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.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


I’ve thought a lot about my legacy lately.  As a former graduate student of Penn State University, the news of sad problems there has not left my heart without mark.  I am most sad for the little boys whose lives were forever changed by a man that was supposed to be someone trustworthy, but was really a predator.  I am also sad for the people who have lost their jobs these last 24 hours.  Joe Paterno, one of the “greatest” coaches of all time, a man whose life has shown evidence of his care for others and his faith, has lost his job.  He said he wishes he’d done more when his former friend’s actions were exposed, and he regrets he did not.  This is not the legacy he wanted to leave, yet all the evidence of good in his life will be forever tarnished because of this.  Sandusky’s sins have affected far more many people than himself, the boys, and their families.  Sin has a far-reaching ripple effect.

My "Pop-Pop"
As I write, I am listening to a Christian radio station on my computer.  This station is several states away.  (Live streaming is such a cool thing!)  I’m listening to this particular station because my aunt happens to be on the program today.  She is a development officer for a ministry and they are working to raise funds for a local rescue mission that helps people in their community.  I may be a bit prejudiced, but she sure does sound like someone who knows her way around a radio station microphone!  My grandfather (her dad) was a well-known radio personality on the east coast in the early 1960’s.  I was singing on his radio show when I was just four years old.  Other family members made it on his shows from time-to-time as well.  I'm sure my aunt was on the radio more than once as a youngster.  When my grandfather passed away, my grandmother took over his most popular show for a while.  My grandparents also were in ministry.  Theirs was not a traditional “church” ministry, however.  They worked in rescue missions.  (I think my mom told me they even lived in a mission at one point.)  They took people into their home that had no home, even when their home was just an old, silver bullet trailer.  They were not perfect.  They smoked like fiends.  My grandfather was likely a recovering alcoholic.  But they loved God and they loved people.  My grandfather’s radio legacy continues in one of my sons, graduating soon with a degree in broadcast communications (radio concentration).  My grandparent’s legacy continues with my aunt working in ministry and with the other three of my four adult sons in ministry, or studying to go into ministry.  My grandparent’s faithfulness has a far-reaching ripple effect.

My two youngest kids have experienced horrific trauma.  Their biological parents’ legacy is one of horrific pain in their lives.  I don’t know, but I imagine their biological parents are also the product of a legacy of pain.  I know for certain they are a product of generations of deprivation and corruption.  While my kids are now safe, loved, and receive the care they need, the traumatic legacy of their biological family will forever affect them.  It will forever affect my husband and me, because we now work to heal the hurts those people caused.  Often, we also experience our children’s anger which should really be directed toward them and not us.  Their legacy also affects our kids’ therapist, their teachers, their youth ministry directors, their older brothers (my biological sons), and our friends.  My kids’ biological parents' horrific choices, even years later, have a far-reaching ripple effect.

The legacy I want to leave my children is one of strength and of grace.  I want to leave them with the emotional and social tools they need to succeed in life, to be happy, and to raise a whole family.  I want them to be thankful.  That is a challenge for children who have been through what mine have been through, but it is a challenge of hope and of thankfulness.

A game I recommend for families with older children is the Family Dinner Box of Questions.  This is a game that gets the family talking.  No one wins, but everyone wins when someone has an “ah ha” moment.  We had an “ah ha” moment recently.  I don’t remember the exact wording on the question, but roughly it was, “What is something you say a lot that you don’t really mean?”  My hurt son surprised us with his reply (actually he shocked the sugar outta me).  He admitted, “I say I wish I was never adopted, but I don’t really mean it.”  Now, if you’re a trauma mama of an internationally adopted older child, you know this is huge.  A legacy of love is beginning to develop.  It doesn’t happen overnight.  We’re home more than four years now and while we’ve heard our son say, countless times, “I wish I was never adopted,” we have only ever once heard, “I don’t really mean it.”

I think my message here, fellow trauma mama, is that our legacy matters for our kids.  Who we are with them, what we teach them, and how we are there consistently (even if not perfectly) matters.  As hard as it is to hang in there some days, it matters.  Focus on the progress and not on the problems.  Focus on the strides they’ve made.  Focus on the one time they’ve admitted they didn’t really mean it those hundreds of times they said something to hurt you. 

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. – Philippians 4:8

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Better Than a Hallelujah Sometimes

This one is for those struggling . . .

