adoption, family

A Twist on the “Terrible” Teen Years

Sometimes I forget just how far we’ve come. It always happens on the Lacrosse field while I’m watching Carl play. I’ll find myself commiserating with the other Lacrosse parents about the difficulties of parenting a teenage boy. We roll our eyes as we recount mysteriously multiplying towers of dirty sports-socks. We cluck knowingly about the constant backtalk and the snide remarks we get. We nod to each other over the angst, the backne and the BO. “Oh yes,” our expressions say, “I feel your pain!”

I revel in these moments. I am one of them now. You know, the parents who worry over grades and manners instead of psychiatric hospitalizations. I embrace the times I can forget just how different we are as a family. I love that it slips my mind how Carl used to be so violent. I catch myself puzzling over patches in our drywall as I try to remember what happened there.

Every Spring since coming home has been difficult for Carl. He acted out, screamed for hours, destroyed property and generally seemed possessed by his trauma. The season used to bring intensive therapy, medication changes and calls to the crisis line. Heck, Springtime meant anti-anxiety medication for me, too. It was a LOT to get through for all of us.

This is the first year where I don’t have to explain why my child sleeps on the floor or eats until vomiting and then stuffs his face some more. I don’t have to explain the broken doors or the air conditioner that’s been thrown out of a window. This is the first year I don’t smile politely at other parents’ “problems” while my eyes well with tears behind over-sized sunglasses. This is the first Spring that we haven’t had a crisis worker in our home. I wonder if they think we’ve moved?

This year I am confident when I sympathize with the bleacher parents. I belong. We are now safely out of the woods of the Springtime drama. So what changed this year? We are still using the same therapeutic parenting techniques. Carl attends the same school. He plays the same sports.

We aren’t taking Carl to therapy anymore except for brief check-ins every few months. We honestly only do that because it’s a requirement for Carl to access the psychiatrist (which he continues to need.)

It’s Carl that is different. He’s grown. He’s matured. He believes in in this family. He believes in Carl. It doesn’t matter how much work as we have poured into our children’s healing. In the end they are the ones who fight their trauma. Truthfully, I am amazed by this shift. I was bracing for the worst.

Out here on the Lacrosse sidelines I join the other parents agonizing over the game. It’s gone into over-time. From the left side of the field, Carl shoots in out of nowhere. He swings his stick with a vengeance, sending the ball diagonally into the net. He’s just done it. Carl has just shot the winning goal from a seemingly-impossible side angle. We won the game in overtime. This team is going to the play-offs!

“Look at them!” another mom laughs amid the cheering, “They are all filthy! This is one mega-laundry load I have tonight!!”

I’m cheering, too, but I nod at her in sympathy. Now I can join the rest of the parents in moaning and groaning over the little things. Parenting a teen in our house is starting to look like…well, like everyone else parenting a teen! I’ve never been happier to complain.

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

adoption, family

It Has Begun

These past few days have gotten warmer. Birds are chirping outside. A daffodil burst ostentatiously into bloom in the front yard. The air smells sweet and thick with the promise of new growth.

If only that chirping bird could be the soundtrack to our Spring season. I was starting to be hopeful that crickets and sparrows would comprise our Spring sounds this year. However, I was wrong.

Around here the soundtrack to Spring is the yelling of Carl. Sometimes it’s accompanied by smashing objects and broken drywall. It has begun. Last night he flew into a rage because his alarm clock needed to be reset.

Bedtime was filled with yelling about how Luke “ruined my puzzle on purpose! ” According to Carl, Luke also, “went after my remote and stomped on it on purpose.” There were some other bizarre statements about a conspiracy to steal the alarm clock manual. None of it made much sense.

Mostly Carl yelled at Luke a bunch to “shut up right now! He told me “shut your mouth!” He gave me the puffed up chest and leaned forward in the classic domestic violence/intimidation pose that pops up in Spring.

I did what any ridiculously ignorant-to-trauma parent would do and yelled right back at him.

“This is what you sound like: SHUT UP SHUT UP!!!” etc.

I also told him his statements “sounded crazy.” Good job to me for lighting that particular match.

It ended with all three of us arguing. Carl vowed never to go to bed because he would puzzle all night. Luke and I confiscated the puzzle and TV remotes in hopes that Carl would actually sleep. Carl ranted on about not “being crazy like Mary.”

This morning my throat hurts. I feel like a dope. The reason I got so mad is that I was actually starting to believe this would be a pleasant Spring. I really should know better. I should tap into my skills and address the trauma responses properly.

