Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Chatty Cathy: Traumatized Kids and Constant Talking

Okay, so the title of this post is probably a good clue that I’m an “older” parent.  No need for old lady jokes in the comments section below!  It is true.  I am old enough to have had a Chatty Cathy doll as a child of the 1960’s.  I had the one with brown hair (like me).  I remember the day the string broke on that doll and it would not shut up until my father took it apart.  You can’t pry open a child with a screw driver to shut her up like you can a doll.

I arrived home with my two youngest children on my 48th birthday, more than four years ago now.  My new son turned 12 a few days before we left his birth country.  His sister was nine.  Back then, we only understood a few words of whatever we said to one another.  I knew little Russian and they knew very little English.  The first three or four weeks home, unless my daughter was talking with her brother in the Russian language, she was relatively quiet.  As she learned more English (and she learned it very quickly), she became more talkative.  She sang more.  (She can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but boy does she sing!)  Now that she is fluent, her talking and singing are constant.  I am not kidding you when I say this child does not shut up even in her sleep!

Constant talking and singing, even asking silly questions or questions to which the child already knows the answer, but asks anyway, are all part of “the package” in children dealing with issues of trauma and attachment.  What I call “Chatty Cathy Syndrome” is quite common in children learning to live with disinhibited RADish behaviors.  (See my post HERE.)  It took me a while to understand my daughter’s Chatty Cathy Syndrome.  Girls talk more than boys.  I’ve parented boys for 24 years.  I’ve only parented a girl for four years.  I thought maybe the talking was just a “girl thing.”  Girls supposedly use twice the number of words per day than guys do.  (A friend recently told me if men listened the first time, we wouldn’t have to use twice as many words.  I thought that was pretty funny.)  I didn’t realize at first that the reason my daughter MUST, absolutely MUST have something to say (or sing), even if she’s only speaking or singing to herself, is because SILENCE TERRIFIES HER.  If it’s too quiet, she may actually have to think.  Thinking can mean having to deal with thoughts and feelings that are just too big to handle.

I’m not saying I’m good at this, because I often just want to yell, “Be QUIET!”  (And I do.)  However, if your child is particularly talkative and is even more particularly talkative than even their usual talkative self and is just UNABLE to shut up, that should be a huge clue she is trying to stop the hard thoughts reeling inside her head.  She is dealing with something she does not want to deal with, even if she cannot bring that thing to the front part of her brain (cerebrum) where cognitive thought happens and where she can begin to rationalize and figure it out.  She is dealing with something even if whatever it is she’s fighting is stuck in the middle part of her brain (amygdala) where it’s all just a jumble of wordless emotions and sense memories.  While the constant talking, and especially the constant ridiculous questions drive me absolutely batty, my job as her therapeutic parent is to help her identify what’s going on, and then hopefully sort through it all.  (Medication also helps!  I’ll post on that topic soon.)

Thankfully, my girl is usually very pleasant even when she’s behaving like a 3 year-old on verbal steroids.  Even when she argues (which is also quite constant if she is dealing with big feelings), she does it in a pleasant voice.  In fact, my husband doesn’t even realize she’s arguing with him sometimes because she’s so NICE about it.  (She’s much more snarky with me.)  The thing is, she doesn’t usually realize it either.  She has no clue she hasn’t taken a breath, or allowed anyone else to get a word in edge wise.  She doesn’t know she just asked a question and isn’t listening to the answer, because she’s busy thinking of another question to ask – and really, that next question is usually just an argument packaged as a pleasant-sounding question (to the untrained ear).  When this happens, before we can even deal with what’s really going on, she needs to be told she’s on system overload.  Sometimes she’s able to stop and breathe.  Other times, like last night, she cannot control herself and will go on and on until one of us (usually me, but last night it was her brother) snaps at her – loudly. 

The thing I often need to remember is that “crazy” feels NORMAL for my kids.  Normal is not normal to them.  Their lives were filled with so much crazy that normal is strange.  It doesn’t feel good.  Only when they are in that constant state of flight or fight do they feel as though they can navigate the world.  Their brains and their bodies don’t know how to relax for any length of time.  And in those times when they do relax, it literally hurts, and it’s too scary to remain there.  When I first realized this, it broke my heart.  Now, I just do what I must do to help us all make it through the crazy.  Sometimes it’s minute to minute.  It is always one day at a time.  Sometimes that means a time out for mom.  Sometimes it means identifying for my girl what’s going on.  (“Honey, you don’t seem to be able to stop talking or asking questions.  I think you must have thought about something scary today – or maybe you had a feeling today you didn’t like.”)

As we talk, I can ask more pointed questions – or even TELL her what I think it is she’s feeling.  Sometimes I don’t know.  Sometimes, I can make an educated guess because of past experience, such as when she is triggered by celebrations or holidays (like now).  Sometimes, telling her what I would feel helps her to sort things out and makes it less frightening to think about what she’s actually feeling.  (“Boy, if I’d gone through some of the things you went through when you were little, and this happened, I’d be feeling like . . .”)  When I tell her what I’d feel, it allows her to ask me why I’d feel that way.  Her asking me “why” is a lot more productive than me trying to ask her “why.”

Something else I’ve tried when it doesn’t seem the words will come, or the feelings are so deep that she cannot begin to bring them to a cognitive level, is do some therapeutic play or activity with her.  We do things we’ve learned in therapy like drawing, or playing with play dough, or making sand pictures (see my post HERE).  Sometimes, we try stretching out on the bed and taking big long breaths and seeing who can let that breath out for the longest time.  We count each other’s exhales.  Other times, we just do “normal” things like prepare a meal together, clean a room, or fold some laundry.  It’s pretty amazing how doing “normal” things can help me feel more normal.  It works sometimes for her, too.

And sometimes, honestly, I wonder if she will always have Chatty Cathy syndrome.  I wonder if she will always sing in the bathroom and talk in her sleep.  I’m glad she’s usually pleasant about it.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Just Doing What Normal Kids Do

No long blog post today. However, I thought I'd share my Facebook status with those of you who don't know me personally.  It reads, "Just bought 40 copies of Justin Bieber's latest CD to give as Christmas presents to everyone who tells me my traumatized kids are "just doing what all kids do."

I hope you laughed.

Hang in there, friends.  My kids' last day of school before the holidays is tomorrow.  How 'bout yours?

Friday, December 16, 2011

It’s Not ‘bout You, Mama

I spent a very thank-filled day yesterday, and have begun today in much the same way.  I am truly living this day as fully as I can, even if I live it simply and within my regular routine.  Because of recent experience, I am more aware of how even the simple, the routine, and even the simple routine CRAZINESS of raising traumatized kids is truly a blessing.  Today is a gift.  That’s not just an old cliché. 

Yesterday, I wrote about the trauma triggers my kids experience when we celebrate family milestones – like my 22 year-old son’s college graduation last Sunday.  There are many reasons my kids do not handle celebrations well.  One reason is because they did not receive the attention they needed as young children.  They were terribly neglected by their birth mother.  That neglect continued when they entered the orphanage system in Eastern Europe.  The reason my son gets angry, and my daughter does everything she can to get attention (even negative attention), is because they still haven’t had their emotional buckets filled.  Their needs are still not met, even though they’ve been home four years.  They still need attention.  When they act like a baby or are angry, it’s because they didn’t get what they needed as babies.

When this happens, we do not coddle them, but we also do not ignore them.  Granted, there are times when it gets to be too much, and like I wrote yesterday, even I need a time out from the craziness.  We don’t allow celebrations to turn into events that make the day more about them when it’s not, but we do help them process what’s going on.  For my son, we might say, “You seem like you’re far away.  WHAT (not why – I have learned not to ask “why” questions of my traumatized kids) are you thinking?”  If he says he doesn’t know (which he does a lot), we make suggestions to help him.  For example, “I wonder if you’re sad because your brother is receiving a lot of praise from us today and you know he’s always had it.  I wonder if you wish we’d had you all along so you could have had that pride from us all your life, and if you’re not angry that you didn’t get it from your birthparents, or the orphanage caregivers, when you were little?” 

There are times he’ll say, “That’s not it,” and become even more angry.  We know we’re right on track when that happens.  Other times, he’ll say, “That’s not it” and then tell us what’s going on.