Amy Grant sings a song about dealing with pain, and how the honesty of crying out in pain or failure to God is “better than a hallelujah, sometimes.”  (Click on “song” if you want to hear it.)  As a parent raising hurt kids, there are many times I’ve cried out in fear or in failure.  There are times when God felt far away, and my prayers were hitting the ceiling.  There have even been times, even recent times, where I’ve wondered what good my faith does in raising children whose behaviors have truly caused me to question everything I thought I was, including "good mother."  What could I have been thinking to adopt two much older kids from such a horrific background?  (This is where you hear the record scratching as the needle is pulled and the turn table comes to an abrupt halt.) 

Wait a minute, Mama T!  You said, not two posts ago, that your faith is important to you.  You said you love your kids.  We thought you loved your kids!  You said the things you write here about therapeutic parenting will show that faith to be evident, and now you’re telling us that you’ve doubted your faith as you are in the midst of raising your kids?

Yes.  Yes to all of that.  I love my kids.  I wanted my kids.  I want my kids.  I want my kids to go away sometimes.

I want you to know that I’ve doubted my faith and I’ve felt God was far away even as I passed through the hardest of the hard, because I also want to tell you I believe He was there through all my doubt!  He didn’t want my false, heartless praise or hallelujah songs at that point.  He wanted the relationship of trust proven by my honest cries to His Spirit – he wanted ME to be honest with ME, and get to the point where I could say to myself, “This is damned hard!”  (Yes, God allows me to say that to myself and to tell you about it.)  He allowed me to walk through that valley of the shadow of death (and really it was – and still is some days) because it got me to the point where I allowed myself to believe some important truths.  No matter how much therapeutic parenting I do with my kids, no matter how much I love them, no matter how hard we all work, there are just some things I cannot control.  There are just some decisions they will make and some things they do – often in the heat of whatever moment they’ve been triggered – that I will not be able to fix for them.  There are indeed some things I need to let go and let God.  And that – THAT – is okay!”

I think if you’re a struggling parent going through some of the hard stuff with a child that’s been abused, neglected, and traumatized it’s essential – it’s even sanity and life-saving – to get to that point.  It is important for you to know this – listen – while yes, it is a blessing and blah, blah, blah, parenting hurt kids is HARD – really hard!  There are some things you just may need to let go and let God – and that – THAT, my friends, is okay.  YOU are okay – even wise -- in doing so.  It doesn’t mean you’ve given up.  It means, you’re facing some real, hard life.  It means that it is true there are some things we parents cannot control and there are some things we parents cannot fix.  That’s okay.  The good news is there is a peace that passes all understanding when you finally come to this point.

God loves a lullaby
In a mother’s tears
In the dead of night

Give yourself permission to cry out, to let go and let God.  You’re not giving up.  You’re getting up.  Stick around.  We’ll get back to therapeutic parenting techniques and ideas soon.   I want to share some more about who we are.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Sandspiel (Sand Tray Play Therapy)

Most therapeutic parents I know are not psycho-therapists, nor registered play therapists, nor even social workers.  We’re just moms and dads raising hurt kids with traumatic pasts we will never fully know nor understand.  We’re just people trying to help our children live their best possible lives.  So when I write about sand tray therapy, please remember I’m presenting my experience and whatever knowledge I have as a layman – as “just” a mom.  There are plenty of places on the internet where you can find more scholarly articles and research-based information.  One place you might start to look for that information is  The purpose of this blog is for sharing parent-to-parent, not to serve as therapist.  So, that’s my not-very-legal-sounding disclaimer before I begin.

Sandspiel (or sand play) therapy was developed by a Swiss therapist named Dora Kalff (1904-1990).  There is some argument about whether or not she is the originator of sand play (or sand tray) therapy.  Some people say H.G. Wells was the inspiration for it because he wrote about his two young sons using miniature toy figures to work out problems with each other and with other family members.  Frankly, I don’t care who originated it.  I know Kalff wrote about it first and then other therapists expanded upon it.  It boils down to using a tray, filled with sand and usually, a bunch of different kinds of small toy figures to make pictures in that sand.  (Sometimes, it’s just drawing in the sand.)

Sand tray therapy is a specific kind of play therapy where the therapist (or therapeutic parent) sits close by and seemingly does nothing while the child uses sand to make a picture.  Sometimes, the person observing the play will give some open-ended direction such as, “Make a picture that shows how you’re feeling.”  Other times, the direction may be more pointed, but still rather open-ended.  For example, the first time our therapist pulled out her sand tray, she drew a line down the middle of it with her finger.  She directed my son (then 14) to “Make two pictures in the sand.  One of your life before your adoption, and one of your life with your family now.”  (Notice she left the part “before your adoption” open-ended.  She didn’t tell him to make a picture of his family before adoption, or of his orphanage life before adoption.  She left that up to him.)   Still, other times, there may be no more direction except to “Make a picture in the sand.”

