My 12-year-old son is acting strange whenever we talk about returning to school at the end of this month. He used to love school, he had friends, and was an A/B student, who played on the soccer team. He has spent the last 18 months learning through his iPad and has seemed OK. I notice he plays more video games than ever now that summer is here and turns down offers to get together with his friends. But I thought everything was fine. Suddenly, he started asking me if he can go to cyber-school instead of returning to his regular 8th grade classroom. He even said he’s quitting the soccer team. Every time I try to get him to talk to me about what’s going on, he slams the door, pulls the shades, and crawls into his video games. I know Covid is/was rough on us all, but I thought my son would be thrilled to go back to school. Is this because he’s adopted?
Signed, Perplexed Mom
Dear Perplexed Mom,
The clear answer to: “Is this because he is adopted?” is maybe, maybe not. Whether it is or not, it is about anxiety.
The past year has been rough on all of us, kids especially. Children in general have less ability to understand the world around them without making it all about them (egocentricity is a developmental phase) and they also lack the coping skills adults may or may not have to make sense of their world and adjust to it. They get comfortable and then things change, and they are fearful-yes afraid-of their ability to adapt to the change. They are not sure they know what to do and how to respond, and this raises their anxiety.
Now add to that the impact of early trauma on the brain. Those early, even pre-natal, chemical and environmental instabilities make the brain less able to adjust to changes to their world. It also delays the child’s ability to self-calm and self-soothe. Add to that how a child with early trauma may blame themselves for things, and their terrified inner voice that says they are bad and are to blame for ALL their perceived failings, and you have children who are so anxiety ridden they cannot believe they can manage this humongous change without failing.
Luckily, you are their world, and if you believe they will be okay, you can help them get there too. You are their external ego, the part of their brain that reminds them they will get through this. You also have the capacity for empathy, that thing you do when you say, “Wow, this is really scary, thinking of going back and being with kids you have not been with for so very long. I bet you are afraid that your struggles last year will continue and you will fail.” That reflecting on what they are probably feeling gets to that part of their brain where anxiety lives. Your words can soothe it. And luckily, this can be done from behind closed doors, in text messages, and while driving to get ice cream, and not looking at them. Keep those messages coming.
I am not fond of roller coasters but I recognize that it is that first big hill that is most scary, after that we are just coasting up and down until we get back to the station. This is your son’s first big hill, and once he gets to the top it is all downhill from there. So strap in and go along for his ride.
Sincerely, The Director