Helping Adopted Children Adapt to COVID-19 Challenges

While all children and their families are impacted by COVID-19, adoptive families have some additional challenges. Here are some tips and suggestions from Gary Sampson, MSW, LICSW, a Holt adoption social worker and adoptive parent, and a former elementary school counselor and primary school teacher.

As school districts are debating and deciding how to re-open, they know one thing for sure: the situation will change throughout this next school year. Now is the time to prepare your child for these unknown changes and circumstances.

Parents know that children thrive on predictability. But even during these uncertain and unpredictable times, parents can let their child know that even if the school plan changes, there will still be consistent elements. Parents will be there to help, and teachers and other school staff will be there to help, too, albeit in different ways.

Although tempting, be careful not to make promises about COVID-19 that may not be true. No one knows how long this pandemic will last, so it’s important to be truthful with your child. You can couple these difficult conversations with reassurance about all the things your family is doing to keep you and other people safe and healthy.

Adopted children who experienced early disruption or other traumas in their lives may need more frequent reassurance from adults during these uncertain times. Some children may be thinking about how COVID-19 is impacting their birth family, including those who were adopted internationally or domestically. Adopted children also may have increased fears about their parents or other relatives becoming seriously ill. As parents, we can be “the adult in the room” by bringing up these concerns or fears, even if the child is not talking directly about them. These thoughts are normal during a crisis like a global pandemic, but children may not know how to express such concerns to their parents. Adoptive parents can begin conversations by talking about their own concerns and then asking the child if they share them, too.

All children want to be helpful and there are ways that children can help others right now. They can write letters and send drawings to relatives and family friends they usually see in person and have missed during these times of social distancing. Be on the lookout for local service projects that you can do with your child. Engaging in activities that help others will give your child a way to feel that they can make a difference.

Mr. Fred Roger’s advice during times of distress and disaster was to “look for the helpers.” Help your child notice how many people are helping others during these tough times. They can write letters or send drawings to essential workers, first responders, health care providers and others who are risking their own health to help those in need. For children, focusing on the helpers in our society is a way to acknowledge that all people have value.

It is likely that many schools will continue with full or partial remote learning. Even in these circumstances, school staff can address your individual concerns. Most schools have a school counselor. If your child is missing their friends or having anxiety or worries, contact the school counselor who can talk with you or your child. Some school counselors have organized online friendship groups during this period so that students can have a regular time to connect with peers from school, make new friends and learn important social skills. Other counselors have set up weekly phone check-ins with students to listen to their concerns and provide reassurance.

As parents are now acting as home teachers and have the chance to directly observe their child as they learn, some may suspect that their child has a learning disability that has not been diagnosed. One way to identify this is if you notice that your child cannot hold on to a skill they learned, even with repetition and review. If you suspect that your child consistently has problems with reading, writing or math, let your child’s teacher know your concerns. Even while schools are operating remotely, parents can initiate a special education referral, request an evaluation or initiate a meeting to see if your child needs additional accommodations, often called a “504 plan.”

Due to early trauma, poor nutrition or lack of prenatal care, some adopted children are at greater risk of learning disabilities. In many cases, parents do not have information about whether there was a history of learning disabilities in the child’s birth family. If your child is struggling, frustrated or not retaining what they learn, let their teacher know in a way that is clear and assertive. Evaluations for learning disabilities take time but once identified, can provide a clear pathway for success.

Disruptions in family life, economic hardships, social isolation and cancellations of so many social and recreational activities can bring up feelings of confusion, loss and anger in adopted children. For some, many new opportunities they have experienced with their adoptive families are now on hold.  For others, the uncertain course of this pandemic reminds them of past times when their own future was uncertain or disrupted. Their journey to forming a positive identity as an adopted person may be impeded by these unusual events. Depending on their age and developmental level, parents can initiate conversations with their child about these issues. As you start a conversation, watch and observe your child’s reaction and see what topics they respond to. Then you can take their cues and expand the conversation further.

Holt International offers a wide range of post-adoption services for families and adoptees. We encourage you to contact us for assistance so we can listen to your situation and guide you to a program that will best meet the needs of your family and your child, such as our Post-Adoption Coaching and Education (PACE) program, Circle Back youth mentoring for adoptees- or an adoption-competent service in your home community.

These challenging times can also be exceptional opportunities for growth and development. They can help children find their unique strengths and learn how they can actually help their family, neighborhood, school and community. The coronavirus pandemic is challenging all of us to adapt and be flexible. As your adopted child grows up, their ability to adapt and be flexible will serve them well.  Be sure to contact Holt International Post Adoption Services if we can help you at this time.

Gary Sampson, MSW LICSW, branch social worker and PACE provider

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