This is a long post and I make no attempts whatsoever to apologize for it. I hope you feel it is worth the read as much as I am thrilled to share it with you!
There are certain books which leave a lasting impression on you. For me, this book will forever be one of them.
I’ve struggled with sharing some of our experiences with foster care and adoption. It’s an aspect of our life that is near and dear to our hearts but also one of the hardest things we’ve ever done.
I’ve found that most foster/adoptive parents don’t talk about what happens in their homes and this leaves us all the more isolated as we try to heal these children we’ve adopted as our own. That invisible parenting book that each of us makes up as we go, doesn’t even come close to applying to these kids. I share what I share for two reasons – For anyone else out there trying to find support & ideas like my husband and myself and for anyone who knows a foster/adoptive parent. Support is everything.
While I was reading on the airplane yesterday, all the pieces to this parenting puzzle I’ve been struggling to make sense of instantly connected after years of trial and error. A sense of relief and elation doesn’t even come close to explaining how I feel right now.
I learned that my natural parenting style lends itself to healing these hurt children. I’ll stop second guessing myself now. As my husband and a friend of mine have tried to tell me in the past – I think these children are my calling. Hopefully I can, indeed, help them heal. I’ll never stop trying anyway.
I learned that the ebb and flow of our daily life – progression (good moments) and regression (not so good moments) are part of the healing cycle!!! The part I need to work on is when I get locked into a battle with the boys. This is when progression stagnates. All we do is go back and forth re-drawing the line in the sand for years and nothing progresses!
Using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, foster children tend to stay stuck in the Safety and Security Stage. They learned to distrust everyone but themselves when they were neglected and abused. Thus, everything they do is to ensure they survive. Plain and simple.
Stoller explains that it’s a misnomer to label children with reactive attachment disorder because this supposes that the child has, at some point, been able to leave the Safety and Security Stage and actually progress to the Belonging and Love Stage – which just doesn’t happen for the great majority of these children. So, what he’s saying is that these children don’t even know what it feels like to be attached to someone – not that they’ve attached in the past and are fearful of attaching again. This is an important distinction. He states that it would be more accurate to label these children with Trust Disorder. I can definitely see where he’s coming from.
It makes so much sense. One of my ah ha moments yesterday was in making sense out of this past conversation with one of our boys. Since he is stuck in the Safety and Security Stage, the only aspect he was worried about was whether or not this baby was being fed. His reaction to the conversation was not what I initially expected at all but now that I realize he’s stuck in this stage of development, it makes COMPLETE sense that he was only worried about whether or not the baby was eating. Wow.
Basically, in order to help heal these children, I need to cycle them through the second and third stages of Maslow’s stages of development. I need to create trust in my boys by showing them I’m trustworthy and here to take care of them. My boys have come A LONG WAY from when we first got them but there are recurring issues that we are still dealing with today. (Our battle lockdowns) Yesterday, I think I’ve finally figured out how to resolve these issues. With time, I’m hoping to see these recurring issues less often until they finally disappear altogether. I just have to make some subtle changes. Most of what I need to do, I’m already doing (although I understand it differently now) but I do need to stop doing a few things and tweak a couple of other things. Let me explain.
As neglected and abused children begin to heal, they will develop situational trust. That is to say, I trust this situation but if it changes in any way, then I no longer trust it. For example, a foster child in a classroom might learn to trust that situation. The teacher is decent. He learns the characteristics of his classmates. The room is familiar to him. Then a substitute shows up one day and the situation is different – potentially unsafe – and his behavior noticeably changes. This is situational trust.
The goal of the healing process is to achieve transferral trust. That is to say, they trust ME not the situation. An excellent example of this would be something I pointed out to my husband the other day while we were at the pool with all of our kids. I pointed out to him that Gabriel had developed transferral trust with me. He wanted me to explain. “Look, when I hold him away from my body in the water, he’s not freaking out and trying to cling to me. He trusts ME that I will not drop him in the water. He’s happily kicking his legs in the water even though he’s no longer on my hip. Remember when we tried (and still do) to get the boys to lay on their back so we could teach them to float? They freaked out! It was because they didn’t have trust in us and they no longer trusted the situation.”
