By Nancy Ng
One of childhood’s most difficult transitions is not a single event but the long process of becoming part of a new family. This joining, adoption, is at least two-way: parents welcome a child with love, hope, joy and expectation mixed in varying parts with fear, disbelief and anxiety. Babies and young children who cannot yet put words to emotions communicate physically or behaviorally. Babies may cry or may be eerily quiet. They may refuse to eat or develop food sensitivities. They may develop rashes or "forget" a learned skill. Slightly older youngsters may be excessively and indiscriminately affectionate or may be aloof and isolative. Children may be angry, confused or frustrated and act out in a socially unacceptable manner or may be overly compliant and vigilant. Parents react to the child’s manifestations and a cycle develops which can be seen as pathological and in need of "fixing" by well-meaning mental health professionals. While serious attachment disorders are sometimes seen in adopted children, often diagnoses are given before necessary transition work has been done.
Sometimes therapists attempt to initiate a separate, confidential, therapeutic relationship with children who have insecure attachments to their new mothers and fathers. At the same time they may advise parents to control acting out behavior by the tried and sometimes true method: Time Out.
This advice, while generically true, is often the exact opposite of what transitioning children need. The important relationship, that which is vital to the child’s well-being and should be supported beyond all others, is the growing parent-child relationship between the child and those parent(s) who will nurture and guide him/her to adulthood. Transitioning children need Time In, not Time Out.
Time In is a relationship-focused approach which can be many things. Rarely it might include intensive, highly intrusive therapies. More often Time In draws from standard therapeutic and parenting techniques and focuses on reciprocal interaction, acceptance, clear boundaries and the naming and clarification of feelings. It may be regressive, that is may provide an opportunity for the child to revisit younger developmental experiences with more successful and positive outcomes. (See p. 34)
Not infrequently Time-In involves touch. Martha Welch’s book Holding Time gives examples of a general parenting technique which may be especially helpful to adoption-built families (see p40).
Play therapy, long a standard for mainstream therapists, offers ideas useful for parents. Prescribed interaction between parent and child is sometimes referred to as filial therapy. It might more accurately be defined as structured or focused parenting. The following article describes play sessions between caregivers and young children. When used by adoptive parents to facilitate the transition of a new child into the family or as a way to gain understanding about adoption-related issues which surface at developmental milestones, special play sessions can be particularly useful. Play sessions can help siblings impacted by adoption. Brothers and sisters are too often the forgotten participants when a new child enters the family. Play sessions show the "old" children that they have not been displaced, that there is still parent time for them and that their feelings are valid and valued.