Technology and Trauma: Adventures in Finding a Middle Ground.

I wholeheartedly want to get rid of the iPad. I am ready to throw the thing away and be done with it. My husband loves his technology, but the children simply cannot handle it. It’s as if they escape into this magical world where their problems do not exist. They don’t have to think about anything at all while they are using the iPad. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s versatile. Most of all it is a path to escaping.

Children with a history of trauma can often manifest fear and anxiety as pure rage. My son has been having difficulty with irritability and anger lately. I can’t tell if this is the start of puberty or part of his emotional difficulties or a reaction to a trigger I just can’t seem to find. Either way, time on the iPad soothes him and takes him away from his emotions in a way that nothing else can. Unfortunately for Carl, these emotions all come flooding back the second he puts the device down.

We only allow electronic use for the children on the weekends. We don’t even watch much TV during the week. Instead, we play outside, play board games, eat dinner as a family, and attend events. The kids are involved in clubs after school and sports. The more exercise they have, the better they are able to regulate. Football has really helped to let Carl take out his aggressions in an appropriate way.

Unfortunately for all of us, once Carl gets on the iPad, he refuses to do anything else. He refuses to eat. he wants family meals to be over as quickly as possible so that he can pick up his game again. He sulks through family outings because he wants to be at home, playing. He whines that he wants a phone of his own so he can play whenever he wants. He becomes enraged when I won’t let him use my phone. To be clear, he’s 11-years-old. he does not have a phone and we are in no hurry to provide one.

I think my problem is that I remember his older brother. Sean was with us for a year-and-a-half. For the most part he seemed calm and happy. he could laugh his way through any event as if nothing at all was amiss. However, he couldn’t stand to be separated from his iPod. When that happened, he would become a totally different child. He was 14-years-old and over 200 pounds. Separating him from his technology was scary.

He brought it with him when he moved in. It had been a gift from another foster family so we were loathe to keep it from him for any reason. He had to earn his electronics time by taking out the trash, going to school (which he always tried to refuse) and completing his homework. When I had to take the iPod away from him the first time, he took a hammer to the pipes in our basement. I called the emergency crisis intervention hotline. By the time the therapist came he was perfectly composed. He smiled and laughingly told her he wasn’t angry and had “no problems.” Sean insisted he had no idea what I was talking about when I explained his tantrum.

When I hear Carl yelling at us that he doesn’t want to put down the iPad, my heart starts racing. Carl has never tried to do purposeful damage when he is enraged. He never plotted to break the pipes or threatened to do so. In the past, he has threatened me, but he was reacting to anger. Carl was proactively planning to damage anything or “punish” us. I am afraid of the thrall this technology has in him.

I can’t tell if I am nervous because of what his intense rages look like. After all, he hasn’t had one in awhile. I could be afraid because his behavior reminds me of Sean, who was truly dangerous when crossed. Or maybe all kids have this problem. Maybe it has nothing to do with trauma and everything to do with raising a preteen.

So should we keep our weekend electronic policy? Modify it? Cancel electronics and get back to basics? If only I had all of the answers. Feel free to weigh in…



**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.



Don’t Wipe Your Nose on Papa


It’s supposed to be a gesture of affection. Mostly it has become a way for Carl to wipe away the boogers in his nose or the sweat from his face. He buries his head in the nearest family member and just swipes from side to side. Carl does not believe in tissues or napkins. He didn’t have them in his biological home. He prefers to use his shirt. When I tell him not to wipe his nose on his own shirt, he turns to Papa’s shirt. Clearly my parental guidance is lacking somehow.

My parents have become a major fixture in this family. They are always here for us. When they moved halfway across the country to live in our town, it was like a lifeline being thrown our way. Now our little family is bigger. The best days for me are the ones that are really rough as a parent. On those days I can tell my own mom how hard it is to be a parent. She comes over for coffee, no matter how big of a tantrum one of the kids is having. She’s brave. She loves us, warts and all.

On the phone Carl tells my mother that “this will probably be the last time I ever see you in my life.” It’s such an odd thing for a child to say, but it is so true for him. Of course, my mom has the solution. She comes over with pictures of Nana and Papa in little frames. Now Carl cannot help but to see them in his life. There they are, right next to the remote!

Nana brings us a map of Missouri. She has marked the areas where they will travel. Each town is circled in red pen. Here in Connecticut, we can follow their progress. This concrete reminder will show us all that they are still out there. Carl has a toy VW beetle that we placed on a map of the US to track their move from Missouri to Connecticut. Now they will be bringing the real life VW home.

