I’ve written previously about how worried I am about this pandemic impacting my kids. They’re physically healthy  —  they’re getting exercise and fresh air, and they’re eating well. It’s their mental health that worries me. Trouble is, there’s no blueprint for dealing with mental health during a pandemic.

I’ve gone looking for advice. But all I find are more unknowns, more questions. Dr. Perri Klass wrote a piece for the New York Times entitled “What’s Scaring the Pediatricians.” And the things scaring doctors are practical issues, like missed immunizations and missed treatments. And also, systemic issues, like poverty, and educational disparity. But the article also quoted pediatricians who are concerned about the developmental impacts social distancing is having on young brains, and the PTSD likely to result from living in households permeated by anxiety. Dr. Klass did a good job identifying the problems, but I’m still bereft of actual strategies to mitigate these ill effects.

Steve and I have another layer to consider with our kids. Adopted kids experience trauma from being separated from their birth parents —  that’s just Adoption 101. Many adopted kids also have the additional trauma from multiple placements, from abuse, from neglect, from institutional care. Our kids’ situations are unique, and not for public sharing, but I’ll just say that both have big emotions stemming from that early trauma. Those emotions, which we call “Big Feelings,” manifest in different ways.

One of the trickiest things about parenting adopted kids is that it’s hard to tell if a phase or a behavior is “normal,”, or if it’s something adoption-related. Steve and I have been unafraid to read the books, do the webinars, and call in experts when we feel out of our depth. (Which is often.) But there is nothing specific about how kids who’ve experienced adoption-related trauma will be impacted by the isolation and the uncertainty of a pandemic.

Every morning, Bini comes downstairs ready to rumble. The lights in the kitchen are too bright. Evan chews too loudly. (That’s actually true.) We bought the wrong kind of cereal. And we’re terrible parents because we’ve run out of orange juice.

“We’re trying to limit our visits to the store,” Steve said this morning.

“NOBODY ELSE is doing that, Dad. People are going to the store EVERY DAY,” Bini countered loudly. (I’m not sure how he knows this, since he hasn’t left our neighborhood in eight weeks. )

IMG_3250Still, Bini at least can pace himself with schoolwork. He sits on his laptop from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., and we have to force him to take breaks. At 4:00, after school and chores, we allow the kids to melt their faces off with screens. Bini hops online to play games with his friends. They do FaceTime. They text. And while Bini certainly has his frustrations, he has hours of friend time daily. It seems to help.

Evan has transformed from a happy-go-lucky kid to one who has frequent tantrums. If we take away screen privileges for refusing to do schoolwork, he follows us around and mumbles, “I hate you,” or “I don’t care,” over and over. Or he goes into the playroom and slams the door repeatedly. Or he just flops on the floor like a rolled-up rug and lies there.

At first, we thought the facsimile of togetherness would help. So we set up FaceTime playdates, and everyone got on Messenger. My phone was constantly pinging with stickers and videos from Connor, or Cem, or Will. The boys were thrilled to have a way to connect, and exhilarated that this screen time was so wholeheartedly endorsed by Mom and Dad. The novelty wore off quickly, though. Eight-year-old kids don’t like to chat with their friends. They like to play with their friends.

I’m on Evan duty most of the day, since Steve is working, and Bini is mostly self-winding. Starting at 9 (or thereabouts), we slog through the schedule, broken into 30-minute increments. Math. Phonics. Spelling. The much-despised Paragraph of the Week. For P.E., we’ll play Just Dance, or walk to dogs, or I’ll set up an obstacle course in the back alley. During his break times, Evan will still be at my elbow: “Mom, look at this Naruto book. Mom, look at this superhero Lego I built. Mom, can you play with me?”

As I write that, I get teary, because it’s heartbreaking. But it’s also maddening.  Even though we’re all together, all the time, Evan needs either Steve or I to be sitting next to him or he gets panicky. Yesterday, I went to the basement to find a book, and from the floor above, I heard Evan shouting my name. My first reaction was to hide.

I am Evan’s mom. For now, I’m his teacher. And I’m also his only playmate. Sometimes Evan acts silly, and Steve and I (being adults), tell him to knock it off, to focus, and do his goddamned 20 minutes of Edutyping. It hit me this week, some eight weeks into this forced family time, that Evan got his silly time with his peers. They’d play tag with ever-changing rules, and have nonsense conversations that make total sense to a second grader.  I can’t believe it took me this long to figure that out.

I asked my own therapist: Should I try to act more like a kid? Will that help? And she said it’s really not possible to give him what he gets from his peers. We’re his parents. We’re already crossing set boundaries by being his teachers. Ideally, Evan could play with Bini, who is only four years older. Except my kids can’t stand each other.

I am so envious of people with kids who play together. That was true before the quarantine, but it’s all the more poignant now.  Bini has been mad about having a sibling since we adopted Evan five years ago. Trust me when I tell you that we’ve tried everything. But as it stands now, Bini directs his frustrations mainly at his brother (or me). And Evan, who is deeply hurt that his brother doesn’t like him, has learned to cope by teasing Bini for attention.

Still, having each other is better than nothing. So, I decided that the two of them had to play together. Every day. For 30 minutes. This is a Hail Mary on my part, a groundless theory that if we build a habit of togetherness, their relationship might improve.

Bini fought this new edict with his trademark ‘tween indignation. Evan, who was once again hurt by his brother’s rejection, also claimed that he didn’t want to play.  It didn’t matter. On Tuesday, Steve and I marched them into the playroom and set a timer. I stayed downstairs to keep an ear out; Steve went upstairs to work.

At first, I heard nothing. I peeked in and they were in opposite corners. After about ten minutes, I heard some talking: “Evan, do you have the lightsaber Lego?” “Bini, can you hand me a wheel?” Steve got the debrief from Evan later and he said it was stupid. And that he didn’t care.

The next two days of Mandatory Play were rocky. On Wednesday, Evan refused to take part, and had to clean both his room and his brother’s as a consequence. (He did a good job, too.) Yesterday, it went pretty well.  I don’t know if what we’re doing is helpful, or harmful. Maybe there’s no way to fix what they’re experiencing. But I have to try.

Written by Kristin Kalning

Mother, writer, reader, traveler, lover of hard-luck stories.

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