Dealing with our child's anxiety-related need for total control
July 27, 2015 11:33 AM   Subscribe

Our adopted child has a crazy need for control and we're worried about how it will impact their socialization in school.

We adopted a great little 7-year-old a few months ago.
He/she is a great kid - very intelligent, and enthusiastic for life, but we feel that a lot of anxiety is fuelling this enthusiasm.

Do keep in mind, that it's only been about 4 months that our child has been with us, and we are completely aware that anxiety is indeed normal considering our child's history, and are ready to work with our child long-term.

Our immediate concern is the fact that our child will be starting school in September and we're worried that one of the manifestations of this anxiety - our child's crazy need for control - will result isolation from classmates.

For example our child:
  • only wants to play what he/she wants to play and refuses to compromise.
  • is very competitive and has to win 95% of the time and will cheat to win
  • will act mildly-aggressively toward other kids (i.e. splashing water gently, bopping with a balloon), but if the other child tries to "fight back" our child gets angry and doesn't want to play anymore

    If our child finds a friend who is 100% compliant then everything is great, but the minute the playmate starts thinking for himself/herself, then our kid leaves in a huff.

    Once our child starts school he/she will no longer be the center of attention and we'd like to make sure that our child moves toward being part of a group rather than withdrawing.

    Making things more complicated is that our child doesn't speak English yet, so there's going to be that additional stress and isolation for them, initially, while they learn the language.

    Maybe I'm overreacting and everything will work itself out, but I'd like to do what I can to help our child.

    What we've done/will do:
  • had discussions with a very supportive school principal
  • will speak with our child's kindergarten teacher once assigned
  • will speak to a psychologist on a regular basis
  • will try to find other kids who speak the same language as our child (via community centres, etc.)

    Again, we believe that this behaviour is normal considering their background, but any advice to help them work through the trauma and work their way toward self-esteem and security would be appreciated!
    We're also aware that some wounds can't be healed - so we're not trying to "fix" our child - but we also believe that the inability to socialize with peers can only be harmful in the long term - maybe we're wrong here too.

  • posted by bitteroldman to Human Relations (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
    I can weigh in with some thoughts but how does the child communicate with you and others?
    posted by kinetic at 11:42 AM on July 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

    First may I say, congratulations!

    My kid is like this, to a degree, minus the adoptive/second language background which I'm sure makes this more fraught for you. We're still working on it - he's currently seeing a therapist who has come right up to the ADHD line without an actual diagnosis (and probably would if we pressed her.) Once she started framing his issues in those terms, it helped me research coping methods & strategies.

    Notably, though, my kid is not like this in school at all, or at other people's houses - only on his turf or places where he feels comfortable. Perhaps given your kid's background he feels more territorial than usual? Have you had the opportunity yet to leave him other places? It may be too soon, but you might be surprised at how much better s/he acts in a neutral setting.

    Off the top of my head, what I try to do is 1) discourage games where people win/lose. 2) go places like the park where kids can play together or separately. 3) try not to get involved unless necessary. Let the kids work it out on their own. Sometimes that means hurt feelings, and that's so tough to watch regardless of if your kid is the giver or recipient of those hurt feelings but a part of figuring things out. I also try not to discipline in the moment because that makes it about a thousand times worse.

    It sounds like you have a thoughtful, caring approach, and that will help you in times to come. Enjoy your kid!
    posted by lyssabee at 11:55 AM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

    All of this sounds really normal to me as a parent whose kids aren't facing the same kinds of challenges as yours. And congratulations!

    I tend to parent with an eye towards letting children experience the natural consequences of their choices. So some of this might autocorrect on its own as your child learns, through trial and error, that if s/he cheats, other kids won't play that game with him/her, meaning child doesn't get to play game child wants, for example. Or, if child refuses to compromise, child won't get to play, which presumably child wants to do. Or, if child is aggressive, other children will respond in kind.

    What's key for me here is that I try not to intervene to fix the child's mistake or to mollify the natural consequences of their choices. If you splash a child at the pool, and that child splashes back, I won't mediate your conflict for you by talking to the other child on your behalf; nor will I take steps to then get in the pool and play with you now that the other children have decided they won't play with you. I also won't leave the pool with you to find another activity, now that you're frustrated. I freely admit that this is, of course, far easier when you can communicate in the same language as your child and can draw child's direct attention to how his/her behavior is affecting their playtime and relationships with other children.

