Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Chatty Cathy: Traumatized Kids and Constant Talking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 19, 2011

Just Doing What Normal Kids Do

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

I hope you laughed.

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

Friday, December 16, 2011

It’s Not ‘bout You, Mama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Negative Attention-Seeking Behavior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Dear Teacher: About the movies you show in class

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

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

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

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

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


Your student’s parent

Thursday, December 1, 2011

About Grief and Loss in Adoption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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