Welcome back to Adopted, Now What?
In this episode, Becky Walker talks about children’s needs between two years of age and six years of age. The two to six year period also has a theme on our needs chart. That theme is reliability. the There are eight foundational needs listed in the chart. Then there are seven interactive needs. She talks about each and every one of these needs in this episode.
Listen to the Episode here:
Children’s Needs; Two to Six Years
Today, I’m going to continue the discussion about children’s needs development from birth to seventeen years of age. We started this discussion in podcast number seven where I talked about children’s needs between birth and two years of age. Today, we’ll continue to the needs between two years of age and six years of age. First, I’ll pause and share what I’m grateful for at this moment, that is stability. Specifically, I’m grateful to my late parents, Henry and Bernice Walker, for the fact that they provided me with stability, with a stable and consistent home life while I was a child. The more that I coach and work with individuals, parents and families, the more I recognize just how important stability is to our emotional selves.
As I mentioned a moment ago, I started a discussion about children’s needs in podcast number seven. I referred to an excellent chart developed by my friend Bill Stierle. It is titled General Needs Development. It sounds a bit dry, doesn’t it? It’s anything but that. It’s rich with information that is very important for us as parents. Because of that, I’m attaching it to this podcast so you can print a copy and post it on your refrigerator. You’re going to want to keep it there until your child’s at least eighteen years of age.
As a reminder, this chart is divided into five periods of a child’s life. These are birth to two years, which we talked about last time. The others are two to six years, six to ten years, ten to fourteen years and finally, fourteen to seventeen years. The chart presents 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 a child’s life so that by the time they reach age eighteen, they are ready or are very close to being ready to make a normal transition into adulthood.
As another reminder, there are 61 specific needs listed on the chart. These are spread across the five age groupings that I just mentioned. For the period of birth to two years of age, we talked about meeting basic foundational survival needs; including shelter, food, water, air, rest and physical safety. We talked about the interactive needs that are also essential to this period of life. These include nurturing, bonding, comfort, love, touch and affection and finally, acceptance. The fulfillment of these is important to the ability of a child to attach to its primary caregivers, generally the mother and father.
In her book, Keys to Parenting an Adopted Child, Dr. Kathy Lancaster says the following: “Attachment is critical in children’s development. Their feelings of attachment to special people in the world around them influence their socialization, their intellectual development and their identity formation.” She goes onto say, “In nature, the primary goal of attachment is the safekeeping and protection of the vulnerable.”
My own adoption experience with my daughter who came from Russia when she was six years old, was severely impacted by her ability to attach to me. Attachment difficulties are not unusual in situations where children have spent their early years, and by this, I’m talking about the same period of birth to two years, in an orphanage, like my daughter did. The effects of a lack of nurturing, comfort, touch and affection during this very young age can be palpable.
Now, let’s move to the next age bracket, which is the primary subject of our discussion today. That is the period of two years of age to six years of age. Just like the earlier age bracket had a theme, remember it was survival. The two to six year period also has a theme on our needs chart. That theme is reliability. What is reliability? My good old Webster’s College Dictionary says, “Reliability is the quality or state of being reliable.” We need a little more here. Reliable means being relied on or dependable. Now, we’re getting somewhere. Because that takes us to a meaning of being depended on confidently. I like it. Reliability translates into the quality of being depended on with confidence. Wow, confidence.
This is what’s at stake during this period of emotional development in a child’s life. This is when they learn to have confidence, which is defined as trust and faith. Confidence, trust, faith. Those are mighty words. Clearly, this is an important period of time in a child’s development.
A quote from the author Paulo Coelho speaks to this subject. It says, “None of us knows what might happen even the next minute, yet still we go forward because we trust, because we have faith.” If the development of the emotional maturity blocks related to reliability, to confidence, trust and faith is missing, is weak, is not fully formed and experienced, then there is likely to be trouble in some part of the individual’s life. At worst case, throughout their entire life.
Let’s look at the needs that make up this reliability development period more closely. Just like in the first age bracket, the needs in the two to six years of age bracket are divided into foundational needs and interactive needs. Let’s look at the foundational needs first, there are eight listed in the chart. They are: learning, stimulation, creativity, value or validation, empathy, certainty, play or discovery and self-worth. I’ll go through each one of these.
