When totaled up, between our three adopted children we have missed 9 years and 9 months of their early years. We missed the entire pregnancy, newborn, and infant stage for all three of them. We missed the toddler stage for two of them. Our eldest became part of our family less than a month before heading off to full-time Kindergarten. The photos above can bring out a lot of emotion in me; all of these pictures are from the missing years. As you can see, our kids were (and still are) loved by their biological families and prior foster families. But not all the moments from their pasts are rosy. Sometimes I wish I could step into those moments and change the past.
I have wondered what happened in the decade we weren’t present. More often, probably, I have thought about what didn’t happen. It is clear now, especially in our relationship with our adopted daughter, that some needs were not addressed with the frequency and immediacy that a young child requires for developing proper emotional attachment.
There is no way to go back to the missing years.
Or is there?
Have you ever asked, ‘What is my child’s emotional age?’ Chronological age and emotional (or developmental) age can be very different. Our eldest is 11 chronologically and probably nine in his academics – but the way he handles his emotions, the age of peers he is most comfortable interacting with, the TV shows he enjoys, the toys he prefers – all put him at approximately six years old. For our entire duration of foster care, it seemed he was just stuck at age four, but recently has matured across many domains. An intellectual deficit plays into his younger developmental age as well.
Though all children grow at their own rate, across the board, a normally developing child hits certain milestones around specific years, with some coming slightly earlier or later depending on the child’s gender.
In neglect and trauma, this is often not the case. When a little brain is learning to trust a caregiver, but the caregiver does not respond, or responds erratically, the brain does not grow in the manner expected. The brain can pause at the moment of trauma; it’s difficult to move on. The lack of trust affects future relationships negatively. Many other areas are impacted as well. For more on attachment, see here.
Additionally, when a young child does not get the stimulation needed for development or is exposed to illicit substances in utero, speech, fine motor, gross motor, sensory processing, and people skills can all suffer. Not all delays are a result of neglect or drug exposure, however, children with past trauma often display delays across multiple areas such as these.
If you have a child who is developmentally much younger than his or her chronological age, don’t be afraid to go back. Allow them time to interact at that developmental stage. If additional attachment challenges are present, consider going all the way back to the infant stage with the child. Some children can benefit immensely from spending infant-like bonding time with their foster or adoptive parents. Just recently, our eight-year-old requested that before I tuck her into bed, I rock her on my lap and sing her a lullaby that I sang to all our biological newborns. I jumped on the opportunity to participate in this therapeutic activity with her (one we’ve done together throughout various stages of her emotional processing and healing), at her own request, no less. What a wonderful opportunity to bond! We were able to look each other directly in the eyes while she invited me to take on the mother role without fighting me, and allowed me to care for her as I would have if I had been present during her newborn stage.
Though we may not be able to go back in time, neuroscience is giving us promising data that the brain can change. Meet your child where he or she is at and be willing to go back. Remember, they will grow up eventually and get to those milestones, but right now you have a key opportunity to encourage healing in areas that were missed in the early years.