I just wanted to enjoy the damn birds! Oh well. For good measure (and because I wanted to continue digging my own grave) I sent Marcus a text. It said I’m disappointed in his choices but I love him. I would like to see him take responsibility for his actions. No response.

At this point the score is:

Trauma: 2

Exhausted Parents: 0

It has begun. Happy Spring, everyone!

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


Spring Changes

As a child I would often joyfully make myself dizzy to the point of collapse. I would fling my arms out wide and spin in a circle faster and faster and faster. I’d keep my eyes up to the blue sky, laughing in that carefree way that only children do. I would spin until the world tilted up to greet me and then collapse in a heap of giggles. As the earth seemingly continued to rock I would stare up st the clouds and revel in the sensation of utter abandon. I was so happy. I was so free. I was so young.

These days I admire the sky from a much slower pace. I can appreciate the crazy tilting of this roller coaster world without ever taking a step. I may have fast-forwarded to the part where I lie spread-eagle in the grass and lift up my laughter to the blue expanse of sky.

Spring is here. The sky is a a soft robin’s egg blue. Plants are sprouting green buds. Puffy white clouds turn grey and heavy with rain at times. I dread the spring showers as much as I love the sunshine.  The rainy days bring a deep pain and swelling in my hip joints. For these last few years Springtime has been a dichotomy of both joy and pain.

I used to dread the spring entirely because this is the season that Carl’s trauma would make itself known. No matter what Luke and I did to prepare, Carl would always get caught in the sharp relentless teeth of his past terrors. There would be screaming and smashing and anger that stretched the never-ending span of the season.

Something different is happening this year. Yes, Carl is irritable. Yes, he’s quick to anger. However, so far he’s been able to handle his feelings. He hasn’t had a single rage at all.

Last Spring he was hospitalized for his uncontrollable outbursts. Two months ago the intensive in-home psychiatric team finally called to follow up. They were here to help Carl with his “crisis.” How ridiculous. An intensive team designed to keep children out of the hospital and/or residential treatment is available a mere 9 months after the actual crisis?! All I can do is shake my head. This is the quintessential example of ineffective bureaucracy. We told them we didn’t need them this year.

This season, Carl has had a scant few instances where he’s yelled at us. It’s only occurred when he is hungry or tired. Without fail he always apologizes afterwards and is able to repair his message. Luke and I are starting to relax and enjoy the flow of the first peaceful Spring season we’ve had in 5 years.

Meanwhile, Carl fills his days practicing with his lacrosse team. At school he’s making the honor roll each term with ease. At home he helps me with chores and bakes cookies for the family. This Spring is like a dream so far.

Perhaps I don’t need to spin myself anymore. Life has done the spinning for me. I think I’ll just skip to the good part. Let me lie down and revel in the view of these clouds for awhile.

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

adoption, family

Winter Storm

In the dark, he is afraid. Carl’s panicked voice calls out, “Dad? Mama?? Mama!!” sounding more like a toddler than a teenager. My children learned at an early age that monsters are all too real. Some lessons cannot be unlearned no matter how many years go by.

Today I woke up early and crept downstairs. The New England sky had already dumped seven inches of powdered snow outside. The ice storm portion hadn’t yet begun. In the darkness of the winter morning I brewed fresh coffee and listened to the howling wind. New England ice storms can be fierce in their fury. Ice will pelt the roof like gunfire, taking old down branches as collateral damage. The assault causes power outages more often than not. One can never avoid the winter storms, only prepare for them.

On this morning Carl calls out to me with his nervous, “Mama? Mama!? Mama!” He can’t hear my replies over his escalating calls. It’s no matter. I’m here, even when he can’t see me.

Finally he bolts into the kitchen and breathes a sigh of relief. Here I am in my kitty-cat fleece slippers, illuminated by the flickering fireplace. Carl relaxes once he sees me. In my pre-storm glow I allow him a slice of cake for breakfast. My largess is due to the enjoyment of family and electricity before the storm. With no school and no place to go, what does it matter? Let him eat cake!

Luke and I have weathered these storms a hundred times over. Preparation is key. We heat the house extra on days like this just in case. The forecast says the high for tomorrow is only 5 degrees with the windchill making it feel 25 below. If we lose power we will hemorrhage heat rapidly.

