(The photo is of Les after getting home from a trip and Justin when he was around 10 months old. Justin had just started coming over for weekly visits with us at that point. He was living with another foster family at the time. It was one of the first times Les held him.)
Last night, the snow started falling in the late evening and my kids were sleeping so I grabbed a book off the shelf and crawled into bed to read after a not so fun day with the boys – “Attachment Disorders: Treatment Strategies for Traumatized Children” by Catherine Swanson Cain. We had some regressing behavior that I’ve dealt with a million times over but can’t seem to get it to stop. I can’t even begin to tell you how frustrating that is. To have to deal with the same problems over and over again. Not only to try to correct it countless times but try to correct it in different ways and hope one of them works.
I have researched out the wazoo about issues relating to children who have been in foster care, adopted, and the various problems these children tend to have. I have extensively researched about food sensitivites, genetic disorders, trauma, autism, sensory integration disorder, speech problems, sensory therapy, brain therapy, etc, etc, etc. The list is long. Over these past several years, I now feel comfortable in saying I know the problems my boys are dealing with but that does not always mean I have the solution for how to help them heal physically and mentally despite the therapists we’ve seen and therapies we’ve tried at home. I’ve had my successes and I’ve had my epic failures but everything I’ve done was done out of love and effort to help them. This latest book I’m reading – I have high hopes for it!!!
I love and cherish each one of my children dearly but there are days, weeks, and months that are incredibly difficult. These children have faced some serious trauma and they have built coping mechanisms galore to deal with them – most of them are not acceptable behaviors nor are they behaviors they are willing to let go. They put these walls up to protect themselves from being hurt again. I’ve worked literally for years trying to train and teach my boys to be “normal”. When I say normal, I do NOT mean perfect…just normal. Simple things like everyday social interactions can be painful and elusive to them. Most of the social interactions they do today are routines after teaching them over and over again instead of it coming naturally to them. i.e. giving hugs goodbye is just part of a routine to them – although now I need to teach them that it’s not appropriate to give everyone a hug goodbye…always something. I don’t even get hugs – not unless Les tells them to give me a hug. We actually had role playing on how to give a hug. Now we need to work on when.
Along this difficult road I’ve learned what doesn’t help more than what does help. May I suggest things NOT to say to a foster or adoptive parent? They don’t help, they only make the parent feel like more of a failure when they are trying so incredibly hard to help their children. All of these have happened to me:
- “Your boys are just normal boys.” I’m sorry, but they are not. They just aren’t. It doesn’t mean I love them less or don’t want to be around them but they are not normal. You don’t live with us and you don’t see all of their behaviors. There is a reason why so many people I know have told me they would never be willing to be a foster parent. IT’S TOUGH! (But very worth it!!!) So please don’t tell me my children are normal and dismiss my struggles. If I’ve opened up to you in ANY way, it’s because I’m seeing if I can trust you to be a support person for me. Unfortunately, I’ve learned it’s best just to keep my mouth shut and deal with stuff on my own. I’m trying with all my effort to help my boys have a normal adulthood even if their childhood was anything but.
- “Just take away what they like the most until they decide to follow directions.” It doesn’t work. That only works for a child who has actually learned to attach to someone or something. If you never had a mom or dad that took care of you, you never learned to trust someone and want them to take care of you, if you got moved from house to house to house when you were a young child – you never learned that anything was permanent. For instance, this is especially true for one of my boys in particular (the other two to varying degrees) – when this little boy was much younger and he used his truck to hit his brother over the head, I told him, “Hand me your truck. If you can’t use it nicely, you cannot have it.” He turned to me with no remorse, handed it to me and proceeded to hand me every toy in the playroom. To this day, this particular child does not have any attachments to anyone or anything. He does not have a favorite hobby or interest. There’s nothing – not even the freedom to play outside that entices him. Nothing. If children are not attached to anything then you can’t use it as leverage to get them to follow directions. The flip side of this is that they’ve been hurt so badly in the past by losing people and items from their rooms (items that didn’t come with them into foster care nor to our house from their previous foster home) that they build a wall to protect themselves. If they learn not to attach to someone or something then it won’t hurt when it’s not there tomorrow. Every time I take something away from them whether it’s a toy that was being used inappropriately or a privilege, it just reinforces their belief that nothing in their life is permanent. I only perpetuate the problem.