    But maybe the material fact of consequences can be a language of its own, especially if it's part of your day-to-day parenting when the social unit is defined more by the immediate family than by a peer group. In our household, if the dynamic a child is cultivating with siblings/friends/me is causing conflict all morning long, we send that child to his/her room until child can come back into the fold in a better headspace and ready to make better choices. (Almost all of our conflicts are over social dynamics, so usually the consequence is to send someone/everyone to their room/s because that seems to us to best represent how alienating the behavior will be if exerted on future peer/support networks.) By imposing a consequence, we're hopefully showing our kids that their future peers, coworkers will make them feel the full force of the brunt of their choices. So our dynamics in our household try to model that fact of living in the real world, but with the safety net that comes with reminding our kids at the end of the day that we love them no matter what. But if we don't impose consequences for behavior that will most assuredly elicit consequences when our children aren't in the safe space of our familial unit, we're not doing them any favors.

    Talking to the principal and psychologist and teacher sound like great ideas to me. As does helping child find other children that speak his/her language. But also make sure that you're 1) modeling the fact that choices have consequences in your day to day lives and 2) avoiding cushioning child from the consequences of their choices in other situations. I especially think you can do this from a loving and nurturing mindset: a gentle commitment to helping your child learn how their actions are likely to play out when they're in social situations that are less forgiving than their family unit.
    posted by pinkacademic at 12:22 PM on July 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

    Our (now adult and not adopted) daughter was a lot like this at that age. It really helped us to keep the long-range goal in mind, to raise an independent, strong and confident woman who will plant her feet in the sand and stand up for herself, listen to and value her inner voice, and basically kick ass and take names, as we say in the south. The trick is to take her innate self-confidence (and that's really what this is) and teach her to use it to her advantage.

    Raising The Strong Willed Child is a good resource.

    (But I can tell you that junior high and high school are not easy for these girls, so be forewarned.)
    posted by raisingsand at 12:25 PM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

    Oh, gosh, more than normal for what she has been through, quite common with kids that age in general. It will be okay.

    Prepare flashcards to share with her classmates, so that they may ask her common questions. If you have the time, ask to volunteer in her class for the first couple of weeks, to teach the children some basic words in her language. She will pick up English faster if she sees that they are trying to communicate with her.

    It would be a nice if her teacher would put a few books in her native language in the reading corner.
    posted by myselfasme at 12:51 PM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

    Dark Matter of Love is a documentary about adopting 3 older kids from non-English backgrounds. They follow a family for a year as they adjust to each other. It was on Netflix and it was really good. Basically they had psychologists follow the family and micro-analyze family interactions in order to coach the parents on how to bond with these kids, and how to identify the little windows of opportunity that present themselves. Happy endings all around.
    posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:56 PM on July 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

    Response by poster: Thanks for all the thoughtful responses so far! And thanks so much for the best wishes!

    Will provide some more comments later, but I wanted to check in really quickly (the boss is dragging me out for a water balloon fight as we speak so I don't have much time!)

    I can weigh in with some thoughts but how does the child communicate with you and others?

    Our child is an excellent communicator and we get along very well - one of the things that helped is the fact that we both learned our child's language, so we were able to talk about feelings and life right away without the difficulty one might have when neither speak the same language.

    Our child sees me as the playmate while Mrs. Bitteroldman is the emotional support (hugs and kisses central). Our child also deals well with other adults and knows how to play them like instruments!

    Our child is very intimidated by other children, likely because of tough times at the orphanage. once he/she gets used to them (and gets to be the boss) then he/she is OK - if they are any less than 100% submissive, our child needs a lot more coddling to engage, and if they are strong-willed, our child will sit on the sidelines or hide behind us.

    I hope I don't sound like I'm complaining - this is an amazing child and I ask myself regularly what I did to deserve this great human being. But I think because of my difficulties with socialization (now and in my younger years), I am very paranoid because I see similar characteristics in my child as I had (although to a lesser degree).
    posted by bitteroldman at 1:30 PM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

    Heather Forbes, Tina Payne Bryson, and Dan Siegel all come to mind as 'experts' in this sort of situation. If you are not already connected with their work I recommend looking them up.
    You sound so committed and empathetic to your child- that's the work right there! the level of safety you are creating in your home and at school is going to address the need (relief from anxiety) instead of the behavior (controlling situations and playmates). The behavior will dissipate as the need gets met. It sounds like you are doing a great job of promoting connection and healing in your home!
    posted by Otis the Lion at 1:38 PM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

    Maybe you could set up some playdates with an older child who (with some coaching from you) would be willing to be more accommodating without being completely submissive. Our school regularly paired the kindergardeners up with a third grade "buddy" - that age difference worked well. Later, when my daughter was in middle school, she are hired as a "play buddy" for a younger child on the autistic spectrum who need to someone who was both understanding and not his mother to practice playing with.
    posted by metahawk at 1:40 PM on July 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