People have been making pictures in the sand throughout history.  The Bible talks about Jesus “drawing (or writing) in the sand” when the Pharisees questioned him about a woman caught in adultery (John 8).  In Navaho Symbols of Healing, Donald Sander writes about sand painting ceremonies.  When the ceremony is over, the painting is wiped away.  Today, Zen Sand Gardens are popular gifts and people of all religions (or no religion) enjoy making designs in the sand as a relaxing “de-stressor.”  The thing that is common for all of these is the non-verbal imagery of the activity.  Jesus was silent as he drew in the sand.  The Navaho ceremony is conducted in silence.  People play in their desk-top sand gardens in quiet solitude.  Thoughts are processed in the silence while the sand provides a tactile experience or outlet for those thoughts.

As a parent, you can discern a lot about what’s going on with your child by watching him work through a sand tray picture.  Does the picture have people?  What about dinosaurs or other monsters?  What about super heroes?  Animals?  Fences?  Houses?  Is there violence in the picture?  (Crashed cars, fights, etc.)  Is there conflict of emotion?  (Domestic scene with mom walking away?)  Granted, as a parent, we might not be able to figure out everything exactly as our child is thinking it, but we can get a good idea.  When he’s done, asking an open-ended question such as, “Tell me about your picture,” will provide him an opportunity to make things more clear for your interpretation.  When he’s finished, if you’d like and if he’s receptive to it, you might add what you see.  For example, “Wow.  It looks to me like these guys are really upset with one another -- like maybe they want to kill each other.”  Or “This mom looks peaceful to me and her kids look like they are happy.”

For our family, the sand tray has provided an opportunity for me to redirect a child,  to stop the crazies so we can focus on something else, and to help my child get the big feelings stored in that center, emotional part of his brain where there are no words (the Amygdala) to the front part of his brain (the Neocortex) where he can process those feelings with words and rationalization.

Well, at least that’s the goal.  Granted, we don't always get to rationalization because hurt kids aren’t always able to process big feeling with words and rationalization.  Still, even when our kids can’t process those big feelings, the sand tray gives us an opportunity to verbalize what we see going on in their picture which is a snapshot of what is going on in their brain.

You might say something like, “This mom looks peaceful to me and her kids look like they're happy.  I know I want to be peaceful and I want my kids to be happy.”  Or, “They look like they want to kill each other.  That makes me wonder if they’re really angry about something that happened, or maybe if something bad already happened and they’re remembering how they were scared.”  When our kids CAN’T tell us about their sand picture, cues from a therapeutic parent can sometimes help them “get there.” Even if they end up saying, “NO!  That’s not what’s happening!,” we've still helped them begin to process.  In that case, we can say, “Oh, okay.  So, tell me what they’re really doing.”

While the child is involved in the work of making the picture, the parent does nothing but observe.  Answer any questions your child has with an open answer.  Ask, “What do you think?,” without giving your own opinion, as a way for your child to explore even more.  For our son, wanting to KNOW THE ANSWER was a big, stress-filled motivator for him.  Open-ended stuff like sand trays drove him batty at first because he needed to know the rules.  If there was any question, he didn’t want to appear as though he didn’t know the answer – the RIGHT answer.  It was freeing for him, though it was not without struggle, to get to a point where he realized that sometimes, there are no “right” answers.  Sometimes, things just “are.”  And sometimes, things can’t be fixed or righted.  However, we can process those things, move on, and try to learn some skills to help us navigate through life, maybe adapting those broken things so that they have a new purpose.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Holiday Homework

Halloween is over.  Yay!  Oh, how I’ve come to hate that holiday (more on that later).  It’s November 3rd and the Christmas crazies have begun.  I’m not talking about the “normal” Christmas crazies – the holiday themed commercials on TV even before Halloween is over, or the trees and the lights up in the stores, or even the Facebook messages from annoying people who post things like, “Careful planning.  Check.  Watch for bargains throughout the year.  Check.  Christmas shopping finished.  Check.”  I’m talking about the over-the-top hyper, the grumpy, sullen, nasty attitudes, and the looks that could kill.  I’m talking about post-traumatic stress in my adopted children.

Whether or not your adopted child’s past involved hard things that happened around holidays, this time of year is pretty much a sure-fire prescription for elevated trauma reactions in your kids.  If your children were adopted internationally, you can add the post-institutionalized, Lord-of-the-Flies orphanage behaviors to it, too.  The holidays bring out the crazies in kids who’ve suffered severe trauma.  Consequently, they can also bring out the crazies for mama and papa, especially after a few years into parenting a child with PTSD, because you get to a point where you’re always on high alert, waiting for something else unpleasant to happen.