The first need is learning, to gain knowledge or understanding by study, instruction or experience, to find out, to acquire knowledge. We often say that children are like sponges, soaking up everything that they see and experience.
Let me pause to say that these are not in a specific order. When I say first, second and so on, I’m just listing the fact that there are eight. I’m not ranking one in importance over the other. Someone else, someone who does research in childhood development may have an order figured out, but I’m not purporting to present an order of importance here.
The second need is stimulation. This is to make active or to make more active. The idea of stimulation makes me think of the old horror stories about orphanages in east European countries where children would languish in cribs with no interaction with other children, with just the barest minimum of touch by their caregivers, virtually devoid about side stimulation.
The third need is creativity, the ability to bring something into existence. I’d like to be the proverbial fly on the wall of the brain of a child the first time that child grasps a crayon and drags it across a piece of paper. What happens? It creates a colored line on that paper. Something that did not exist before now exists because that child did something. The first time a child uses a crayon will probably be before its two years old, but the issue is the connection between the fact that it dragged the crayon across the paper and something appeared that wasn’t there before. What power is that?
The fourth need is value or validation. These are about worth and importance and compelling consideration and importance in others.
The fifth need is empathy. Empathy is the capacity for experiencing another’s feelings as one’s own. Some people may debate the ability of a child to actually have empathy for another person. I was told by an acquaintance that is a well-respected instructor in the use of empathy that the ability to demonstrate empathy does not develop until early to mid-20s in age. I can understand her position on this because, in my experience, the ability to have empathy for another requires a certain self-awareness on our own part. Therefore, when I think of a need for empathy during the ages of two to six, I see this as a need to receive empathy. A compassion that caregiver will certainly have the capacity to empathize with the feelings of a small child.
The sixth need is certainty. This is the quality or state of being certain, of having evidence supporting a belief. Those are some pretty big concepts. Evidence, does a young child have evidence of something? Belief, does a young child really have beliefs? I think the answer is yes to both. They’re unlikely to be able to articulate their evidence and beliefs, but it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. In fact, mouse studies done that model separation of a mouse baby from the birth mouse mother and the addition of other stress or traumas support that the baby mouse will modify its behavior and demonstrate self-survival and self-protective strategies. In this case, the evidence would be that birth mother is no longer present and/or that the baby is experiencing stress. That results in a belief that its world is not safe and that it must do something to protect itself.
Certainty can be developed about both positive and negative things. If a child has been fed, protected physically, nurtured, comforted, accepted, touched affectionately in its first two years of life and that child continues to live with stability, emotional safety, positive stimulation and the meeting of its other key needs, it will have a belief, a certainty that the adults in its life will keep it safe, that they want him or her and that he or she is loved. On the other hand, if those early needs are not met, the child will have an opposite belief, a different certainty. This being the belief or certainty that adults will not protect it, that it is not safe and that it must protect itself.
The seventh need is play or discovery. Play is the spontaneous activity of children and discovery is finding out what one did not previously know. I’m completely fascinated by how children explore further and further outside of themselves into the world around them. They put everything into their mouths, don’t they? Their fingers, toes, toys, everything. Discovery after discovery.
The last need in our foundational list for this age group is self-worth. Obviously, this is so important. I’m defining self-worth as a proper satisfaction with one’s own personal value. It’s heart wrenching to see a child struggle so hard because they want so much to belong, to be liked by their peers and other people, yet their belief of their own unworthiness sabotages their attempts to have the connection they crave. It breaks my heart to look back at statements that my own adopted daughter wrote to me such as this: “Most of the time I feel shame, though I say to myself, ‘Why? What did I do wrong?’ Then I say, ‘Oh, who cares? I shouldn’t and I won’t.'” Unfortunately, when she wrote that, my way of responding was to try to build up her self-esteem, to tell her she was wrong, to say that she had nothing to be ashamed of. Even though I meant well, to deny her what she was telling me she was feeling.
