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What Is Cocooning In Adoption & Foster Care?

Cocooning is a fantastic opportunity to bond with a child who is new to your household. If the cocoon concept is new, consider it an adjustment and transition time for the entire family. There are a lot of different dynamics that may accompany a foster or adoptive child coming into your home. Some of those may be positive, and some may be challenging. A child’s age, length of time in foster care, and possible trauma that they may have experienced all play a factor in the cocooning needs of the child. 

What Is Cocooning?

Cocooning provides a safe space to rest, relax, recover, regulate, and build relationships between a child and their new family. The general timeframe for a cocoon season in an adoption and foster care family is between two and four months. During this timeframe, families are encouraged to limit interactions with friends and family in order to bond as a family. Cocooning is an art form, not a science. The key to cocooning well is to be flexible to the child’s needs.

To understand how a family should cocoon, it’s essential to understand the foundation and goals of what the cocoon process is trying to accomplish and where we are headed as therapeutic parents.

Birds Nests and Turtling

In therapeutic parenting, we talk a lot about using the concepts of bird nests and “turtling.” The concept of bird nests generally focuses on providing a safe place for a child to rest and regulate. When talking about “turtling,” the focus is maintaining and carrying safety while being willing to stay in control and come out of the shell and live.


When cocooning, we combine these concepts to match up with the attachment cycle. The Trust Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) concept of the attachment cycle is as follows: 

  1. The baby has a need
  2. The baby verbally expresses the need 
  3. The primary caregiver meets that need so that the baby feels safe and satisfied. 
  4. When the baby feels safe and satisfied, the baby starts to trust the primary caregiver. 

Eventually, we want our children to be able to do this cycle themselves as adults. Cocooning is the first step towards accomplishing these goals.

Cocooning in adoption and foster care is an intentional season where parents provide safety and choose a relationship with their new child. With new infants, parents naturally do this to recover from giving birth, adjust to developing a new life routine to care for the baby and protect the young infant from too much exposure to germs and illness until their bodies can fight them off. Limiting the number of people holding a baby often helps the baby continue to attach to the parents. 

Birds Nest and Turtling

The 5 R’s of Cocooning

In adoption and foster care families, there are 5 R’s to the cocooning season: Rest, Relax, Recover, Regulate, and Relationship.

Rest

The cocoon season of rest is when we quiet down the outside noise and allow the brain and body to rest. People may have an adrenaline crash from the transition and need more sleep than usual. We also want this to be a time when parents get to be the resource for their child’s needs—allowing children to depend solely on their new mom and dad to meet their needs. This gives parents opportunities to start saying “yes” and meeting the child’s needs enough for a child to feel safe and satisfied. Rest means changing the normal flow of life and slowing down the calendar so there can be peace and space to rest.

Relax

People generally don’t realize how much anxiety comes with social interactions, busyness, and new environments. Cocooning means relaxing our schedules, calendars, friends, and family interactions enough to prevent tension in the environment or our bodies. Think of this as a staycation as an immediate family. It is a time for people to relax, get to know each other, and have fun together. Try not to fill this space with too many fun vacation events. Remember, the goal is to rest and relax at home as a family.

Recover

How long does recovery take? It takes as long as it takes. Each person is unique in their recovery needs. I highly encourage parents to be flexible with their expectations during this time. The art of recovery takes time. There are some things we are looking for as we recover. 

First, evaluate the child’s individual needs. If trauma is present, work with a TheraPlay play therapist to help stabilize the child and help them get safe first. Consider using TBRI parenting tools to engage and stabilize behaviors playfully. 

Secondly, we want to build new routines. These generally start with morning, bedtime, meals, school, and church routines. Please don’t change these all at once! Remember, cocooning is a several-month transition. We are going to slowly work towards developing our new routines. Start with meals and snack routines. Then, start to add the morning and evening routines, and when all of those are going smoothly, transition to adding school and church routines.

5 Rs of Cocooning

Regulate

How do we know if we are making progress during the cocoon season? The art of cocooning requires a balance of rest and isolation and new routine structures to promote family communication between parents and children. History of working with children has shown me that when we go slowly and take enough time to rest and recover, a child will become emotionally and behaviorally regulated. Watching a child’s physical and emotional responses will give insight into whether or not their brain is calming down and can regulate their emotions and behaviors. 

Remember, children are always others-regulated, which means parents must provide emotional regulation for children to feel grounded and regulated. Or they will be co-regulated, which means occasionally, the child may be able to regulate themselves. During the cocoon phase, assume your child will be learning to regulate off you. If you are grounded and peaceful, the child may be able to match you and be grounded and peaceful, too. 

During this time, parents will start to see the difference between the real child and the child’s trauma brain behaviors that are outside their ability to control. A child who is not being able to regulate emotions or behaviors needs a longer cocoon timeframe. In these cases, parents are highly encouraged to work with a TBRI trauma therapist to help. Parents must be aware that a child does not have the ability to choose how or when they regulate. This is an internal response from their brain and body that they cannot control.

Relationship

Parents are generally surprised when I tell them the relationship bond with their child comes at the end of the cocooning process. After all, isn’t the whole reason to do the cocooning season in the first place to build the relationship between the parents and child? Yes, it is. However, notice that in the attachment cycle, the ability to trust the primary caregiver comes at the end of the cycle, not the beginning. 

The parents’ job during this cocooning season is similar to the mama bird’s job. Parents choose relationships by protecting the safety of the nest, providing food, and a place of safe rest for their baby birds. Letting children rest, relax, recover, and regulate first gives them the foundational safety of a relationship to trust you as a parent and be willing to choose a relationship with you. 

This is where the “turtle” concept comes into the process. When a child is rested, relaxed, recovered, and regulated, they will start to feel safe enough to come out of their shell and interact with you. Many parents try to control this process, and in their excitement to choose a relationship and prove that they are a safe person for the child, they unintentionally wound the relationship. This is again where choosing a relationship with a child is an art. 

Each child and their needs are unique. Keep giving opportunities for the relationship to build. Even if it’s not reciprocated, keep offering opportunities. You never know when or where a child can choose a relationship with you. Have hope; we know that turtles will come out of their shell when they are ready. We have to be willing to wait for them to be ready.

© 2023 Christina Chismar MSW, LCSW. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.

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