adoption

It’s Time to Hit Your Children

sandwichhug

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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mental illness, parenting

In-Patient For the Holiday

hospital

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.

mustache

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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family

The Great Homework Heist

I am pretty sure that our daughter just pulled off the greatest homework heist of all time. Don’t get me wrong. I hate homework, too. I am an elementary school teacher and I’ve seen the research behind it. Basically, it has no effect on learning. It’s useless. It’s also a part of life and something that my reluctant daughter must learn to do, no matter how stringently she protests.

She’s hidden her assignment sheets. She’s “lost” important papers in her backpack. She has feigned absolute ignorance as to knowing what an assignment sheet is even for. She tells us that her teacher refuses to let her take her homework home from school. She tells her teacher that her parents refuse to let her complete her homework. Somehow, none of this is her fault.

Our daughter is a very bright girl, and it didn’t take long for her to figure out that we email back and forth with her teacher. So the homework tug-of-war continued. I found that if I sat close to her and prompted her with questions, she calmed a bit. I think doing any kind of independent work triggers a feeling of abandonment or a feeling of simply not being smart enough. I felt like we were getting a pretty good system down.

Then, last night, she came home insisting she had to go to the chorus concert that was starting in 30 minutes. It’s true, there was a school concert. The only trouble is, she hadn’t joined chorus at the beginning of the school year. In the elementary school, students can choose to give up their Wednesday recess for choir practice. They don’t need a permission slip to join, they just sign themselves up. I vaguely remember her saying at the beginning of the school year that she wasn’t going to do it because she didn’t want to give up recess.

Last night my husband and I looked at each other in confusion. The concert was right there on the calendar. Mary seemed astonished and a little hurt that we had “forgotten” she was a part of the chorus. Needless to say, we felt awful. The family rushed through dinner and I fished out her fanciest dress and did her hair. She went to the concert, alright.

The problem was, she wasn’t part of the group. Her name wasn’t on the program. The choral teacher let her up onstage but professed that Mary had never joined chorus or been to practice. To our daughter’s credit she sang in the concert. She performed songs she had never practiced and she looked competent doing it.

This kind of lying is not at all uncommon in kids with traumatic backgrounds. When any kind of fear response is triggered, they launch into activities they believe will protect them or keep them safe. I have to give her credit for this one. It took some serious planning. She is a smart girl. Of course, we had to work on her homework the next day before school.

So is homework completion the thing we are working the hardest on? Not at all. Is it honesty? Again, not at all. It’s safety. We want her to feel safe. My husband and I spoke to her teacher about alternate ways for her to complete her homework. We discussed options to help us communicate better. And we included our daughter in the conversation. After all, she is the one with the fear.

But can I tell you all a secret? I sort of wished I could give her a high-five.  I could never have pulled this one off!

 

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

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parenting

Anger at Biological Parents: Adventures in My Own Humanity

carlosmeltdown

Carl facedown on his “fainting couch”

I’m not even sure where the anger comes from. All I can see is red in this moment. I’m not proud of it.  I am tired, I am frustrated, and I am DONE with this whole conversation.

It’s early in the morning. The children are getting ready for school. Carl wakes up angry, as he so often does. He is arguing with me from the moment he opens his eyes.

“Carl, please get off of the floor. Your sister needs to walk through there.”

“I’m NOT on the floor, Mommy!!” He yells from the floor. Then he heaves himself up with an elaborate sigh and an eye-roll. I can hear him muttering “stupid” under his breathe. To Carl’s credit this is a far cry from the “stupid b*tch,” he might’ve muttered at one time. He also used to threaten me with a fist or with a suggestion that he would physically show me or teach me a lesson. He no longer does these things. In fact, I should be saying to myself, “Progress! Look how far we’ve come!” Instead, I am stumbling to the coffeemaker with a murderous feeling blossoming in my tummy.

After my husband distributes meds, Carl flops down on the couch and feigns sleep. (As a side-note, he is an excellent flopper. Usually face down, in the middle of the floor, or on his “fainting couch” as we have now dubbed the oversized ottoman in the living room.)

“Carl, get up. You need to get ready for school.”

“I AM up! And it’s 6:22! I don’t HAVE TO be up now!!!” he yells from his prone position.

The fact that his alarm goes off at 6:25 is a moot point. Those 3 minutes are black and white to him. After I have banished him to the bathroom to brush his teeth he continues with a mix of yelling at me, saying nasty things to me and his sister, or singing and dancing. I give him reminders to brush his teeth. Mary needs to get in there, too. I remind him at 5 minutes, then 10 minutes, and then 15.