It’s best to gather what we can, while we can. Up here in the rural forest area everyone has four wheel drive. When we “batten down the hatches” we literally stop up drafty doorways with towels and close our insulating blinds against the cold. We shutter in tight to wait it all out. Still, I am content to enjoy my hazelnut coffee and prepare during the early morning darkness.

I am impressed with how well Carl is holding up these days. Mary was home for a visit on Friday. It was her longest home visit yet. Her therapist drove her and got her situated. Usually the therapist stays for the entire visit and structures it with activities. Friday was our first dry run. We were ready for anything.

Mary stayed for Papa’s birthday dinner. My parents came with spice cake and pork roast to celebrate. After dinner Luke cleaned up the kitchen while I took Mary and Carl outside to play some basketball. The air was thick with the frosty smell of coming snow. Soon the forest seem to promise.

The children laughed and frolicked while passing the ball. I can’t remember a recent time where I’ve seen them laugh together this way. For a few minutes I can forget all the damage trauma brought on this household. For a short time it’s as if we could be any other family enjoying the fading sunlight of a winter’s evening.

Up here, the world seems most welcoming before a major storm. The pre-blizzard trees sway merrily in the winter wind. Their branches wave a cheery hello to my happy little family. The glow from our front windows illuminates a lawn free of snow. The bite of frigid breeze only brings color to our cheeks. These memories of calm are the times I hold onto in the darkest storms. I have to take what I can, when I can.

The entire visit with Mary went off without a hitch. She was with us for close to 5 hours. No therapist needed! We drove her back to school before bed. Carl came along voluntarily and the siblings didn’t even fight in the car. I hold these Instagram-family moments dearly. They have been so few and far between over the last two years. Yet here were both of my babies, together in peace. There was not a cloud in the sky.

Today I can sit with my coffee and replay that happy evening in my mind. The wind picks up outside, moaning and rocking against the house. Yes, I know the storm is coming. It’s all worth it. I wouldn’t trade a piece of New England for all of Florida. Not even the storms.

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

adoption, family

The Pressures of “Adulting” Like a Supermom

The term “adult” has shifted from a noun into a verb in today’s nomenclature. The act of “adulting” means to behave as a grownup is expected to. Being a grownup myself, one might assume I could accomplish this so-called “adulting” like a pro. After all, I’m only a handful of years short of forty!

When parenting children who have experienced complex developmental trauma, things tend to get turned upside down. Probably, parenting is a process that can get the best of anyone.  Adopting older children continues to be a strange and (at times) confusing journey for me.

My children come from a background of fighting for survival, fighting as a way of communication and fighting as the tool to get their needs met. In other words, Carl is masterful at drawing people into an argument and/or shouting match. He is good at the power struggles. He’ll make a great lawyer or reality TV star someday.

In therapeutic parenting the point is to stop struggling for power. You and your child are supposed to work together to find solutions. Its the two of you vs. past trauma as opposed to parent vs. child. In order to do this one must be proficient at “adulting.”

I’ve written before about Carl’s struggles with food insecurity. This comes in the form of hoarding food or binge eating high-value “junk” foods that we don’t usually keep in the house. Luke bought frozen pizza roles at the grocery store and it’s been a struggle every day since then. Carl wakes up in the night to eat them (even still frozen) or begs to have them at breakfast. He will stomp, scream and shout to try and get access to them. It’s our job to teach him that these behaviors will not earn anything for him.

Part of the therapeutic approach of Trust Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) is making compromises. If your child is asking for something rather than demanding it, then you should try for a compromise or some form of “yes.” In theory it fosters connection and teaches good interpersonal skills.

I wish I could say that I “adulted” through the latest pizza role drama like a pro. Usually I do. Last night, on the seemingly 35th consecutive day of nonstop pizza role negotiation, I snapped. I pretty much had a mom-tantrum.

The pizza role struggle looked like this:

Carl: Demands pizza roles 10 minutes before dinner.

Me: Reminds him to ask instead of tell. Offers to discuss this after dinner.

Carl: Tries to bargain from 20 then 17 then 10 pizza roles.

Me: Begins to grow a burning hatred for said pizza roles. Evilly fantasizes about throwing the entire stupid jumbo bag into the outside trash bin.

Carl: Eats dinner by shoveling an entire plate into his face in under 5 minutes. Does not gag. Politely requests 10 pizza roles.

Me: Ignores growing hatred for pizza roles. Asks for a compromise. 5 pizza roles to start with after Carl showers. If he is still hungry in 1 hour he can have another 5. In between he should try fruits and vegetables which are always readily available. Pats self-on-back for using a compromise like an awesome therapeutic adult. Score 1 for Supermom.

