Cultivating Connection with a Separation-Saturated Child During Covid-19
In normal times, parenting a child with separation anxiety can be challenging. But parenting during current quarantine practices of stay-at-home, shelter-in-place, and whatever comes next is super taxing for parents of separation-saturated children.
Last month, Sara Easterly offered 4 tips in Part 1 of Parenting an Adoptee During a Pandemic. She is back now with Part 2, four more tips gleaned from wisdom and insights as an adoptee, a daughter, a mom, and an attachment specialist with The Neufeld Institute.
4 More Tips for Parenting in a Pandemic by Sara Easterly
Being an adult adoptee while being a parent can be an asset. I’m not advocating for trauma as a prerequisite for parenting, but I do think experiencing intense separation as a child has shaped my parenting in significant ways. Because of lived experience I know, on a primal and intuitive level, the importance of attachment. I understand how damaging separation can be, particularly for children who have already been saturated in separation.
For this reason, when my children were still babies, I sought out the attachment-based, developmental wisdom of Dr. Gordon Neufeld, bestselling author of Hold On to Your Kids and founder of The Neufeld Institute, an organization dedicated to helping caregivers raise children to their full potential. Over the last decade, the relational and science-based insights I’ve learned have supported my parenting immensely. Many of Dr. Neufeld’s insights are particularly useful when caring for children—adopted and nonadopted alike—under any number of stressors in this often-alarming world and become even more essential during a pandemic.
The Dual Face of Separation
It’s important to understand that separation is both the biggest trauma and the biggest threat to your adoptee. Remembering this paradox is helpful in knowing how to parent during this difficult time.
Separation-related problems show up in a variety of ways, such as anxiety, agitation, fears and phobias, or trouble with bedtime. As I mentioned in Part 1, there is a way in which the pandemic-related shelter-in-place regulations help resolve a lot of separation, keeping families physically together and removing many of the potential dangers that unconsciously face adoptees into more separation.
But there is more to removing separation than through physical closeness.
Tip 1: Avoid Discipline That Separates
Time-outs, love withdrawal, silent treatment, and sending children to their rooms are some common discipline practices that use separation (emotional or physical) to elicit good behavior from children. These practices may work in the moment, but they come at a cost. Especially for the adoptee, whose brain has held on to early separation trauma and whose heart will quickly harden when facing too much separation, too much shame, or when the child feels unsafe.
This is true all of the time, but especially so during a pandemic, when adoptees may already be facing a lot of separation and feeling especially unsafe.
What’s more, the separation that ensues from these kinds of disciplinary practices can point the child down the path of feeling more alarmed, more frustrated. OR going into pursuit of love: working to be “good” in order to preserve the relationship—which might not look like a problem to the parent at first, but creates an underlying insecurity for the child that can have lifelong effects in future relationships.
Instead of using separation to address behavior problems, aim to keep your child’s heart soft and strengthen your child’s attachment to you. This requires more effort and takes longer than more immediate fixes focused on problem behavior, but the payoff will be more than worth it.
This doesn’t mean ignoring unruly behavior. But it does mean treading lightly when it comes to responding in any way that will message to an adoptee that receiving love is dependent on being “good.” The intention is to keep your relationship solid and your child’s heart soft. Children with soft hearts are more inclined to be good for those to whom they are attached … and to eventually mature to their full potential: the ultimate goal.
Tip 2: Bridge Separation
“Bridging” is a commonly used term by Dr. Neufeld and a tactic I often employ whenever separation is inevitable. During the pandemic, when we are now physically apart from many loved ones for the foreseeable future and face the added threat of being apart should COVID-19 take hold, bridging separation is a way of keeping other key adults in the adoptee’s world close—birth parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, and cousins.
In this regard and during a pandemic, technology and creativity come in handy. In our home right now, this looks like regular online lessons led by grandparents, regular virtual family reunions, and shared meals over Zoom. While it’s not the same as in-person connection, cultivating such bridges to other caring adults and loved ones is especially meaningful at this time.