- “If they can find another privilege in place of the one you took away then there’s no real incentive for them to follow directions. You have to leave them with absolutely nothing fun to do.” I’ve had this thought too but in reality, it’s just glorified time out. It doesn’t work. I’ve tried. Did I try long enough? I don’t know, but let me give you a past example. You tell me how long I was supposed to hold out – and then realize, this method is just not realistically going to work for them. One example: this child had repeated a poor choice more times than I can count. Other consequences did nothing so we decided he was going to have boring time. He was going to stay with me for the entire day and sit wherever I was at. If I went to the bathroom then Niki came into the room to watch him. When he went to the bathroom, I stood outside the door to listen if he was playing. He wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone. Wasn’t allowed to play with anything – because basically he had lost all his privileges in the prior days from his repeated poor choice. So at the kitchen table he remained for the entire day. This child likes to move around, a lot. One would think that sitting in boring time for an entire day would deter you from doing the thing that got you there in the first place. Nope. He got up sometime in the wee hours of the morning the next day while everyone was sleeping and did it again. Okay…one day of boring time wasn’t enough. Maybe he thought it was worth it. Day two – boring time. We had a talk about not doing it again. Promised he wouldn’t and went to bed. Next morning, before everyone was awake, he did it again. Alright…maybe he wants to say he can outlast me. Day three – boring time. Talk before bed. Promised not to do it again. Next morning – didn’t do it. Yay! We won! Nope. The following morning while everyone was asleep, he did it again. We stopped boring time. It doesn’t work.
- Please don’t tell me how I’m an awful parent after you invited me over, my children were over stimulated at your house. My boys have sensory issues. It took us years just to be able to stay in church for the entire Liturgy because they were overstimulated by all the sights, sounds, smells, etc. I literally had one of my boys instantaneously start screaming the moment we walked into the church. He was on overload. Your house is new and they are extremely sensitive to everything. I have one child who was soooooo overstimulated at camp this last year that he overwhelmed his counselor and his counselor said he needed a break from him so he wouldn’t yell at him. Unless Les can go with him next year, I don’t know if he’s going back for awhile.
- Please don’t call me and tell me, “I don’t like being around your boys so I’m not coming over tonight. I want you to drop off _______ at my house instead.” I have a list of people who have said they will never babysit my children even though they’ve never been left alone with them. Granted, this list of people are people who have known the boys from the day I got them. Sometimes they fail to look for the strides the boys have made in the past 6-7 years. If you don’t feel this way about my sons, I’m happy! It means I’m having some small successes of improved behaviors in them. Sometimes it’s hard for me to see it since I’m with them day in and day out. I know they’re there but sometimes I get wrapped up in all the things that still need help. It also doesn’t mean my boys are incapable of being good, they can be.
- Please don’t tell me I’m a saint for taking in these boys. I’m not. Trust me on this. You’re just making me feel worse for the times I yelled at them and wished I was able to have more patience.
- Please don’t offer suggestions to help correct behaviors if you’ve never used that suggestion for the behavior I’m dealing with. Normal discipline doesn’t work with my boys. I’ve given it more chances than I can count. Time out is a joke. It doesn’t matter how long or short it is – it. does. not. work. If it did, my boys would have stopped these behaviors 6 years ago. I admit I still use it though – when I need to cool off and think about how I’m going to handle the situation and when I just don’t know what else to do. Spanking does not work either. Stop suggesting it. They will just immediately turn around and beat up the sibling younger than them. If there are no siblings younger than them, they will pee in their closet, pants, mattress, carpet, etc. It’s not used anymore because of it’s lack of effectiveness and cause of further problems. Reward and sticker charts also do not work. I’ve tried. Every single time I’ve started any type of reward system, it ALWAYS somehow turns into a punishment system. I don’t even see it coming! In the book I’m reading I finally understand why these three things don’t work. (I’m not saying nobody should use these three traditional behavior modification systems. I’m just saying they don’t work for my children. If they did, I would not have had the day I did yesterday.)