Our daughter isn’t as cognitive when she’s triggered.  Her trauma is very emotion-based because she doesn’t have clear memory of her neglect.  She acts out.  She’s unable to say, “I need attention” on her own.  We always have to remind her that she’s acting much younger than she is because she doesn’t see it.  She never realizes she’s using her “baby voice,” or that she’s quite literally bouncing off the walls.  We always have to remind her of her “tools.”  They are:  stop, take a breath, take another breath, and think.  She always needs help with the last thing:  think.  We identify for her that she needs to tell us what it is she really wants or needs.  Thankfully, she’s able to do that when she’s reminded.

My kids have lost a lot.  And so, in addition to the trauma trigger that celebrations are for our family, whenever I am sick, even with the slightest cold, my kids are also triggered.  However, we had a bigger scare this last week.  We didn’t tell the kids everything and we didn’t share all our worries, but they were aware there was something going on and it added to the crazy behavior – behavior we’re still dealing with even now that we’ve gotten fairly good news.

Last week, I noticed a lump on my left rib cage.  I saw the doctor and he was “concerned.”  I had to wait another day to get in to the hospital to get a CT scan with an IV contrast.  They couldn’t get the IV started.  I got stuck three times.  My anxiety level was pretty high.  My mother and both my grandmothers died of cancer at the holidays.  My prayer has always been that I not get sick and that I not die at the holidays.  (May sound silly, but I’m being real.  I don’t want my kids – any of my kids – to have that trauma trigger every stinkin’ year.)

Finally, they got the contrast started and did the scan.  It went quickly once I had the contrast in me, but it made me pretty sick for a few moments.  Then I waited again.  Friends prayed.  I had peace, and I slept well that night, but I was still pretty frightened.  All the kids knew was that I was undergoing a test to see if I needed to have surgery to remove the lump on my rib.

The next day, my doctor’s nurse called and told me I have a lipoma – a benign fatty tumor.  We need to watch it and if it grows, I may need surgery later, but for now, I don’t need any treatment.  To say that my husband and I were very relieved is an understatement.  Again, I am very thankful.  God certainly allowed the experience to remind me how each day He gives me is a blessing.

It’s hard to hide when you’re anxious.  I was weepy off and on that day and night, as I waited on the results.  I hid some of that from my kids, but I wasn’t able to hide all of it.  I talked with our therapist about this and she agreed that maybe it’s not such a bad thing my kids see emotions are a normal part of dealing with life – all emotions.  She and I agreed it was a good thing for them to see that I needed the support of my friends when I was scared, but that I would be okay, too.

My kids have experienced traumatic loss.  They’re scared they’ll lose me, too.  But it’s not about me; it’s about what they haven’t had, and it’s about the needs they haven’t had filled.  Even though my son is in a constant “dance” of push and pull with me – of wanting to be close, but not too close, and then causing us both pain when it gets too uncomfortable for him, he still does not want to lose me.  He’s lost so much else.  Every little illness frightens him and his sister. 

Just as they did not receive the attention they needed as young children, they also did not experience the repetitive lessons a young child needs in order to learn life’s lessons – like healthy moms can get sick, but they can also get better and everything doesn’t need to completely fall apart.  That’s about them, too, but that’s also where I can help.  It gets hard doing and saying the same things over and over again to teenagers as though they were 3 year-old toddlers, but that’s where their needs were not met.  I am thankful God allows me to be that “broken record” I have complained I need to be too often.  Things can get hard around here, but we have a certain glue that doesn’t let us fall completely apart.

Even if the tumor had not been benign, I would want them to know everything doesn’t need to completely fall apart.  And so, I’ve been reminded in a new way how each day is a gift.  Even the hard days.  As one friend wrote, “Even if it rains on my parade, I’ll still be there marching.”  If I can teach that to my kids and they can grab hold to even some of it, then I am even more thankful.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Negative Attention-Seeking Behavior

Our 22-year-old son graduated from college last weekend.  We’re very proud of him.  He has Asperger Syndrome and some sensory integration challenges, but he’s done well and has worked hard.  We’re blessed to have witnessed his accomplishment.  It was not a typical, four years of study.  He deserves the attention he’s received from family and friends.  Graduating from college is a big deal for anyone.  It should be recognized!  However, since we’re also raising traumatized kids, we expected some trauma monsters to rear their ugly heads, even as we celebrated.  Boy, they sure did.

We were pleasantly surprised when our 16-year-old son did relatively well through most of the festivities.  He was genuinely supportive of his older brother and congratulated him on his accomplishment.  He was not terribly surly or rude to me, and he was even pretty attentive during the graduation ceremony.  It was not until the family-only party (this is what our graduate wanted) that he showed he’d had enough of the celebration.  We have few pictures of the party where he is not making a silly face or giving me his “I’m disgusted with you” smirk.  (I have hundreds of pictures throughout the last four years of this boy with that look on his face.)  At the party, he was also markedly quiet.  By the time the cake and presents were over, he’d had about all he could take.  He retreated to his room at about 7:30 p.m. and did not come out again until he had to leave for school the next morning.  Still, it was much better than he’d ever done with a family event before.  He knows he’s made some progress and that is a good thing to see as his mom.

Then, there was my 13-year-old daughter.  She’s usually the easier of the two younger kids to handle, but this celebration (and another issue I’ll tell you about tomorrow) set her off, and we’re still in the midst of the muck. 

At school on Thursday, she twisted her right wrist a little bit in gym class.  It was uncomfortable, I’m sure.  However, it was not a major life-altering injury.  Any of our other kids might try to get out of doing the dishes one night to “rest,” but my daughter was going to milk it for all it was worth.  She was fine through school on Friday.  Her gym teacher said she participated and “played hard” that day, just like all the other kids.  She also played her violin just fine in orchestra class.  On Friday evening, she gave me a neck rub.  She was particularly animated, though.  She was very active, and could not sit still at all.  Plus, she could not shut up.  She talked and talked, and asked stupid question after stupid question. 

My daughter has used her baby voice nearly constantly since last Thursday, and has tried to be “cute.”  She’s continued to bring me one drawing or paper after another, seeking praise (like a 3 year old would), regressing to her “look at me” C.O.N.S.T.A.N.T.L.Y. crazy behavior.  Honestly, it drives me batty.  I’m not all that patient.  Last night, I even needed a time out because I couldn’t take her any more.  This has not stopped since Thursday evening when we talked about plans for the graduation weekend. 

She complained about her wrist throughout the weekend.  Conveniently, it only bothered her when we wanted her to do something.  She’d say she “couldn’t move” it, but by the end of her sentence, she’d be waving it around and gesturing like my Italian mother-in-law, as she argued.  (The arguing hasn’t stopped since last Thursday either.)  Things had escalated so much by Monday morning, that I took her to the emergency room before school, just to be prudent.  My instincts told me this was “just” negative attention-seeking behavior, but I wanted to be sure she wasn’t truly injured, and I sure didn’t want to be accused of neglect if she complained at school. 

When we got into the exam room, the first thing I did was ask the nurse if he knew anything about attachment or RAD, trauma in adopted children, or the issues of post-institutionalized children.  He did not.  Briefly, I explained our son graduated college that weekend, and our daughter had a history of seeking attention in inappropriate ways when other people were receiving attention.  She was jumping like a frightened cat and howling as he examined her.  (My mother would have said it was like watching the third act of East Lynne.)  I told the nurse she was over-acting as he looked at her wrist.  I probably seemed like an uncaring witch and a poor excuse for a mother.  After all, until five years ago, that’s exactly what I would have thought of a woman who said the things I was saying about her child to an ER nurse.

After the nurse checked her vital signs, the ER doctor looked at my daughter.  I asked him the same questions I’d asked the nurse.  I tested him to see if he knew what “RAD” meant (since I'd had to educate even my own family physician).  He did not.  They just don’t teach these things in med school.  So again, I educated another doctor.  Thankfully, he played along, and seemed to at least be empathetic, even if he may not have understood me completely.  He had my daughter’s wrist x-rayed.  It wasn’t broken.  But then, we knew that.  Thankfully, the doctor did know about “natural consequences.”  He asked my daughter what her favorite subjects were (gym and orchestra).  He did not say anything else as he gave protocol instructions and put her wrist in a splint.  He told her she had to wear it for a week.  He then wrote a note for school:  “No gym or orchestra for one week.”  Natural consequences!  LOVE that ER doctor!