    Have you considered a Waldorf school? The curriculum deals a lot with developing healthy group dynamics and peer relationships. It also offers a lot of support to children who struggle with social interactions without singling them out or making them feel like a problem child. It's a hugely supportive system for kids, in a way that public school isn't always, and I often wish I had been able to attend one myself.
    posted by ananci at 2:06 PM on July 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

    First, congratulations! It sounds like you and your partner are already doing a great job parenting parenting! Your child sounds like a lot of fun, and it's really positive that you are open-minded and hopeful but also grounded and realistic.

    I have a feeling that you may already be doing this but are you following a very exact schedule every day, at least during the week? I'd create one, written both in English and your child's target language, and go over it frequently. Following the routine will help them feel more comfortable and confident over time as well as be even more prepared for kindergarten. Is your child also doing chores and helping around the house? If not, I'd add a few small ones because it'll make him/her feel a greater sense of belonging and empowerment. Of course, play is equally important but it sounds like you all are doing a lot of that already, which is awesome.

    Our child sees me as the playmate while Mrs. Bitteroldman is the emotional support (hugs and kisses central).

    This is an area that is perhaps totally fine already but I wanted to give you two something to consider since you asked. We do have our different roles, either intentional or not, but I'd also want to make sure that your child knows that you two are a team, that both of you are (or at least can be) playmates and emotional supports as well as disciplinarians, etc.

    Our child also deals well with other adults and knows how to play them like instruments!

    I think it's great that your child feels so comfortable around adults! That's really good. Knowing how to manipulate them? Ooh, that can be problematic as time goes on. I can see how it was somewhat of a survival skill for them growing up; being charming and have good social awareness is definitely a positive, no matter what our lives are like. However, I'd also really encourage your child to be direct and straightforward, especially when asking for stuff. I'd also encourage you to hold her/him accountable for this appropriate behavior: relying on charm is part of being a kid and necessary in this new situation. However, it can be annoying and harmful as the child gets older if it becomes the go-to coping mechanism and/or develops into learned helplessness. I'm not saying that this is the case here but is simply something to consider. (Again, since you asked!)

    I think it's great that you and your partner are committed to creating a big to support your child, which is so good for fostering success! I'd continue to be open to the feedback of teachers, psychologists, etc. like you already are. I'd try to volunteer once a week or so in their kindergarten class, if possible, to see the dynamic and show your support there. Sometimes teachers or psychologists will do home-visits to observe the children and give feedback to parents, which I'd really encourage; as others have said, it's not unusual for kids to behave differently in different environments.

    I wish you and your family the best of luck and much happiness in the years to come!
    posted by smorgasbord at 2:19 PM on July 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

    I have some professional experience in this area.

    Kids from traumatic circumstances tend to try to control their environments (and the people in them) in order to know what to expect. It isn't until they realize that the adults who are now in control of them (you) are capable of creating a safe environment that they start to relax. It takes a really really long time for this sink in.

    You may need to be less compliant to your child's whims. I'm not suggesting that you don't let him ever choose the activities you do together. What I mean is that you should have a routine that includes normal daily tasks, playtime activities (your choice) and playtime activities (child's choice). And that you begin practicing negotiation now. If your kiddo wants to play water balloons for instance, come up with a framework for negotiation that includes "first, let's (fill in the blank) and then we'll play water balloons. This way your kiddo is learning that other people have preferences and tasks that need to be done also. Never, I repeat, never (I almost put this in all caps) fail to live up to whatever it was your end of the agreement is. If you use "first and then," you must follow through on "then."

    Consider reading up on attachment issues (not attachment parenting - this is different thing). Lots and lots of kids from orphanages develop attachment disorders. These can be anywhere from mild in effect to severely disruptive to the child's development.

    If you're looking into therapy, I suggest you look into Parent- Child Interaction Therapy. It sounds like you are really actively interacting and bonding. I'm not suggesting anything different. But Parent-Child Interaction Therapy is based on strategies for parent and child interaction that have been shown to develop healthy attachment.

    Good Luck. Feel free to memail me if you'd like.
    posted by dchrssyr at 3:51 PM on July 27, 2015 [9 favorites]

    Maybe I'm overreacting and everything will work itself out,

    I don't mean to be hard on you when you have taken on a major family transition, but I don't think you're being anywhere near reactive enough. You have a 7 year old, from an orphanage via an intercountry adoption, who doesn't speak English. Where are your post-adoption services? Where is your therapeutic support? Where is your intercountry adoption support group? Where is your ESL tutor?

