Welcome back to Adopted, Now What?
In this episode, Becky Walker talks about children’s foundational needs and interactive needs. She gives an overview of children’s needs divided into the five periods of a child’s life, then she goes into more detail about the various needs of a child during the first period, which is from birth to two years of age.
Listen to the Episode here:
Children’s Needs: Birth to Two Years
Let me start, as usual, with a statement of gratitude. I am immensely grateful that I had a childhood that always included one specific location, the home that I was raised in in Fort Smith, Arkansas. It is a reminder to me of the power of stability and belonging. I had both of those as a child. I am filled with gratitude by that fact.
In her book, Keys to Parenting an Adopted Child, Dr. Kathy Lancaster says the following, “Children’s signals are often difficult to interpret because children do not communicate skillfully with oral language. They communicate their needs, emotions and perceptions and misperceptions about the world through their behaviors. Adults have the responsibility of figuring out what the children are trying to communicate.” That quote is rich with guidance for us as adoptive parents. We are the explorers, the seekers, the discoverers of the feelings and needs of our adopted children.
They are like Hansel and Gretel leaving breadcrumbs throughout the twist and turns of the forest of their life. Breadcrumbs that they hoped would allow them to return home or that would lead them back to the place that they believe they were supposed to be. After all, the fairytale of Hansel and Gretel is a story of absence of the natural love and care of birth parents, and ultimately, of abandonment. While the story is cruel, and like many fairytales, reflective of the harsh realities of life during the time it was written, it provides us with this metaphor of the clues, the breadcrumbs the children left in the forest.
If we think of these breadcrumbs or clues in light of our adopted children today, we can see the breadcrumbs or clues that they leave for us in their behaviors. In the large, overt, impossible to miss behaviors. And very importantly, in the small, small behaviors; the gestures, the looks and the intonations of voice that they display to us, their adoptive parents, that are often invisible to other adults in their lives. Sometimes, they are even invisible to another caregiver in the same household, such as our spouse.
Adopted children have all experienced some amount of trauma. Why? Because, at the very least, the child has experienced separation from the birth mother for some reason. Other trauma can occur due to neglect, mistreatment, instability and/or insecurity.
I have a simple but wonderful chart originally developed by my friend, Bill Stierle. It is a chart that I share with my clients that are adoptive parents. I ask them to put it on their refrigerator and keep it in full view for reference for the first eighteen years of their adopted child’s life. In fact, this chart is helpful as a reference for all parents for those first eighteen years. It is titled General Needs Development. It is divided into five periods of a child’s life. These are: birth to two years, two to six years, six to ten years, ten to fourteen years, and the fifth period, fourteen to seventeen years.
This chart represents foundational needs and interactive needs of children and indicates when, during the first eighteen years of life, the specific needs should be present, fulfilled and become part of the physical and emotional architecture of the child’s life. So that by the time they reach age eighteen, they are ready or very, very close to being ready and equipped to make the normal age appropriate transition into adulthood.
A word of caution here, this chart and the ages that the various needs should become fulfilled and active is based on a child’s getting the nurturing and support it needs throughout the stages. In other words, the needs are developed on schedule, if you will, or very close to being on schedule. Bear in mind that if a child is delayed in developing needs initially, they may be delayed in getting to emotional maturity by perhaps two to five years.
There are 61 specific needs listed on this chart, so there’s quite a bit of granularity. We have a lot of needs as humans. Over time, I’ll be exploring most of these needs in various podcasts. Today, I’ll just be starting. The 61 individual needs are divided into the five age brackets that I mentioned earlier. Each age bracket has a developmental theme.
As you’ll recall, the first age bracket is birth to two years. Logic alone tells us this is an extremely important time of life. Recent neural research and findings reinforced this as fact, providing data on the direct impact on children, extending to significant impact throughout the life of an individual, of a shortfall in the needs development at this very early age.
In fact, the importance of the meeting of the key needs at this birth to two years timeframe helps explain something that has puzzled many adoptive parents that have adopted a child into their lives and love shortly after birth. They can feel puzzled because even though they’re nurturing and caring for this little life from only weeks or months into its life, it may still show some effect from being separated from its birth mother or from not being held and responded to sufficiently early on.
Tina Traster spoke of this phenomenon in her book, Rescuing Julia Twice, when she said, “The research says young children who were cut off from their mothers early in their lives display these kinds of behaviors because they instantly learn the world is a cold, untrustworthy, uncaring place even if they’ve had a caregiver. They feel like this because most of their urgent needs either had to wait or were never met.”
What are the needs that should be met from birth to two years? I think all of these are going to make sense to you. Remember, I said each age bracket has a theme? For birth to two years, the developmental theme is survival. That makes sense, doesn’t it? Our sweet little human babies are helpless. They are dependent on caregivers for all of their needs. There are a couple of exceptions. Human babies do breathe and get air on their own, a baby will fall asleep and rest on its own, and of course, a baby eliminates waste on its own. All of those other physical needs in which their lives depend are provided by someone else. These include: food for nourishment, water, shelter and physical safety. Even that elimination of waste thing is not entirely independent because changing diapers and cleansing is needed to prevent significant skin and irritation issues.
Just as important to healthy development and survival as those physical needs is the foundation and fulfillment of basic emotional needs. These are so important. We can think of them as the foundation stones for the emotional maturity of our child. Using this metaphor of foundation stones, you can imagine that they need to be substantial, well-formed and-all present because absence or weakness in any or all of these becomes a problem. Because all of those subsequent age brackets have their own building blocks or needs blocks, and they will be stacked on top of these foundational needs established between birth and two years of age.
Like any structure, if the foundation is weak, the rest of the structure built on top of it is likely to have some areas where there are cracks, or there’s no way to securely position additional blocks, or it might lack an adequate amount of steadiness such that the resilience to the difficulties of life may be iffy for the individual as life goes on.
Back to those all important needs between birth and two years old that set the foundation for this emotional maturity. There are six I’ll mention today that are listed on the chart. They are: nurturing, bonding, comfort, love, touch and affection, and acceptance. I’m going to go through each of these, considering what the presence or fulfillment of each provides. I’ll also mention consequences of their absence.
First, nurturing, which means caring for, feeding and protecting. Other words that can describe this need include sustenance, instruction and training. The opposites of nurturing are ignoring and neglecting. Sometimes it can be in these opposite descriptions that we get the most clarity about what is needed and the impact. I’ll talk more about this later.
The next need in this birth to two year period is bonding. From a psychological point of view, bonding is defined as a relationship that usually begins at the time of birth between a parent and offspring and that establishes the basis for an ongoing mutual attachment.
I was amazed when I first heard the idea that a newborn baby can experience separation anxiety or trauma even if it is taken immediately at birth and placed on the chest, the heart, of its adoptive mother. Why? The theory I read was that the baby has lived its entire life to that point hearing and feeling the particular rhythm of the heartbeat of its birth mother. When separated from that heartbeat and not returned to it, the baby’s brain automatically says, “Hold on a doggone second, something has changed. The environment that I was most familiar with, that I was accustomed to, the sound and feeling that represented belonging and therefore safety, is gone. What am I supposed to do now?” That baby’s brain can begin to figure out how to adapt. Don’t get me wrong. Those aren’t thoughts that the baby forms, but our brains are pretty magical in taking care of us and adapting to the things that we need.
Let’s pause there. Let me say that the majority of adoptive mothers that I talk to experience their adopted babies quickly relaxing into and responding to the comfort that they receive. The point is, if that bonding does not occur early, it can result in some situations that can be puzzling if you don’t know what may be at play. In some instances, bonding with an adopted infant can be elusive at first and requires time to develop. This likelihood is increased the more weeks or months there are between birth and placement in the adoptive home.
I always want to be careful here because my aim is not ever to scare off prospective adoptive parents. We need many, many more. But rather to say, let’s be informed and aware so that we don’t waste time on counterproductive thoughts and assumptions that can occur to us, as adoptive parents, when the initial responsiveness of an adopted child may not be what we expected it to be.
Notice that in the definition of bonding that I read, there is a mention of attachment. The bond or the relationship between the child and the caregiver establishes the basis for an ongoing mutual attachment. Let’s focus a second on that word attachment, because this is talked about a lot these days in the adoption world. You may have heard of reactive attachment disorder or RAD. I first became aware of the issues with attachment in adopted children that have experienced trauma when I began reading a blog written by Jodi Bean, an adoptive mother and author who has written that link about her experiences with her adopted daughter, Victoria. I was amazed because it was the first time I read descriptions of what I was experiencing with my own daughter.