As I wrote earlier, there have been other anxiety-producing “events” going on this week in our family.  I’ll write more about that tomorrow but I wanted to tell you about how my kids respond to celebrations that are not about them.  My son is still pretty shut down.  My daughter is still very triggered and still super hyper.  She saw her psychiatric nurse yesterday and her SEROquel dose was increased from 50 mg/day to 100/mg day for now.  It will go up to 150/mg by the end of next week as we get to Christmas.  Aside from that however, even though she continues to milk the wrist thing, she has also admitted that the next time she “makes a big deal out of something,” she’ll think about the consequences first.  She said, as we've been telling her for some time, "I need to take a breath and tell you what I need."  Progress!  ‘Doesn’t keep me from feeling any less crazy sometimes, but it does show me we must be doing something right around here.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Dear Teacher: About the movies you show in class

On the way to school this morning, my daughter announced to me that you were showing the movie, “Elf” in class this week.  Dear teacher, this movie is highly inappropriate for the adopted/foster children in your classroom.  It is also inappropriate for these children’s classmates, as it often adds fuel to the fire for kids to be cruel to one another.  “Elf,” along with movies such as “Despicable Me,” “Tangled,” and even “Annie,” give poor portrayals of adoption, adoptive families, and children who entered their family by adoption.  They show ridiculous scenes of abandonment, child stealing, and abuse.  They nearly always portray the adoptive parent as “evil.” 

These movies are disturbing for many adopted kids to watch even in a place they feel most safe, such as in their own home with their parents’ guidance.  They are especially disturbing in the atmosphere of the classroom, where movies are shown most often as a “reward” for the students, and a break for the teacher.  These periods are usually much less structured than a regular classroom period.  Teachers are not aware of students’ emotional distress.  Yet, fellow students, aware of a child’s status of “being adopted,” are often inspired to engage in escalated cruelty and teasing toward the adopted child outside the classroom.  Please remember, dear teacher:  middle school is its own hell for a lot of your students.  Heaping on trauma triggers, even unintentionally, makes it no easier.

Occasionally, you will encounter a parent who works hard to educate educators about such things.  At first, these parents are often seen as good resources to teachers.  They are helpful.  They have a lot of information, and they can remind you of things you already know, but don’t think of that often.  Some of them even do some of your work for you.  At first, you are quite thankful for them.  Later, when you forget about trauma triggers, and you’ve hurt a child, these same parents may seem more adversarial to you than helpful.  You may be tempted to resent them.  However, please don’t receive them that way. 

If you are a parent, remember how important it is to protect your child.  Help them protect their child and assist in their hurt child’s healing.  If you’re not a parent, remember why you went into teaching in the first place.  You wanted to help kids. 

Accept a good parent’s correction.  They are much more likely to see you as a partner in helping their child become the best they can be when you remain open to learning.  The best teachers are continually learning, just as the best parents are continually learning.  Don’t get defensive.  Think about what this parent is saying and respond appropriately.  If you’ve started showing a movie that shouldn’t be shown, stop.  You allow “do overs” for your students.  Allow do overs for yourself, as well.  And remember: You’re always saying you wished more parents were involved?  When you meet one who is, be happy.  You have your wish!


Your student’s parent

Thursday, December 1, 2011

About Grief and Loss in Adoption

My mother died ten years ago today.  I am surprised at the intensity with which this anniversary has affected me.  I am very emotional today.  It is different than it was that day ten years ago, but I almost feel more depth of reeling today than I did then.  It seems I had such calculated control back then.  Today, I'm crying at the slightest remembrance.

I remember specific moments from that weekend.  I remember the surreal feeling of driving for two days to get to her hospital bedside.  She knew she was sick for a long time, but she didn’t let any of us know.  She wanted to “go quickly” for our sake, as she wrote in notes I found months after her death.

I remember singing to her.  She was nonverbal by the time I arrived at the hospital.  Still, she responded to my singing, even letting me know she wanted me to STOP singing one particular children’s Sunday School song.  I couldn’t think of songs to sing.  She wanted me to keep singing.  So, I started singing songs she sang to me as a child.  I guess some of those songs were a little obnoxious.

I also remember the deep, labored breathing and the unbelievable amount of time between those last several breaths.  I remember the moment we realized she was gone.  I remember little else until the funeral five days later, when someone (I can’t remember who) said, “They’re waiting for you.”   It was time to place my rose on her casket at the graveside, and walk away.  I remember thinking, “Why do I have to go first?!”  I did what was expected of me and walked quickly away.  I said, “Dammit.”  My mom’s best friend is the only one who came after me.  God, it’s so hard, even now.

Today, I grieve for the relationship, and that she’s not here to see her two newest grandchildren, or meet my first daughter-in-law.  I grieve that she left us at this time of year, and I pray (every year I pray) and ask God to not allow me to leave my kids around the holidays!  I grieve because I live a two days’ drive away from her grave and I cannot place a flower there today.  I grieve because I miss her.  Terribly.

This loss, though difficult, is part of life.  It is hard, but it is expected.  It is not unusual for an adult to have to say, “Until we meet again in Heaven,” to their parent.  This grief is normal.

My kids, on the other hand, have experienced grief beyond that which any child should.  They’ve experienced the grief of losing their biological family.  They’ve experienced the grief of leaving their first county and first language.  They’ve experienced the loss of all they knew.  While it is true that they have gained by being adopted into our family, they have experienced profound loss.  As their parents, we need to acknowledge that loss.  Additionally, we need to understand our own loss in adoption.  We lost the time in our children’s lives before we knew them.  We lost some of the dreams we’ve had, even as we’ve embraced new dreams for our children.  There is grief and loss in adoption.  It is okay to acknowledge this.  It is okay to grieve.  It is important to help our children process and come through grief.

Anniversaries of our children’s losses may be hard on them, just as today is hard on me.  While they may not cognitively remember a date or an event, their sense memory – the part of their brains and their souls that holds their emotions and their spirit, will remember.  Sometimes, it can take them and us by surprise, but we don’t need to be surprised when it happens.  We can expect it.  We should expect it.  That way, we can be ready to comfort one another.

Here are some links to learn more about helping your child (and you) deal with grief and loss in adoption:

Please feel free to share your family’s experience with grief and loss in adoption in the comment section of this post.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

In Therapy

My son and I had family therapy this morning.  Usually, our therapist sees me for a few minutes, and then sees my son for the remainder of the 50 minute “hour.”  Usually, she asks me how it’s going, I tell her, and then I sit in the waiting room while my son has his session.  I’m lucky to have found a therapist that respects me, and that I can trust.  We’ve been with her for three years now.  I have no plans to stop seeing her with my son.  It works for us, and we’re blessed to have insurance that covers our need very well.  In the beginning, I was in the room for the entire session with my son (or daughter).  Traumatized kids can cause parents a lot of grief if they’re left alone with a professional who does not yet know the family or the kid.  They often tell tales of abuse, but those tales are often lies – or memories of past abuse.  Therapists have to report suspected abuse.  Parents of traumatized kids often experience their own trauma by having to go through “the system.”  This system most often suspects the parent first without taking into account the background of the child.  After all, there have been enough horror stories for caseworkers to be suspicious.  Who wouldn’t be?

Trust takes time to build.  So, I insisted I be part of the entire session while we were getting to know our therapist and she was getting to know us.  I took about a year doing things this way.  Eventually, after the therapist and I had both learned even more about older, internationally adopted kids, more about RAD, and more about trauma (PTSD), we understood it would be good for my son to spend at least SOME time alone with the therapist.  He was holding back, and was saying things he thought I wanted to hear rather than work through the hard stuff so he could start to heal.  Eventually, we were able to get to the point where the therapist knew what was “real,” versus what was our son was saying as part of his working through past trauma.  She knew when he was using us to personify the evil he’d experienced as a young child.  Because she “got it,” I knew I would not be investigated by children’s services due to my son's lies, or because he was processing something his biological family did.  However, it took time. 

None of that happened without the process of building trust.  In addition to spending time in the therapist’s office, we got children’s services involved.  My son has gotten into trouble more than a few times over the years.  He even “disappeared” on us the night before my oldest son’s wedding, leaving the rehearsal dinner with an aunt.  (He told her we said he should ride back to the hotel in her car.  Why she didn’t check with us to see if that was true, or why she thought we’d tell one of our kids to go with her without us asking her first if that was okay, I still don’t understand.)  When we realized we did not know where our son was, we called the police.  We frantically looked “everywhere” for him.  We were sure the stress of the wedding had triggered feelings of abandonment for him.

