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.