adoption

It’s Time to Hit Your Children

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My daughter is screaming “F**k you! I don’t F**king care anymore! I’m a bad kid and I guess I’ll just stay in my room!” She’s 10. She’s mad. She slams the door and we hear some small pounding. Things are either getting stomped on or thrown around in her room. She alternates between this and then and then crying for me and tearfully begging me to forgive her. I wasn’t even all that bothered. I just asked her to pick up a few toys.

She screams, “I’ll do anything for you guys! I love you!” followed by “You’ll never make me clean up my toys!” After she finally calms down a bit, she cleans her two toys with help from dad. He is with her the whole time. I’m not, just in case she escalates into violence (I have a back injury.)  the screaming and crying part lasts for hours. Finally, she is ready bed.

As she showers, she screams at us that the water is “too hot.” It isn’t, but it is on one temperature setting since she ripped out the nozzle, years ago, during a tantrum of sheer terror. (she used to be terrified of bathing) We sort of pushed the nozzle back on, but it can’t move well to adjust the temperature now. So we are all stuck with warm showers until we can get a new one installed. Soon, the warm shower will calm her and we can talk. She isn’t quite ready to listen yet

Carl got in trouble at school this week. He got angry about losing a privilege, so he went into the hall and started violently beating the lockers with his lunch box. His  vice principal escorted him to the bus during dismissal, for safety reasons. We met Carl’s behaviors with firm boundaries. We met his emotions with love and understanding. It’s OK to get frustrated when you lose a privilege. It isn’t OK to lash out and start beating lockers.

It never ceases to amaze me the unsolicited advice strangers are willing to offer about other people’s parenting. In the grocery store, at sporting events, and even from friends. Suddenly everyone’s an expert. Except, those “experts” didn’t grow up in foster care. They were never hurt the way our children were hurt by the very people they were supposed to trust. So these ignorant oblivious strangers continue to offer their “expertise.”

“Who do they think they are? Don’t let them disrespect you. Spank those kids!”

“Someone should teach them some discipline. Back in my day I would have gotten a spanking for that!”

“Don’t let her/him get away with that. If he were my child, I would slap him a good one on the butt.” 

Ooooookkk.  Thank you helpful strangers, but I think I’ll take it from here.

When Carl got home after getting in trouble, that he had a full-on panic attack. He started crying and blaming the teacher right away. He was crying so hard he couldn’t breathe. He needed his asthma inhaler. Then he threw up all the way to therapy in a bag I supplied. Why? Fear.

It’s pretty simple simple. Sometimes, children who have suffered from the effects of physical abuse will act out when they feel threatened. Even the smallest correction, or perceived rejection, can set them off. Traumatized children are hyper-alert for any potential danger even when they appear calm. It can be confusing for others to watch them go from zero to sixty at the drop of a dime. What we don’t see outwardly is that they are always running around fifty.

They may be acting defiant and violent and scary. But that’s all it is. It’s an ACT. Our sweet, loving, kids are acting out in angry ways because deep down, they are really afraid. They are afraid they won’t get their needs met. They are afraid of being the victim again. They are hitting because they are afraid they will get hit. Sure, they will act tough, and scary. They aren’t. They are scared.

So, no thank you, strangers. I will not hit my already-traumatized children. I will not teach them with fear or intimidation. I will let them have “do-overs” and “time-ins.” We will practice coping skills and problem solve together. We will allow them to have natural consequences for their actions. We try our best to meet them with love even when all they want to do is argue with us. We will demand respect, and model it through our own actions.

Most, importantly, we will prove to them that we are not like their abusers. We will help them practice kindness and obedience. We are firm with their limits, but we are also nurturing. Parents shouldn’t be scary to children who have come from scary parents. Instead, we should be teaching them about working together, and building family through love.

Let me say again that we will not hit our children. Under any circumstances. We will not meet violence with violence. We will not teach them that aggression is necessary to get what you want. Nope. It is not time to hit our children. That time is long past in their lives. And it will never, ever happen again.

