But We Know What We’re Doing!


This is a map of Mary’s feelings and where she feels them in her body. 

This week I find myself sitting in front of yet another psychiatrist in a string of specialists that we have worked with over the last three years. I find my mind drifting as I stare at the felt painting I have seen in this same office, in this same treatment center, with different doctors over the last 3 years.  I’m not thinking about that. I’m thinking about my vacuum cleaner. It’s supposed to be new and amazing but it never seems to pick up any dirt. It just sort of disperses bits of daily debris from our everyday lives. Our carpet must be looking very gray at this point.

We are at a partial-hospitalization program that provides treatment in the afternoons each weekday. Luke clears his throat to bring my focus back to the task at hand. I’ve come prepared with a typed lists of our daughter’s treatment providers, insurance information, medications, sensory diet, presenting behaviors, and coping skills. I am also carrying a suitcase-sized manilla file with past psychiatric evaluations, occupational evaluations, and records from emergency services, in-home services, out-patient services, and in-patient services.  Luke and I are sitting through what is probably our 1, 456th intake appointment at a mental health treatment facility.

Luke comes  on strong. He starts by saying, “Look, we’ve been here before. We’ve talked to a lot of professionals. We know our daughter best and we can tell you what’s going on.”The doctor nods and takes a few notes. He asks for a history, although he assures us he can get most of it from the therapist at the center who has worked with Carl and Mary in the past.

We both review the story from start to finish with a strong emphasis on trauma and the trauma-focused therapy and therapeutic parenting we do. To my surprise, this doctor nods and take notes. He agrees with us that our daughter doesn’t fit into any one box or diagnosis (Thank you!) He agrees that trauma-focused therapy is paramount (THANK YOU!) he also agrees that medications should treat symptoms and not a diagnosis. I can’t even say how relieved I am.

For the last three years Luke and I have had to learn brand-new parenting techniques that focus on connection and felt-safety for the child, rather than consequences and control. All of the books we read by Dr. Karyn Purvis, Heather T. Forbes, and Bryan Post have been stepping stones along the way to becoming therapeutic parents. The classes we’ve taken for “The Circle of Security,” and the webinars we watched with Dr. Siegal have helped us better understand our adopted children.

After a grueling 2 hour intake session, Mary is accepted into the PHP program. It’s a day program with group therapy, coping skills, and social skills. Mary will continue to see her long-time trauma therapist separately for the trauma-focused cognitive behavioral work she does. My husband and I will continue to see the partner therapist who helps us become a better therapeutic parenting team. We also have a referral for in-home clinical services and we have requested the program that provides a trauma-informed approach.

Our kids are phenomenally resilient. They have survived detrimental, developmental trauma and managed to survive. They have managed to attach to us and love us despite their fears. They have managed to live in a house with an ever-dirtier carpet on the darker side of beige. Somedays I feel like we are super parents with super skills to meet their needs. Somedays I feel like we are parents with a very dis-colored carpet.

On days like today I feel a bit defeated. I’m just a tired mom with a broken vacuum cleaner and a very long reading list. As we trudge home I explain to Luke that I wish we could be enough as parents. Just us. I wish that was all our kids needed. The truth is that our children need the vast trauma team and array of services they receive.

After everyone is sleeping, I tip-toe down the stairs to look at the vacuum. I take each hose apart until I find the one that is clogged. I have absolutely no knowledge about vacuums, household items, or fixing things in general. It doesn’t matter. Without even touching the manual I find the clog and dig out clumps of matted cat hair and other crunchy, fuzzy, questionable bits. It looks like a dead furry creature has been pulled out.

When I am finally ready, I flip the on-switch. It works! The suction is back! Our carpet is now covered in the clog of waste I have extracted. The family may wake up tomorrow thinking there is a dead hairy creature on our floor. I’m ok with it. It doesn’t matter. Victory is mine!