We call them throughout the week and track them on the map. On the day they finally come back we have therapy. Mary cries in the therapist’s office that she doesn’t think Nana and Papa are ever coming back. Carl explains to her that are because they have to come back for their cat and we have the map etc. etc. Logically she knows they are coming but she feels like she won’t see them again.

After therapy we drive straight to their house. Mary is overflowing with amazement. “They came back!” she exclaims. Carl buries his face in Papa’s sweatshirt. I forget to tell remind him not to wipe his sweat on Papa. Secretly, a small knot of worry in my stomach unravels. I breathe a sigh of relief. It isn’t just Mary and Carl. I needed my parents, too. I think we are all learning the truth about family. When you love someone, you show up. Family shows up. Family comes back.


**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.


adoption, family

The “Do-Over” that Didn’t


The closet is getting a vehement tongue-lashing. I can hear the muffled yelling of my 11-year-old son inside the hall closet. His behind is sticking out into the entryway, but the rest of his body has disappeared inside the coat closet.

“Carl? Honey, are you yelling at the closet?” I ask him.


I am puzzled at best. “Why are you yelling at the closet?”

“Because!” He pops his head out to tell me, “If it keeps dropping things on me, then I’m going to keep yelling at it!”

I nod in agreement “Sounds fair,” I say.

As I walk away he continues to yell inside the closet. He also yelled at his trumpet this morning. He was upset because he had left the trumpet at school. The inanimate object wasn’t even present, and he was still yelling at it. He’s been having a lot of frustration lately and it’s hard for him to manage.

He will become enraged over the tiniest of irritants. He slams his fist on the counter. He throws books, remotes, or toys that bother him. He got upset at the therapists office because she didn’t have another stick of fum for him. He threw a football with force and smashed a picture frame. He didn’t mean to. He wasn’t looking. He just has to move, to do something, to release that feeling.

Carl has come a long way. I’m not worried about the closet, or the absentee trumpet, or even the remote. I have to admit I was a bit worried about the broken picture frame at the therapist’s office.We did offer to pay for a replacement. She refused the offer and said they should get plexiglass frames anyway. Bless that woman!

I know that Carl has big feelings. He works hard to control his body and his actions when he is upset. However, he isn’t directing his anger at people. He doesn’t hit his sister, or push her down. He doesn’t come after me in any way. Not anymore. In fact, despite what he is going through, Carl is the gentlest he’s ever been with me. I have back problems from an accident and I’ve recently had back surgery. Carl refuses to let me push the shopping cart. He brings my basket of laundry downstairs to start the wash.

He won’t hear of me carrying my own items into the house from work. “Don’t even think about it!” he’ll say. When he leaves with my husband he makes sure to open the garage door one my side, “in case I want to go out.” The door is too heavy for me. Six months ago, Carl would be dangerous while working through these emotions. A year ago, it would have been beyond imagining. Today, I am so proud of how he is trying to channel his anger.

During his shower last night a bottle of conditioner fell on his toe. I could hear him scream in anger and frustration. “The bottle did this!” he bellowed.”It hurt my toes!!!”he cried in indignation.

“Toss the bottle out here,” I told him, “I’ll deal with this.”

He popped his soapy head out from behind the shower curtain with a confused look on his face. (Yeah, both of the kids shower with the door half open. That’s a whole other story)

Dubiously he clutched the shower curtain around himself and threw the bottle to me. I snatched it up and sat it down in the corner. I gave it a stern lecture about having safe hands and safe bodies with our family. I told that bottle that it needed to take a break and regroup. I assured the bottle that it could return to Carl’s shower and try again as soon as it had taken some calming breathes and regulated its feelings. I have to say I was a bit tougher on that bottle than I would be on my children.

Carl and Mary died laughing and the tension was broken, if only for a little while. Why did I give a bottle of conditioner a “do-over?” Because that’s what we do around here.  We handle big feelings. We handle past trauma. We handle it like the champions we are!


**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

adoption, family

Clown Pranks vs. Trauma

Oh my ever-loving-cookie-dough! What is with the clown pranking everywhere? I know that kids all over the place from all different backgrounds are scared. I get it that it’s not just kids with past trauma who are being affected by this. I suppose we don’t have the market cornered on kids with lots of anxiety. But, Come ON!!!!

Our children have a serious aversion to masks of any kind. This isn’t at all surprising, considering that they have a specific trauma history related to masks. They can remember being small, in their biological home, and being terrorized by adults in masks.

So all of the media hoopla over the clown hoaxes is not helping. The kids at school are all talking about the creepy clowns. Every child knows someone, who knows someone else, who has a cousin, who saw a clown in their backyard. The difference for these kids is simple. They don’t end up worried that it might be their biological parents coming to terrorize them.