Our goal is to teach the boys to trust US by guiding them and showing them they can trust us. They need to develop trust in their parents BEFORE they can learn to be independent. This is important.
First, the aspects that have aided in the boys healing:
- Chuck E. Cheese’s: When we first got the boys, they were parent shopping with every opportunity. We desperately needed them to come to us when they needed to go to the bathroom when we were not home. (They asked whoever they passed by to take them to the bathroom. Not kidding at all!) Les and I would take our kids to Chuck E. Cheese’s with the intent of attachment therapy. I would sit at a booth while Les followed our kids around the games. I held all the tokens and Les did not have any. If the boys wanted to play a game, they had to come to me and ask for a token. I gave them ONE AT A TIME so they could go play a game and force them to come find me and ask me for something they wanted.
- Our Bedtime Routine When They Were Little – aka Holding Therapy: In the early days, after dinner I would give all the boys a bath, help them get ready for bed, say prayers together, and then I would rock one of them at a time in the rocking chair as I sang to all of them. Each of them had to be laying in their own bed and I would sit in the rocking chair in their room as I lay them in my lap and sang a few songs. Each boy would get their turn rocking in the chair with me before going to sleep. They were all under the age of 3 and I’d have them laying down in the nook of my arm so they could look up at me just as they would if they were being held by their mother as she fed them. This took a little bit of time before they could tolerate this because initially it was physically too painful for them to even be held. (Screaming in pain and pushing away from me was their initial reaction to me trying to hold them) Psychologists believe this is one of the many moments in a baby’s life where trust is first developed between baby and their mother. Something I learned, after the fact.
- Sensory Therapy: I have worked for years to desensitize them to touch and textures. After being neglected as babies, skin to skin contact with another person was not only foreign to them but actually painful. After sessions with a neuro-therapist, I began sensory therapy with the boys using a variety of different textures that I rubbed against their skin. I always ended it with rubbing their arms, back, and calves with lotion – their favorite part of this particular therapy. I had snuck in skin to skin contact with them which paved the way for the future voluntarily initiated hugs from them to me – awkward as they may be but progress doesn’t mean perfection.
- Superhero Wrestling: When the boys were younger, I’d wrestle with them in the morning. They had a thing for dressing up as super heroes. I’d pretend to be the bad guy and they had to rescue each other. I’d lightly pin them while one of their brothers tried to free them. I’d give all of us different names and we’d wrestle for about 15 minutes. “Nobody can save you from Super Tickle Mommy!” Then they’d call out for their brothers, “Help me Super Zach!” Stoller, along with developmental psychologists, cannot stress enough the healing power of human touch. These kids are not used to hugs, kisses, and snuggles and sometimes you have to be creative in how you find ways to do this. (I personally know a boy who refuses to let his adopted mom touch him at all.) I hear the clock ticking as time runs out here. Stoller repeats himself several times, saying that once children hit puberty, it becomes much harder to heal these children because the appropriateness of touch changes. Obviously, sitting on your lap is not as innocent when the child is 13 versus when he’s 3. Such is life. Hugs and high fives are going to be my tool of choice now as we continue the healing process into the teens. This is one of the only times I wish I liked football because I could include that too for physical touch. I’ll keep thinking on this one.
- Vacations: This can be tricky. Most foster children will get uneasy (to put it mildly) when a situation changes. There’s an unknown and they revert to their Safety and Security Stage. When we go to someone else’s home or are out with other people, our kids still revert to their Safety and Security Stage. Too many unknowns and their behavior reflects it. When we go on vacation with JUST our family – it’s a whole different story. They’ve been in enough hotels that staying at one doesn’t trigger their Safety and Security Stage anymore. Les and I leave everything behind when we go on vacation and focus entirely on our family. The difference in the boys’ behavior is obvious. So much healing has occurred while we’re on vacation. It’s definitely family therapy when we go on vacation – all of us heal from it!
