Saturday, May 5, 2012

Sum-sum-summer Time: Transitioning Traumatized and Attachment Disordered Kids from Routine to Vacation

It’s interesting to me that the most read posts here over the past week are those having to do with IEP meetings, adoption issues, and teacher education on trauma and attachment.  In order, these most read posts are:

It seems a lot of my dear readers are busy preparing for the next school year, lining things up for their child to make for an easier transition into a higher grade, or even a higher level school.  It is good to prepare for this.  It is good to learn and to teach those who will teach your child what they need to know.  It is good to let them know your child has different abilities than typical students.  However, there is something else we parents need to do as we prepare.  We need to prepare for the transition of school routine into the more laid back and take-it-as-they-come days of summer.

If your family is like mine, you may already be seeing signs of stress in your kids as the school year winds down.  My kids get out of school the third week of May.  My daughter-in-law graduates from college next weekend, too and we plan to travel to attend her graduation.  In response to that stress, things have begun to ramp up around here.  The Princess has gotten into trouble at school and she’s had more issues at home more often.  She is struggling with peer relationships again.  She complains of being bored often, but will not respond to any suggestions to break that boredom.  Youngest Son is, so far, handling this time of year the best he ever has, but even he has gotten more snippy and has even less tolerance for his little sister than normal. 

Dr. Michael H. Popkin, Ph.D.
So, if you’ve recognized the summertime transition stress rearing its ugly head in your home, here are some things we’re trying to employ in our family.  Maybe some of these things will work for you.  These tools are based on Dr. Michael Poplin’s FLAC method of active parenting.  (I teach his Active Parenting course to parent inmates in our local county jail.)  For the purpose of parenting my hurt kids, I also intertwine things I’ve learned from Dr.Karen Purvis, Dr. Bruce Perry, things I learned in grad school as I studied the “old school” psychologists such as Alfred Adler (the individual as an indivisible whole), Erik Erickson (basic trust vs. mistrust), and a little of what Heather Forbes teaches as well.  Below is a brief explanation of FLAC as practiced in our home:

F L A C 

Connect.  Connect.  Connect.  (The “F” of FLAC – Feelings.)  Remember the parenting mantra of the 80’s?  “Quality is more important than quantity.”  Well, it’s bunk.  Ten minutes of so-called quality time does not equal one hour of real face time.  Our kids need us around them to connect.  Relationships take time.  Relationships need time.   Karen Purvis teaches that traumatized and attachment disordered kids are lonely kids.  They need connection.  They want connection – even when they push connection away.  Connect.  Connect.  Connect.

When Youngest Son comes in from track practice, I stop whatever I’m doing.  I touch him.  I put a hand on his shoulder or his head.  Sometimes, I put an arm around his waist and give him a sideways hug and joke with him that it “smells like” he had a good work out.  We laugh.  He tells me about his day.  We connect.  It makes us both feel good.

When I pick The Princess up from school at the end of the day, I watch her body language and her facial expressions as she approaches the car.  If she looks stressed, I tell her so.  If she is hyper, I ask her if she’s happy about something that happened at school – or if maybe something happened that frightened her a little bit.  Sometimes she talks right away.  Other times, she waits.  I take her to a fast food drive-in that has a “happy hour” where the drinks are half price.  We share a strawberry lime-aid.  We giggle.  We talk. 

At home, especially when things get more stressful, we try to spend even more face time with the kids.  Even if we’re sitting on the same sofa and watching a movie together and NOT talking, we’re together.  We’re connecting.  It feels good.

The World Gets a Little Smaller.  (The “L” in FLAC – Limits.)  Those who know trauma and attachment issues know when stress increases, the world needs to decrease.  It helps our kids feel safe.  It helps them regulate themselves better.  It helps them deal with a larger world later.  As parents, we need to set limits for our families.  What works for us may not work for another family, and that’s okay.  This year, for us, that means allowing Youngest Son to run track and have a little bit of free time with some buddies after practice is over, but he gets home by 5:30 and is here to set the table for dinner.  It means he has the freedom he’s earned as he has matured and done so well in school and in the community, but he’s got to be home when he's expected.  It means he only taking driving lessons from Mom (Dad drives him crazy in the car), and not just anyone over 21.  For The Princess, it means one-to-one play dates with trusted kids from stable families – kids in whom she can find a mature-for-their-age and positive role model.  It means thrift store shopping dates with Mom and craft sessions making bracelets.  It means rules that work for our family and rules we stick by.

In the past, when things have REALLY gotten out of control, limits have included removing bedroom and closet doors and accompanying teens to and from (and sometimes during) all activities.  You do what you have to do when it’s appropriate to do it.  You let lose the reigns a bit as the child is able to handle it.  For Youngest Son, that has meant a lot more freedom since this time last year.  He has matured far more than I ever imagined he would at this point and he is handling it well.  For The Princess, things got harder this year.  Middle school was rough.  We’ll spend some time regrouping.  She’s a smart and motivated kid.  I know deep down she’ll get there, too.  For now, her world is smaller than it is for typical 13 year old girls.  She is a hurt kid dealing with a lot of stuff.