Time out with children with attachment disorders: “I have seen flight kids (referring to fight or flight) get themselves into time-out as a way of escaping. Because these children are already working from a core base of shame, being put into time-out has relatively little effect on them and actually validates their negative feelings about themselves.” pg. 121
Stickers and reward systems with children with attachment disorders: “Like time-out, stickers or reward systems are often not very useful with children who have RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder – all three of my boys have it). Here is why…we know that children with RAD function on a core base of inner shame. They have functioned in this state of shame for so long that this state is comfortable to them, as it provides the equilibrium to which the core being wishes to return. When such a child does well or is rewarded, he is taken out of his level of comfortableness and is put into a state of disequilibrium. These children will sabotage their successes by doing something negative just to return to their former state.” pg. 121
Spanking and RAD children: “Spanking is not a natural consequence. It is not related to what the child did wrong. Spanking does not encourage cause-and-effect thinking, and many children with RAD need to learn cause-and-effect thinking. Some children with RAD would rather go through a spanking than have to deal with making restitution for what they have done. Some feel they deserve to be hit…” pg. 122
If you want to be supportive & genuinely want to help, may I offer these suggestions:
- Offer for the parents to have a night or weekend off. Come over to their house and babysit – these kids exhaust these parents in ways you cannot even remotely understand unless you live with them. No, it’s not the same to have the kids over to your house for several reasons: 1) These kids have had multiple homes. Their experience is when they go over to someone’s house and “mom and dad” don’t go with them then you are my new parents. This was my boys’ childhood. One of my boys refuses to sleep at anyone else’s home for this very reason. He has slept at both grandparents house now without us but that’s because he had no choice. If given a choice, he’ll skip even sleeping at grandma and grandpa’s house and will go home with us instead. 2) They parent shop even now after living with us for years. Parent shopping is when your child is always on a lookout for a parent who will give them what they want and then ask to move in with them. I have one child who still to this day does that. When you come over to their house, you can be presented as the babysitter and they understand that. When they go to your house, you’re potential new parents. 3) They need a routine. This is an understatement. This is coming from a person who hates routines. It’s that important! 4) Your house is over stimulation. It’s new. It’s different. It’s overwhelming to them.
- Please abide by our rules with our children. If my child is in time out or I’ve told them they cannot participate in something at your house as a consequence for something they’ve done, please don’t try to undermine that by talking to them, offering for them to play with something if they’re good in time out, try to give them something that might be equally as fun as the one they lost, or anything else. Just let them be. If we’ve told them they cannot do something, please do not ask us pretty please if they can do it this one time. Our boys have a very hard time with boundaries. They push them and push them and push them. The strides I’ve made are because they know when I say do something, it means a consequence is coming next if they don’t. They have a very hard time understanding cause and effect because they didn’t learn it as infants. Nobody came to their crib when they cried. They never learned that crying = bottle, diaper change, love. It didn’t happen. Therefore, today, they have a VERY hard time understanding cause and effect. Please don’t teach them that other parents can manipulate us into letting them do what they want. I don’t want to be mean, I just need to teach them that if they make a poor choice, they have to face the consequence regardless where they are at. If they cannot learn this now, what will happen when they are adults?
This post is not directed at anyone in particular. I just want to make some of you aware of why I do what I do. There’s sooooo much my boys missed out on in their infant and toddler years. Soooo much damage. My heart goes out to them and for this very reason I have literally dedicated my life to finding ways to help them. Sometimes I need a little support and encouragement too as I attempt to keep fighting the good fight. That’s all.