Today, I know that a better response would’ve been for me to empathize with her, to let her fully and freely talk about her beliefs about herself, about her pain and about her feelings. But I was so interested in her not feeling bad about herself that I took the tact of trying to make her feel positive. That’s not what she needed from me. She needed me to listen and hold a space of healing for her with empathy. I have come to understand the power of empathy. I understand what an essential tool it is in interactions. It is so important that I will explore that subject more in other podcasts.
We’ve looked at all of the foundational needs for the two to six year age bracket. Now, let’s turn our attention to the interactive needs. There are seven. They are: choice or autonomy, being heard, care, stability, emotional safety, clarity and trust. The lack of fulfillment of these needs shows up a lot in situations in which an adopted child is displaying disruptive behaviors.
Let’s start with the need for choice and autonomy. Choice is having options or preferences that one can select from. It’s the power or right to choose. Autonomy is basically freedom and independence, which morphs into self-governance. The phenomenon of a child wanting to manifest its will and have choice shows up prominently when the child grows physically and moves further and further away from its caregiver as it explores its world. The response of “No” appears. This is an expression of a desire for choice, wanting to do things on its own that the caregiver used to do. We hear them say, “I want to do it myself,” to warn us as caregivers that the normal desire and need for independence and autonomy has arrived. The terrible twos is sometimes used to describe the appearance of these needs.
I have a young acquaintance that is three years old. When he’s asked or told to do something that he’s not interested in, he screws up his face, folds his little arms and stomps his little right foot forcefully on the floor. He wants choice. I encourage adoptive parents to be very aware of the issue of choice. This is extremely important because while the need for choice is important for every child, consider the fact that an adopted child may be struggling with a lot of loss. Loss of the birth mother, loss of siblings, loss of a name, a location, sometimes a nationality and language. The other end of the process, the placement, adoption, move to a new home, new town, even a new country.
If their sense of loss has not been acknowledged and processed, it can manifest itself as a lack of cooperation, as a resistance to acceptance of how things are now. The older the child at placement and the more instability and loss he or she has endured, the greater the belief that he or she never gets a choice can be. They’ve given up a lot. They didn’t get to choose. The opportunity to have choice is important, as is the acknowledgement and confirmation with that child that he or she is unhappy about the lack of choice, about the major events that have occurred in his or her life.
The next need is being heard. This is such a universal need. Being heard is having the awareness or attention of another person for what we have to say. It seems so simple. Much of the time, I find in myself and with others that are feeling an emotional strongly such as frustration, sadness or anger, that one of the things that is the most helpful is just to be heard. This is the place where the act of empathy that I mentioned earlier comes in. In the heat of the moment, it can be hard to do this, but I see over and over the value and the power of just shutting my mouth and listening to what the other person has to say. The very act of stopping and listening delivers the message that the other person has value, that what they have to say matters, that they matter. Hearing our children is one of the best things we can do for them and for our relationship with them.
The next need is care, which is having interest or concern for another. We demonstrate that we care for another person by giving them our watchful attention. There is security and comfort in the idea that someone has our back. Human babies are completely dependent on caregivers for survival and they need our watchful attention. Responding to a cry to see what is needed, checking to see what happened when there is an unexpected loud noise. Even checking when there has been no noise for a period of time. Kissing a booboo even if there is no actual cut or injury. These are all part of demonstrating interest and concern.
A challenge on this can come when we have an adopted child that is dealing with past trauma. That child may resist, scowl at us, roll their eyes and otherwise reject our watchful attention. But that does not mean that they don’t actually want it. In fact, it’s probably an indicator that they have a great need for it. Remember, if that child’s reality to that point is that they have lived without attentive care, they’ve probably developed a strategy for taking care of themselves and self-soothing. But your loving care, your attentive watchfulness will not be lost on them. It may just take a while for them to accept it for what it is and maybe even longer for them to acknowledge it. Even if all you do when you check on them is to say something like, “I’m glad you’re okay,” that will make a difference. They may just not let you see it for a while, but don’t give up.