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



mental illness, parenting

In-Patient For the Holiday


I was so prepared this year. I was ready for anything. My husband and I had every therapeutic parenting technique we could think of at our disposal. Coping skills, body checks, sensory diet, check-ins, time-ins, you name it. We had our game faces on. Why? Because it was Christmas time. The worst time of year for many children from foster care. The worst time of year for our daughter.

We were so determined.We had it all figured out. We were on fire with new and wonderful connected parenting skills. I was even feeling a bit cocky, and posting things like, “Looking forward to our first Christmas with no in-patient stays!” on my parenting group. I was so very prepared this year. I was so very wrong.

Here is the hard truth about raising children with trauma and mental health concerns. Sometimes, it all goes wrong. Sometimes bad things happen anyway.  For several months we were working closely with Mary’s trauma team to adjust/change medications, increase therapy sessions, work on therapeutic techniques, etc.

Mary would be laughing one minute, then crying, then screaming. She claimed to hear what other people were thinking. She was lying more often, which is a pretty strong indicator of feeling deep anxiety and fear. Her emotions were spinning around faster than a tilt-a-whirl at the carnival.  She began telling us that she “felt like she was in a different world” at school. She heard voices that told her to hurt me and she didn’t want to. Welcome to the Christmas season.

Luke and I had contingency plans. We kept to a very regimented schedule, with no huge changes in the day to day routines. In order to alleviate anxiety we lightened the mood by having theme nights. One day the children came home and did their homework in a parisian cafe, while drinking “coffee” (mocha-flavored hot cocoa.) We all spoke in french accents while doing math.

Another night, our son yelled, “I wish everyone would stop talking to me.” So we did. We all sang our feelings rock-opera style. For an entire night. He had an air guitar solo, which he totally rocked, and Mary added some dance moves. I couldn’t talk the next day but he had gone from shouting to singing and laughing hysterically. We were having fun.

When Mary came home crying hysterically and told us she didn’t know where her sad feeling was coming from, we rolled with it. We set her up with sensory coping skills in her safe place. I stayed close until she was calm. Then my husband and I snuck into the kitchen to apply fake mustaches, turn on Frank Sinatra, and invite the children to a pasta dinner in our “Italian Bistro.” With accents, of course!

Typically, our daughter’s intense feelings can be acknowledged, named, and coped with. Mindfulness techniques and sensory tools work well for her. Then, as we lighten the mood and get playful, she can come back from the edge and her emotion will flip. It just isn’t always enough.

She began to rage on the evening of the 23rd and continued into the next morning. She claimed she could see people from her past that no one else could see. She screamed, she kicked, she beat her door. She writhed on the floor and yelled at us. She spoke to people that only she could hear. She lifted up her queen-sized bed and dumped it. She smashed everything in her room, or threw it.

All that work, all those skills, and she still had to go in-patient to be kept safe. She went into the psychiatric hospital the 24th and came home on the 26th. We are now referred back to a partial hospitalization program and Intensive In-home Psychiatric Child Services for her. We’ve done these a million times, rinse-repeat. It seems like starting over.

In the end I realize one thing. Our daughter isn’t a renovation project. We will never “fix” her or “cure” her. Mary is perfect because she is Mary. We want to help her heal but we also just want to be her parents.

When she grows up she won’t look back and remember magical parents that swooped in with all the answers and saved her. She will remember parents who cared. Parents who did the one thing that I believe really helped her. Parents that stayed with her. And if I’m being honest, I really hope she remembers the mustaches.




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







I’m Not Sick and You Can’t Make Me! Adventures in Oppositional Defiance


Anyone who has ever raised an oppositional child knows that they are very good at one thing: opposing you. It is like an unexpected special talent or bonus sporting event that adoptive parents were not expecting. This issue isn’t really about trying to drive us parents crazy. It’s really about gaining their own sense of control out of a chaotic life and a traumatic background. It’s just really hard to remember that after a night with only about 3 hours of sleep and an aching back.