Mary was able to have an open conversation with me about how she feels “very triggered” when other kids start talking about the clowns. She told me that she logically knows there isn’t a band of child-killers dressed as clowns running around. Instead, it’s been making her think about her biological family and some of the scary things they did.

The school sent out a letter stating that they would be telling kids that the school was safe from clowns. They stated that they would not be allowing children to spread rumors or continue talking about the clowns. The letter advised parents not to expose children to the news on TV, because it was featuring stories about the clowns.

Really? That’s the plan?? When we find something in the world that makes our children uncomfortable we shelter them completely? How on earth is the school going to police every conversation children have? How will they stop kids from “spreading rumors” when little kids actually believe that these are concrete events.

We took the opposite approach in our house. We showed our children the news. Why try to get your children to believe your word over that of their friends? Why not show them that the news is reporting these events to be hoaxes spurred on by social media? The news mentioned teenagers who thought it was funny to put on masks and stand around. Just a hint, teens who want their pictures on twitter are not that scary.

We discussed all of this with our children. We listened to Carl’s opinion about why teenagers might do this and not realize how their actions were hurting others. We listened to Mary wonder aloud why adults would think it was funny to put masks on and drive. Most of all we listened. We acknowledged that their fears run deep. We accepted their emotions even as we let them come to the logical conclusion that this wasn’t real.

We don’t hide our kids from triggers. We help them to cope with triggers. After our talk Mary said to me, “I know it isn’t real. Can I still hold your hand on Halloween, Mom?” Of course she can. That right there is a darn good coping strategy. A strategy our daughter came up with. So take that, you stupid clowns!


**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.


adoption, family

Why do Adoptive Parents Care About Attachment?


Why do we want our kids to form attachments? Why is this issue so pivotal for adoptive families? Why are we even discussing attachment? Shouldn’t it be all about the trauma when you are fostering or adopting kids from hard places?

In my opinion the answer is yes and no. Yes, attachment is a key issue for our kids. No, it is not the only issue they face when coming into a new family. Trauma is huge for our kids. Not the kind of single-incident traumas such as car accidents or getting mugged. Our kids have faced traumatic experiences at the hands of the very people who were supposed to care for them and keep them safe.

Suffering abuse and neglect from a caregiver during the early years of life will affect other relationships. It doesn’t matter how you look at this kind of trauma. It understandably makes it hard to trust others. So often our kids get stuck in survival mode. They are used to looking out for themselves and that’s all they have space for. It makes it hard to empathize with others, because these kids are trying to ensure their very existence. At least, that’s what it feels like to them.

I was asked recently to explain why attachment is so important to adoptive families. Is it because we, as adults, demand affection from our children? Is it because we are seeking love on our own terms? I don’t really think so. Do we need proof that our children are “fixed?” Although it’s perfectly normal to hope our children will heal, or love us back, I don’t really believe this is the crux of the issue.

Building healthy relationships is key to having a fulfilling life. I believe we want to teach our children how to love, how to experience rewarding, reciprocal human connections. We want to enable them to feel love and safety in ways we sometimes take for granted. Does trauma need to be addressed? Of course. But it needs to be in the context of healthy connection with trustworthy loved ones.

According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, physiological and safety are the base of the pyramid. These needs must be met before the human can go on to meet other, higher level needs. The next one is relationships. It is a psychological need. According to Maslow it’s actually a step on the journey to self-fulfillment. And wouldn’t we want this for our children?

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To the Drunk Dad at a Child’s Football Game


Look, football can be intense for some people. Even the kids’ league gets a little crazy with the “fans” in the stands cheering and taking each play personally. Everyone has coaching advice. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone has a good reason why their player should be/is the star.

I get it. I love to watch my son play while my daughter cheerleads from the side. Carl is a linebacker and a tiny kid in general. I cringe with every tackle he makes, every hit he takes. It’s a little scary to watch. I get excited and cheer him on, jumping up and down in the stands whenever there is a touchdown or a good play. I’m not obsessed with football. I don’t know that much about the game. I do know that my son is an awesome kid and watching him play is the best thing ever! Here’s the thing: other parents feel the same way about their kids. This part may come as a shock but I’m talking about the parents of the kids on the opposing team!