After what seemed like an eternity, I got a call on my cell phone, and we learned he was back at the hotel with my husband’s sisters.  We were in another state for the wedding, but when we got home, children’s services showed up at my front door.  The police in that community had reported the incident to authorities in our state.  It wasn’t the first time I’d been visited by children’s services, though.  The caseworker already knew me.  She’d visited with me many times before, as there was a period of time when our son was in trouble quite often.  I told her what happened.  She patted me on the back and told me to “hang in there.”  She said I should call if I needed anything.  It was like having a friend stop by.  Again, a relationship was already there.  Trust was already established.

I think one of THE most important things a parent of traumatized kids can do for their family is build relationships in advance of a crisis with people and agencies that may become a part of that family’s life eventually, anyway.  Some people think this is akin to “looking for trouble.”  My experience is different.  Being pro-active has saved me a lot of hassle.  Being honest about everything, including my own struggles with parenting my children, and reaching out to our therapist, to the school psychologists and principals, the student resource officers (police), and to our state children’s services department, has afforded me the support and the help I need to best parent my kids.  I’ve received services and aid I would not receive otherwise.  I’ve avoided messy investigations because people acting in good faith have reported me as not having control over my child.  I’ve gained respect from people working “on the ground” with hurt kids, and they’ve even called me for advice.  I think that’s more about looking OUT for trouble – stopping it before it ever starts – than it is about looking FOR trouble.

Things are going fairly well in therapy with my son.  There are days however, like today, when my son doesn’t want to cooperate.  He shuts down.  He pretends he’s not awake.  He stares and he withdraws.  There are also days when I am still part of the whole 50 minute hour, like today.  Most of the time, my son works well with the therapist.  He is conscious of the tools he’s worked to develop with her in order to help him navigate the world.  He’s matured – a lot – this school year.  I’m still looking OUT for trouble, though.  I’m still working to stop it before it ever starts.  Things are going well BECAUSE we are in therapy, and because we have a support system.  I never dreamed I’d need it before I adopted, or even during the first year or so of our adoption.  It was only when I’d gotten to the point of considering disruption that I knew I NEEDED this support, and so did my kids. 

Not everyone is lucky enough to have a good behavioral mental health facility in their community.  I totally lucked into ours.  I didn’t even know it existed when we moved here.  However, I highly encourage parents to look OUT for trouble and to seek out support BEFORE it’s needed.  Even if things seem to be going okay those first several months home, or that first year home, build relationships with people you may need in a crisis.  Our son did not steal anything until he’d been home nearly three years.  Apart from the expected adjustment period of having an older internationally adopted child enter the family, things went fairly well the first couple of years home.  Any problems were contained to outbursts at home, shutting down, or occasionally getting into a minor scuffle at school – all things seen as “normal” for a kid adjusting to a new family, new language, and new culture.  At three years home, things changed for both kids.  Suddenly, we had to figure a lot of things out we’d never had to deal with before.  Thankfully, I’d been building relationships with our therapist, the schools, and with children’s services before the poo-poo hit the fan.

Even if you do not have a mental health facility in your community, you can do the work to develop relationships with people you will need at some point, for some reason or another.  It’s not always easy.  I’ve had to educate educators.  I even had to teach our young family physician what “RAD” meant, and then guide him to resources where he could learn about it.  (They just don’t teach this stuff in medical school.)  You need to educate yourself before you can educate others, of course.  The good news is there are a lot of resources available that weren’t available even four years ago when I got home with my kids.  There are a lot of great blogs written by very wise (though sometimes very worn) therapeutic parents.  There are relationships you can build with people who have walked in your shoes.  Don’t be afraid to share with someone who’s already walking this road.  Don’t be afraid to try some things, even if those things seem “weird.”  And if you’re in therapy, don’t give up too quickly.  If things are going well, it might just be because of what you’re doing – not because you don’t need to do it anymore.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Waiting. Yep, it stinks!

Friends in Eastern Europe have compiled their dossier to adopt two older boys from an orphanage there.  These are kids no one from their own country wanted.  Their hopeful parents are Americans, living in country, serving orphans and people seen by the majority there as societal outcasts.  My friends are good people.  They were “there” for me when I was stuck in the muck for weeks in that place, waiting for a corrupt government to move so I could bring my children home.  My friends have jumped through hoops.  They’ve done all the important things, as well as all the ridiculous things they’ve been told to do, in order to compile the necessary paperwork needed to make these boys legally their own.  Now, officials at that country’s national adoption authority are telling them that they will not be seen through the rest of the year.  They were told to come back in February.  It’s ridiculous.  It’s about the convenience of the workers.  It’s about politics, and constant changes in adoption procedures.  It’s about changes in authority – something that seems to be in constant flux in that country.  And yes, I’ll say it:  it’s about corruption and extortion, even if it’s veiled extortion.  I can bet you that a nice sum of cash would get them an appointment pronto.  My friends don’t work like that even if corrupt officials do. 

My friends are hoping for an appointment anyway.  They are moving forward in faith believing God called them to become the parents of these two boys.  They are moving forward, knowing childhood does not wait.  (For every year spent in an orphanage, a child will lose 4-6 months or more in physical, emotional and psycho-social development.)  My friends are waiting on people who do not really care about these boys, and who certainly do not care about them.  Yep, it stinks.

I have other beloved friends whose dossier is sitting on the desk of some national adoption official in South America.  The government is different there than in former Soviet states, but there is still red tape, just as there is red tape anywhere.  They can’t get any definitive answers.  There must be some big meeting that takes place.  That meeting hasn’t happened.  The child they’re waiting to adopt is also an older boy with special needs.  He, too, is waiting in an orphanage.  While he is in an orphanage run by people who do care, he is still in an orphanage.  The statistics for kids waiting in an orphanage do not improve from country to country.  My friends would be good parents for this child.  He would have a sibling, already home, from his own orphanage, as well as other brothers and sisters.  But they have not yet been officially matched.  Other people from other countries have looked at his file, but he’s still waiting in bureaucratic limbo, while my friends still hold onto the hope that God called them to become his parents.  However, nothing is certain in any country until you walk out of court with a final adoption decree in your hands.  Waiting.  Yep, it stinks.

The process of adoption is filled with paperwork, red tape, and what seems like endless waiting.  It is hard.  Really hard.  A lot of people give up.  Thankfully, many do not.  Childhood doesn’t wait, even if we must.  Once our kids are home, we wait some more.  It’s a different kind of waiting, but it’s still hard.  If our children were adopted internationally, we wait for them to be able to understand us, as we wait to understand them.  We wait for attachment – sometimes for our entire relationship.  We wait for our children to learn to become part of our families.  We wait for them to learn to trust us and to believe we will not leave.  We wait for them to stop lying and stealing.  We wait to see if they will get into trouble, even as we wait for them to grasp they are valuable.  Sometimes, it’s really hard to wait on these things.  Waiting stinks.

Frankly, I don’t know how anyone gets through the process of adoption, nor the process of knitting a child to one’s heart, without faith.  Your faith in God may look a little different than mine, but I don’t know another adoptive parent that’s doing this well, who is doing it alone.  I NEED God, even when I don’t know exactly who He is, or exactly what He looks like.  Even though I don’t fully understand His character, and I won’t fully KNOW HIM this side of Heaven, I need the hope of His unconditional love for me.  Otherwise, I cannot begin to show that unconditional love to my children.  Without God, I cannot begin to wait for the hope I have for their lives, because I know He has waited on me many, many times.  I know that trusting in Him helps me renew my strength (Isaiah 40:31).

I also need others who are walking this road.  I need the wisdom of those who have gone before me, who have “been there/done that," and I need the friendship of those who are where I was three and four years ago, too.  As one of my good friends puts it, “sometimes only another trauma mama can talk you down off the ceiling.”  My heart breaks for those who isolate themselves, or think that prayer alone will solve everything. 

Sometimes God answers prayer by putting people in our paths who know what they’re talking about!  There is a story my former pastor tells to illustrate this point:  There was a flood.  A guy was stuck on top of his roof, and he prayed for God to save him, as the water rose.  Another guy came by in a row boat and offered him a ride.  The man on the roof refused saying, “I’ve prayed for God to save me.”  Another person came by on a raft and offered him a place on the rickety, but still floating vessel.  Yet, he refused saying, “I’ve prayed for God to save me.”  A third person came by, clinging only to a floating log.  The water was up to the waiting man’s neck by then.  He was told to grab hold of the log, but this quickly sinking man replied, “I’ve prayed for God to save me.”  Eventually, the man on the roof drowned.  When he got to Heaven, he asked why God hadn’t saved him.  God replied, “I tried to save you three times!” 