The next need is stability. What is stability? It’s something that is not changing or fluctuating. It is lasting, permanent, steady and constant. Again, this can be a huge need for adopted children and it’s easy to see why. At the time of birth, a baby has lived in a pretty stable environment as its surroundings have been the same. The heartbeat of the mother has been constant for its entire life. Birth disrupts that stable environment, but then that newborn baby is laid at the breast of its mother and that familiar heartbeat is still there and comforting and stability continues. When that baby does not return to its mother or when it is separated days, weeks or months later, there is instability in its world. This then becomes compounded by being placed with a new mother or caregiver. “Where is that old environment? Where is that only heartbeat I ever knew?”
Thankfully, we know that many babies make this transition very successfully and adapt easily or relatively easily into the environment, the closeness, the security and stability of their new caregiver. It’s a wonderful circumstance when a baby is born, placed with new parents, and adapts quickly to its new environment. But as adoptive parents, especially of older children, we must be aware that stability is likely to be an issue for them. If a child has been moved and moved, especially in situations such as the foster care system, they are unlikely to have had many experiences that have given them a sense of stability. They will need time and experience to develop a feeling of stability.
Emotional safety is the next need. Our emotions are mental reactions experienced as feelings that are usually accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body. That’s the technical way of describing it. It is important to live in an environment where we are free to experience emotions that are appropriate to the situations we are experiencing without fear of injury or punishment for having those feelings.
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, that’s NSPCC.org.uk, they say on their website that emotional abuse of a child is the ongoing emotional maltreatment or emotional neglect of a child. It’s sometimes called psychological abuse and can seriously damage a child’s emotional health and development. Emotional abuse can involve deliberately trying to scare or humiliate a child or isolating or ignoring them. Wikipedia indicates that such abuse is characterized by a person subjecting or exposing another person to behavior that may result in psychological trauma, including anxiety, chronic depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.
The next need is clarity. This is having clearness, having freedom from doubt, having communications that are not vague, but rather are easily understandable. The last need is trust, which is an assured reliance on the character, ability, strength or truth of someone or something. In order to truly have a connected relationship with another person that is mutually satisfactory and meets our needs for reciprocity, trust must exist in that relationship. Trust does not exist in the absence of vulnerability. Vulnerability, the exposure of one’s self to the possibility of being physically or emotionally injured is extremely difficult, even impossible if the person does not feel safe.
A major objective of the parent of a traumatized child must be the creation of opportunities for the child to be vulnerable, to take a chance, to risk revealing their feelings. How do we do this? Brené Brown said in a video done as part of the SuperSoul Sessions that research supports that trust is built by small insignificant moments. I think this is good news because it means that we don’t need elaborate events to allow trust to be developed, rather it happens in the small day to day moments.
These are the times that we as parents are present over and over and over again. It’s the small acts of remembering and honoring the tiny likes and dislikes of our child. It’s kissing the booboos, it’s remembering how I like the edges to be trimmed off my sandwich, it’s reaffirming devotion by saying out loud, even in the middle of the roughest moments, “I love you. I’m glad you are my daughter. God gave me the best gift ever when He brought you to me. I am the luckiest mom in the world. No matter what you do, I will always love you.” These are the things that lead to trust.
I’ve talked a lot today and I’m so glad you stuck with me through this long list of needs. I hope it has impressed on you just how important and formative the two to six years of age period is in our children’s lives. I hope you’ve realized how connected these needs are. That having the ability to learn, play and discover and to develop with a belief of self-worth is very closely tied to being in an environment that provides choice, stability, emotional safety and the opportunity to develop trust. These needs are interlocked one with another. The strength or weakness of the development of one need can directly impact the development of another.
I hope this has helped you to understand that even though you may have adopted your child when he or she was very small, they may have already been significantly impacted by their key needs not having been met. Ours is the job of exploring these needs and being watchfully attentive to whether or not our child needs assistance with these key needs.
As we end this session, I want to say how grateful I am that you are there for your adopted child, helping him or her by providing an emotionally safe, stable and loving environment in which he or she can have the opportunity to fill in the gaps in their own needs development related to reliability. Thank you for listening. Join us next time when we’ll examine the needs development for the period of six to ten years of age. I look forward to being with you again.
- Lancaster, Kathy, Keys To Parenting An Adopted Child. Barron’s, 2009
- National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC.org.uk)
- Attachment: “General Needs Development” chart
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