    With all due respect, people telling you how their unadopted, native-speaking, standard-age-entry to education kids were just fine is nearly irrelevant here. The behaviour you are describing is a recognised post-orphanage issue in internationally adopted children and needs to be specifically addressed as such with the support of people who are familiar with and understand the needs of kids exhibiting transition stress.
    posted by DarlingBri at 5:20 PM on July 27, 2015 [20 favorites]

    Speaking as someone with some parenting experience in this area*, I second and third DarlingBri's response.

    There's help out there. There are counselors and child psychiatrists and parenting classes and adoption counselors. And language classes and anger management classes for kids. Find all of these ASAP and keep using them until you feel like they're unnecessary because you're an expert yourself. This should take a couple of years.

    And I want to congratulate you on caring enough to ask the question and do what needs to be done. That's the most important thing.

    *memail me if you want some details that may be helpful and hopeful.
    posted by mmoncur at 11:17 PM on July 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

    Have you considered home schooling until the kid get used to the new environment first? May need an older child who understands and can put up with the kid's antics.
    posted by kschang at 11:51 PM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

    If you have not already read The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog by Bruce Perry and MeFi's own Maia Szalavitz, do so - stat!

    Central take-home messages:
    • early neglect causes physically abnormal brain development, which leaves the affected children with specific skills deficits
    • post-traumatic stress disorder is a diagnosis rarely considered for children because they are simply assumed, against all available evidence, to be more resilient than adults
    • correctly identifying brain regions affected by early trauma and neglect can help parents understand the specific kinds of support their children most urgently need
    • loving, reliable, stable parental relationships and a wide network of positive relationships with other healthy people are the most effective aid to healing from early trauma
    • well-informed professional help is available and valuable.
    Everyone needs a hug - {{{here's yours!}}}
    posted by flabdablet at 1:50 AM on July 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

    Also: if you're working with professionals who don't know who Bruce Perry is, find better professionals.
    posted by flabdablet at 1:54 AM on July 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

    Nthing DarlingBri. Listen to her. This is a get in there and be proactive situation, not a hang back and let's see what unfolds, which isn't what you're doing but you need to be doing more and treat this adoption more like a job. You need the help of people with experience in this precise area. People here are giving you lots of advice but you're speaking to a very specific issue that will be best dealt with experienced professionals, NOT the generally awesome Hivemind.
    posted by kinetic at 4:55 AM on July 28, 2015 [4 favorites]

    I would nth the suggestion to really pursue professional help for each of the areas that your child struggles with. My child has some fairly mild issues - so mild it's not relevant to this thread - but even though I'm a proactive and well-informed parent, his occupational therapist has gotten him succeeding at things I never got close to getting him to try. (Things like "climb on a jungle gym".)

    A good occupational therapist will assess where a kid is at, and then give them a task that's just the tiniest hint above what they're capable of/comfortable with, and stretch them out oh so carefully so that even a child who shuts down in the face of the slightest frustration can make progress.

    Our child receives OT for motor, sensory, feeding, and mild behavioral issues (e.g. frustration tolerance), but the clinic also works on social skills, language delays, and a variety of other things. Your child could probably benefit from some kind of formal social skills training, and there are also protocols to help kids that age with anxiety. You first need to talk to someone who specializes in older kids who've been internationally adopted from orphanages to help figure out what your child needs and in what order, but there are a lot of resources out there that can really help. If all goes well, there'll be an intensive burst of services at the beginning that will taper off as your child masters various skills and you see what, if anything, they're going to need long-term help with.

    The key for me was, at the beginning, my husband and I had a bit of handwringing about - is our kid really doing that badly? that he needs to go to therapy? he's not broken. right? But the truth of the matter is, some kids need a reading tutor, some kids need a math tutor, and our kid needed a tutor to help him learn how to use his body well enough that he could climb things. Turns out that's not that big of a deal.