Mary was sick all of Sunday afternoon. She took an unprecedented nap at a friend’s house. When Luke picked her up she had red puffy eyes, a runny nose, and the sniffles that wouldn’t quit. She forced herself miserably through dinner and then begged me for snuggle time. She fell asleep in my arms around 6:30. We put her to bed with some children’s cold medicine and called it a night.

Meanwhile, Carl was hacking up deep phlegm-filled cough from his chest. We gave him some cough medicine and sent him to bed at the regular time. He got up twice for extra snuggles and a cough drop. When both kids were finally asleep, Luke and I thought we were in the clear. We quickly wrapped Christmas presents like fiends  and before we knew it the time was 11:30PM. Very late for us old folks.

Of course, this was when the parade of sick children began. It started with a tap-tapping on my shoulder and, “Mommy, I need you.” Mary was throwing up, Carl couldn’t stop coughing. It sounded like a tuberculosis factory.  I administered medicine, checked temperatures, and held back hair. By 3:00AM my husband found us all in a pile with pillows and blankets sleeping right outside the bathroom door. After this, we traded places and my husband stayed awake with the sick little chickens while I got some sleep. It was a disaster.

What we did next might shock you. We kept the children home from school. Yes, we called them out of school and made doctor’s appointments for them. Carl was astounded and infuriated with our decision. Around 5 my husband crawled into bed for some shut eye. Big mistake.

Carl was ready to go to school at 6. Not to be deterred he came back at 6:30, then at 7. We just didn’t get it. “I am NOT SICK!” he started  yelling. He wanted to watch TV. He wanted to play (cough) outside (hack) in the snow (labored wheezing breathe.) Back to bed I sent him with Vick’s vaporub and the humidifier running. As he is crying and wailing about how (gasp, wheeze, guttural coughing fit) unfair and mean I am, Mary decides to join.

My vomitous daughter of the previous night comes out dressed in the full regalia of her sleeveless Christmas Eve gown. Did I mention that the gown is pure white? Or that she has been vomiting poison green phlegmy stuff? She tells us she is ready for school. If they can’t play in the snow or play video games then she is off to school. Carl agrees. Clearly I am crazy for ever thinking they were sick!

Unfortunately for these little chickens, the doctor did not agree with their self-diagnosis. After having both children change into warm clothing (It was 12 degrees outside this morning) Luke takes them in for a check-up. Both children have prescriptions and are ordered into bed for the day with plenty of rest and fluids.

We are all exhausted but I see a small victory. Last night, when they were in the worst throes of discomfort, they sought us out. They came to mom and dad for comfort. Our children have many issues from their past trauma, but one thing is for sure. They are attached to us. After almost 3 years, they trust us to meet their needs. Now if they would only believe us about what it is they actually need!

And home they are now. Despite how adamant Carl was about not being tired, he is fast asleep. Let’s hope we are all a little less grumpy after getting some rest.


**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 gum 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.


Control, Amputation, and Other Issues in Trauma


“You’re going to lose a finger!” I tell him. He rolls his eyes and shrugs.He clearly knows better than I do because he has achieved the wise old age of 11. He knows it all. It is I, his “over-protective” half-witted mother, who worries about frivolous things like amputation.  He has real problems to worry about like football, kids who cut in line at recess, and making sure everyone can see his knee-high matching champion socks. With shorts. In 30 degree weather.

The thing is, I am just not a cool mom. I am the mom who adopted him and for some  crazy reason, doesn’t want him to freeze. Carl has had frost-bite before he came to us. His fingers are very susceptible. Only, he will play barehanded in the snow without realizing a problem until it’s too late. At that time he will come in screaming at the top of his lungs from pain. Glass shatters, my ear drums burst, he sobs, and its awful. The next day he forgets all about it and heads out without his gloves again. It’s a cycle.

In warmer weather, I let it slide. In colder weather, I let him have options. This coat or that coat? Blue gloves or black mittens? A hat or earmuffs? It’s always the same. He digs in his heals about the gloves. He can never seem to remember the natural consequence of going without them and screaming until his hands are warm again.