Okay, so by now, if you’ve been reading this blog since the beginning – way back to a few days ago -- you may be thinking, “Sheesh.  This Mama T lady sure is a Debbie Downer.”  Sorry.  ‘Just trying to be real, folks.  There is joy in the journey, don’t get me wrong.  But the journey isn’t a walk in the park.  It’s hard.  I wish someone would have told me how hard it could be five years ago.  I mean, REALLY told me.  I wish I’d been better prepared.  I wish I’d learned more before I adopted, so I at least had a head start.  You know -- a REAL head start.  Not just a little inkling.  Not the kind of inkling you have that tells you it’s not going to happen to your family, though you’re sorry to see it happen to anyone else.  I wish I had the kind of head start that gave me a chance to brace myself for when I got that first hard smack in the face of trauma.  That’s why I’m blogging about this.  I don’t want you to be smacked.  I want you to be ready with a quick block to that upper left that’s coming.

If you’re newly home with an older adopted child, like I was when the holidays came along that first year, you may not realize just how much this time of year can affect your child.  I wasn’t.  We’d been home just over two months when Halloween came that first year.  I never had a problem with having fun on trick-or-treat night.  I know there are some Christians that do.  I didn’t.  My older kids always went trick-or-treating and we always gave out candy.  We never did the ghosts, zombies, witches, blood and gore stuff, but we had fun with super heroes, hobos, pop-culture and even politics.  We carved pumpkins and we went to parades.  That first year home with our younger kids, we dressed them up and introduced them to American greed just like we had our older kids.  They seemed to love it.  I didn’t know them well enough at the time to know it scared the bejeepers out of them in ways they could never fully comprehend.  They didn’t have enough language ability to tell me about their nightmares, or that they were so distracted, they couldn’t remember how to do simple tasks.  They didn’t have the tools they needed to let me know they were overwhelmed. 

By the time Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled around, things were totally out of control.  I had no clue that it wasn’t just part of the normal adjustment of becoming part of a family.  I didn’t know I could have made it easier on them, and on us, by toning things WAY down, by not overloading them with sugar and “stuff,” and by shielding them from some of the rest of America’s crazy consumerism.  Instead, I helped feed their fears.  I aided and abetted the all-too-often older adopted child’s sense of entitlement.  I fed my wants, like giving my little girl a great big doll house and all the STUFF to go with it (because I never got one and always wanted one as a child).  It wasn’t that I didn’t know a little bit about how it’s important to keep a newly adopted child’s world small, especially that first year you’re working on initial attachment, it was that I didn’t want to believe any of the hard stuff would ever hit us.  I wanted to believe we’d make it through that first year of hard adjustments for everyone and then everything would be okay.  It would be our “new normal.”  I said that a lot.  “New normal.” 

The thing is, there is nothing “normal” about raising a child you did not give birth to.  I may be setting myself up here, but I do not believe it was “God’s plan” for our two youngest children to lose their biological family, including a sibling, and be adopted by us.  His perfect plan is for children to be raised in happy, healthy homes by their biological parents.  That’s what “normal” is.  We humans messed up normal and God’s perfect plan.  Free will and all that.  That leaves hurt people in the wake – including children who become orphans.  We humans are to blame for it, not God.  Thankfully, God gives us a second chance.  Adoption is a second chance.  BUT, it is NOT part of His original plan.  I think it’s really important for our kids that we acknowledge the loss in their lives.  It’s a huge loss.  It’s a trauma every adopted child has experienced, even those adopted domestically at birth by parents who agree to an “open” adoption.  It’s not “normal.”  So I’ve stopped calling our life a “new normal.”  It’s simply “our life” and we are presented with new joys and new challenges every day.  It’s a second chance.  God is indeed a god of second chances. 

While we made it through that first year home with our kids, and our lives changed, and we found what became our new routine (if there is a routine) of our new life, there was no new “normal.”  There will never be a “normal” for us.  We need to be aware in ways “normal” families never worry about.  We need to run interference for our younger kids in ways we never imagined while raising our older ones.  So, what are some ways to run interference and keep your adopted child’s world small during the holidays?  What are some things you can do to minimize the crazies?  Let’s start with Halloween, even though it’s past.  After all, some people will leave those pumpkins rotting on their front steps until December 24th!