There is the added benefit of extending the village of attachment for my children and easing some of the heavy lifting from my shoulders. It also reinforces that caring comes in the form of hierarchy—where my children are looking up to other elders for information and guidance.
Most significant, though, through my lens as an adoptee, is the way this bridging reduces separation for me. I am keeping loved ones close. I’m finding ways to hold on to the rest of our family members, so that in turn my children feel the security and rest in knowing that we are ALL holding on to them during this hard time.
Tip 3: Connection Makes Separation More Tolerable
The closure of schools has us all schooling-at-home, and if we’re working parents, we’ve been dealt the unrealistic task of accomplishing both at the same time—or compromising sleep in order to tackle multiple roles each day. This isn’t sustainable for the long-haul and unless we are super-human, we will not be able to excel at both homeschooling and working as if it’s business as usual. We can’t be perfect employees and perfect parents—it wasn’t possible before the pandemic disrupted life as we knew it, and it’s glaringly impossible now.
So how to prioritize? Add in more time for one-on-one connection with your child, with you in a leadership role.
Adoptees are masters at picking up on disconnection, which we can be quick to read as rejection. As I mentioned in Part 1, a lot of adoptees are also prone to feeling our survival is completely up to us. If we feel a need to defend against vulnerable feelings due to feeling rejected, or if we sense a leadership or caring lapse, our brains will tell us that we need to take charge.
Tip 4: Maintain Your Role as the Leader
But now is not the time to cede your leadership role to an adopted child, no matter how scattered the pandemic may make you feel pulled in too many directions. Even if an adoptee’s energy seems strong and dominating, it’s coming from a deeply insecure place—a sense of overwhelm at the separation and alarm being experienced.
This doesn’t mean you have to push aside everything else. But intentionality in your day-to-day connection will ensure it doesn’t slip by the wayside during this chaotic, unsettling season. “A child who experiences closeness in the form of emotional or psychological intimacy is much more able to tolerate separation,” according to Dr. Neufeld.1
Preparing your child’s favorite dish, picking out a great book to read together every day, teaching your child to garden or play an instrument, or going on walks together—just a few ideas of ways you can assume responsibility for helping your child hold on to you … and have some fun, in the process!
You CAN Turn Separation into Connection
Separation is unavoidable—even more so right now in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic. We are all feeling pangs of separation, but adoptees will need particular care and support in this regard because separation has already affected us so deeply. Adoption is the result of a profound separation, after all.
But with an eye on reducing additional separation, separation does not have to be an ongoing source of relational frustration and can instead offer opportunities for your child to more vulnerably attach to you … for a much deeper, satisfying, and long-lasting connection between you and your child.
Sara Easterly is the author of Searching for Mom: A Memoir, a gold medal winner of the Illumination Book Awards. Her essays and articles have been published by Dear Adoption, Psychology Today, Feminine Collective, Her View From Home, Godspace, Neufeld Institute, and the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI).
Sara is mom to two tenacious daughters and daughter of two amazing moms—both her adoptive mom and her birth mother. She enjoys supporting mothers in their journeys and has a passion for helping the non-adopted better understand the hearts of adopted children. Find her online at www.saraeasterly.com.
1 Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D., “Working with Stuck Kids,” Neufeld Intensive I: Making Sense of Kids (home study guide, Neufeld Institute, Vancouver, BC), 57.
Along These Lines
- Parenting an Adoptee during the Covid-19 Pandemic, Part 1 — by Sara Easterly
- I Want My Real Mom! — by Sara Easterly
- The Happy/Sad of Adoption — guest post about paradox & complexity
- Connected in Crisis: list of resources for families from the Karyn Purvis Institute for Child Development regarding Covid-19
Lori Holden, mom of a teen son and a teen daughter, writes from Denver. Her book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole, is available through your favorite online bookseller and makes a thoughtful anytime gift for the adoptive families in your life. Lori was honored as an Angel in Adoption® in 2018 by the Congressional Coalition of Adoption Institute.