“I AM brushing them!” Carl shouts through a mouth unobstructed by toothpaste or toothbrush.

As I begin a final countdown for him to exit the bathroom he screams, “But I haven’t even brushed my teeth yet! You are the WORST!!” and slams a few things around. Then he shoves his sister in the hallway and I send him into his room. When he is this angry it is better to take a few minutes before having him come in close to me in order to practice respect towards family and emotional regulation. His engine is revving too high at this moment.

Once in his room, he slams things around, slams the door (Flexible particle-board doors never break. I swear! Always buy the cheap ones!) He screams at me the whole time. Part of his issue is that we will have a high of 32 degrees today. That means he must wear his coat and his gloves. He absolutely hates dressing for winter. Part of it is a control issue. Unfortunately for Carl, it’s a battle he cannot win. When he was small, in his biological home, at some point he suffered frostbite on his hands. That means he has 2 fingers on each hand that are extremely sensitive to cold.

Carl is different from other kids in the sense that he feels physical sensation differently. He is highly sensitive to sticky or wet substances. It takes a great deal of pressure or force to make him feel hard physical impact. For example, breaking his foot wasn’t nearly as bad as having tree sap stuck on his fingers. Many children from hard places have a smattering of sensory processing issues due to their past trauma.

In his biological home, he was beaten so badly, so many times, that physical impact doesn’t phase him. I believe he honestly doesn’t even feel the New England chill until it is too late. Until he comes inside screaming in abject pain and holding bright red, naked hands, out to me. They hurt him so much but he refuses help to keep them warm. It’s much easier to argue with mom.

Today, Carl yells at me from his room this morning that I will have to make his lunch because he can’t make it from his room. I sip my coffee and tell him that he can easily dip into his money jar and bring his own money to buy a school lunch. No worries.

I am mad at Carl this morning. Really, really angry. He is screaming and shouting horrible things at me. He shoved his sister. He sometimes reverts back to whatever mentality in his bio- home that taught him women were meant to be beaten, controlled, and dominated. He isn’t often like this anymore. He’s not physical with me but it sounds like his bunk bed is taking a solid beating.

It occurs to me that I might not be completely mad at Carl. I am mad that we have to worry about his frostbite because his first mom left him alone outside in the snow, under the age of 5. I am mad that no one bundled up my little boy and met his needs. I am mad that he was beaten so badly, and so often, that sensations rarely register with him. After all, nothing will ever hurt him as badly as his biological parents did. I’m mad. He’s my baby now and I wish I could have met those needs. But I wasn’t there. I am here now and instead of letting my pre-teen boy have a healthy parental rebellion, I’m stuck attempting to further protect him from damage that she has already done.

Realizing this softens me towards him. He hugs me and apologizes on his way out the door.Of course I squeeze him tight and wave good-bye.  I am left to wrestle with this anger I have towards her. I try to be understanding. I try to be forgiving. But I am only human. At this point in the day I am a very disheveled, under-caffeinated human. I guess grace and forgiveness will have to wait until I’ve at least had a good long shower.

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

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family

Changing the Adoption Fairy Tale

I still believe in happily-ever-after. I’ll be the first to encourage people to take the next step in considering fostering or adopting children from foster care. I’ll also be the first to admit that it doesn’t always work out. It isn’t for everyone. It isn’t easy. I still believe in happy endings but my story is my own. I had to shift the narrative. I had to change my expectations. Yes, I’m living my happily-ever-after, it’s just that my fairy tale is different. It’s messy and heart-wrenching and wonderful and it is REAL. 

In the beginning we were attempting to adopt a sibling group of 4 children. Two disrupted and two were adopted. The oldest disrupted, aged out of care, and now keeps in touch with us. I guess our final success rate is two-and-a-half?

Marcus is the oldest. He disrupted from our house almost a year ago. I was worried sick about him ever since. He is 18 now, and living with a girlfriend. He signed himself out of care. He’s been in touch more and more frequently over the last several months. He sent me a text message the other day. It said, “Ya I know I never said it but I really care about you guys. And ya, I love you too.”

I thought he’d get arrested on his own. I worried that he might drop out of school. I worried there wouldn’t be anyone to love him. Did we fail him? He didn’t want to live in our house and take our last name. Was this a “failed” adoption attempt?

