adoption, family

Starting Fires For Self-Esteem


You can’t see it, but Papa is standing right behind him, just out of the shot. He’s behind Carl, all the way!


He views himself through a distorted lens, as if he were always looking into a fun house mirror. Carl’s sense of self is based on a past history that won’t let go of him. He carries with him burdens that no child should have. Many children in foster care feel the same distortion. Self-esteem is elusive. They cannot see the good inside of themselves because their self-image is clouded by the trauma of the past. There isn’t much adults can say to help. Foster and adoptive parents can tell them, “You are an amazing kid,” or, “People love to be near you,” but they don’t believe this. After all, adults have spoken words before that held no meaning. Bio parents made promises and didn’t follow through. Social workers assured them “soon” they would have a permanent home. Foster homes offered assurances that they wouldn’t have to leave. Words don’t hold weight with our children.

For 10-year-old Carl, his self-esteem hovers somewhere below sea level. He doesn’t see the good like I do. He thinks he has proof of crimes he has committed. Proof holds more weight with Carl than words. He takes responsibility for things that he has “done.” He shoulders the burdens of what happened in his bio-home.

On his asthma: “It’s my own fault I have asthma. When my bio family shut the door to their room to do smoking, I should have left. I would stay close to the door and look under. I was scared to be alone. I must have breathed in the smoke so that’s really my fault.”

On the police pulling his father over: “It was my fault. When you turn around and look at a police car behind you, they pull you over. That’s the law.”

On missing 80+ days of first grade: “It’s my fault that I didn’t wake up in time.”

On being home alone to watch his younger sister: “It’s my fault I got scared and I ran out of the house to find mommy. I was scared to be alone. It’s my fault I left Mary in the house.”

On having no one to take him off of the bus after school in first grade: “It’s my fault. Mommy didn’t get me off of the bus because she didn’t like me.”

On Bio-mom drinking and using: “She didn’t want to get out of bed because she didn’t like me. It’s my fault.”

On being beaten: “It was my fault. I was a bad boy. I needed to learn my lesson.

On being removed at 5-years-old: “It’s my fault.”

No matter how many times we tell him that he is a great kid, he won’t believe us. He feels that his “proof” would show otherwise. We can tell him that his first family had their own struggles but they loved him. We can tell him that they couldn’t control their addictions and neither could he. He was only 5! He can’t believe this. He needs proof.

Kids are such concrete thinkers. In order to build self-esteem, they need a reason that they can see. For Carl, as with so many children, he needs to literally see his own accomplishments. So we put him to work. Not on his own, mind you. The experience is meaningful to Carl if he is working side-by-side with family. We build the relationship while we build his self-esteem. And let’s be honest, Carl is doing most of the work.

My parents have been invaluable in this. When they moved here, he helped unpack the boxes. When it snowed, he helped to shovel their driveway. Now that it is spring, Carl is “landscaping” at the new house with Papa. For this task he was given big responsibilities. Papa was there, side-by-side with Carl, demonstrating ways to safely use the yard equipment. They both wore hats and matching shirts. They raked leaves and burned them in the brick fire pit. Papa took extra time to explain fire safety to Carl. They ate lunch outside on the picnic bench so that they would be responsibly close to the burning leaf pile. It was a day of accomplishment.

Carl learned how to trim a hedge with the electric trimmer. Papa carefully showed him how, hand-over-hand, behind him all the way. They spend an afternoon like this. Grandfather and grandson, working together. Now, Carl has some proof of what he can accomplish. After all, Papa needs his help! Look at how beautiful the yard is! Over time, through actions like this, his narrative is changing.

On a clean and well-kept yard: “Look at how much we got done. I helped! Papa needed me to do all of that! Look at how much work we did. I did that!

On using the flame-thrower (with Papa’s close supervision): “Look at me! I know how to use this. I am very responsible!” 

On spending time with his grandparents: “Nana and Papa need me. I can be helpful to them. They love me a lot.”

When he needs proof, we give it to him. I say, “Look at what you’ve accomplished,” and he can, in fact, see it. Every day that he can see his accomplishments, he comes closer to seeing the good in himself.

“What kind of heart do you have, Carl?” I ask him.

“A helping heart,” is his reply.



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

*If you’ve ever thought about foster or adoptive care, I encourage you to start your own adventures.



adoption, family

“Mad Dog Face”: Adventures in My Daughter’s Emotional Rollercoaster


There is a small girl with a big helmet on the lacrosse field, running through plays, sobbing uncontrollably. I’ve just made it to Lacrosse practice and my husband is coaching. He tells me that she has been crying the entire time. She won’t say why. Since she has been crying nonstop for the past two weeks, I suspect she doesn’t even know why.