As I wait for my children to trust me, to stop lying, to stop shutting down or yelling at me, to relax and know they are loved, I pray.  But I also watch for those God would send along my way.  I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my adoptive parenting journey, especially during that first year or so.  I’ve asked my kids “why” they did something, instead of “what” they were feeling.  I’ve tried to “make” my kids tell me the truth, instead of helping them discover what fear was driving them.  I’ve argued that my kids needed to know how to handle “real life” with “regular people,” not knowing they would never get there without first healing from their trauma.  I’ve used all the good parenting techniques that worked to help me raise four healthy, happy, whole, and functional young adult sons, only to learn these things DO NOT WORK with hurt children, and I had to learn to parent my adopted children in ways that seemed counter intuitive to me.  I’ve allowed some row boats to go by, but I’ll be darned if I’ll let a raft or a log go by now, too.  Waiting stinks, but I’m not going to drown. 

Let’s pray for our waiting friends, but let’s also be there for them.  Let’s also accept God’s answer to our own prayers when He sends by a row boat, a raft, or even a log.  Waiting stinks, but we don’t have to drown.  It’s a lot easier to endure waiting when we are in a boat, with company. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Ah, Monday. Thank God!

“Thank God it’s Friday” may be a popular saying, but around here, I thank God it’s Monday more often.  I especially thank Him for Mondays after a long holiday weekend.  Thanksgiving, as one of my trauma mama friends so aptly put it, is one of the hardest times of the year for our kids.  Everyone is talking about being thankful.  For our hurt, adopted kids, being thankful is hard!  For what are they supposed to be thankful?  Being adopted?  For my kids, that means also being thankful that their biological mother neglected them while she took care of her own vices and their father left them in a way no parent should ever leave a child.  Be thankful?  Yeah, right.

My Evangelical Christian friends will need to hold onto their hats here, but I’m going to write what I know as truth in our family.  Here goes:  The expectation to be thankful AND be part of a Christian household adds even more stress to our kids’ hurt lives.  Everyone is telling them to be thankful for what GOD has given them – that GOD has set them into a family – that GOD is ready to meet their need – that God is good.  For children who have been raised to believe that God is for rich Americans with no real need, and who know reality to be that they must take whatever they can to survive, this is fantasy.  For children who were set into a family the way God’s design intended – for kids to be raised and loved and cared for by the people who bore them – only to be ripped from that family against their will (however dysfunctional and toxic), God seems cruel.  For children who rummaged through dumpsters and begged from neighbors to put food into their bellies and the belly of a baby sister (that a corrupt government took away from them and placed with a family without their knowledge), believing God will meet their need is ludicrous. 

EVEN THOUGH they are loved, well cared for, fed, clothed, and given many of the things middle-class Americans enjoy (even as they take those things for granted), EVEN THOUGH they have been “redeemed” in a sense and brought out of poverty, and EVEN THOUGH they have come to believe in Salvation through Jesus Christ, they cannot believe – not deep down – that God is good.  If God were good, then he would not have taken them from their family, their life, their culture, their language, their heritage and placed them in a family they did not choose, in a country they did not choose, dealing with the most absurd language on the face of the planet.  This is my kids’ truth, even for all the “right teaching” and “sacrificial love.”

 If I can get just ONE of my Christian friends to truly “get” all this (one who is not also an adoptive parent raising a hurt child – especially a child adopted at a much older age), then I will be amazed.  If just one person not walking this walk can fully understand what my kids have been through and how it affects them and their life on this earth – and how the core of that WILL NOT CHANGE, even by “coming to Jesus,” then I will feel as though I’ve met a part of my mission on this earth.  Why?  Because if just ONE of these folks can get it, then maybe others in the Church (universal) can begin to “get it” – REALLY GET IT, too.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

5th Christmas: Taming the Trauma

Yesterday, I wrote that our two internationally-adopted children are spending their fifth Christmas home as part of our family.  Read that post for some background on our progression through the years, realizing our kids’ needs, and finding the wisdom we need to continue to help them and really, to help ourselves.  The holidays can be a huge trauma trigger for adopted kids, whether they are adopted as babies, toddlers, younger children, or as older kids/teens (like mine).  It doesn’t matter if they’re adopted internationally or domestically.  The holidays can be hard on anyone, but they can be especially hard on our kids.

My kids have trouble with nearly every holiday, but some are more triggering than others.  It doesn’t matter what the celebration:  birthdays (anyone’s birthday, not just their own), New Years, Valentines, Easter, 4th of July, Halloween, and Christmas -- they are all crazy around here.  Thankfully, we’ve learned some things to make them less crazy.  Halloween is the worst.  Yet, Thanksgiving through New Year’s has also been pure hell in the past, with New Year’s setting us up for some pretty significant regressions in behavior during the first couple of months of each calendar year.  National holidays, such as Memorial Day, 4th of July, and Labor Day, always seem to get to my kids, too.  They question who they are – Eastern European or American.  They just can’t grasp that they are BOTH.

Anniversaries are hard, too.  Wedding anniversaries, the anniversary of a loved one’s death, or our older dog’s death, the anniversary of my husband’s car accident, and especially the anniversary of the truly criminal traumatic events my children have suffered (there were multiple times they endured trauma), all of these are all hard on my kids.  When our kids are going through a rough spot, you can bet our entire family is going through it, too.  I truly believe second-hand PTSD is just as harmful to parents and others in the family as the PTSD our kids suffer due to past trauma. 

There are also emotional triggers for our kids that can happen at any time.  Sometimes, I can predict these, and avoid situations I know will cause my kids pain, because we’ve already experienced it.  Sometimes, however, we get blindsided because we didn’t know something was going to happen, or because we are still learning new trauma triggers and additional traumatic events in our kids’ lives.  This is on-going, even as we approach our 5th Christmas home.  Some known emotional triggers for my kids include visits to our old home town (we moved to a new town less than a year after they were home), certain smells (fried potatoes, paint, strong-smelling flowers such as hyacinth), sounds (loud bangs, sirens, some types of music), and old photos (we have a few from their biological grandmother).

My children’s reaction to all of these triggers varies.  Since we’re talking about the winter holidays, however, I’ll focus on those.  When triggered, their feelings are always a combination of intense fear for their lives (no matter how “irrational” it may seem to those who have no clue what they’ve truly been through), shame, and disgust.  The thing that is most maddening in all of it is that even though these feelings are highly uncomfortable, and my kids are well-aware of most of the triggers that cause these feelings, they are still drawn to them like a moth to the flame.

The holidays bring a host of things that seem wonderful to most of us:  parties with friends, visits from distant relatives, lots of different kinds of foods, new toys, new clothes, music, concerts to attend and concerts in which to perform, Christmas shows on television, commercials letting us know we cannot miss this sale and we must have that new item, . . . The list goes on and on.  For kids who have come from such poverty, abuse, and neglect, these things are completely overwhelming.  Parties with friends and visits from distant relatives provoke anxiety beyond belief.  The abundance of food, and the American gluttony that goes along with it, is something that is completely disgusting to my kids.  Yet, they are also completely drawn to it, and want to participate in that indulgence to the highest magnitude possible, even to the point of physical illness, unless I’m the “mean” mom and I curb their enthusiasm. 

For me, these behaviors can provoke a sense of extreme fatigue, because I feel as though I need to remain on high alert in order to protect them, others, and our property.  I get angry when I have to repeat the SAME. STINKIN’. THING. over, and over, and over again.  I get sad because, even though we’ve been through certain things “a million times,” my kids just don’t seem to “get it.”  Sometimes, I wonder if anything I’m doing makes any difference at all.  (The answer to that is a big, ol “YES!,”  but I have to step back to see it – to see we’re not where we were five Christmases ago, or even one Christmas ago.)

If you want to try some of the things we employ in our family to tame the trauma at the holidays, try these:

TAKE CONTROL:  You have a right to determine what your family does and where the family goes.  Keep it simple.  Leave parties early.  Make memories with traditions.  Don’t play into all the hype.

