How can we help our six-year-old son, who we adopted, overcome his fears? He recently had a traumatic experience when he fell off a raft into the shallow water of the lake where he and his brother were playing. Now he says that he'll never go back in the water again. There's a part of me that thinks we need to get him back on the proverbial horse as soon as possible. At the same time, I'm keenly aware that he's had a long history of trauma and struggles with fear, and I wonder if that's the best approach for him. What do you think I should do?
You're right to think in terms of getting your son back into the water as soon as you can-you certainly don't want him to lose his love for this nurturing and stimulating type of play. But you're also to be commended on your sensitivity to his reaction. It's easy for parents to dismiss situations like this as silly or unimportant. But for many children who are adopted or have been in foster care that have known uncertain histories and troubled backgrounds, experiences of this kind can be a very "big deal" indeed. What's more, subsequent incidents of a similar nature will continue to be a "big deal" until these kids are helped to systematically work through their fears.
There are several strategies that will assist your son in overcoming the trauma associated with this incident. First, encourage him to tell the story of what happened-over and over again if necessary. It might even be a good idea to go to a family friend's swimming pool or a public pool where he feels safe and let him narrate his experience there. We know that when children can give voice to their fears, they can begin to gain mastery over them. For many kids, this happens most easily in the context of movement-for example, while swimming, playing a card game, taking a walk, riding a bike, etc. You can also expedite the process by introducing a "distractor" of some kind, such as a meal or a snack.
Second, remember Dumbo, the flying elephant, and think about providing your son with a "magic feather." If you know the story, you'll recall that, in the beginning, Dumbo couldn't fly without his "magic feather." You'll also remember that the feather wasn't really "magic" at all – it was just a prop or a placebo that gave him confidence and enabled him to face his fears until he came to the realization that he could fly on his own. You can probably come up with several different "magic feathers" that might help your son in this situation – a sturdier raft, for instance, or a life – jacket, or a safety/escape plan. Whatever it is, the idea here is to empower him and help him feel safer and more in control. If you ask him, he may even be able to suggest the perfect "magic feather." Try saying something like, "What would make you feel safer when swimming in the lake?" Sometimes just the ritual of buying that special item will promote a new sense of safety and empowerment.
Third and most important, assure him that you and/or your spouse will swim with him for as long as he needs you to do so. This may take a great deal of commitment and planning, but it's worth it. Consider having him hold hands between you and your spouse and then walking into the water together. Once there, stay close beside him – as close as he wants you to be, and for as long as he needs you. Learn some new water games that you can play together or bring along some new water toys. By wading back into the water with him you'll help to restore his confidence and allow him to address his fears with your support. You'll also be building connections and a deep sense of trust between parent and child. Your ultimate goal is to help him defeat his anxieties and rediscover the joy (and therapeutic benefits) of playing and swimming in the water.
If you'd like to talk over these recommendations at greater length with a member of our staff, feel free to give Focus on the Family's Counseling department a call. Our counselors would be more than happy to discuss your concerns with you over the phone. Each is a committed Christian and a licensed family therapist. You may also be able to find the resources you need by visiting the websites of TCU's Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development or Empowered to Connect.
Bringing Out the Best in Your Adopted Child: Elisa Morgan reflects on her experience as an adoptive parent, and she offers encouragement to other adoptive moms.
Fostering or Adopting Children From Difficult Backgrounds (resource list)
Preparing for Adoption