    Plus, a lot of the kid-OT and social skills classes and that sort of stuff is really, really fun! It's totally the highlight of our son's week. He has no idea he's in therapy, he just goes once a week to see his friend Miss L who likes to help kids learn to do new things.
    posted by telepanda at 8:21 AM on July 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

    Response by poster: thanks a lot for all the kind words and tough love!
    for sure we are not taking this lightly and plan to actively work with professionals who will be able to best identify what our child needs.

    i didn't make this point clear in my question because I was focused on the socialization aspect with school coming up.

    still it was good to hear the repeated call for professional help, lest we become complacent as time goes by!

    i also appreciate hearing from parents with kids who didn't necessarily have a traumatic past - even though our kids' behaviours might stem from different life experiences, at least on the surface our child will appear like any other child, and the risk of being further outcast because of any atypical behaviour (still of course we are going to have conversations with our child's teacher).

    any other/additional advice/comments are appreciated!!
    posted by bitteroldman at 9:31 AM on July 28, 2015

    I'd just like to add that a possible hidden benefit of your child having one or more therapists that s/he sees on a regular basis is that the more stable, ongoing, caring one-on-one adult relationships your child has, the more secure they are liable to feel.
    posted by telepanda at 9:46 AM on July 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

    The good news is that your kid's behavior is nothing out of the ordinary for children of any background. Kids, the younger they are, have limited awareness of other peoples' agency over their lives and minds. That comes on greater with age and exposure. School will provide both of those, especially the latter. There may be some tears and freak outs on your child's road to social harmony, but keep in mind what a microcosm school is: there are kids there that will be more stubborn than yours, and who will demonstrate to your kids what it means to be treated in the way your kid may treat others.

    Our middle kid (I'm stepdad) is a bit like this, while also being very anxious and almost fragile, emotionally. When he was very young, we privately thought of him like an overbearing Eeyore: moody and dark, but happy to be in other peoples' faces and personal spaces about it. As he's gotten into his teen years, he's been translating those feelings into the sort of goth/alternative/fuck you posture that is not only very common in the U.S. but something I myself feel very familiar/comfortable with from my own experiences in my youth. You may take some solace in knowing that it's not your job to dictate how your kids adjusts to other people and surroundings and circumstances (really, it's not, because you can never choose these things on another person's behalf no matter how hard you try). You are, rather, there for guidance and support when it's needed, and giving good guidance and support when it's needed is a great way for people like us (adoptive and step parents) to build trust). I remind myself all the time to take a pause, step back a bit, and let our kids guide their own lives unless they ask for help or are otherwise endangering themselves or others.
    posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 10:29 AM on July 28, 2015

    I'm getting a little ARGH because, while there are lots of kids with anxiety issues and a need for control, HOW you can/can't deal with it can look very different for a kid who is navigating trauma-related institutional issues and/or attachment issues in an adoption context (versus bio kids.)

    I have one of both--biological and adopted (at 3 years)--both with anxiety and control issues. It is a lot of work to keep everyone on track. And I do approach both differently, but I lean more towards the techniques for adoptive kids even with my bio kid.

    We use professionals (Theraplay was good for working through power/ control/ trust issues in a safe and fun way, better to start it BEFORE you and your child are dealing with school issues. If you use a Theraplay professional, make sure they give you an experienced one.)

    We found some amazing videos (Trust-Based Parenting from Karen Purvis. They are pricey and totally worth it. We even lend them to teachers, school counselors, etc. so everyone is on the same page. Excellent approach for kids with anxiety and control issues. Yeah, it's from Texas Christian University, but you can leave the God stuff if it's not your cup of tea and it isn't in your face during the videos. They use real life examples with real kids and it is EYE opening.)

    We also use the Teaching Outside the Box Facebook Group to provide information to the school and advocate for our child. No time outs. No traffic light public-shaming classroom management techniques. Etc. This will take firm, clear education with administration and teachers. We got lucky. Our school has been very supportive. We still have to meet really frequently with teachers, aides, etc. because old habits of non-Trust Based behavior modification (which trigger our kid...which leads to running away or shutting down) are very hard to break. And that substitute teacher who unknowingly puts your child at a separate lunch table by themselves to "calm them down" while the class looks on and snickers? Yeah, that can take months to undo when your child is already dealing with peer and authority figure issues.

    Even though your kiddo may not have autism, some of the same sensory issues experienced by kids with autism are experienced by older adoptive children (who remember loss, institutionalization, etc.) Our kid has never been diagnosed with PTSD, but we treat him as someone who has it because it works. Not the labeling, just the empathy, compassion, and connection through trauma episodes.

    Adoption can be wonderful and is still SO full of loss for our kids. Loss of first family, loss of culture, language, memories, etc. Part of wanting to be in control is loss-control...many want to make sure that nothing gets out of their control again. It's a goes in fits and starts...and you are awesome parents already by being sensitive to your child before he/she goes through the BIG transition of "first new school."

    DM me if you ever need to bend the ear of someone 3 years in...and best to you all.
    posted by jeanmari at 4:07 PM on July 28, 2015 [5 favorites]

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