School’s Out – Now What?

end of school transitionsJune has arrived, in all of her luscious glory, bathing in green the trees which, for so long, have been skeletal representations of themselves.  The blossoming buds, springtime showers, and warm, welcome sunshine fill the atmosphere with the promise of new growth.  Teachers dismantle their classrooms in anticipation of next fall.  Parents comb the web with hopes of filling children’s time with activities rooted in learning and fun.  School is out and most children eagerly anticipate the upcoming three months of freedom.

As we trade unpacking a school backpack for unpacking a vacation suitcase, let us consider, if we may, unpacking this idea of  “eager anticipation” and how it exists in the minds and hearts of many adopted children and adolescents.  Anticipation of summer time is a normal phenomenon experienced by most school-aged children in the United States.  Some things children anticipate may include: not having homework, traveling to new places, going to camp, or simply having more unstructured time to play, experience adventures and relax.  For the adoptee, though, the anticipation of summer may come with caveats unique to the adoption experience.

While the anticipation of summer break may indeed be “eager” for the adoptee, it may also be coupled with intense anxiety which can act as a catalyst to behavioral outbursts or changes in mood.  It is helpful to keep in mind that the adoptee has experienced significant loss at a young age, and the end of the school year means saying goodbye to their teacher as well as classmates who might not be in their class the following year.  Many adoptees struggle with transitions and processing loss, and need active and ongoing support when dealing with transition and flux.  (Please note, this anxious response is not necessarily isolated to children and teen adoptees; such a response may exist within the adult adoptee as well).

To understand this particular response to change, consider the source of this anxiety.  This amplified reaction to transition is one the adoptee has learned in early development, perhaps as early as infancy.  When making the grand transition from womb to world, if the bond which exists between biological mother and baby is disrupted (a bond formed in utero but reinforced postnatally via breast feeding, odor, eye contact, touch and sound), the infant may view the world as confusing, uncaring and hostile as opposed to warm and welcoming.  It is no wonder that adoptees pair transition with emotional responses such as fear, denial, anger, and grief.  Even children who were not removed from a biological caregiver at birth may experience anxiety surrounding transition; the transition from their family of origin may have been permeated by significant trauma and/or loss, regardless of the age at which it occurred.

While the existence of what Nancy Verrier coined “the primal wound*” may leave some parents feeling hopeless as to how to best support their child in transitory times, we have some suggestions that can help.

Here are ways to prepare children for end of school transitions so that they are less traumatic and met with minimal resistance:

  • Anticipate Challenges:  Prepare for the reality that your child may have a difficult time transitioning away from and back to school.  This may manifest as disruptive behavior, defiance, or regression.  If your child historically has difficulty saying goodbye to school, remind them that they have gone through this before and that everything turned out OK.  Avoid punishment of disruptive behaviors.  Ask your child what they are feeling when they act out. If or when they share, validate their feelings as normal and OK.  Remind them that even though the class and teacher may be changing, you will be there to support them.
  • Create a Structured Routine:  Children thrive on routine, and adoptees do well to know what is coming ‘round the bend.  Break out the calendar with your child.  Invite them to count up or down to vacations, special events, and the first day of school. Make this check-in a daily routine so that your child can not only anticipate events to come, but can count on you to be there at a set time to review these details with them daily.
  • Develop Rituals:  Even if your summer finds you traveling, develop some daily rituals with your child.  These may include reviewing the summer agenda over breakfast or reading the same bedtime story, at the same time, each night…even while in unfamiliar places.  This will help ground children, even when they may feel physically, emotionally, and psychologically uprooted.
  • Adjust Expectations and Minimize Additional Stressors:  Because school-time transitions are significant, minimizing other sources of anxiety may prove helpful.  For example, maybe this was the summer you wanted to teach your child to swim.  They have been afraid of the activity and you have been so patient; but now they are old enough and you think, “It’s time, let’s get them in the water!”  Perhaps hold off on developing this skill until your child has adjusted to a summer routine or maybe until they are back in the structure of school.  Maybe this summer is about dipping our toes underneath the waves at the beach and next winter, we suggest swimming lessons in the safety of a pool, and as part of the school year routine.
  • Plan Your Own Self Care:  It is natural for a parent to always have children at the forefront of the brain.  Remember to add yourself to your busy summer calendar as well.  It is crucial for parents to care for and nurture themselves if they hope to subsequently nurture their children fully.  Furthermore, this provides a healthy model for children.  Children will believe they are lovable and worthy of care if they see their parents doing it first.

Written by Caitlin Woodstock
Boston Post Adoption Resources

*Verrier, N. (1993). The primal wound; understanding the adopted child. Lafayette, CA: Gateway Press

About Caitlin Woodstock

Caitlin Woodstock was a clinical intern at Boston Post Adoption Resources.