LIMIT GIFTS:  Our family does three fun/practical gifts:  a big gift(less than $100), a medium gift (under $50) and a small gift (under $20).  We also give the kids new pajamas on Christmas Eve, a stocking filled with small items (from the Dollar Tree, mainly), socks and some underwear.  Some families spread the gift-opening out over a few days, or over the course of the day on Christmas.  We get it all over with at once and tear right through everything (but with one person opening one gift at a time).  Our kids would get super anxious if we spread it out over the day, let alone spread it out over days.

EXPECTATIONS:  Go ahead and spoil at least some of the surprise.  If your kids’ entitlement issues are rearing their ugly heads (like my kids’), let them in on the secret:  you’re not Donald Trump, nor are you his mistress.  I don’t tell my kids everything, but I let them know what the limitations are for our budget and for what we allow our kids to have according to their emotional maturity (not their age).

COMMUNICATE:  Tell people in advance what you will and will not do.  Not everyone outside the immediate family needs to know all the details, but anyone who is in contact with your family regularly does need to know your children come from a background that affects them, especially at this time of year.  When you tell friends and family to do or not do something with or for your kids, they need to trust that you’re doing what’s best for them, and that you're not simply being an over- bearing parent.  Sometimes people will listen to you.  Most of the time, they won’t.  At least you tried.  Then, if something does happen and they’re caught off guard, you can say, “I told you so,” in whatever tone fits the occasion.

PREPARE:  You know those commercials with the crazy Target lady preparing for the Black Friday insanity that starts at midnight tomorrow?  There ya’ go.  You have to prepare for this time of year in ways others do not.  You have to be prepared for the entitlement, for the sullen and/or nasty attitudes, for the hyper-activity, for the arguing and for the general over-all heightened “craziness” that is this time of year for traumatized kids.  If you’re prepared, then you can respond with unaffected therapeutic parenting mindfulness instead of stressed-out, triggered trauma mama nuttiness (like I have the past four Christmases).

REHEARSE:  Before a big party or before company arrives, rehearse with your children how they should behave and what they should say, or not say.  If your kids are older, present scenarios to them and ask them how they want to handle it.  Then guide them if their plans don’t quite meet YOUR expectations.  If they’re little, give them situations that may likely occur.  For example, “Now, Sally, Aunt Louise is coming for dinner tomorrow.  You remember how she likes to hug?”  [Sally]  “She smells funny and I don’t like her.”  [Parent]  “I know you think she smells funny.  She loves you and just wants to show you.  But if you don’t want her to hug you or hold you, you are allowed to tell her in a polite voice that you are glad she is here, but you do not want a hug and Mommy said it was okay for you to tell her no hugs.”  That way, you can handle Aunt Louise.  Sally feels protected because you’re the one who said it was okay to say no, and Sally is empowered because she rehearsed with you what to do.

PRACTICE YOUR TOOLS:  Our kids have some tools to use when they’re feeling stressed.  My daughter gets particularly hyper and silly-talkative.  We remind her of her tool to “breathe.”  We tell her to stop.  Think.  Take three deep breaths.  And come back.  This helps her regain control.  Sometimes we remind her of the obvious – that she is safe and we are there with her.  We are not going anywhere.  Things are silly at the moment, but they will not be silly for long.  This often helps her visibly relax and behave more normally again.  It’s amazing what reminding our kids of what seems obvious to us does for them.

FOCUS:  Focus on the spirit of the holiday.  This time of year wasn’t meant to be crazy; it was meant to be peaceful.  Read the REAL Christmas story (Luke 2).  Talk about what Christmas is really about and focus on the faithful reminders of the season.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

5th Christmas: From Where Does Wisdom Come?

This is the fifth Thanksgiving, the fifth Christmas, and the fifth New Year’s home for my two internationally adopted kids.  Our first holiday season home with the kids happened less than six months into our journey as their parents.  We thought we knew so much back then.  We thought we’d “read it all” and “talked through it all.”  We were so naïve.  Even when our second holiday time with the kids came, we were confident we’d already weathered all the storms.  We were secure that we were doing all the right things for our family.  Really.  We were.  Well we were secure in as far as we had the knowledge to be, and as far as we knew our kids’ needs at that point.  We were still doing it on our own though, and “trusting God” for wisdom.  No therapy.  No meds.  We were handling it.  Well, if being so stressed out that I had no time and no desire to do anything but be with my husband and try to keep things going at home is handling it, then we were handling it.  

I didn’t want to pay attention to the signs that screamed we were NOT “handling it.”  For example, our son knew enough language, and enough American culture by then, to take full advantage of our naïve state.  He was sneaky.  He lied.  He was nasty to me and sullen towards his dad.  He had no respect for us or his older brothers.  He hit his sister constantly.  He knew our expectations but he didn’t care about them.  He was a teenager, strong and tall, but without the emotional maturity or world knowledge of his age peers, and our daughter was right behind him.

By our third Christmas, we’d been home just over two years.  I realized, at that point, that God provided wisdom in ways other than just in our personal revelation or self-education.  He provided it most directly in the experience of others, including doctors and therapists, and that He’d never intended for my husband and I to do this alone – or even with just the help of other adoptive parents (though it is truly a treasure to have you, dear friends).  A child who was consistently hyper-vigilant, consistently lying, consistently sneaky, nasty, and  sullen – or hyper-active, constantly talking and asking ridiculous questions, a child who could laugh at someone else’s pain, even while causing that pain -- was a child that needed more than my experience of raising four, really good biological kids who’d never given me any real trouble.  These were children that needed far more than my prayers for personal wisdom.  

God already had plenty of wisdom waiting for me.  While it seems as though there were times we were making little progress, therapy has made a HUGE difference in my children’s lives, as well as my own.  We have all learned SO much!  I can see that it has made a world of difference in our quality of life, looking back these last couple of years.  Medicine also HELPS my kids.  It works to regulate their physical responses – biological responses – to the trauma that forever changed their brains – their psyches.  Medicine is a very, very good thing when it is carefully planned, monitored regularly, and adjusted as needed. 

Wow.  This post is turning into something different than I’d intended when I began to write.  Sometimes, that happens.  Perhaps there is someone reading that needed to hear this?  I know I’ve read blog posts by other trauma mamas that were exactly what I needed to hear at the time.

Maybe I’ll get to a description of holiday triggers and what to do and not to do later – even how triggers feel for our kids and for us.  I’m pretty scattered, and I realize that.  There is just SO MUCH floating around in my brain that I want to put into writing. 

For now, let me just say I know part of taking back the holidays for me has been accepting help from professionals, as well as the wisdom of others who live with a hurt child, or have lived with a hurt child.  If someone else has already walked this path, and they have tried things that work (or don't work), why would I not also give it a go (or avoid that which did not work)?  If someone else is smart enough to clinically research therapy methods, or come up with medicines far better than any we’ve ever seen before, why would I not also check them out for my kids?  Why wouldn’t you? 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

More on Lying

While I wrote a bit about lying yesterday, I really felt this topic needed its own post.  Lying is so pervasive in our home.  Our kids lie to protect themselves and each other, no matter how illogical that “protection” may seem.  They lie about stupid stuff.  They lie about things that are clear and in front of our faces.  It drives us crazy.  Lying is probably MY biggest trauma trigger.  Lying pushes MY buttons.  My kids know this.  It gives them a way of controlling me.

I met another trauma mama at a local coffee shop this morning.  She’s about my age, but started her family younger than I did, so she’s already been through what we’re going through.  It’s nice not to feel so alone sometimes.  Her daughter was also adopted internationally.  She also has biological children.  She’s been through the lying and the not being able to believe a word that comes out of her child’s mouth.  She knows.  Again, it was just nice to be with someone who gets it.  She knows what it’s like to have a child lie about everything.

Conversely, one of my children is also a compulsive truth-teller.  Yup!  She’ll rat herself out if she feels it will relieve her stress faster than lying.  She’s very smart.  The trouble with this is, I really have to be even more careful with her because she’s a 50/50 toss.  I don’t want to treat the situation as though she’s lying when she’s really telling the truth.  While I’ve gotten better at figuring it out most of the time, I still mess that up sometimes, too.

Both kids “crazy lie.”  Something can be as obvious as the nose on your face, and yet, they will still lie.  My son can convince himself that his lies are the truth.  It doesn’t take much.  He took something not too long ago and lied about where he got it.  When he finally put the story together, he came up with a tale about how his grandparents gave him the object.  The thing is, my in-laws don’t give our kids gifts.  They’ve only ever seen the kids once.  They are not crazy about our adoption and it is quite clear that our adopted kids are not their “real” grandchildren.  Yet, my son, screaming at the top of his lungs, told me to call my in-laws and “prove” that he’d gotten the item from them.  Of course, I didn’t do that.

