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.

adoption, family

Cycle of Anxiety

It started at night. After football practice Carl had an episode in the shower. For our children this is a place where trauma occurred, so fear is heightened there. Both Carl and Mary refuse to shower with the door shut. Carl takes the therapy dog into the bathroom with him to sit on the rug and guard the door. Usually it works for him.

Last night it didn’t. Luke was in our bathroom and I was upstairs when Carl began shouting and banging on the walls. I froze. The pounding of the walls grew more insistent and my heart skipped a beat. I struggled to take a breathe and my knees went week. For whatever reason I was frightened. Carl hasn’t been truly violent in months. He wasn’t mad. Mary isn’t here. It’s unlikely that I have anything to be afraid of but my body panicked anyway.

Then Carl’s shouting turned into bellowing and screaming as he began punching the shower stall and the surrounding drywall. I should have gone to him but I didn’t. Instead I locked my bedroom door and tried to slow my breathing. Carl’s outburst lasted for what seemed like an eternity but was really only about ten minutes. Eventually Luke was able to go and talk to him.

Anxiety is a difficult thing to explain. I’m not talking about fear over getting something wrong on a test or speaking in front of a crowd. Those things may cause anxiety in some but are mostly uncomfortable to others. I’m talking about a true and measurable physical reaction where the body responds as if mortal danger is near.

For people with PTSD, anxiety disorders or developmental trauma it’s quite different. When Carl is afraid his body flips into fight or flight mode. What he experiences is similar to what one might experience after a bad car accident. It’s sheer terror and panic. These are physical characteristics that can be seen.

For humans, a resting heart rate of about 60-80 is normal. When I measured Carl’s heart rate it was 144 after he had already calmed down! Mine was 103 and I felt like I couldn’t catch my breathe. I can only imagine what he felt. His breathing was shallow and his pupil’s were dilated. Carl’s hands were shaking.

He didn’t know why fear overtook him. He was just triggered. He’s been argumentative lately and controlling. These are actually signs of stress. It’s Carl’s way of dealing with uncertainty and fear. He didn’t logically decide to stand naked in his bathroom and have a tantrum. It just happened.

I didn’t mean to hide away and ignore him. It just happened. Somehow we will have to find a way to work around these symptoms. Until then, I hope others can understand what this kind of anxiety looks like. It isn’t pretty. It isn’t productive. It just is.

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

adoption, family

The Evolution of the Hug

When Carl first came to us at 8-years-old he didn’t know how to hug. He’d grab and pull or thrust himself at full speed into my arms. His expressions of love left red marks behind. He was a fighter. He would not be forgotten.

During visits with his biological mom he’d shove the baby away from her arms and forcefully climb into her lap. The social workers would say how sad t was that he was trying to get some kind of affection from her. Carl seemed to be always angry then or at least always on the verge of tears.

Before visits he would tell me that Luke was going to marry his biological mom and they’d be happy together with the kids. After visits he’d yell at me and tell me to get lost. Sometimes he’d tell me I was an awful mom and he knew I wanted to hit him. Carl would scream at me to just hit him already. He’d say he hated me.

But things would change before bed on those nights. I’d tuck Carl in and he’d dissolve into tears. The little guy would clutch me so tightly that little half-moon claw marks speckled my arms.

“Mommy?” he’d ask me, “Are we going to stay here with you and Daddy? If we can’t go back, I mean. Then can we please stay with you?”

He’d tremble and sob and ask me why she couldn’t take care of them. He’d ask if we could “play baby” and I could hold him. So that’s what I did.

Many times neither biological parent came to the visits. The office was so close to Bio Mom’s apartment that the kids would watch it out of the window, hoping to see her emerge. Often she didn’t.

Carl didn’t have as much anger on those days. Instead he was afraid. He’d clutch my left arm with his whole body. He was a solid 8-year-old but he’d ask to be picked up. Luke was the king of piggy back rides in those early days.

Eventually, Carl would come to me on his own for comfort. He’d climb into my lap and grab onto me roughly. He’d say, “You have to love me!” And I did. We dubbed him “The snuggle monster.”

When friends would come, when I’d watch TV, when I’d talk on the phone Carl would push his way in as close as possible and grab on tight. He might shout in my face or fist his hands tightly into my hair. His actions spoke so loudly to me. They said he didn’t want to be abandoned. They said he would get his needs met by force if he had to.

Carl always loved animals. He was so rough with the cats at first that he’d grab their tales or squeeze them too tightly. He seemed utterly baffled that they wouldn’t like that. He would be so rough with me even in the tenderest of moments. I had to wonder if he really knew how to do this. Was it possible he just didn’t know, “gentle?”

We taught Carl to be gentle as best we could. We’d make a game of it and practice a hug or an arm stroke. Then I’d ask, “Was that gentle or rough?”

By the end of the third grade Carl was the king of hugs. He replaced what we referred to as the “attack hug” (running at full speed and body slamming us) to a normal embrace. If he felt like he desperately needed the contact and we were busy, he’d use our code word, “applesauce.” Looking back it seems ages ago.

Carl became a warm and gentle snuggler. He’d lay his head on my arm and tuck his body into my side. He’d allow me to make phone calls without diving head-first into my lap.

He’s thirteen now. It’s hard to remember that he’s a teenager. He never cries “Applesauce!” anymore. I still have the urge to take his hand in a crowded parking lot, but I refrain! Carl is getting to an age where it’s probably uncool to snuggle with mom so much. He still won’t leave for school without a quick hug and an, “I love you, Mama!”

He’s getting older but I hope his hugs stick around. Perhaps a time will come when I am the one calling out, “Applesauce!”

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