COCOONING: WHAT IT IS AND WHAT IT IS NOT
The term “cocooning “ has been applied to a number of different disciplines from social science, marketing, economic forecasting to parenting. So, what does “cocooning” mean as we apply it to adoption? Webster’s Dictionary defines cocoon as a covering usually made of silk which some insects (caterpillars) make around themselves to protect them while they grow. As we apply this to adoption we can see a visual picture of providing a protective time to allow your newly adoptive child to grow and adjust to a new family and culture. Does this mean an adoptive family has to stay isolated from friends and family? Will a family ruin the attachment process with their child if they don’t cocoon? Just how does an adoptive family do “Cocooning”?
WHAT IT IS: Cocooning is a time to teach your child the role of parents and family. It is an opportunity when newly home to focus on learning about your child, their likes and dislikes, learning their cues and most importantly developing a foundation of trust in this new relationship. We cannot expect a child who has been uprooted from all that is familiar to them (their schedule, routines, foods, language, culture etc…) to immediately fit into new routines and lifestyles. We must allow time for him to develop his relationship with parents, learn new routines, and adjust to all that has changed. Pulling away from busy fast paced lifestyles is an important part of this process. To cocoon is to provide the optimum environment where an adopted child will feel safe and secure as they begin to adjust to a new family and culture. Cocooning will likely look different for each adoptive family. But every family can follow these guidelines and principles and use this “SSKILL” to have a successful cocooning experience.
SIMPLIFY YOUR SCHEDULE. Evaluate your schedule and determine what can be put on hold. Consider rotating off committees in your community and church or take a reduced role for the first year post adoption. Evaluate other family members’ schedules. Consider a sabbatical from extracurricular activities like sports and music lessons. How much extra time would be available if you were not in a perpetual state of car-pooling? If taking a break from those activities is not possible then, enlist friends to help with these duties so that you have the freedom to stay at home with your adopted child. Transitions are hard for our children and the constant in and out of cars can often trigger melt downs especially for younger children.
SAY YES. A critical part of building attachment with your adopted child is to meet their needs. As you meet their needs trust grows and the child learns that their new world is predictable and safe. They learn that their parents are different from other caretakers. This is done by meeting all their needs (physical, emotional, social and spiritual) over and over again until they can learn that you are trustworthy. Saying “yes” to your child as much as possible communicates to them that you are on their team. For a younger child or infant this looks like getting up in the middle of the night to give a bottle. For an older child this could be riding bikes together, playing a game, or swinging together in a hammock.
KEEP YOUR CHILD CLOSE. This is an important principle regardless of the age of your child. Keep your child in close physical proximity so that you can be attuned to their physical and emotional needs. It will help you to learn their cues, be available to quickly meet their needs and to watch for signs of overstimulation that will prevent melt downs and misbehavior. It is when we are physically close that we can maintain good eye contact and touch that are the keys to promoting healthy attachment. For a younger child keeping them physically close may mean carrying them in an ergo, having them face you when sitting in a stroller or grocery cart, sleeping in the same room and having them by your side as you do chores. For the older child in addition to running errands and doing chores together, it can be working on projects together, assigning them responsibilities in the home or giving them ownership over something so that they can feel they are productive and a useful part of the family. You might even attend Sunday School with them and volunteer in the youth group so you can monitor how they are navigating all that is new for them in social settings.
INITIATE FUN. As you free up your schedule be sure to incorporate intentional fun activities. Play is the language of children. It helps them learn to navigate their world and even process their past. Playing and laughing together creates strong connections between parent and child. Many children do not know how to play or have not been allowed to have free play and fun. Make sure that you are not just taking care of the custodial needs of your child but also their social/emotional needs by allowing time in the day for you to guide them in some fun. Expose your older children to games they may not have experienced before even if you think they are too old for it.
LIMIT COMING AND GOING. Be mindful some adoptive children have had very limited exposure to the outside world. A trip to the grocery store, library, restaurants, parks, schools and church can be very overstimulating. Even the ride in the car with busy traffic can cause a child anxiety. Try to limit errands to one a day and make the trip very short the first few times until you learn your child’s capacity to navigate all these new experiences. Try to visit these places when there may be fewer people so your child is not overwhelmed. Don’t plan a major vacation in the first year post adoption. Discuss family holiday traditions and consider modifying for the sake of your child. For example you may need to opt out of the Thanksgiving trip to Grandma’s this year. Consider inviting family to come to you.
LIMIT INTERACTIONS WITH FAMILY AND FRIENDS. Exposure to multiple caregivers creates in adopted children indiscriminate affection toward strangers and people they have just met. They will seek out anyone to meet their need. A period of time is necessary where you teach them family connections and relationships. Children must learn that you seek out your parents to meet your needs not just random people. If your child displays this indiscriminate behavior you need to limit their exposure to other adults until they understand the role of mother and father. If you are in a social setting prepare those adults and older children to help you in this task by redirecting the child back to you when they have a need. For the younger child limit who holds, feeds and meets his needs. For the older child you might post pone individual overnight visits with grandparents and friends.