Lying is fear manifested.  Yes, I understand that ALL children lie.  I get sick and tired of hearing from parents of children raised from the womb, from teachers, from school counselors and principals who say, “All children lie.”  I know that.  I’m not new here.  It’s not the same for adopted kids!  There is an intense fear behind my children’s lies.  They are masters at it.  They are extremely convincing.  They convince other people all the time.  They used to convince me, too.  However, their motivation is more intense, more constant, and for much deeper seated reasons than it is for other kids.  When they feel unsafe, when they feel fear, they lie.

I was reading the blog of a young adult who was adopted out of foster care.  She wrote a story about how she became such a skilled liar.  Her experience, too, was rooted in fear.  Her abusers killed her dog in front of her, and they told her if she ever told anyone what was going on,  her little sister would suffer the same fate as the dog.  She said she lied to the police when they asked her if she was being hurt.  They believed her for a long time and the abuse went on.  She lied because she “knew” her sister would die if she didn’t.

Unfortunately, whether our kids can grasp that fear of dying cognitively or not, the fear of losing their life is quite often the motivation for their fear and their crazy lies.  Even if the trauma, abuse, neglect, and "really bad stuff" happened before they were old enough to put their memories into words, the emotional memory is stored in that center part of their brain (the amygdala).  When they are triggered, that emotional memory comes to the surface and they are literally scared to DEATH.

What we need to do as therapeutic parents is pause and get ourselves centered before reacting.  This is especially important if lying is one of your triggers, like it is mine.  We need to step back and ignore the lie – YES – ignore it – and see the frightened child.  What our child needs in that moment is reassurance from us that they are loved. 

My friend told me her daughter, while adopted as a very young baby, still needed this reassurance as a child.  She would cling to her mother and need constant “mommy checks” long past the time most children do (normally about 8 – 28 months old).  It’s a little awkward when a 16 year old boy, who stands many inches taller than you, needs the reassurance of a 2-year-old.  But that’s what he needs in that moment of fear. 

So, what do you do once you take that breath and you pause – even if that pause takes a few minutes or a few hours?  (It’s okay to say, “I need some time.  Let’s talk about this later. “  Then, WALK AWAY and come back when you’re calm.)  Again, remember this:  IGNORE THE LIE.  Reassure your child that you love him.  Tell him what may seem obvious to you.  “You’re here now.  You’re home with the family that loves you, and wants you, and takes care of you.  We are not going anywhere.  You are not going anywhere.  You’re safe.”  Pause again.  Take note of your child’s countenance.  If he’s softened, hug him, if he’ll let you.  If he’s still hard, tell him again.  Say, “I’m going to tell you again.  Look at me.”  (Get eye contact.)  Then tell him again.  Tell him a third time if he needs it.  Keep IGNORING THE LIE.  Let whatever love he’ll allow you to demonstrate to him happen.

Then, and only then, tell him you know there’s more going on than meets the eye.  When he is ready to talk with you more about it, he should let you know.  Tell him you can wait.  Then wait.  Don’t prod.  Don’t suggest.  Wait.  If he tries to forget about it or let it pass (my daughter is also a master at this), it’s okay to remind him you’re still waiting.  You haven’t forgotten.  We still need to figure out everything that’s going on so we can move forward.  But still, IGNORE THE LIE.  Your child’s sense of safety is most important here.  He’ll never come clean while he feels threatened, whether the perceived threat is real or not.  What you’re thinking and feeling won’t be the factor that gets him to the point of reconciliation – and ultimately, restitution and natural consequences for the behaviors associated with the lying.

And hang in there.  This is a constant battle, but it’s worth the fight.  Every inch gained in our kids’ attachment is a huge victory!  (Somebody remind me of that the next time I’m mucking through this.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Lying, and Stealing, and Tears! Oh my!

Stealing and lying are not uncommon occurrences for kids who were adopted, especially for kids adopted out of orphanages.  Oh, how shocked and upset I was the first time I “caught” my son with stolen property!  Actually, I should have had an inkling I would deal with stealing (and the lying that follows) at some point.  After all, my daughter was caught stealing a pack of gum by our missionary friend when we were shopping together during our adoption.  I’m not exactly sure why I was shocked when it happened here at home with my son, too.  I knew it was quite common for orphans (and former orphans) to steal and lie.  They had to be resourceful.  It was often a matter of life and death.  I guess I wasn’t prepared.  Our kids were home more than three years and I was gobsmacked.  I thought we were not going to have any of “those” problems.  I hadn’t caught either of them blatantly stealing something since that one day in the market during their adoption.  Then, all of a sudden, we were dealing with the theft of not just one expensive electronic device, but several.  On top of that, our son even figured out how to steal bandwidth from the neighbor by hacking into their (poorly) secured wireless internet connection.

Strangely -- and I’m not saying this happened easily, nor quickly -- I began to look at the positive in all this. 

HUH?  What’s positive about a kid stealing and then lying his BRAINS out after the fact?  Even telling “crazy lies” about the most obvious of things? 

Okay, I hear you.  Remember, I was right there!  But take a breath and think about it.  What is GOOD about a kid that knows how to steal and how to make up stories?  They certainly are resourceful!  They certainly know how to assess a situation and figure out where all the players are located at any given time and in any given scenario.  They absolutely know where the things they want to steal, as well as the things they have already stolen, are located.  No lost or misplaced items on that account!  They also know how to distract other people and how to manipulate them to their advantage.  When I thought about the skill involved in knowing how to do all these things, I started to think about how we could apply those skills to things our son could use as assets.  I don’t have a lot of time left with him.  He’s getting older.  He’s going to need a job in the not-too-distant future.

A kid that is aware of his surroundings is a good person to have around when you’re a middle-aged mom who often forgets where she put her keys or her cell phone.  A kid that always knows where the important things are located can find just about anything that’s “hidden” or “lost.”  A kid who knows how to play up a situation, or work things to an advantage, can develop the skills necessary to become a used car salesman or even a politician!  (Don’t laugh.  The world would be a vastly different place without politics and cars.)

The thing I’ve learned about my PTSD/RADish IA kids is they just don’t learn from words.  Lectures about what’s right and wrong don’t change their behavior.  Tears shed by them after being caught are much more about shame (a HUGE issue for most IA kids) and about, “dang, I got caught!” feelings, than they are about remorse.  And don’t even tell me “‘home-grown’ kids sometimes steal, too.”  (I know.  I did.  I stole a little toy from a store near my house when I was a kid.  My mom made me take it back and pay for it.  I remember it like it was yesterday.)   It’s not the same.  The motivation is different.  The aftermath is for sure different.

All internationally –adopted kids from orphanages know property is a collective commodity.  There are no personal possessions in an orphanage.  Everything belongs to everybody.  “Taking” something doesn’t mean the same thing as “stealing” it to our kids.  Additionally, because our kids had no personal property, it is hard for them to fully grasp – even years home – the concept of ownership.  Entitlement is the concept they know, and the one that builds to epic proportions once they’re home in America and have “stuff.”  Just going into Wal-mart or Target can be a completly overwhelming experience.  Put yourself in their shoes.  What is it like to go from nothing to virtually EVERYTHING?  Imagine getting by on a $30,000/year income and winning a power ball lottery.  Why are people in that situation, broke and worse off than they ever were within just a few years?

When your internationally-adopted child steals, try to stay calm.  (Don’t go ballistic like I did.)  They are going to be stressed.  You are going to be stressed.  It won’t matter if it’s a pack of gum or an iPod Touch (or two iPod Touches, computer components, and the neighbor’s internet connection).  It’s about their response to stress.  Lectures aren’t going to change the behavior.  They’re just going to become even more “resourceful” the next time.  (The chance that there will be a next time is higher than the chance this is a one-time thing.)  Shame sure isn’t going to change the behavior.  The lies will just get more elaborate.

Another thing to think about is when our kids steal, they are self-soothing.  They are taking control to meet whatever need it is they think they have, whether that need is to be the electronic king at the middle school, or a baby who needs the oral stimulation of sucking (sweet mother’s milk).  (This is a topic for another post, but my kids often ask for a piece of sucking candy or gum when they are stressed.  The sweetness and the sucking sensation are soothing to them.  They are getting something they got far too little of as babies.)

