By Jennifer Doane, MSW
For many of us, summer brings back happy memories of increased freedom and opportunities to have new experiences. Today, summer still has those associations for many children. But for some of our children who were adopted, there can be some very frightening feelings around summer transitions.
As Jean MacLeod writes, "A child's transition to new circumstances is based on an infancy and childhood of complete trust." Most of our children have not had that. This can have a long ranging impact on a child's confidence in venturing into new territories, whether that is a new camp, a new summer baby sitter, or simply adjustment to the much less structured days of being on vacation. Summer presents the opportunity for many transitions which are ultimately positive. However, change can be scary and it can bring up all sorts of issues common to children who were adopted: loss, vulnerability, fear of rejection, perfectionism, or issues of identity formation. For children who are preparing for their first trip to overnight camp, this may be the first time they have been away from home without a known adult since they were adopted.
For children who have diagnoses of Sensory Integration Disorder or Attachment Disorder, these transitions can be even more anxiety provoking. "Structure! Structure! Structure!" is the mantra for families raising children with these special needs. The school year frequently provides a level of structure that is beneficial in helping to hold these children and make them feel more secure. Then the summer comes. No matter how hard a family tries, it is nearly impossible to create the structure of school at home. In today's world where many families have full time working parents, there is even less ability to create the structure that is comforting to kids who are anxious about transition.
How do we help our children work through these fears so they can begin to look forward to summer activities with excitement instead of anxiety? With patience and preparation. Knowing your child is the first step in identifying and helping them with stressors. What is his biggest fear? Does that get triggered in these new situations? What helps her feel safe? What about this new situation is going to be the biggest hurdle for your child? Is it the day camp bus? Is it a whole new group of kids? Is it that there is not a consistent routine day to day?
Knowing your own style is also of great importance. It will have bearing on your approach to helping your child. If you are a parent who tends to be cautious and a bit anxious in new situations, you may need to be extra alert to the unspoken messages you send to your child about confidence. If you are a parents who strides confidently into new situations with out hesitation, you may need to slow down a bit to understand what can be so anxiety provoking about a new situation.
The biggest key is openness and honesty with your child. Discuss the upcoming opportunity. Have those hard conversations about what is the most difficult thing for your child. Help your child create a "backpack" of techniques they can use to help themselves feel more confident and to handle the hardest parts of their transitions. Role-playing is an excellent way to help your child practice the tools from their "backpack." Most importantly, your child needs to have time to process their day with you and to adjust the tools that they need to bring with them in their backpack. Ultimately, our children mays till be anxious about new opportunities and transitions that go along with summertime. But if we can help them make the attempt, we not only give them the opportunity to have some of the same wonderful summertime memories that many other children have; we teach them that they can try all sorts of new things.
Most importantly, our children learn that we have confidence and pride in them.