- The Timeline: When I created our timeline last year, I did it out of instinct without fully understanding why it would and has worked sooooo well for the boys. 1) It shows mom is in charge and not them 2) It shows that they will get 3 meals today 3) It shows that they will not be moving to a new home today 4) You will get to spend time with me today
- Giving Choices: Again, this is something I did out of instinct and now realize it was exactly what I needed to do – take control out of their hands and put it into my own. I would give them two choices when a battle between us was about to begin. I didn’t care which one they chose but it gave them the sense of being in control but ultimately I was the one in control. For example, you can eat these vegetables and get a cookie afterwards or you can not eat the vegetables and not get a cookie. You can stop the tantrum right now or you can take a nap. You can play nicely with each other or you can come help me with some chores I need done. You can finish that page of schoolwork and then play outside or you can sit there until it’s done. And so on…
Past Battles for Control That Now Need to Be Avoided in Our Home:
- Time out! I used this out of sheer desperation even though I knew it did not work! Now I understand that this was a control battle where I was determined to win the battle but so were they. I could write a book on this topic alone with my experiences with the boys and why it has NEVER achieved any type of behavior modification in them. Ever. Not once. Every single time, the situation got worse because the boys were determined to show me who was really in control.
- Reacting When the Boys Push My Buttons: Long ago, my boys figured out exactly which buttons to push to instantaneously evaporate any ounce of patience I had remaining. This is a form of control. I even know when it’s coming too. An entire conversation transpires between us with only a look. In that conversation, they have their hand hovered over my “Make Mom Explode” button and I’m looking back at them saying, “Don’t you dare push it!” And…of course…they push it. The thing is – now I have a new tool and knowledge about how the button works. I’ll have to learn to use this tool first but when I do, I can snip one of the two wires that connects the button to my emotions. If I can snip the wire that makes my external emotions explode then they will no longer get the reaction they want from me and lose the sense that they are controlling me. Unfortunately, at this moment in time, I do not have the tool to snip the other wire that will inhibit my internal emotions from immediately being set off. I’ll be working on finding that tool. But…for now…this will do. Stoller explains that it’s okay to ignore the child when they are or have set off your buttons. This is a consequence for their actions but also shows them that you are ultimately in control and not them.
- Taking Away an Item as a Consequence: This just reinforces their mistrust in me and has NEVER achieved any type of behavior modification in them. This has been their experience with parents as well – never knowing when this set of parents are going to be taken away as well. It’s not a consequence that will work with them.
- Spanking: Just confirmation that they will continue to be abused.
- Reward Systems: This is a battle for you? Yes, it most certainly is. I have tried MANY different forms of rewards systems with the boys over the years and not once did it work in anyone’s favor. You have to understand, they see the goal they are given to reach and believe wholeheartedly that it’s unobtainable for them. They will either sabotage the reward system making it into a punishment or just give up right from the start. I could write another book just on this topic as well. It’s a bad idea all around. Something that HAS worked for us is just giving them a treat, just because we love them, whether they actually deserved it or not. I HAVE seen progress when I’ve taken this approach. This is why we will no longer even attempt a reward system in this house. My love is not conditional based on their performance for a reward system – and that’s definitely how they see it.
- Workbooks and chapter books: The only workbook my boys currently have for school is their math workbook. This is still a little bit of a battle for us but it’s nothing like it used to be. (On the level of 7 hour tantrums – no exaggeration) They pull out one or two worksheets at a time (depending on the day and their mood) and no more. Any more than that triggers an all day tantrum. When I was forcing them to read beginner chapter books – it never happened. They pretended to read or threw all day tantrums. That was a year long battle (Our 2011/2012 Civil War) before I dropped it and announced that I was changing the rules. Then we switched to reading 10 words a day on the chalkboard and doing language arts with just those words. Their reading flourished on a level Les, my mom, and myself couldn’t even begin to imagine. I have to break everything up in small chunks so they don’t get overwhelmed. We are getting more done now than ever before!!!