They say to pick your battles. As a seasoned trauma-mama I know this. I get it. I still want my son to keep his fingers, though.They are so cute! I’m also rather partial to my eardrums. SOOO this is the battle I choose.

He leaves his gloves on the bus. He leaves them at school. They are lost on the playground. Sometimes I swear he eats them. For some inexplicable reason his sister has decided that she needs to start double-gloving because her hands are extra sensitive. So the ABSOLUTELY ONE TIME he decides to be a gentleman is when he gallantly offers her his own pair to put over her own. Sigh.

It isn’t the gloves, themselves. We have tried every texture, fabric, material, and configuration you can possibly imagine. I’ve specially ordered seamless mittens from a company that sells sensory-special items for children with sensory processing disorders. It’s just the control.

So I’ve decided to become a ninja-mom. There will be gloves and mittens everywhere. In his backpack, in his pillowcase, on the christmas tree, in the school nurse’s office, in his locker, in the cat bed, and between the pages of his favorite books. Electric bill be damned, I’m spending the money on mittens!

I’m pretty sure the dollar store thought they were being robbed today. I walked in and said, “Give me all the gloves you’ve got. No, I want ALL of them! In the cart! Quickly!” Then I paid like a fiend with wild eyes and rushed off to stash them everywhere.

There. Will. Be. Gloves!!!

But seriously…pray for me?



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



Manipulation, Melt-Downs, and Meeting Them With Love

Not everyone can be nice all of the time. Not even me. It’s true, although I am loath to admit it. Our daughter Mary has been going through a phase again that is tough to take. I always see her as my loving, sweet, and talented little girl. Despite the fact that I am her doting mom, I can also see the not-so-loving and not-so-sweet actions she has been taking recently.

I’ve learned that Mary has been targeting another little girl on her bus. This little girl is prone to crying easily and is very sensitive. When Mary feels dysregulated, she eases her own feelings by using hurtful words to get a reaction out of this other child. She’s gotten two “bus tickets” for her behavior recently.

At school, Mary is going to talk to her social worker often, but no one is quite sure what exactly is bothering her. She has come up with many different reasons. She has anxiety about friends, about recess, about her biological family. She feels that she can hear the thoughts of the other girls in her class and they all hate her. She typically has these big feelings during math time. This is also the time when she suddenly needs the nurse or the bathroom.

Lately she has been locked in a homework struggle with us. When she completes her work, she crumples it up in her bag and hides it from her teacher. Then she hides her assignment sheet from us and gives a great big story about having to hand in the assignment sheet to the teacher. “No worries,” I tell her gently, “I will take a look in your backpack. Moms have great finding skills.” This is where I find hidden assignments she doesn’t want to do. I also find the elusive assignment sheet. Most baffling of all is that I find several completed assignments that are perfectly well done (She’s VERY good at math.) She cannot explain why she won’t hand them in.

She’s been markedly more irritable. Mary is having meltdowns over the smallest things. She is also inciting as many fights as she can with her brother. She feigns injury when he walks by as though he has punched her. She tries to bait him into fights. When he won’t respond she ends up screaming and yelling and tearing out bits of her hair. I’m not sure that random-pattern baldness is the answer to sibling rivalry, but who am I to give advice? “You don’t understand my body!” she shouts at me. Agreed. I have no idea.

Last night she had a tantrum in therapy. While in the waiting room she destroyed her homework papers by ripping them and stabbing them with her pencil. She screamed and kicked on the floor and told my husband that she hated him and wished she could live anywhere else. I heard this all from the other therapy room where I was with Carl in session.

My husband Luke is a simple man when it comes to family. He just plain loves us. Family is his first priority come hell or high water. He calmly but firmly took the pencil from her and told her in no uncertain terms to stop attacking the furniture in the waiting room. She wasn’t having an out-of-control episode. We know her by now and he could see that she was calculating how far she could go in order to show her displeasure. She stopped, but not before saying some deeply hateful things to Luke. Bless the man, he didn’t respond in kind. He firmly sent her into her therapist’s office where her mood changed to silly, happy giggling, crying, and then back to irritation.

