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.

adoption, family

Roller Skating and Regulation: Handling the Meltdowns

This is beyond Mary’s ability to tolerate. We’ve been at the roller-skating rink for almost 2 hours and she has not yet  mastered the art of flawless skating. She is also skating in a rink without her parents. We have been meeting her on the sides and encouraging her as she clings to the edges and slides precariously around the floor. There is loud music. There are lots of people. It’s fun, but it’s also a lot of stimulation.

Luke and I have taken Mary and Carl out with  their godmother and her two stepsons. The 4 kids are a regular crew of pals and enjoy spending time together. We want to celebrate finishing the first week back to school, including me. Normally, I would put on skates and get out there. After my recent surgery, however, I have to be very careful not to fall. Instead I try to content myself with watching from the sidelines like the other grown-ups.

After about an hour of falling and then determinedly righting himself, Carl has the hang of this. He is still unsteady, but for the most part he is skating with purpose. He is on his skates more than he is on the ground. We cheer and clap for his persistence.  We cheer for more than just skating. This week is full of accomplishments for Carl. He has started 5th grade. He is trying his best on his football team, even though he is with older kids now. He is working hard at school, even though he misses us when summer ends. He is trying hard in therapy  even though that’s just plain hard all around. In short, he is persevering no matter the difficulty of the task. His hard work is paying off.

Traditionally, the start of the school year is hard. It’s a very big transition. The kids are spending less time with us and more time in school. As a teacher, I enjoy summers with my children and then return to work a few days before they return to school. This year is hard because I’ve been home with a back injury for some time now. The kids get nervous when they don’t exactly know where I am during the day. They wish I would just stay at home where they leave me. In their experience, mothers are a slippery thing to keep ahold of.

In addition, I have to go to physical therapy 3 times a week after work. Then the children have sports. Don’t get me wrong, they love to be on teams and it’s been good for them. It’s just that we normally have more time to connect after school and before football/cheerleading activities. Carl has come up with a solution. He asks to go to PT with me. He puts on his football pads and loads his gear into the car. As the therapist works on my back, he drapes himself over my head in an awkward, yet endearing, snuggle of sorts. Then, when I do my exercises, he performs them side-by-side with me.

It hasn’t been as easy for Mary. I try to lie down with her for a bit at night. We whisper and giggle in the dark. I spend time snuggling with her on the couch after she showers in the evenings. It’s never enough. She’s been like a colander this week. Every time I try to fill her up with love it just all leaks out and she is never fulfilled. She has become louder, more upset, more persistent, and more antagonistic of Carl. In these ways she seeks attention.  From time to time she throws hurtful words my way. I’m guessing that she is merely seeking the attention an argument will bring. Seeking to find out if I care enough to be wounded. I won’t argue with her, and I’m not mad. Just concerned.

So here we are at the rink. I’m taking pictures of the boys skating and Luke is on the other side with Mary. I don’t see my cell phone buzzing. I don’t realize that my husband is texting me an SOS. Mary is smacking the side of the rink with her fists and spewing vitriol at Luke, and everyone unlucky enough to be near.

“This is stupid!” she screams. Her face turns red and blotchy and her breathing gets shallow when she is angry like this.

“I hate this stupid place and all these stupid people! These skates are stupid! You have to come in here with me! Right now!!”

“Stop looking at me! LEAVE ME ALONE! LEAVE ME ALLOOOONNNNE!!!!!”

Someone else is clinging to the side nearby. She shoots him a look filled with daggers and screams, “Well if HE won’t move then I guess I’ll be stuck here FOREVER!! STUPID!!!”

Of course the man moves and my husband mutters a “Thank you.” This isn’t the first time we’ve gone down the path of Mary’s “big feelings.” Obviously we don’t want her pounding on things and screaming at strangers, but parenting a kid with trauma is a process. This has actually gotten a lot better over the years. At this point, Luke and I know how to handle the situation. Her anger is really a form of fear. We are fairly seasoned therapeutic parents.

When she is finished screaming and pounding her fists on the divider, she puts her head in her arms and cries. After a few minutes Luke is able to coax her out of the rink and she makes her way across the room to me. She is sobbing out-of-control and cannot catch her breath. It comes in huge, hiccupping hitches and her body shakes. When I see what is happening I gather her into my chest and squeeze. She collapses against me like a ragdoll and her words all come spilling out. She feels stupid. She is embarrassed that she isn’t good at skating. She didn’t get to spend enough time with anyone today. She fears that all of the people in the place have been laughing at her. All day.

Mary is afraid she has blown her only shot to see her friends and her godmother ever again. Ever. All because she is awful and stupid at skating. Also she is awful and stupid for yelling at Daddy. She believes that she has ruined the day with her stupid big feelings and now it will be over. Stupid, stupid, stupid!

Only, that isn’t at all true. She is brilliant. She has managed to hold on to her “big feelings,” and express them with her words. She has come to me for regulation when she was unable to regulate on her own. She hasn’t hurt anyone, hurt herself, or broken anything. She is coping. Amazing.

As I hold her chest against my own, we take deep breaths together. She shoves her face directly into my sternum and inhales. Instantly she is able to match her breathing to my own and we stay this way for a few minutes, just inhaling and exhaling. Finally she is calm. “Did I ruin it, Mommy?” She asks. “Did I ruin the playdate?”

“No, honey,” I tell her. “We are going to practice our coping skills until you’re calm again. Then we are going home with our friends for pizza. You’re doing a great job coping with your feelings.”

“Can I handle that?” she ventures.

“Yes,” I reply confidently. “I know that you can. And if not? I’m here.”

As her sniffles taper off, she looks up at me. “How do you always know what to do?” she asks. Despite the stupid place and the stupid skates, I am wise. I know the answer. My reply is simple,”That’s easy. Because I’m your mom.”


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