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

 

FTTWR

 

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adoption

The Month All the Mommies Leave

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It’s March again, and I can never stop this month from coming! This is the month our children were removed from their biological home during a drug raid. It was a particularly warm March the year they went into foster care. I know this because I looked it up. Carl is 11 now. After living with him for a few years, we’ve noticed that his fear and/or misbehavior increases drastically every spring. As soon as it gets warm, Carl’s “traumaversary” kicks in.

In all honesty Carl’s been cranky in a pre-teen sort of way so far. He yells at us and stomps around, slamming doors. He reminds yells at us for being “stupid,” or “aggravating.” Then my sweet boy runs to me, head hanging down, for a hug or a snuggle. He admits that he is very angry and can’t figure out why. I’m hoping this is the worst of it. things seem to get a little easier every year. I really hope I’m not jinxing myself by writing this!

Anyway, as things get easier for Carl, we are noticing some significant separation anxiety in Mary. I’m not sure if this has happened every year or not. Have we overlooked her because Carl’s reactions were so extreme? Are her reactions more extreme this year because she has started puberty and gone through some medication changes?

All I know is that when I am out of sight, Mary starts to become agitated. At a recent doctor’s appointment my husband brought me to, they sat in the waiting room. When the nurse came to get me Mary started kicking the seat, trying to bait Carl into an argument, and being defiant to Luke. These are all signs that her fear is increasing. Her fight or flight response was taking over.

Luke took her outside to the car, where she could safely tantrum, and get all of her screaming and kicking out. It didn’t last very long and everyone was safe. She just really needed to let her big feelings out. She’s also having big feelings at school about missing me. I sent in a picture of Luke and I that she can keep in her desk, and look at when she is lonely.

Mary has also started to sit outside the bathroom door when I am showering. She is sleeping upstairs outside of our room. We’ve taped a picture of mom and dad on the wall next to her pillow. She’s like an extra cuddly  mom-magnet following me around everywhere. When I do my physical therapy exercises, she does them too. When I sit down, she plops herself as close as she can to me. Short of crawling directly into my ribcage, I’m not sure she could get any closer.

Somewhere, deep inside, they remember this as being the month that they lost a mother. This is why the month of March is a tough one for our kids. As my mom explained to me, this must be the month when our kids feel like “Mommies Leave.”  Every year, I hope their fear eases a little more, as they heal.

Too bad March. I’m not going anywhere! This mom is here to stay!

 

 

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

 

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adoption

Where Do All the Foster Teens Go?

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Sean, at 13, playing with Mary in a pile of packing popcorn.

The month of March leaves me thinking about our former foster son, Sean. He turned 16 a few days ago. We received a copy of the latest foster review for him and the youngest sibling of our children. I assume it was sent to us by mistake, as our 2 have already been adopted. In the review it mentioned all of the things we tried to tell DCF, although they wouldn’t listen. He ran away, was hospitalized for suicidal ideations. I still worry for him.

The worst part was that his reunification had failed. Now his goal is “independent living” rather than reunification. Apparently, Sean had disrupted from his biological father’s home with police called for the fight they had. I had been so hopeful that the reunification would work out for both of them.

I heard from the siblings’ former foster mom (our kids call her “Grandma”) that he contacted her and requested to move back in. She is still a huge part of all of our lives, and our kids visit her for weekends sometimes. She wasn’t able to take Sean back. She had other children in the home and he had already made an abuse allegation once about her (just like us) years ago. That was right before leaving to come to our home for adoption with his siblings

His worker told her they had nowhere to put him and he had been diagnosed with RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder.) In the end, Grandma just couldn’t take the risk. This is all information I got through Grandma, I haven’t heard from him. I thought we might get a phone call, too, but we never did. We probably won’t because he and Marcus are estranged, and we maintain a relationship with Marcus.

So where is Sean now? Staying with a friend’s family who must have agreed to take the foster parent classes in order to have him there? I wish I knew for sure. He is so charming. It’s so easy to get drawn in. I wonder how they will feel about “saving him,” (as he so often said to me) in a year or so. The report stated that this is the first place he has lived that he didn’t feel like he was a “foster kid.” I can’t lie, that one stung.