Last night, at Carl’s game a player from the other side got a personal foul. He was trash talking some of the players on our side and the referee heard him. The kid was understandably frustrated. Our side was up 27-0. He didn’t handle his frustration well. While this 11-year-old child got a personal foul for “poor sportsmanship” one of the dads on our side started clapping and cheering. The kid bowed his head and walked off of the field to the sounds of clapping and shouting, “That’s right! Woo-hoo! Let him have it!! POOR SPORTSMANSHIP!”

The shouts were all coming from an inebriated man, swaying back and forth precariously on his feet, on our side of the field. I immediately told him to stop cheering when the other side gets a fowl.

“Stop that!” I told him, “Those are just kids out there. They make mistakes. You’re a grown man!”

Of course he got angry and slurred some phrases about how I belong on the “other side of the field,” if I’m going to stick up for the opposing side. He went on and on about kids learning good sportsmanship, all the while spittle flying from his mouth while he swayed back-and-forth. I told him straight to his tomato-red face that the same thing applies to the adults on the sidelines! There is no need to make that kid feel any worse. The player had his consequence. Let the referee and the other coach handle it from here. Adults don’t need to jeer and heckle 11-year-olds.

The thing is, I remember some of the anger outbursts my son has had. His anger issues stem from fear and trauma, learned during his early formative years. Before he came into foster care he suffered abuse and neglect at the hands of another mom, another family. The aftereffects of this are still with him and may always be. Carl’s anger is like visceral tornado at his back, waiting in the wings to wipe out anything in it’s path. He uses coping strategies, sensory tools, and yes, even medication, to keep the tornado at bay. This kind of self-control is so hard for an 11-year-old.

Carl can handle himself on the field now, but there was a time when he couldn’t. I remember when another child had to hold him back at school from attacking a substitute teacher.  He thought she had done something bad to his regular teacher in order to replace her. Another time he destroyed a book at school when he was mad, and then attacked a file cabinet. All to prevent himself from attacking the teacher.

This past summer Carl came home crying from day camp. He had gotten into an argument with another boy and began kicking a cardboard box repeatedly. He was chastised for kicking the box and the teacher was surprised by how angry he was. Later Carl sobbed in the car, “But she didn’t understand. I was trying not to hurt anyone.” I understood. There was a time when Carl would’ve been kicking the other boy. He has come so far.

My point is this: we don’t know about someone else’s kid. There is no way we could possibly know what another child has been through. Maybe the offending football player had a bad day. Maybe he was just being a brat. Maybe he even has PTSD, like my son. We aren’t the ones to judge. That’s why games come with referees.

So to the drunk dad at a child’s football game? I say the following:

Whether you’ve had 1 beer or 30, there is no need to shout at someone else’s kid. Or the coach. Or the referee. Honestly? Please stop drinking and just cheer for your kid. I know I’ll be cheering for mine, even if he makes a mistake.


**Names in this blog have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.


adoption, family

The Non-Argument: Adventures in Battling Trauma


It’s been a year since Sean left. He’s 15 now. Marcus left in August of last year and he will be 19 next month. I can go whole days without thinking about them. The bone-deep grief that brought me to my knees is subsiding. But foster kids leave. Pre-adoptive placements disrupt. It happens all the time. Or so they say.

I’ve been dreaming about the teens all week. It’s usually about Sean. I dream that I’ve forgotten to pick Sean up somewhere. In this dream I try desperately to remember where he is before it becomes dark. And then I wake up to find that the angry, traumatized teens have moved on. Have I?

Mary has been having a difficult transition back to school. Her feelings are jumbled about most things lately. Her 9-year-old emotional roller coaster is on the fast track. She will cycle from maniacal laughter to gut-wrenching sobs within minutes. My husband and I are on high-alert for that intense “happy” reaction that is just a shade too bright, too intense. This is our signal that she is on the brink of losing control over her emotions.

Mary is disappointed over her own reactions.  Her perception is that others are disappointed with her as well. That fear bubbles over into her interactions with me. She has to share this intense discomfort somewhere. This leads to having what I call the “non-argument.” For example:

Mary: Mom? You’re going to be disappointed. I spilled my drink

Me: That’s ok, honey. Accidents happen. Just grab the cleaner under the sink.

Mary: I can’t clean this!

Me: We can clean it together.

Mary: (dumping the bottle of cleaner) I’m sorry! I spilled it all! It was an accident! I know you’re mad I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry! Please believe me! Why are you mad? Do you still love me????

Me: (gathering her into a hug) I am going to hug you for 30 full seconds and then we will clean together.

Another example:

Mary: Mom! Why won’t you look at me? You’re mad at me?

Me: I’m just tying my shoe.

Mary: I made that noise you don’t like, didn’t I? I’m so sorry! I’m sorry! I’m really sorry, Mommy! Don’t be mad!