Halloween:  Stay home.  Hole up.  Snuggle up.  Watch a movie.  Celebrate being together.  If candy is a problem for your kids, don’t get it.  If it’s not, give them a bag of kiddie crack and remind them it’s a once-a-year indulgence.  If you have teens, talk about the gore.  They’re repelled by it and attracted to it at the same time.  They will watch the yucky movies every chance they get, even if you don’t allow it in your house.  And they will have nightmares like a four-year-old.  Expect your hyper one to be more hyper.  Expect your internal-processor to shut down and be even more surly.  Expect the looks that could kill.  Don’t take them personally.  You’re paying the dues on someone else’s investment of hurt in their lives.  But if you keep Halloween away as much as you can keep it away, the crazies will be less.  As the kids get older, you can talk about WHY Halloween is a trauma trigger for them.  You can talk about trauma triggers.  You can talk about the bad stuff.  Keep it age and development appropriate.  Your four year old won’t be able to process the same as he will when he’s 16.  But I guarantee you, he’ll still be processing trauma for years to come.

November 1st:  Whenever possible, avoid taking your child to Wal-mart, Target or even the grocery store.  Do this through January 15th, or whenever the Christmas left-over sales are done.  (Valentines stuff will be all over the place by then.  But I’ll save that for a later post.)  Plan to keep your child’s world small.  I’m sorry, American consumer, but there is no reason your 10 year old needs a smart phone.  And your 13 year old doesn’t need her own lap top.  Make the holidays about family and treasured memories together.  Develop traditions.  If your kids want to remember their birth country’s traditions, incorporate some of those.  (For some, these may also be trauma triggers.  They are for my kids so we avoid Eastern European traditions for the winter holidays.)  Make Christmas WAY less about the “stuff” and more about relationships (including a relationship with God).  Set a budget – a reasonable budget – and stick with it.  Let your kid make a wish list, but don’t get him everything on that list!  Don’t even get him five things on that list.  Three tops.  And remember what I said about smart phones and lap tops.

Many kids adopted from orphanages have a sense of entitlement rather than a sense of gratefulness, like people around us usually expect.  How many times has your kid heard, “Oh, you’re so lucky to be part of that family?  Aren’t you happy for all the things they’ve given you?”  (Yeah.  I know; it’s repulsive.  The thing is, it’s true.  They are lucky.  They are blessed.  At some point in time, they need to learn that.  And it’s okay for you to realize, mama and papa, that this kid is indeed lucky to have you – just as you are blessed to have them.)  My kids are not grateful.  They are competitive.  They keep score.  They notice when one sibling gets something and the other does not.  The youngest one has no idea why she shouldn’t have all the things her adult brothers have, including a car waiting for her in the driveway.  (Remember, she’s 13.)  They want.  Want.  WANT.  And when they get, they pay attention to that thing they wanted so badly for a day and a half, put it in the closet and forget about it – unless they’ve broken it before then.

“Things” did not need to be taken care of in their lives.  Things were disposable.  Nice things they got were stolen by "caregivers" and sold in the market place or given to the caregivers' own children.  Stuff broke all the time.  Missionaries and other nice people were always there to give them more stuff.  It came.  It went.  There was no gratefulness.  Momentary glee.  Sure.  But no lasting sense of being grateful.  Just a sense of more, more, more.  And that sense of more, more, more is fed to giant proportions when they make it home into a Western family, richer than 80% of the rest of the world – even those of us under the 6-figure income mark.

Another tip:  Don’t replace things they break.  Help them figure out how to fix it (if you want) or make them fix it themselves.  If it’s not fixable, they do without it.  My daughter has already DESTROYED a pair of boots this year because she wanted new ones.  The boots were in fine shape until I told her she wasn’t getting another pair.  So what now?  Now, she has a pair of boots that have been repaired with super glue.  If the glue fails and her feet get wet, so be it.  It’s not about the boots.  It’s about entitlement for her.  It’s about teaching her to be grateful for what she has for me.

Last tip (for now):  Keep the parties and the number of people in and out to a minimum.  Too much is too much for our kids.  Too many people coming and going is bound to set off trauma triggers.  Give them tools that work for them.  For my daughter, reminding her to “Stop.  Breathe.  Breathe again.  Think.  And then come back,” will often tone down the crazy hyper reaction to trauma triggers.  This is an adaptation of the old, "Stop. Think. Relax" cognitive therapy technique.

"Stop. Think. Relax." is a good tool for us trauma mamas, as well.  Sometimes we need to “Stop, breathe, breathe again, think and come back” to the crazies so we don’t get caught up in them ourselves.  Hang in there, friends!