So, what do we do?  Ever work with 2-year-olds?  You do things over and over and over again. 

Our kids need matter-of-fact, natural consequences – over and over and over again.  Remember the years of abuse and neglect have wired their brains so differently than those of us raised in relatively happy homes.  If your child steals a pack of gum, think “Double-Mint.”  In other words, double it up!  Have the child pay back double for what they’ve taken.  FACE the manager at the store.  Make your child FACE the manager at the store.  Stand BEHIND your child while they do it.  Have them pay for the item.  Follow through on whatever consequences the manager sees fit to impose.  (Most managers will not/cannot accept double payment, but the double can be given to a charity that matters to the store – most all of them do something in their communities.)  This isn’t about humiliation or degrading our children.  It’s about restitution and restoration.  If your child doesn’t have money of their own because they’re too little, then show them how you are using YOUR money to pay for it – that it takes a young person, working minimum wage, to work X amount of time to earn that amount of TAKE HOME (after tax) money, and that they will need to work to replace that money for your family.  Give them a job to do at home they wouldn’t normally have to do, and let them do it for whatever amount of time is needed to earn that “take home” pay.

The lying that accompanies stealing is also a reflex and a means to the end of protecting oneself (however irrational or “crazy”).  In the orphanage, if someone got into trouble, the goal was to find the kid who could be in even more trouble.  Pointing fingers and telling stories was just what you did to get by.  It’s a way of life – even a culture – and that way of life is hard to turn around, even if your kid has been home several years.  When I moved from the Northeast to the Midwest, it was hard!  I had to change some of the things I did or said regularly -- things that were a way of life in the Mid-Atlantic, but were seen as rude and completely unacceptable in the middle of the country.  It’s really no different for my kids when it comes to dealing with what is automatic for them – to lie.  This topic deserves its own post – maybe even several posts.  For now, let’s just say when it accompanies stealing, you really need to let the lies go – at least while you’re dealing with the muck of the theft.  “Making” a child tell the truth will usually just get you an even crazier lie.  Be silent.  If you must say anything, say, “I know you’re not telling me something.  I can wait for you to tell me the rest of what really happened.”  Then wait.  Don’t badger.

There’s no simple way to wrap all this up.  Stealing and lying are hard things for a good parent.  I’ll admit quite readily that being lied to is one of my own top triggers!  Still, when you talk with your child after the heat of the moment, and you want your questions answered, try using “what” questions.  (Don’t use “why.”  They don’t know WHY.)  Ask, “What did you want?”  “What were you thinking before you got the toy?”  “What do you think we should do now?”

There are many places on the internet to read much more on this topic.  I recommend the book, Parenting Your Internationally Adopted Child, which you can get from Amazon or read online at Google Books here.  Feel free to add links in the comment section below this post!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Identifying PTSD and RAD/RADish Issues:

If It Walks Like a Duck, and Quacks Like a Duck, It’s Probably a Duck!

One of my biggest frustrations for families is when parents refuse to acknowledge the fact that their adopted child has suffered trauma and has attachment issues.  Usually it’s the mother who is actively “in denial.”  The fathers I’ve talked with admit they don’t usually think about how to deal with post-adoption issues unless their partner brings it up first.  They know they get irritated and frustrated at certain behaviors, but once the situation has passed, they move on (until it happens again).  The thing is, dear parents, your adopted child (especially if he or she is an internationally-adopted child who spent time in an orphanage) has suffered trauma, and does, indeed, deal with attachment issues. 

No, not all adopted children have full-blown RAD (mine don’t) or PTSD (mine, like most IA kids, have suffered significant traumatic events plural!).  All adopted children have suffered at least two traumatic experiences:  being separated from their biological family (even if at birth) and the process of being adopted (placed with a family they do not know and, in the case of international adoption, do not understand due to language barriers and cultural differences).  While not all adopted children will suffer from a full-blown case of Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), where they are neither completely “disinhibated,” forming shallow and meaningless attachments to just about anyone who offers them a piece of candy and/or a smile, nor “inhibited,” where they avoid any real relationship with anyone for any reason, I have yet to meet one who does not have issues with attachment on some level.  The same thing goes for PTSD.  I have yet to meet any adopted child who does not respond strongly to at least one or two trauma triggers.  (What triggers a child is unique to the child.)  While there are varying degrees on the scale, our kids are on that scale! 

So what are some signs of attachment issues?  Even “experts” with multiple degrees wrestle with definitions.  Many therapists even refuse to “label” children with RAD or “RAD-ish” issues.  In my opinion, that’s a shame.  Children often miss the help they need (parents, too) when people don’t want to admit there is anything “different” about a child, and their ability to form solid relationships.   If you’re not afraid to look, here are some things that may help you identify the fact your child is dealing with attachment issues:

          Disinhibited Type:

*Being way too “cute” and charming, especially as a means to get what they want, whether it is attention or material objects/food.
*Acts like a baby/uses the “baby voice” and behaves
  inappropriately younger  than their age.
*Exaggerates about everything, especially their
 “need” to be helped.  (My daughter is a straight
 “A” student, yet cries for “help” to do homework
 she already knows how to do, for example.)
         *Easily/readily goes off with strangers and/or seeks 
            affection (i.e. hugs) from strangers.
         *Makes friends with a lot of other children (usually
 younger than themselves), but is not very close to
 any one of them.
        *Talks a lot – asks a lot of “crazy” questions (I’ll post on 
           this topic soon!)
        *Makes up stories – long, long, stories.
        *Wants just about everything they see and feels 
           “unloved” when they do not get it.
        *When they do get the item, pays attention to it for 
 only a short while and then either breaks it or 
 puts it away and ignores it/forgets about it.

Inhibited Type:

*Avoids relationships and is in a constant pull-push mode with the people trying to be close to him, such as parents.  (Gets close enough to get what he wants, then pushes away again.)
*Resists affection / stiffens when you try to hug them.
*Avoids eye contact (unless lying, then will look you straight in the eye and forcefully deny anything, even obvious things).
*Is always “on guard.”  (Whenever you want to talk with them, they get defensive and think they’re in trouble.)
*Keeps score.  Knows exactly what he “got” vs. what his brother got for birthdays, Christmas, etc.
*Has very few friends.  The friends he does have are not all that close.
*Prefers to be alone.
*Lies a lot.  “Crazy lies” about things that do not matter.  Believes own lies.
*Engages in self-soothing behaviors rather than seek comfort from parents.

Either type:

*May hoard food, trash.
          *May steal.
          *May argue about ev.ry.thing.
*May act completely different than the type they
 usually exhibit.  (For  example, my disinhibited
daughter may shut down and be surly from time
to time, while my inhibited son may act silly and
much younger than his age occasionally.)

A child whose past trauma is triggered will likely exhibit several of these signs at one time, and they may be even more exaggerated than usual.  My kids can be triggered by sights (violent TV shows, for example), smells (fried potatoes), sounds (a full laundry basket falling to the ground, a siren, a fire alarm at school, or a loud/sharp yell), and sensory feelings (a certain touch, a particular fabric, cold weather).  

My daughter, when triggered, will get even “cuter” and even more hyper-active than usual, and behave even more like a baby.  The voice will get syrupy sweet, and one of her shoulders will go up, while she bats her eyes at you.  She’ll ask a lot of silly questions, one right after the other, and will try to engage in a conversation of no importance.  

Conversely, my son will shut down or become surly (especially towards me).  He’ll retreat to his room and draw the same car he’s drawn 1000’s of times with the precision of a graphic artist.  He’ll look at me with that “if looks could kill” look and treat me as though I’m the stupidest person in the world.  

NEITHER kid knows they’re doing it when it’s happening.  It’s a reflex reaction – just like it’s a reflex reaction for you to jump if I come up behind you and yell, “SURPRISE!”  As a parent, I have to watch my own triggers, sit back, take a breath myself, and remember what’s really happening with them.  (I’ll post on this soon, too.)

Your child may show much more mild signs of past trauma and attachment issues than mine do.  I also know some of you deal with much more significant signs of PTSD and RAD, including violent reactions or complete shut downs (where it looks like your child’s soul has left his body – and actually we had that with my son, too during the first two years home).  Again, the range is broad.  Just don’t be fooled into thinking you’re not dealing with trauma and attachment issues on SOME LEVEL if you’re an adoptive parent.  Help your child deal with this.  Acknowledge their past.  Don’t be afraid to call a duck a duck.  You’ll both be better off for it.