Carl: Follows compromise with the exception of doubling the amount of pizza roles and attempting to shove them all in his mouth at once to avoid detection. Ends up with burns inside his mouth.

Me: ???!!!

Carl: Yells at me for noticing this but not the other times he has stolen food. Yells at me for starving him and never letting him eat. Yells at me because his mouth now hurts from being burnt.

Me: Loses all semblance of adulthood and therapeutic calm. Yells at Carl that he better complete his chore (empty litter box) right away.

Carl: Shouts, “Why do you have to get mad at me every single day?!”

Me: Shouts, “Why do you feel the need to lie to me every single day?!”

Carl: Corrects me by retorting, “That’s not lying that’s cheating! I didn’t lie I cheated!”

Me: Begins a disturbing descent into madness.

Carl: Cleans litter box while yelling. Accuses me of getting mad over food. Turns red and continues yelling about how much I suck as a mom. I should be mad about cheating instead of lying.  Refuses to put trash bag of litter into outside trash bin. Reiterates that I suck as a mom.

Me: Proceeds to suck as a mom. Raises voice about lying and breaking compromises. Threatens to revoke television privileges.

Carl: Runs into his room (forgetting new plate of pizza rolls) and locks the door behind him.

Me: Grabs litter trash, forgotten plate of pizza roles and entire jumbo bag of pizza roles from the freezer. Storms outside and dumps them into the trash bin.

Carl: Turns on his SMART TV in the safety of his room.

Me: Unplugs the internet router, effectively ending Carl’s TV time.

This was not very adult of me at all. I gave myself a time-out. I went to my room with my adult coloring book with some gel pens. It’s actually a very soothing activity. I gave myself the remainder of the evening off. Carl eventually apologized to me over the walkie-talkie. My only response was a weary, “copy.”

It took me a few hours to regain composure. Eventually he radioed in an “I love you. Goodnight.” I was finally able to swallow my burning hatred of pizza-rolls to blurt a half-hearted, “I’m sorry too, kiddo” over the walkie.

For the rest of the night this “adult” colored and watched Hallmark movies about nice families who do not fight to death over a stupid pizza rolls!!

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

***I am not affiliated with, nor do I represent,  TBRI or Sasha O’Hara coloring books in any way. Click on the links above for more info.

adoption, family

Explaining PTSD in the Classroom

I really cannot explain why my kids do some of the things they do. Raising children who experienced developmental trauma in their biological homes is like navigating a corn maze while blind-folded. As parents, Luke and I just do our best to help the kids manage their stress responses.

I got an email from Carl’s math teacher this week. She’s lovely and has been concerned about him.  He’s been presenting as sad and agitated in class lately.  He will ace a pretest study guide and flunk the test on the following day. When I give him the exact problems at home one by one, he can easily explain them to me. He completes them perfectly.  Luckily, this teacher offers to stay after school and provide extra help. Then she lets him retake the test immediately for credit.

Look, our kids all have anxiety about things. I think the start they had in life manifests itself in different ways. Anxiety is sometimes a term people toss around as synonymous with “being nervous.” Wrong! It’s not something an individual can just “get over” by “calming down.” I explained Carl’s anxiety to the teacher like this:

“Carl looks at a paper and gets overwhelmed by the amount of work and “remembering” how to do it. Even when I see him easily do each problem. We’ve been taking his heart rate at different times of day to teach him about his body’s stress responses. It is part of teaching him to recognize and manage his anxiety.

Carl’s normal resting rate is 82 BPM. A panic attack puts him between 130-140 BPM. Math work registers around 110. Basically, he’s stressed that he doesn’t “know” the concept even when he clearly does.  

The anxiety could be coming out for lots of reasons. We don’t always know why Carl has certain responses. His reaction may have nothing to do with Math. He struggled to engage with a very helpful para earlier this year just because she has dark hair. If someone uses a new soap or cologne, he can react. On the outside it looks like anger, defiance and even sadness.

I just had back surgery and my husband has some more upcoming eye surgeries. Maybe that’s a source of anxiety. I don’t really know. The good news is that Carl is using his strategies in school. When he gets upset, he is taking his work down to the guidance office.

Also, his anxiety is not at a critical level because he’s been sleeping in his own bed rather than on the floor. When Carl and his siblings first came to us from foster care, none of them would sleep in a bed. They were terrified. They also stole food and hid it in their mattresses or buried it outside. These kids were scared of the entire world. After 5 years, Carl only sleeps on the floor if he feels scared or threatened. This week, I’m happy he’s been sleeping with his therapy dog on the bed!