But still, in all honesty, I just want him to be happy. I want him to be OK. And I really, really, want him to learn to love deeply. I think everyone in this world needs at least one person they can truly count on. The more people you can trust, the bigger your safety net is, should you ever fall. I hope he allows himself to be loved. I wonder often if he is still “shopping” for the best deal he can get with a family. How I wish he had let us adopt him.

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Luke, at 14, with Sean and Carl at our favorite Hibachi grill.

I thought about this as I called my own mother. She was taking me to my neurosurgeon’s appointment. I was scared about getting the results of some recent blood work. There is a fair possibility that my body may be rejecting the titanium implant in my spine. I was so nervous, I asked if my step dad could come too. It always makes me feel better when both of my parents are there. At 35, I still need a mom and dad. And I have them. I’m lucky.

What about the all the other teens in foster care? The ones who never got therapy? The ones with a failed reunification? The ones who just don’t know how to trust in love? Where do they all go? Do they ever stay?

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Sean being his funny, silly, self.

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

 

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adoption

Scars and Secrets: Memories of Child Abuse

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They kept so many secrets in foster care. So many. My son has three tiny round scars on his top left shoulder. They have spread apart and faded as he has grown and his shoulders have broadened. Those scars are not his fault. They are from the metal end of a belt buckle. He was beaten with it in his biological home by “everyone,” he says. His biological mother, his biological father, and many other men that passed through the house.

When his skin browns deeper in the summer sun, they stare at me in accusation. I wasn’t there to protect him. In the winter months they are easier to overlook. Easier to lose sight of, at least for me. Carl never forgets.

Other memories he has of his biological parents are fun. His biological father let him steer the car while driving drunk. Bio-dad had Carl “help” when he worked on cars. He bought Carl little toy Hot Wheels for a collection.  Once, when their biological father was drunk and left a $100 bill under Mary’s pillow for the toothfairy.

But Carl was left alone a lot. When his biological parents were drunk or high, they often left 5-year-old Carl to care for his younger sister, Mary. They would find their own food  in the cabinets while their mother slept and the older kids went to school. Soon after Bio-Dad left, a string of men were in and out of the house. When Bio-Mom wasn’t high and sleeping, locked in her room, she was drinking and partying with anyone and everyone.

These are stories that I have heard from our children and their older biological siblings. Obviously, I wasn’t there, but I believe my kids. I believe their siblings. I know these things happened. Yet, I also know that their Bio-Dad loves these children and his feelings for them are real. Once we started contact with their biological father, things changed a bit.

Our littles both got cards and pictures from Bio-Dad for Christmas. Mary got a birthday card. He promised to send Carl a birthday card as well, only if I told him when Carl’s birthday was. We have decided to let the kids respond if they want to.I continue to send updates and photos.

Carl looked at Bio-Dad’s Christmas card, tossed it aside, and continued playing a card game with Luke. Later on he put it under the coffee table and hasn’t looked at it since then. Mary kept both of her cards in a memory box and seemed really happy to have gotten them.

But their views are very different. Carl remembers being beaten. He remembers more because he is older. Mary was younger. Most of what she remembers came from the many boyfriends mom had after bio-dad. The difficult part with having siblings adopted from the same traumatic background, is that they hold different memories.

Mary has begun insisting that their Bio-Dad never hurt them, it was only their bio-mom. She has begun to build up this fantasy around him (similar to what I did when I was younger.) Both children got into an argument about their bio-dad the other day. Mary insisted he never hurt her, so whatever Carl did must have gotten him hit. His face crumbled as she implied that the abuse was somehow his fault. I corrected her immediately and ended the conversation.

I spoke to them each separately about how different the things they might remember are. Everyone sees things from their own viewpoint. I stressed to Mary that she must never, ever, ever invalidate her brother’s feelings.

With Carl I explained that his memories were his and all of his feelings were OK. He and Mary might feel differently, but she will not be allowed to invalidate his experience. No one should ever be abused physically. It was never Carl’s fault. Bio-dad probably just had no idea what to do as a parent.

Later at dinner that night, Mary started counting all of the “moms” she had. She came up with 4 or 5. Carl scoffed at her and said, “Well I only have one mom!” His feelings may change on the subject but for now he refuses to contact Bio-Dad. That’s OK.

