Calming Preschoolers' Common Fears
If your preschooler has come to you from a loving foster home and has no memory of a bad home, she will likely experience normal preschooler-type fears, which may be exacerbated because of the newness of the situation. Fears of the dark, unknown people, or things like clowns or monsters are normal fears, but a child who is being moved to a new home is likely to experience these kinds of fears on a deeper level.
A newly adopted preschooler from a difficult background is likely to commonly fear not having enough to eat and being hurt by those who should care for and love her. She needs to develop what Dr. Karyn Purvis, director of Texas Christian University's Institute of Child Development, and her team describe as “felt safety.” You know that your child will have enough to eat and will be safe in your home. You know that you would never hurt her in any way, but she doesn't know this. If she is from a deprived situation, every adult in her life may have disappointed her.
Hoarding food or overeating to the point of vomiting are indications that your child was fed randomly and never enough. If you find rotting food hidden in your child's dresser drawer, you may be disgusted or horrified by the smell. But scolding won't help her understand that she doesn't need to save up against starvation. Instead, acknowledge that people may have neglected her and deprived her of food, but that you are her parent and your job is to be sure her tummy is full and her body nourished. Along with the acknowledgment, give her granola bars or other nonperishable food to keep handy. You may also need to institute a plan to keep the kitchen off limits, such as locking the door.
Eating so much that she vomits is another way your child may hoard food. She's desperate to make sure she stuffs enough in so she won't suffer hunger pangs for awhile. She has also lost touch with her body's signals that she's full, and you must gently and consistently give her the right food in the right amounts. Portion control is key. Your pediatrician should be your guide in making sure she receives appropriate nourishment.
Your child may wander the house at night and be unable to sit still for any length of time. She may be simply reacting to being in a new and strange environment or grieving her lost home. But if she's from an abusive situation, her body is caught up in a fight-or-flight reaction where her brain chemistry is actually telling her she's in danger. Even when the environment is safe, she's on high alert. She probably never knew when she would be attacked verbally or physically, so now, she can't shut down or relax.
As with food, you must model appropriate behavior and establish a regular sleep schedule. Night-time rituals signal to your child that she's in a safe place, that she can unwind and doesn't have to be vigilant. If you find her up in the night, gently put her back to bed and take a few minutes to calm her. You may have to do this again and again. She will learn to trust that you can and will protect her.
If your child stiffens when you reach out to her and turns away from hugs or other displays of affection, she was likely hurt by those who should have nurtured her. She may never have learned how to process touch and cannot tell the difference between a gentle pat and abuse. If you think that she has dysfunction of sensory integration, the more quickly you deal with it, the more peaceful your home will be. Consult your pediatrician and therapist. However, be aware that the field of sensory integration is still not fully understood or recognized by all pediatricians and therapists.
You can use simple techniques to teach your child to accept your touch. Always approach her from the front — never come up behind her or move suddenly when you are near her. Crouch down to her level or sit beside her when you talk to her or interact with her. Use one finger to lift her chin and initiate eye contact. Say things like, “Let me see your eyes” or “I can see my smile reflected in your eyes.”
Show your child how to identify safe people in her life. Tell her that safe people are kind and don't threaten her or try to make her keep secrets from you. Tell her that if she ever feels funny or uncomfortable in the presence of any adult, to immediately come to you, even if the person smiles and seems to be friendly.
Although your child may push you away emotionally, don't leave her alone either physically or emotionally. Encourage her to use words to express her feelings and work with her to identify those feelings. Pursue your child, rather than letting her close you out. If your child has serious problems, you and your family will need the help of your support system.