblings, peers or strangers. Teaching my child to be polite yet strong will, undoubtedly, be one of the toughest challenges I have as a parent.

How does your child interact with adults she doesn't know? Are you embarrassed by her behavior? Do you explain it to your friends? How do you handle it? 

1 comment:

Anne and Sean said...

Great post Ellen, all well said. I have some similar problems with Sadie - she will ignore/not respond to adults and not make eye contact. My gut reaction is to lose patience FAST, and of course that is the wrong way to handle it. I have decided to make a point to talk about looking adults in the eye and answering before I know she'll be interacting (playdates, camps). That could be preachy too, so I am trying to think of way to ask questions about it ('how do you feel when xxxx's mom talks to you'?) or 'Do you remember the polite thing to do when xxxxx says hello and welcomes you to his/her house?'.
Or perhaps I can do role play with both kids some time when we are waiting for something or just sitting around where we practice greeting each other and shaking hands or looking in each other's eyes. That is the montessori-ish way to handle it.
I am thinking this must be one of those repetitive things in parenting where eventually they get it.