Beyond that, it is up to them if they decide to write to their Bio-Dad. So far, neither one has. I’ve put a moratorium on discussing their bio-home together until we get to the therapist’s office. Until that time they can talk to Mom or Dad alone about their first parents. Good and bad memories are OK. Mixed feelings are OK. Love and anger are OK, even at the same time.

I will continue to casually mention that sending a letter or picture would be nice, but the contact is up to them. So far I haven’t gotten any takers, but I am determined to leave that door open and respect my children’s wishes. Only time will tell what happens next.

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Mary happy with Daddy Luke

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

 

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parenting

Murder and Attachment: Bonding Games to Play on a Snow Day

“You’re gonna poke someone’s eye out!” is one of my favorite quotes from the movie “A Christmas Story.” In an ill-advised burst burst of mom-creativity, I did not heed this advice. Instead, I suggested that our whole family have a nerf gun fight today. Because of my back injury, I had to sit in one stationary position whilst my family ran around firing. Guess who got hit directly in the eye? Yup, that would be me. Who knew murder and mayhem could actually be dangerous?!

The reason I was so motivated (read: desperate!) to schedule some family fun activities is because we are snowed in with 18 inches. No school. No work for Luke. Two beautiful children who usually freak out when their schedule changes. Don’t get me wrong, I love snow days. I love the pure  white powder covering our New England stone fences. I love the deep quiet blanketing the forest in which we live. The only colors are the green Douglas fir trees and the soft white of freshly fallen snow. Ahhh…the silence.

Oh-wait. I’m the mother of two children with early childhood trauma. Replace “silence” with “shouting, whining, crying” and also a weird wolf sound that comforts Carl and is a kind of cute.  Days spent stuck at home snuggling by the fire or playing in the snow can trigger one thing in them. Stuck. If their fight or flight instinct is triggered their only option is to fight because they feel TRAPPED. This can show itself as anger, fights between siblings, and battles for control.

So today, I strapped on my super-mom back brace, my stylish old-lady walker, and organized some activities. It was great to turn this day into a bonding experience with family. Playful activities are often a super way to create happy, oxytocin-inducing interactions with a family. Silliness is often the best weapon against fear.

Luckily for me, the rest of our games went much better than the nerf guns. We had a great time. After murdering each other (mostly mom!) with nerf guns, we switched over to a gentler game. I call this one “Throw a wish.” Everyone gets 5 pieces of paper to write a wish on. Some of ours were:

“Kiss my cheek”

“Give a sandwich hug”

“Smell my feet”

“Hug Carl’s stinky shoes.”

“Sing ‘I’m a little teapot’ with hand motions”

“Let mommy eat your brains for 30 seconds!” (Author’s note: this activity is NOT to be taken literally. Pretend only!)

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Section off a room into squares using painter’s tape and crumble the papers into little tossable balls. Everyone picks a section and then set a 2 minute timer. During that time throw as many balls out of your section and into someone else’s section as possible. (Author’s note: you WILL lose this game if you are sitting in a stationary chair due to back issues. Just saying…)

The loser has to perform all of the activities listed on the papers in their section. You must perform the activity for the original writer. For extra fun everyone can perform the “wishes” in their section. This is why I smelled Mary’s armpit, Luke performed the teapot song, and Carl had to hug his own stinky shoes for a full minute!

Our next game was the “Worry Web” (or any kind of web at all.) Again, we used the painting tape so Luke could create a giant web. Then we tossed objects at it to try for a “bullseye!” This is not to be confused with the actual eye of an animal that Carl worried we may have lying around somewhere.

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We launched papers covered with extra painter’s tape into the web. If your child has lots of worries they can write them down and crumble them into balls. Then the worries can be thrown into the spider’s web where they cannot bother anyone and will surely be eaten by a giant, fictitious, spider! (I may have seen this on pinterest somewhere. If I ever find a source I will be sure to cite it. Apologies!)

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We ended the day with a movie night, complete with snacks. The activities were distracting and fun. They cut down on any fear-based misbehaving because everything was kept light and silly.

So please, enjoy your very own snow day (or rainy day) in a way that brings your family closer together. Calm their fear of being trapped, changing schedule, or losing control.  Also, try not to get your eye poked out!!

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

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adoption, family

Therapeutic Strategies for Sleep Disturbances

Our Daughter has such a difficult time sleeping at night. She used to physically fight for her life when bedtime came (you can read about it here.) Bedtime triggered her fight/flight response because she experienced trauma at this time in her biological home. Luckily we have the very best trauma therapists to work with us and out children with therapeutic strategies. These are some of the best strategies to calm our daughter’s fear response at night. She needs to feel safe in order to rest.

  1. Comforting Smells: I like to use lavender scented baby lotion to give her arms a deep-pressure massage before bed if she needs it. She will also put a drop of essential oil onto a tissue and rub it together. Then she holds it to her face and breathes in slowly. Smells activate the brain’s Amygdala, which triggers memories from the hippocampus and can activate an emotional response. The mom-massage is a good smell, thus triggering feelings of love and safety. I also rub a bit of my hair conditioner in her hair before bed sometimes.
  2. Comforting Sounds: We have a noise machine for both of our children. They can choose to listen to white noise, rain sounds, a forest, the ocean, a brook, etc. They use these sounds as a coping skill when they need to calm down throughout the day. The sounds also give them a sense that they are not alone in a scary place.
  3. Soothing Light: Our children have always needed a night light to sleep. Complete darkness means they can’t see if any danger is approaching. Although there isn’t a real threat inside our home, our children have an overactive fight/flight response. In order to calm this fear we provide creative nightlights. Our daughter had one that was activated whenever a the light was turned off. We also have a mushroom nightlight probably intended for infants. It projects a series of flowers and stars onto the ceiling with slowly changing colors and designs. This is mesmerizing to look at and soothing for her to watch. Our son has a moon-light that comes with a remote control. He can switch the phases of the moon depending on his mood. A quarter moon if he feels safe, a full moon if he is feeling afraid, and a rotating phase moon to look at if he can’t sleep.
  4. Soothing Taste: Fruits and vegetables are always available for our children in the house. Our kids choose an apple or a clementine (Yuck! After brushing teeth?) before bed. Sometimes our daughter will choose to eat a lemon. I can’t explain that one! Tasting food before bed helps to ease the constant fear that there won’t be enough food and they will starve. This is another leftover fear from their bio-home.
  5. Calming touch: We have given our children physical objects that they can hold throughout the night in order to help them. One of these is a giant stuffed dog named “Mr. Luke” that my daughter has slept with since she got home. It always wears one of daddy’s dirty shirts (preferably from that day) so that she can hold it and feel like daddy is there, protecting her. We also bought Mary a large body pillow and our family wrote positive messages all over it. We used fabric markers but permanent markers might have been just as good. Then we wiped my deodorant all over it and dressed it in my dirty shirt from that day. This way Mary can feel like she is sleeping between mommy and daddy.
  6. ROUTINE, ROUTINE, ROUTINE: Every night we keep the same schedule so that our children know exactly what is going to happen. This gives them a sense of control over a world that was previously chaotic and unpredictable. Their bedtimes remain the same, even on weekends (with maybe a 30 minute difference.) While one child showers, the other child gets to choose an activity  with mom or dad, completely led by them.  Every night I say the same goodnight. I rub their backs, slowly counting down from 10. Then I touch their faces in the same pattern and say the words, “I love you forever, no matter what, and I am so glad your home!” Then we both make a “pop!” sound with our lips and hug each other.

 

At the end of the day, I wish I could tell you that everything is fine and our daughter has no trouble whatsoever sleeping with these strategies in place. Unfortunately, That simply isn’t true in our case. Ever since she’s come home from an inpatient stay, she’s been seeing “monsters” and hearing “talking things” downstairs. If I had a completely healthy back, I might sleep downstairs with her for a night to show her it’s OK. But I can’t. So we’ve moved the bedroll upstairs to the hallway right outside our bedroom. This way she knows mommy and daddy are close. My fingers are crossed that this stage won’t last long. Either way? She’s our girl and we will do whatever it takes to make her feel safe at night!

 

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

 

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