Be Ready with Choices.  (The “A” in FLAC – Alternatives.)  Even though our kids are sometimes so out of control it’s crazy-crazy, they NEED to feel as though they have some control over themselves and their lives.  So much of their early life was out of their control.  They had no choices.  They were victims.  In our family, we often say we don’t want to be the victim anymore.  We don’t want our kids to grow up being a victim.  As they’ve gotten older, they understand what that means. 

Alternatives can mean giving a child a choice between two things.  For example, my daughter LOVES the battle of the clothing war, especially on Sunday mornings.  One of our “L” (limits) in our family is that we dress modestly.  For us, that means no cleavage and no spaghetti straps unless they’re layered over a top that covers more.  It means no short-shorts or short skirts unless they’re layered over at least capri-length leggings.  My daughter often gets into the mode of “forgetting” what the dress code limits are.  Now, we give her alternatives the night before.  She has the freedom to choose an outfit, but we have the freedom to add to that outfit, or suggest alternatives.  If her choice is inappropriate for our family’s limits, she gets to choose between two alternatives decided upon by us.  Does it keep her from pushing her father to buy her a bikini every time they go to Walmart to pick up milk?  No.  But she knows the limits. 

Choices can also mean a choice between compliance or a choice to miss out on something they want.  For example, one of my daughter’s chores is to empty the dishwasher when she gets home from school.  She also loves to play on the Wii after school each day.  The LIMIT is that she needs to put the dishes away BEFORE she can play on the Wii.  She can choose to put the dishes away right away and play on the Wii before supper.  Or, she can choose to put the dishes away later, but then there is no time to play on the Wii because then it’s dinner time, shower time, and Dad & Mom’s TV time.  She has choices within our family’s limits.

Back it Up With Natural Consequences.  (The “C” in FLAC – Consequences.)  When our kids fail to comply with our LIMITS or don’t agree with the CHOICES (Alternatives) we allow, there are natural consequences to their behavior to teach them the discipline they need to learn.  An example Dr. Popkin gives in his Active Parenting course is one in which a older child is instructed to put his bike away and not leave it in the drive way.  The first time it happens, his dad tells him how leaving his bike out is inconvenient for his dad.  When it happens, Dad has to stop the car, get out, and move the bike before he can park the car.  He asks his son to remember to put the bike away and asks if he agrees to do that.

When it happens again, Dad is more firm.  He uses “I” messages to tell his son how he feels when he comes home and has to move the bike.  He tells his son he feels like his son doesn’t care about his feelings.  Again, he (more firmly, but still calmly) asks his son if he agrees to put the bike away.  However, when it happens a third time, Dad takes the bike and locks it up for a period of time (one day for each year of emotional age of the child is my suggestion).  This is a natural consequence for not taking care of the bike.  Since the son was not interested in doing it, Dad took action and took care of the bike in a way that solved his problem and demonstrated to his son that he needed to take responsibility.  Our actions (or lack of action) have consequences. 

Natural Consequences Scene from "Active Parenting" by Dr. Michael Popkin

When we have the routine of school, FLAC seems to be much easier to accomplish in our family.  Our attachment disordered kids thrive best with routine.  Summer isn’t so routine around here.  We’re going to try to do better with that this year, even as we give our Youngest Son more freedom and monitor The Princess to see how she’s doing.  Here’s what we’re going to try with our teens during the work week:

No later than 10:00am- Out of bed, breakfast, dress, etc.
10:30am - Some free time to “wake up.”  None of us are morning people.
11:00 - Daily chores (straighten bedroom, straighten common areas of house)
11:30 – Screen time (Wii, TV, or computer)
12:30pm - lunch
1:00 - Library, Pool, Rec Center to play ball, or volunteer position at animal shelter (time with friends in more structured environment than just “hanging out”)
4:00 - Free time at home – Can have a friend over
5:30 - Evening chores (Youngest Son sets table.  The Princess empties the dishwasher.)
6:30 - Dinner with family
7:00 – Evening activity or free time with family
9:00 – Shower time for The Princess
10:00 – Shower time for Youngest Son *unless out with youth group on planned outing, Bed time for The Princess
11:00pm – Normal bedtime for Youngest Son (and parents)

You’ll see our planned scheduled is structured only to a certain extent.  There’s a lot of time in the schedule for flexibility within the structure.  I find that when my kids have too many activities and events planned, we run into irritability and resistance.  I want them to enjoy their vacation.  However, I don’t want them to feel “lost” during the summer.  We’ve made that mistake in the past.  My kids like to know what happens next.  Youngest Son especially has ALWAYS needed to know “the plan.”  Vacations where the whole family goes away to relax and take things as they come, drive him nuts.  They are especially stressful times for him.  Still, every 16 year old, whether emotionally 16 or not, needs down time.  If he gets up before 10 a.m., that’s okay.  I’m not going to make him get up earlier, however.

Having this more structured time over the summer I hope will also help my kids make the transition into the next school year more smoothly.  The schedule will change, but at least we’ll be going from schedule to schedule – not from “whatever” to schedule.  That’s the plan.  I’ll let you know how it goes in August.

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