Yesterday, I enjoyed the rare opportunity of conversing with another adoptive mom. During our chat, I was overwhelmed with gratitude as my children’s shared laughter echoed in the background.
During our early months as family, time together was anything but fun.
Matt and I had pure intentions, but we were lacking in our ability to care for children who had good reason to expect tragedy. We were humbled time and again when a rained out baseball game or a grandparent’s cancelled visit led to violent behaviors from two of our children. We were astounded when news of an upcoming birthday party led one of our children to behave in such a way that made the birthday party impossible for our family to attend.
After explaining these experiences to a therapist, he suggested that our children didn’t need to know about the excitement on the horizon. He asked us what we thought would happen if we just showed up to the birthday party, baseball game, or if the grandparents just arrived on our doorstep with their suitcases.
After some trial and error, we learned our children were much more likely to enjoy themselves if they were surprised by fun. We also noticed that this fun needed to fit into our general, safe rhythm.
We learned to plan our days around meals and sleep schedules and carefully choose to join only activities we thought our children could handle. We began teaching our children that anytime our typical schedule was interrupted, it was interrupted by fun.
Soon, our children stopped anxiously questioning us each time we prepared for an activity because their experience was telling them fun is always a surprise.
Eventually, they began to enjoy each surprise journey and enjoy fun events we carefully chose for them.
We think the reason this approach works for our family is because anything out of the norm has the potential to create unusually high anxiety in our children from hard places. Also, when we don’t signal future fun plans, we can’t fail to deliver. The trust we’re building with our children isn’t compromised. The stakes are high in our family. When an event is cancelled due to a thunderstorm, in our child’s mind, Mom and Dad didn’t follow through. Mom and Dad aren’t trustworthy.
In limiting disappointment for our children, we are not trying to shelter them from the real world.
Due to their early experiences, they are already more acquainted with disappointment and grief than most adults we know. Because we love our children, it’s our desire to create opportunities for them to experience seasons that aren’t defined by loss. It’s our parental responsibility to give them the foundation they need to trust us. It’s our duty to limit their anxiety so we can connect with each other.
When we stopped signaling our plans for fun activities, we began relieving our children of a burden they were never intended to carry. Simultaneously, we were eliminating consistent opportunities for our children to be let down by us. We were giving our children an opportunity to trust us.
Early childhood trauma attempted to rob my children of fun, trusting, and safe relationships. We’re not the first family to struggle on the journey toward fun. I’m not the only parent who has cried tears wondering if Saturday will ever hold any joy in our house. Our solution is far from one-size-fits-all and may not suit any other family.
We weren’t first and we aren’t best.
But what we once thought may be impossible is now happening consistently.
Our entire family laughs and plays together.
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