There was a lot to say about attachment, and I will do that in future podcasts. Suffice it to say today that if bonding and attachment are not present in the birth to two year period, there will likely be issues later that show up in the behaviors of the child.
The next need in our list for the birth to two years period is comfort, which is to soothe, to console, reassure and to make physically comfortable. Remember earlier when I said an infant can eliminate bodily waste on its own? It can, but what if it lays in that waste for an extended period of time? This happens for some infants. What if it lays in its poo over a long time, every time? What happens? Is it content? Not likely. Just being able to eliminate waste, which the child can do naturally, is not enough. There is the added element which can only be provided by an attentive caregiver to make the baby physically comfortable.
Do you begin to hear the essential message here? Human babies require more than just meeting of physical needs. As essential to survival as those are, they also have essential interactive needs that lay the foundation for future emotional maturity and thriving in relationship with others.
The next need is love. What is love? In this context, I offer the idea that love is a profoundly tender and warm personal attachment. There’s that attachment word again. A profoundly tender and warm personal attachment of one person to another. Other words that expand this idea of a parent’s love for a child include: affection, cherishing, enjoyment, devotion, tenderness, caring for, delight, holding dear, thinking the world of and treasuring. I can feel my own heart expand just in the act of saying those words out loud. When one has these feelings for another, the energy of those feelings resonate.
I heard a description recently by a brilliant teacher of Empathy Brain, Sarah Peyton, who described that two cellos can be sitting next to each other and if one is played, the other will vibrate. She indicated that, as humans, we are meant to be in relationship. This says to me that we are meant to be wrapped in the love of our primary caregivers, such that our beams resonate or vibrate with the energy of that love, of being cherished and cared for, of being treasured.
The next needs are touch and affection. Together, these needs paint a picture of putting a part of our body; a hand, a finger, a cheek, an arm, our lips in contact with another person with affection. To communicate that we care, to demonstrate closeness, concern, kindness, liking, love, tenderness and warmth. The last need for this birth to two year period of life is acceptance. The act of taking or receiving something offered. In this case, the receiving of favor and approval.
Earlier I said I would talk more about the opposite of the needs. I mentioned the opposites of nurturing, which include ignoring and neglecting. Opposites for some of the other needs that I’ve mentioned include the opposites of comfort, which include hurting, tormenting or torturing. The opposites of love and affection include dislike, hatred, disgust and animosity. Lastly, the opposite of acceptance, which is rejection.
When we find ourselves as people interested only in loving and nurturing our adopted children, it may seem unnecessary to go through this description of needs and their opposites. But actually, it’s quite essential that we do this because it has been demonstrated that when these essential foundational needs have not been met, even when they are not met within the first few weeks and months of life, a child can be negatively affected. We need to be intentional in our efforts to be on the alert for indications that a shortfall in these needs exists in our child.
The good news is, we are the perfect people to address these needs. Why? Because we love these children enough to educate ourselves. To be aware, to be on the lookout for the clues our adopted children give us. To take the actions, to help fill in the gaps when there are indications that these needs have not been met in the early childhood of our adopted children, because they can be shored up. We can help strengthen that brain architecture that lays the foundation for their emotional maturity.
To end today’s podcast, I am grateful for the research that has been done and is being done into early childhood trauma that helps us today have a better opportunity than ever before, to help our adopted children fill in the gaps in the building blocks of their emotional maturity.
Please join me for my next podcast, in which I will continue the discussion of needs and examine the next period of needs development, that period of two to six years of age. I look forward to being with you next time.
- Lancaster, Kathy, Keys To Parenting An Adopted Child. Barron’s, 2009, p. 41.
- Chart: General Needs Development, ©2008 Corporate Culture Development, ©2016 Beyond Adoptions, Created by Bill Stierle – BillStierle.com, Adapted with permission by Becky Walker – BeyondAdoptions.com
- Traster, Tina, Rescuing Julia Twice. Chicago Review Press, 2014.