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!

No comments: