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Act Your Age January 18, 2011

Filed under: adoption thoughts,the adjustment — Elizabeth @ 2:59 PM

There have been a few things that have happened recently that have gotten me thinking about Matthew’s emotional age.  One is this amazing blog post–she says it better than I’m about to, so go read it and bookmark it!!  (but come back and read my sub-par version!)  Any adoptive parent or potential adoptive parent should read those words and remember them.

Matthew is 3.5–he will be 4 in May.  But he doesn’t act like a 3 year old.  He doesn’t talk like a 3 year old.  He doesn’t even look like a 3 year old, really–he is so small!  But he IS 3.  And even though, intellectually I know, and logically I understand the fact that he regressed a lot after his adoption, that he was supposed to regress, that this was how it was supposed to go…..I want him to be 3.  Because he is.  And the worst part is, I don’t even look at him and think “three” anymore, I think “almost 4”.  And he definitely doesn’t act “almost 4”.

I had a phone conversation with his preschool teacher a few days ago.  I had some concerns and I had even (for the first time) used words like “autism” and “sensory processing disorder” with her.  I really needed to know if she suspected anything like that with Matthew.  She first asked me what I see that causes me concern.  I explained his volatile reactions to everyday things.  How one day he can wake up and scream at the dog, try to hit him, sob loudly…..because the dog is sleeping peacefully in the floor.  Another day, he loves the dog or ignores the dog.  How he might literally slap at a houseguest and cry and demand that they not sit on our couch….or sometimes he is thrilled to have company and interacts and has a great time.  His teacher first told me that Matthew’s behavior is different at school and she has never even considered that Matthew shows any qualities of autism or sensory processing disorders (HUGE relief!).  What she did say (about the things I shared and other things I have shared with her in the past) is that he seems to be acting out like a 2-year old…..which suddenly made a lot of sense.  Not just that he was acting a lot younger than he really is, but that he mostly does it at home with us.

Because you see, adopted children sometimes need to go back and experience all of their life stages with their new family.  They need you to hold them and love on them like an infant….because you never have.  They need to go through all of this WITH YOU.

When we started our adoption, I absolutely made my peace with not having another baby.  Really, this is something I did not mourn.  And I LOVED all of the baby stages we went through with Isaac–loved them!!!  But I am a realist, and once we found Matthew, I just wanted Matthew.  And he was 2.5.  I never even considered a crib or a nursery for him–we jumped right into big boy everything.

I was perfectly ready to start at 2.5 and move forward.

But he needed to go back….way back.

These emotional ages are tricky things.  Imagine trying to cradle and give a bottle to a rough and tumble BOY who can pin your older son to the wall and hit him in anger.

It was weird, to be completely honest.  And it was HARD.  After the first few months, I was just frustrated.  We had a 3 year old who for all intents and purposes acted like an 18-month old.  And I wanted to scream–ACT YOUR AGE!

I will never forget checking out at a grocery store one day, and Matthew was whining and crying and arching his back and I picked him up and the clerk said, “oh, is he just learning to walk?”.  Even if he was a pretty late walker, that comment meant that the clerk took him to be 14-16 months old.  He was 3.  And yes, it bothered me a lot…..because I wanted a 3-year old.

It is like a tightrope walk, because yes, there are times when Matthew needs me to let him regress, and I do.  Thank God, there are some times when I do the right thing.

But there are also times he needs it and I refuse.  I tell him to calm down, I remind him that he isn’t a baby.  I just can’t bring myself to do it–my head is screaming “almost 4!!!!!  He is almost 4!!!!!”.

Then there are even times when I want to baby him, I try to initiate some cuddling, some regression, and he pushes away to play like a big boy.

And then the even more confusing times of late when he is regressing with 2-year old behavior, but it is behavior I would not accept from any 2-year old.  So how do I respond?  Do I baby him, do I correct the behavior, do I walk away?  Am I going to let him grow up to be a punk?  Am I harming his psyche by encouraging him to use big boy words?  Is there even a right answer????

Something else that makes this exponentially harder is the fact that we “twinned” the boys, meaning we adopted a child the same age as our biological child.  So there is a living, breathing comparison there at all times.  A child who DOES act his age, with all the confidence and swagger of someone who was cuddled and coddled and loved by the same parents for all 4 of his years.  And Matthew is still testing that love.  He is only 14 months old if you count how long we have parented him, so he still has doubts and insecurities………yet I look at them and think:  they’re the same age.

But they’re not.

And it is just so hard.

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13 Responses to “Act Your Age”

  1. Christy Says:

    I have tears in my eyes reading this because I can only imagine how difficult that is. The internal struggle – I want to raise my child to be a respected citizen, to be a good person, to follow God, but I want him to know he is loved. It’s hard enough when you parent from birth to know to respond in some situations, but when there’s a HUGE change at such a tough age – again – I’m only imagining, you’re living it. Big hugs and prayers! I think you’re an amazing Mommy, even on the days you don’t make all the best choices. I know you’re trying. One day, so will Matthew.

  2. Alleene Smith Says:

    Elizabeth,
    Long-time lurker here, and mom to 2 Korean kids, aged 24 and 21 (!). My son, who was adopted at 4 mo/9 days, had a very difficult adjustment with us. Our social worker told us that a good rule of thumb is that it takes an adopted child as long to settle in with a new family as he/she lived before adoption. So, by her estimation, it should take Matthew 2.5 years to feel settled and comfortable with you. I know this is not what you want to hear, but I found it to be accurate with both of my kids. It seems to me that you are doing all the right things. It just takes time! Best of luck to you!

  3. Lori Says:

    When I read your blogs about Matthew (which I love to do:), I always think of Jack. And then I think, but Jack and Matthew have had very different lives and are not the same children. I know that it has to be so hard for your family, but what I got out of this post is that you’re open… You’re open to searching and looking and asking and thinking and trying to give Matthew everything he needs NOW to become the person that God created him to be. So, while I know it’s hard, that’s what I heard when I read this and I think Matthew is one very blessed boy!! ((((Hugs))))

  4. Grace Says:

    oh boy, elizabeth…this is tough. i can’t imagine how difficult it is to find balance in all this and separate your feelings and frustrations from what you know matthew has experienced with his adoption. but, something tells me you’re doing an amazing job and that matthew knows he is SO loved.

  5. Elizabeth Says:

    One of the (many) things I love about you is that you’re constantly looking for answers; always looking for how to improve your and your family’s life. You are such an excellent resource and pillar of strength for me (if I may be selfish) in our journey with Ingrid.
    I’ve always known that Ingrid acts younger than she actually is, but I’ve never heard it expressed in the way you found, that the child needs to experience all stages with us, the new family. I’m off to read the link you referenced as soon as I’m done with my comment (I know… I should read the link first, but ).
    The thing you said that rang so, SO true for me is “And then the even more confusing times of late when he is regressing with 2-year old behavior, but it is behavior I would not accept from any 2-year old. So how do I respond? Do I baby him, do I correct the behavior, do I walk away?” It’s so, so hard to know sometimes. Do we give her the benefit of the doubt and chalk this up to grieving/trauma/regression? Or do we discipline? We tend to err on the side of discipline (we try to run a tight ship at our house), but sometimes it just doesn’t feel right….
    Geez. You and I need to go out for coffee sometime. Book the WHOLE afternoon and just gab. Can we do that? Please? 🙂

  6. Kristen Says:

    It is just so, so hard sometimes when your child’s chronological age doesn’t match up w/his developmental one. We’re working our way through the same types of issues too. Some days I feel we’re being too strict, punishing him for things that are beyond what he’s capable of and then others I feel like we’re letting unacceptable behaviors side by b/c we’re so afraid of further disrupting his social/emotional growth.

    One of my biggest struggles is not getting sucked into comparing Buddy to other kids his age, it just makes me feel frustrated and anxious, but I catch myself doing it all the time. I can’t imagine how hard it is for you with Isaac there providing constant comparison.

    I’m w/Elizabeth, I wish we could have a regular coffee date to figure all this stuff out.

  7. Tiffany Says:

    I needed to read this. Thank you. I have never heard it expressed this way, and it is almost like reading something you thought, but didn’t want to say, and maybe didn’t think others would believe, but needed to confirm. I know I shouldn’t feel relieved reading this, but in a way I suddenly feel like it all makes sense….and that it’s okay.
    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  8. Kelly Says:

    Are you kidding? You did a GREAT job explaining it. I learned a lot. This makes total sense. And yet. It must be so damn frustrating!! Thank you for sharing about this. I’m hoping that Matthew’s emotional age catches up to his actual age soon. I know it will – but in the meantime …. have another glass of wine, mama!

  9. Joanna Says:

    I’m with Kelly, you wrote it perfectly. I can totally get your frustration. It’s an interesting topic and one that probably needs to be explored much further. Thanks for shedding light on it.

  10. christine m tomberlin Says:

    It makes such a huge difference that you understand a new piece of the puzzle. Once you really internalize that new understanding, your reactions and your frustration will surely adjust. Like someone else said…you always have an open mind. You always squint through periods of blurry vision and try to refocus…and it always seems to give you clearer vision. Epiphany!

  11. Sue Says:

    THIS is one amazing post. As hard as things can be with Matthew some days…you get it…you know who he is and what he needs. You are asking the right questions and trying and trying to find the right solutions for the time. You are an amazing person…an amazing mom. And, your thoughts, worries and hopes for both your boys inspire me daily!!

  12. KJ Says:

    Hey, thank you for the lovely words! What you can’t tell from my NHBO post is that we “twinned” too. 6 months apart, same age in school. And oh, it makes it harder. Even more so because the twin is mature for his age, has always been the youngest of three.

    And you added to my understanding , too. All this time I have kind of known she doesnt do this at school, but never thought about WHY. Now it’s so clear. Shed been to school. School is fine. It’s US that’s just too off the charts stressful. Still, eighteen months later.

    I never put any credence in that stuff about it taking as long to adjust as the child spent somewhere else at the beginning, but after we hit the one year mark and it really did make a difference, I began to believe. Only two years to go. I don’t want to wish them away,….

  13. Susan W Says:

    This post hits home. Just last night DH and I were talking about our DD (6, from China), and how she would be treated differently if she were our oldest. We also have 18 and 14 yo biological sons. We’d treat her differently. She is in the baby position here, and so gets babied. But she’d need that even if she were our first, because she *needs* that. It’s plain and clear to me, but not to others who are not living it. Some of my friends here who are also adoptive parents, don’t get it, either. Maybe our DD is just able to express what she needs and what and WHO she misses and the others’ kids don’t express or feel they are not allowed to express that emptiness that is there inside??


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