16, 25 or 10 . . .How old is he? . . . The Impact of Trauma and Transience on Foster and Adopted Chi
Is it possible for a child to have more than one age? This may seem like a strange question to ask, but when considering kids who have come out of chaotic pasts, the question makes sense. Many of you foster and adoptive parents reading this are already getting my drift here. Many of us have parented—and are currently parenting—a child or children who, for lack of a better descriptor, “don’t act their age.” I like to use the illustration of an adolescent who may be chronologically 14 years old, who has the street smarts of a 25-year-old, but only has the emotional maturity/intelligence of an 8-year-old.
Why do so many adopted and foster kids have three ages? Why can’t they act their age? Simply put, for them, it’s not a matter of “won’t”, but instead a matter of “can’t”. Tons of valid research in recent years has shown us that children whose’ early years are characterized by trauma and transience have brains that do not develop normally. This can profoundly affect their emotional maturity and their ability to use critical thinking, or what is also termed as their brains’ “executive functioning” abilities. Many of them are subsequently forced to live by their wits—thus the 14-year-old who has the street smarts of a 25-year-old. I have been amazed at many of the kids I’ve worked with over the years and their incredible ability to have survived horrific living situations. Their survival skills have forced them to grow up fast—just like the kids we see in care who are parentified. Their necessary survival skills accelerate their “street smarts age.” In their minds, they had no option. However, these same street survival skills often work to their detriment when they are in a stable home.
How do we parent a child or teen who has three ages? The first thing to remember is to have empathy for their situation and where they’ve come from. As with love, empathy is not enough—but it is a necessary beginning. To help these kids grow and thrive, we must be patient. We must provide consistent structure, a predictable daily schedule and tons of encouragement even for the smallest baby steps in the right direction—all of which creates what Dr. Karyn Purvis calls “felt safety” in a child. In my next blog, I’ll share more specifics on how we can help our children’s emotional age catch up with their chronological age, as well as how we can help them reduce their fear-based “street-smarts” age. There is hope!