The truth is that he will always have some unknown triggers. He may outwardly appear like every other student, but he’s overcome a lot. We just do our best to support him and teach him to handle his PTSD. It comes out in different, unpredictable, ways.

Much like a duck, you don’t see him paddling furiously beneath the surface. 

We cannot protect Carl from the world. What we try to do is help him gain the skills to navigate it. Teachers like you go the extra mile to help him. It may not seem like it but you’re helping him with more than Math. You are helping him learn to trust adults. Thank you!”


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

adoption, family

My Kids Sleep on the Floor

My kids hate to sleep in their beds. It’s just one of the vestiges of the trauma they grew up with. If you’ve seen my posts about trauma triggers around food or the bathroom, you might be familiar with this concept.  PTSD remains with them from early childhood trauma they experienced. All of them have dealt with this differently, but the triggers are pretty universal.

When Sean lived here he would panic at bedtime and we’d find him sleeping on the floor in our bedroom. He also began to sleep on the couch in the living room. He tried moving his bedroom things in there a little at a time. It was a struggle to explain why that couldn’t be his room.

Marcus spent many a night in his car when he lived here. If he wasn’t able to sleep in the car (like when the first car had a leaking roof and it was raining) he’d just stay up. Marcus wouldn’t fall asleep until the dark was gone and the sun was out. He was, however, the only child that ever slept or showered with the door completely shut.

Many of Mary’s tantrums occurred at bedtime. Eventually we moved her to a mattress in the wide hallway outside our bedroom door. It took years to get her back into her own bedroom. Even then, she’d sometimes end up sleeping on the floor in our doorway near the door. It was a sign of distress.

Carl sleeps on his bed for the most part these days. Like all of the other children, he sleeps on the floor when he is under anxiety. Sleeping with the therapy dog helps him but his night panics come and go.

He’ll never sleep with the fan on because the noise it makes blocks the sound of potential danger. He’ll never open the windows for fear of what might come through. He doesn’t want air-conditioning in his room because he’s terrified it will let bugs in.

Starting the second year of middle school was much better for Carl. Since he’s so athletic he’s managed to make a lot of friends from the teams. I think it’s a protective factor for him when it comes to keeping him from being bullied again.

After the first month of school he started sleeping on the floor. I also noticed the increased food insecurity. There was more arguing. He was irritable. He begged for one of us to remain on the same floor of the house with him while he showered. Something was definitely up. My spidey-sense was tingling.

The first week of school I usually send a letter out to the teachers explaining a bit about Carl. I also ask that they let us know ahead of time if they are going to do any potentially triggering activities like genealogy papers, baby pictures in those “All About Me” books, and reviewing material relating to domestic violence, adoption, or loss of parents.

Basically it just gives us a chance to pre-set him and walk with him through the projects. We won’t remove the trauma triggers in this world, but we sure do our best to let Carl know he isn’t facing them alone. We are here for support.

I got a disconcerting email from his Reading teacher that he was running out of every class for the entire period without using his “break card.” He was going to the guidance office and refusing to return to class. Since this is better than throwing things and punching lockers, I thought “it’s progress.” Still, why refuse to go to this one class?

Apparently it was a book club activity where groups of kids each read the same book and discussed it every day. The book Carl was assigned? City of Orphans!

Don’t get me wrong. I love Avi as an author. The historical fiction aspect of this book has some insightful facts. The adoption narrative with getting rid of the “bad” parent to live “happily ever after” with the adoptive parent makes me want to vomit. Trauma isn’t magically “all better” after adoption!

Of course I addressed the matter with the teacher right away. There wasn’t anything we could do to get my kid to sit with his peers and discuss orphans. Not happening. If she wanted him back in class we would need to work together. At first she tried to protest that in middle school the books would begin to have more adult content.

I may have been a little tough on the teacher. I had to revisit the issue later when I was calm. I explained that it’s not like we wish to shield our son from more adult content or any possible triggers. Heck, he’s probably been exposed to more “adult content” in his first 5 years of life than many of us have ever seen!

We just want to prepare him ahead of time. We also don’t think he should have to be the group representative explaining adoption to the other 5 kids in his club. All I’m asking for is a little sensitivity around this issue. Don’t exempt him, just include us.

What I want is for my boy to be able to sleep in his bed again.

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