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.