I’m not proud of this, but I didn’t say our special “goodnight” to her at tuck-in. Luke did it instead. I’m so used to my sweet girl that it’s hard for me to see her act with calculated cruelty.  It’s easier when it’s  targeted at me. It is so much harder when she targets the emotionally fragile girl on the bus, her brother, and even worse, my husband.

I know that it comes from a place of pain.  She is hurting, so she hurts others. I know I must respond with love and kindness. After some deep breaths I am able to try again. A panicky feeling sets in when I realize this is the only night I haven’t done our special tuck-in since she came home two-and-a-half years ago.

I gently wake her out of slumber and touch her face in the rhythm we have established. It goes: forehead, cheek, cheek, nose, chin. I whisper the words that match the rythm, “I Love you forever, no matter what, and I am so (tap) glad (tap) you’re (tap) home (tap then lip-pop)” She smiles sweetly in her half awake state and gives a muffled lip-pop back. Then Mary mumbles, “Mommy.” That’s right, kiddo. Mommy’s here. Always.



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




Am I Raising Donald Trump?

I can tell the school principal is struggling to say the word “p*ssy,” to me. It appears as though my husband and I will be heading to the school for a meeting with the principal. I clutch the phone a little closer to my ear in case I have mis-heard what she is trying to explain to me about Carl.

“He sad what?!

“He shouted at the other girl that, “at least I don’t have blood coming out of my p*ssy,” the principal blurts out. She is in the middle of tactfully explaining to me the thorough investigation she has just completed at school.  Children have been complaining to her that Carl is making them feel uncomfortable with the “sixth grade health class” talk he’s been having. And that isn’t all.

When she asks the other children if they have asked Carl to stop they all say that they are too afraid of him. They are afraid of what will say to them or say about them. He has two other boys he is close with that participate in treating a group of girls a certain way. Apparently they call make fun of the girls by calling them “gay” and “lesbians.” They target girls in the class at recess, lunch, and other unstructured times.

To me the worst part of the whole thing is that Carl and his friends have been ensuring that the girls won’t “tell.” They have intimidated the other classmates not to talk about the harassment. It’s been happening for weeks. They know it’s wrong and yet they are using this newfound power and prestige to make themselves feel bigger and more entitled than the others.

As you can imagine, my husband and I are horrified. It isn’t OK to treat women this way. It’s not OK to bully other kids. It’s not OK to derive pleasure out of someone else’s pain. And yet, I don’t need all of the principal’s detailed accounts of the thorough and ironclad investigation to believe that our son is capable of this.

I am long familiar with the dichotomy of Carl. This 11-year-old boy, on the cusp of adolescence, is a study of contrast. He is stuck somewhere between his present-day life and the past that still haunts him. This is the same boy who delicately disentangles a bird stuck in netting, snuggles his kitten at night, and painstakingly prepares a cup of coffee for his me when my back is hurting. His love and loyalty are some of his best qualities. I like to think that this is part of what we have taught him during the almost 3 years he has been home with us now.

But there is another Carl. The one who came to us from foster care in an angry desperation that he should ever have a family at all. This Carl has a past littered with domestic violence that shadows his current life. This Carl forgets that women are not a “lesser” species to be ordered and used as a commodity. After all, that is what he saw in his birth home. The shadow of his past darkens his view of me when he shouts at me and tells me what I must do. His words can become the domineering words of an abusive husband/boyfriend/stranger/pimp that leers out at me from his past life.

There are always consequences to actions. There will be consequences at school. There will be consequences at home. My husband and I prepare to go to the school with the resignation that we are in for a long battle. It isn’t us against the school. It isn’t us against Carl. It’s all of us against the horrible past the reappears, zombie-like, just as we are making progress.

I have hope. My hope is that he will learn better ways. There is still time for us to teach him what a man should be. There is still time to teach him how a man should behave. There is still time to chase away the shadows of his past. Isn’t there? Or should I comfort myself that, at least, this behavior is presidential?







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