Separation Anxiety in the Adopted Child: Growth and Progress

Separation Anxiety in the Adopted Child: Growth and Progress

K spent the night out last night, and she didn't fell the need to call me at bedtime.  In fact, when I called the friend's house this morning to check on how things went, the mom told me that K was doing great.  "I was watching her," the mom reassured me, "to see if she was doing okay.  And she was fine!  You know how you can just tell when they are okay?  Well, she was okay, totally okay, so we didn't call you last night."

For some parents, this news may be no big deal.  For us, it is a source of unending joy and pride in how far our daughter has come.  I know a lot of you are new to Portrait, so here is the text of a post I wrote two years ago, in the winter of 2011, about K's separation anxiety.  Check it out, and then we'll pick things back up:

Last month, I left the three girls alone for an evening with their dad for the first time since C was born.  Yes, apparently, it took seven months before Andrew was in charge of dinner, bath and bedtime without me (this in and of itself could be a post).  But I digress.

I was headed downtown to DePaul to guest lecture at a Social Media class.  Andrew was very excited about his evening with the girls.  He left work early, because I needed him home by 4:30.  Shortly after he walked in the door, I raced out, blowing kisses to the girls.

Four hours later, I called home to see how the night went.  "It was a disaster," Andrew lamented, his voice defeated.

"What happened?" I asked. "Did C cry a lot?"

"No, C was great," he responded.  "She drank almost two ounces of her bottle (a lot for C) and went right to sleep."

"Was A impossible?" I wondered.

"Not too bad," he said.  "She ran away, as usual, when I tried to put on her ointments and she didn't want to get out of the bath, but she cooperated eventually."

"The problem," he said definitively, "was K.  She was awful.  She missed you and she wailed and moaned and sobbed for you and refused to do anything I asked.  She had a total meltdown because you weren't here, and nothing I tried was effective.  I was really looking forward to this night, and it was so disappointing."

We talked some more, and I could hear how dejected Andrew was.  K has a long history of separation anxiety when I am away from her.  It has generally improved in the past year, so I was not expecting her to have such a strong reaction to my being out for the night.  I had talked with her about the fact that I would not be around for bedtime, but apparently I did not prepare her adequately enough.

"I think it is still related to her adoption," I told Andrew.

"Yeah," he agreed.  "It was really interesting.  At one point when she was crying and ranting about you being gone, she said something about how 'she lives so far away' and I knew at that moment she was also talking about M (her birthmother), but then she said nothing more about it and went back to talking about Mama."

When I got home, I went up to K's room and held her close.  She fell asleep, and the next day all was well.  In the morning, I talked with her about how she had been feeling, and we seemed to work through it.

Until this weekend.

A has been sick since Wednesday.  All day Thursday and Friday, she ran a high fever.  On Friday night, I called the pediatrician's office (we had been in to see the doctor Thursday morning) to tell them that her fever was now above 105.  "Take her to the ER," I was told.

We called Andrew's mom, Nancy, who came to stay with K and C.  There was not much time to sit with K and prep her for my absence.  I hastily threw a bag together, and Andrew carried A to the car.

Apparently, K took it pretty hard.

My mother-in-law told me that K collapsed in tears when we left, that she walked over to C, lay her head down on her 8-month-old sister, and sobbed.  I would say that 10% of her grief was worry about A, and 90% was distress that I was gone and she didn't know when I would be back.

(Diagnosis: scarlet fever.  A is responding to antibiotics and is on the mend).

K has a hard time with people leaving, and an even harder time with uncertainty around absences.  I am fairly confident that her adoption plays a major role in her separation anxiety.  Her angst is specifically directed towards separation from me, even though she has a wonderful, loving relationship with Andrew.

Fortunately, the outcome was positive.  K pulled it together much better this weekend than she did during her night with Andrew last month.

Andrew's dad, Ralph, also went over to our house to help, and the grandparents reported that K was able to compose herself completely within a short time.  At one point, Ralph (Papa) went upstairs to help Nancy with one of C's legendary explosive diapers, and when he came downstairs, K had taken it upon herself to set out plates and serve up the salmon for their dinner.  She listened; she was helpful; she cooperated.

On Saturday morning, I told her how proud I was of the way she managed. "It's okay to feel really sad and scared.  It's okay to cry and fall apart for awhile.  But then you did the right thing - you took a deep breath and kept going.  You were able to help yourself and take care of yourself, and Owo and Papa were there to take care of you, too."

I wanted K to see that she did okay without me there.  Next time I have to leave K, I will remind her of this weekend, of the time that she fell apart and then put herself back together.  Some separations will go well, and some will be disastrous, but it is nice to have this one as a teaching moment.  Ultimately, this separation was a chance for empowerment, and that is one of the best things for K.

Okay, back to the here and the now of 2013.  Two nights ago, K was in a state of elevated anxiety at bedtime.  Not panicked, not sobbing, but definitely close to tears and worried.  She was thrilled that she had been invited to spend the night the following night at a friend's house, but she was worried that she wouldn't be okay.

Andrew and I sat on her bed, and we reminded her of all the successful times she has separated from us, including the fact that she went to sleepaway camp for TWO WEEKS last summer!!!  We provided her with evidence of her resilience, but we also reassured her that she could call us at anytime during the sleepover if she needed to talk.

It is nothing short of astounding to witness a child's growth.  K is such a strong girl; she thought about our conversation and comforted herself with the knowledge that she would be okay.  I haven't seen her yet today-- because she is still at the friend's house-- but I can't wait to throw my arms around her and congratulate her on another successful separation.  My big beautiful girl, who is willing to walk away from me, knowing that she can always come back home.  As my adopted child learns to internalize her connection to home, separations become less scary.

Portrait of an Adoption is written by Carrie Goldman, author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.  

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