The team is mostly full of boys. Extremely confused boys. They keep asking her, “What’s wrong with you? Why are you crying?” It’s obvious that they are genuinely perplexed and concerned but unsure of how to approach her. I don’t entirely blame them. I mean, she is loud and upset and clearly dripping boogers. She is also armed with a lacrosse stick. The ensuing conversation takes place:

Confused/concerned Little Boy: “Are you OK? Why do you keep crying?

Mary: “LEAVE ME ALONE!” (picture a lion roaring)

Offended Little Boy: “You don’t have to be a butt head about it!”

Offended Carl : “Don’t call my sister a butt head!”

Mary: “WAAAAHHHHH!!!!” (picture the wail of a siren)

And so on all through practice.

Since she is reacting this way over breakfast, dinner, bedtime, a broken nail, and a cat that “looked at her” I can only guess. She’s 9 years old now. Is it hormones? Please tell me that my 9-year-old child is not about to get her period.

Is it medication related? Is she missing her therapist who is on maternity leave? Did a cat really look at her?!?!?!! What is happening???!!!!

Luke saved the day. He told her to get her “mad dog” face on. “C’mon mad dog. Go scare some boys!” Since she was already scaring most of them away, the rest of practice went relatively smoothly for her. She was able to scare most of them away from the goal. Maybe we should let her do the wailing/sobbing/booger thing at games?

In the car on the way home she told me she was upset about her bio-mom. She told me that she couldn’t remember any good memories about her. She remembers getting hit with a belt, and getting taken from the home during a drug raid. She remembers her bio-mom drinking and partying or sleeping a lot. She tells me that her bio-mom had “poor parenting skills” and that she is mad about it. I tell her she is feeling anger mixed with grief over the loss of her bio-mom. I explain that Mary was loved by her first mother, even though her first mom made a lot of mistakes.

By the time we get home she is quiet. After her shower I hold her on my lap for a long while. I press my cheek against her cheek and we practice taking deep breaths together. At bedtime, I lay down next to her and hold her close until she falls asleep. The last thing she says to me is, “Mommy? I’m glad you’re here.”


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

adoption, family

Seasons of Trauma

The steady “swish” of the washing machine reminds me that life is cyclical. The seasons change. The sporting events change. Right now we are in Lacrosse season, with both of the Littles playing, and Luke coaching. We also are on the merry-go-round of therapy. Our kids will be stable for a time and then, inevitably, one or the other is in crisis mode and we cycle back in. Right now we are in the season of Carl’s crisis. This is the never-ending circle of parenting children with trauma.

Little Carl is in a partial hospitalization placement right now. They pick him up early from school. He spends 4 hours a day, every weekday, at the center. They have group therapy, art therapy, and individual sessions. They drop him off at 6:30 every night. He is in an intensive placement, but it is still one step down from hospitalization. We get to tuck Carl in each night and have him at home on the weekends. From here, he will drop down into “intensive outpatient” therapy, which will only last for 3 hours a day. He will do this 5 days a week, then 3, then 2 until he is discharged. Then back to TF-CBT again with his normal therapist.

Watching the same clothes swirl around and around again in the washer makes me pause and think. Carl was in crisis last spring. When the days got warm, he became very intense and dis-regulated. He was hospitalized in a psychiatric unit towards the end of the school year. We know that every year, around Christmas, Mary goes into crisis mode. Sean used to blow at the start of the school year and again at Thanksgiving.

Curiosity about the Spring got the better of me. Why Spring? Yes, Carl is in the thick of his trauma work in Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. He was stuck in a place where he was able to vocalize all of the truly bad things he suffered at the hands of his biological parents. He just kept insisting that all of the things they did were his own fault somehow. Then, his therapist went on maternity leave. He is very dependent on her. We could see that this would trigger him. But still…the Springtime…it held onto me.

I went back into the files we have from the Department of Children and Families. There it was, staring back at me. May 4th. The day of the drug raid in his bio-home when he and his siblings were separated from their family. Bingo. It may not be much, but it gives me a clue as to why his behavior turns when the weather changes. It explains why he is more and more nervous that I may be “drinking” or “passed out” in my room. Trust me, the only thing I’m drinking is copious amounts of coffee. It has the opposite effect of helping me “pass out!”

There isn’t anything I can do about Spring. It will come every year. It’s not an excuse to be unsafe. I can only hope that, with continued love and therapy, he will heal. Understanding the fears he displays as anger is helpful for me. It helps me to sympathize. It helps me to see the sweet boy underneath all the layers of hurt and rage.

Seasons may come and go, but this forever family will always be just that; forever.


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