emotional age vs. chronological age (adoption/foster)

emotioanl age vs chronological age
Evan lay in his room, screaming and pounding his fists on the floor, his feet slammed against his door. His mom, Talia, looked out the window, sure her neighbors could hear everything and imagined what they were thinking.

She couldn’t believe he was behaving this way, he was eight-years-old and acting worse than a toddler, the rages were catastrophic. Evan joined their family through adoption nine months ago and she’d expected him to grow out of this stage, especially with the constant love they all showed him, the toys, bed, nice room, good food, sport activities, and so much more. Hadn’t he bonded yet?

Why was it all taking so long?

Evan did well in school, he’d caught up so quickly because they’d worked with him. There were battles with that too, but nothing like these setbacks when Evan didn’t feel he was in charge.

Talia was noticing the gap between Evan’s emotional age and his chronological age.

Talia was expecting Evan’s emotional age to be in line with his chronological age, and that won’t happen when a child’s been neglected, abused, and traumatized. This image (courtesy of Dr. Bruce Perry and his studies) shows how significantly smaller the size of the traumatized child’s brain is versus the child who wasn’t traumatized. (If you’re a frequent reader here, you’re tired of hearing this – the size of their brain doesn’t mean it can’t grow, learn, and excel. It doesn’t mean your child can’t hear you, understand how you feel, or that they aren’t aware of the world around them.)

Because of trauma, your child’s age will not determine their abilities in any area. If a child is six-years-old, you can’t expect their emotional state to be equal to their age. You may have behaviors that range from infantile to age appropriate.

Even though there are gaps between your child’s emotional, mental, physical, and chronological age, you can still meet them where they are in each area. Your child may be very smart and able to do seventh grade algebra at age ten, so meet him where he is academically. His emotional state may not be that of a ten-year-old, but that doesn’t mean you can’t give him educational opportunities.

Your ten-year-old may exhibit behaviors of a three-year-old, so emotionally you would meet him where he needs it. You can hold him and rock him to help meet his need at that three-year-old level.
grow your child where they're succeeding

Meeting your child where they are can be done through Floortime, which is explained further at The Greenspan Floortime Approach. “Floortime meets children where they are and builds upon their strengths and abilities through interacting and creating a warm relationship. It challenges them to go further and to develop who they are…” I love every point in this statement about Floortime. In my post, Let’s Bond Already – Creating Attachment with an Adopted Child, I explain each of these points in more detail and give ideas on how to use this technique with older children.

As your child heals and bonds, his chronological and emotional age will become more equal,

you’ll see the gap between the two begin to close. Your child may always be more attuned to their world than a typical child, they may be able to tell you how to get across town to your friend’s house, or surprise you with their ability to recall events. This is because they were forced to protect themselves and possibly siblings when they were with their bio family. Their brain was catapulted into survival mode, and it’s possible part of it will always be there, overly conscious of their world. It’ll subside quite a bit as they move farther from the trauma, and are cared for by loving parents, but you can view this as something that will benefit them in the future.

As your child heals, they will have times of regression. Triggers will send them back to what they experienced before joining your family. Triggers are moments, experiences, memories, or events that remind them of a part of their traumatic experience. Your child will also exhibit negative behaviors and emotional regression when they feel out of control, which reminds them of their past.

In Dr. Bruce Perry’s book he shares the story of Sandy who witnessed her mother’s murder. When Sandy went to her foster home, she would loss it completely at certain times during the day. It took the family a while to figure out what the trigger was, but finally, after paying very close attention, they found Sandy had a meltdown every time she saw milk. The milk was a trigger because when her mother lay on the floor after being stabbed, Sandy tried giving her milk. That wasn’t the only trigger for her, but it gives you an idea of why our hurting children regress and in turn their emotional state deteriorates.

A child who experiences trauma such as Sandy did may be able to communicate well, and function fairly well within the family, but her emotional state will be compromised greatly when a trigger presents itself. She may start blubbering, not be understood, unable to communicate any feelings or thoughts.

In the beginning of this post Talia asked questions pertaining to how much they’d given Evan, how long it was taking him to bond, and how long it would take his behavior to be permanently changed. Here are some posts relating to those issues Talia is struggling with, and maybe the same questions you are asking about your child:

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5 responses to “emotional age vs. chronological age (adoption/foster)

  1. We adopted our daughter just two months past her 14th birthday and right away after we got her she started exhibiting infantile tendancies by sucking her thumb,crying for now reason,wetting her pants and bed and talking baby talk.For her wetting,we put her into cloth diapers and rubberpants 24/7 which she told us she wanted to wear along with tee shirts as her top.Next she wanted a pacifier so we got her one and she started using it constantly instead of sucking her thumb.We felt that this was just a phase she was going thru since she was newly adopted and we were understanding of her behavior.To our surprise,her infantile behavior went on for over a year until after she turned 15 and started acting more like a normal teen age girl

    • It does seem like a long time, but think of all she missed out on as a child. It does help some of them to go back to that infantile stage. It sounds like she realized she didn’t want to go on like that and some reality probably set in. I’m glad she’s doing better and you did GREAT by helping her through it.

  2. One of our regular respite children came to us at age 10, but really only about age 6. It took a while to figure that out, but made life so much easier once we were able to meet her at her level. It can be really hard at times still because we could be having a discussion with the 12 year old and all of a sudden she’ll be chatting like a 7 year old again and we’re left scratching our heads, but, those times are slowly becoming less and less frequent.

  3. Reblogged this on Stuck on Social Work and commented:
    Great article with really good resources!

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