Me: Honey I’m happy. Let’s have a happy hug.

Mary: Well what about this noise? How about this one?

And so on and so on. I’ve tried giving her extra attention to make her feel safe. I’ve been giving extra cuddles. Luke and I recorded our voices on a small device that she can play back whenever she needs to. We provide transitional objects. Both Carl and Mary pick out their clothes and  breakfast the night before school (like at a hotel!) so we can spend the mornings connecting.

But still she looks to fight, argue, then apologize. She cowers like I might hit her and cries. She begs fervently for my forgiveness so often I can’t get a word in edgewise. I have to admit something.  She asks me if I’m mad so often that it’s starting to make me mad. My logical brain knows it’s her anxiety and her fear. My tired brain wants a quiet room and some space.

I am supposed to be bigger, stronger, and always safe. My emotional regulation sets the tone for hers. I do show her my emotions but she is so terrified of her own feelings that mine send her into full panic. I won’t engage in her non-arguments. I offer love and support. I hold her until her breathing slows. Then I make her clean up the spills or do her chores or her homework. Because that’s life. I say, “It’s ok to feel your feelings. You can feel them while you take out the trash. I’ll be right here.”

She is testing that limit to see where I break. I know she is. I understand why. That doesn’t stop it from happening.

Out of nowhere:

Mary: “You didn’t love him enough!”

Me: “Who?”

Mary: “Sean.”

I try to explain that we will always love Sean. We respect his choice not to be with our family.  He will always be a part of us.

Mary: “You just should’ve let him quit school! You should have respected his choices when he didn’t want to shower or do his chores. You should have just given him electronics! You wouldn’t just forgive him and let him come home! Just because he did ONE LITTLE THING! He hurt you ONE time, Mommy and your bruises weren’t that big.  Now he’s gone!”

Mic drop.

Immediately she is crying and wailing that she is sorry she said it. She is such a bad kid and she’s so terrible that no one could ever love her. But by now I am crying, too. Uncontrollably and I miss my boy and I cannot stop. My grief hits me like a tidal wave and I am swept away in emotion so strong that I’ll surely drown.

The truth about Sean is very hard for me. It’s a bitter pill to swallow and I’m still not sure that I can process everything that has happened with him. We tried like hell to love him perfectly and be a good family for him. It was after he left that I saw the lying, manipulation, stealing, and damage he had done. Those were his survival skills.

It doesn’t matter. I miss him still. He’s made it clear he never wanted to see us again. Carl and Mary included. He’s changed so much I wouldn’t recognize the boy I knew. The boy I knew never existed. My logical brain knows this. But my emotional brain keeps dreaming about the son I’ve lost. The illusion of Sean is what I knew. The reality of my own emotions is what I have left.

And so Mary has found my Achilles heal. When I won’t engage in her non-argument she fights back. She’ll drop a comment that sounds as sweet as sugar but cuts deeper than a scalpel. I’ll be driving the car. “No mommy,” she’ll sigh. “You just don’t understand Sean. Sean is sweet.”

“Of course,” I’ll say calmly, “He is a sweet boy.”

I’ll be in the refrigerator. “You just don’t understand him,” she’ll say while ruefully shaking her head. I don’t argue. I won’t engage. I continue whatever it is I’m doing. The more she knows it bothers me, the more she will bring it up. The less reaction she gets, the less she’ll try this non-argument. But it cuts so deep. I plaster an innocuous look on my face while inside I’m bleeding out.

The more I agree we love Sean, the more open I am to discussing him, the more frustrated she becomes.  I wake up one day to find an 8×10 picture of him on the fridge. I offer to frame it for her. I ask if she wants it in her room, but of course she wants it where “everyone can see.” She looks pointedly at me. I nod in a noncommittal way and move on.

She pushes and prods and pokes at my tender spot all week. When I can’t take it anymore I retreat upstairs for a bubble bath. I leave Luke to serve dinner while Sean watches from the fridge. That’s when I realize something. It’s not Mary landing the blows. It’s her trauma pushing her into strong emotions. She doesn’t want to be alone in these feelings. It was Sean’s trauma that led him to do the things he did. It’s my trauma giving me bad dreams about my former son.

After my bath I snuggle up my little girl on the couch. She is wearing her pineapple  nightgown. We snuggle under a huge pineapple blanket her godmother made for her. She needs to know that she is not leaving no matter what she does. She needs to know she is safe in her forever home.  I’m going to love her through her fear. I will love her no matter what kind of fight trauma brings up. After all, someone has to retreat and it won’t be me.


**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.