He’s still in school. He’s in a credit recovery program and getting good grades. He has a job. So far he hasn’t  had any episodes with the law. In all honesty he is probably drinking and engaging in risky behaviors. Overall, though, I’m impressed he’s done so well for himself. Recently, my husband and step-father traveled the 2 hours to where he lives and took him out to lunch. I sent along a care-package like my mother used to send to me in college. He isn’t in college. He isn’t technically “ours,” but I love him just the same. Did we have a fairy tale adoption story with him? No. I believe we have something equally as valuable. We have a relationship. It’s not a typical family relationship but it’s as close as he is comfortable with. I take pride in his successes. I also take pride in what I’ve been able to  give of myself as a parent. I take pride in teaching him to drive, holding his hand when he was shaking with fever, and rubbing his back when he cried about a relationship. Those moments were all real for me. Regardless of what our non traditional parent-child relationship looks like now.  No matter how he fares in life, I am glad I could do these things.

Mary and Carl have their ups and downs. They have trauma reactions, and fears and meltdowns. But they are also real little people. They have creative ideas and hilarious antics. I’m surprised and amazed by my children every day. They love us and have attached to us. That is success. We earned our family bonds through blood, sweat and tears. I mean that in the literal sense. One child drew my blood by stabbing me with a pencil during a dissociative episode. I’ve spent a sweaty hour in a car at a rest stop holding my daughter safe while she raged on a 100 degree day. I’ve cried tears of joy and triumph to hear them say, “I love you mom.” This is better than your run-of-the-mill fairy tale. This is 3 dimensional life. And it is amazing. What more could I ask for? These triumphs over trauma, attachment struggles and pain? These triumphs are the happy endings. This family is the happiest of endings.

A few months ago our daughter Mary was filling out a questionnaire in her little “All About Me” journal. It asked her to list her family members in one section and then write how they are related to you. She wrote “Carl–brother” and “Mommy and Daddy–love.”She was right. We aren’t related by blood, we are related by love. And so we live happily, messily, crazily ever-after.

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

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adoption, family

The Go Bag: Adventures in Emergency Coping Skills

Gillette2

My husband has a “jump bag.” It’s filled with life-saving tools that paramedics use. He keeps it with him because he volunteers for the service in town, and may have to go at a moments notice. I’m pretty sure he even carries an oxygen tank in there. Basically, anywhere he is in the town, he  is only a phone call away from saving a life. He is a prepared paramedic.

Our family needs first responders, too. We need to be able to respond to a child’s out-of-control or spiraling emotions in a flash. We need tools to help soothe sensory overload, or satiate sensory seeking behavior. We need things to help us be proactive, rather than reactive to our children’s emotional needs. And they have plenty of emotional needs!

Recently, we took a trip to visit Gillette castle here in Connecticut. For long day trips, we always plan ahead. We talk to both children about the long car ride. We role play and practice responses to possible frustrating scenarios. We brainstorm coping skills ahead of time. I ask the Littles, “Where can you sit in the car to make the car ride easier?” I guide them into thinking about sitting in separate rows so as not to attack each other on the ride. We carefully plan out what we can bring with us. Would Mary like to bring her blankie, her doll, or both? We give choices.

And then, we have the coping skills bag. I bring it on trips both short and long. I bring it to church. I bring it to events. Just having the bag helps Mary feel like she is prepared to handle her emotions.

Our Emergency Coping Skills Bag includes the following:

  1. An iPod with extra headphones. Music is soothing and it can drown out the annoyance of your siblings.
  2. An adult coloring book with colored pencils. This is a soothing activity that you can take anywhere.
  3. Sludge (or another gooey substance.) This is a fun sensory activity that is calming and keeps hands busy.
  4. A stuffed animal, blankie, or another transitional object (such as Dad’s dirty shirt) for hugging, squishing, and soothing.
  5. Snacks
  6. Word search or activity book. This gives them something to think about other than murder plots for siblings.

Having the emotional “jump bag” made our day trip possible. Two hours in the car and no one was physically assaulted. No one tried to climb out of the vehicle. No one collapsed from boredom. Not one meltdown! And the best part? We all got to enjoy our trip to the castle.

Apparently William Gillette wrote in his will that he did not want his castle to fall into the hands of a “blithering sap-head.” Although our kids didn’t necessarily retain all of the historical information from this trip, they remembered that phrase. I am proud to say that they both declared they would not be calling each other “blithering sap-heads” because it wouldn’t be nice. Hey, any day without a blithering sap-head is progress to me!

castle

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

*Photographs courtesy of my awesome husband, Luke!

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