So how am I supposed to deal with bad behavior then? I’ve been asking this question for years because everything I’ve tried in the past DIDN’T WORK!
Stoller states that when you pick a battle to fight, you’ve got to not only fight it to the end, but win. (You also have to pick your battles.) I thought about this long and hard. I agree. Then I thought about the changes I need to make. Another light bulb moment and best of all – HOPE!!!
I have to be the one in control. I have to set up the situation and be one step ahead of the boys so I’m in control. If I set the bar too high then progress is not going to be made. If I set the bar too low then consequences will not be given and progress will not be made. Somewhere in the middle is where I need to take this. This is not about a lack of freedom or making them a robot. This is about gaining trust. Trust that they should have had in the first place but lost due to neglect and abuse. You shouldn’t have to believe that you can only trust yourself when you’re a year old to make sure you get food, so you feed yourself out of a trash can! I need to teach them they can trust me but that requires they relinquish their control and let me do it. Much easier said than done.
If you are under any false belief that you can make a child do something by just being firm enough, you need to be a foster parent for a month. There is one thing you can never take away from a child – the choices they make. If you believe otherwise, they will firmly draw that line in the sand for you. Most children manifest this control in one of two ways – what they will eat and where they go to the bathroom. You think you can change them – you simply have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m sorry. You don’t. A pull-up is not going to stop them. They can simply pull down their pants and go to the bathroom wherever they please. You can’t tape the pull-up on them. You haven’t seen stubborn until you’ve parented a foster child. Oh my gosh – do I have stories.
For the child who pees his pants (or in his closet) when he’s mad at me: I’ve learned this is pretty common with foster children and I have the mild version of this in my home! This one is going to be more trial and error but I plan to tell him throughout the day, “I’m going to pause this show while you go take a bathroom break.” “After you finish your math worksheet, I want you to go take a bathroom break.” This does not inhibit his ability to still pee his pants but I’m still trying to think through this one and it’s the best I have so far.
For the child who sneaks food while everyone else is sleeping in the morning: This is also another common situation with foster children. This is one where I’ve been locked in battle mode and have stagnated for years over it. It goes WAY beyond simply saying, “You can get something to eat from this bowl, or this shelf, or these items whenever you want.” I draw the line in the sand and he crosses it. Every. single. time. Just let it go you say? It’s not that simple. Take for example, the special cupcake I got for Niki & Zach for their engagement. Yep, he ate it. This is one example out of many. It’s not even that he just thinks I won’t feed him – even though this has never even once been the case in our home – he only goes after sugar. Nothing else. I’ve talked with two other foster/adopt parents and they have the same problem. It was so bad in both of their homes that they locked any and all sugar in a cabinet with a lock. It was so bad that one family had to even lock the cough drops and children’s liquid medicine. Did it stop the kids? Nope. They learned to pick the locks – in both homes. One family is currently using a combination lock. The other option is getting rid of all the sugar in the house you say? Well…I tried that on a modified level when I found out that when you take all the junk food out of the house, they go after the sweetened coffee creamer your daughter puts in her coffee. Drank it straight out of the carton. I don’t want to teach my sons how to pick locks by challenging them with a lock or how to sneak better. It’s also harder than you think to keep sugar 100% out of the house.
I think I have this one figured out and have already been trying something new and so far it has worked.
This child is a morning person. He wakes up and he’s hungry. In his mind, he needs to take care of himself because I’m still sleeping and neglecting his need. Therefore, he’s going to take care of it and he picks sugar. (Sugar also has a chemical reaction in your brain which makes you feel good as well as being addictive and in the morning your blood sugar levels tend to be low since you’ve been fasting all evening as you sleep.) I’m going to alternate between leaving fruit in his doorway (I’ve already tried this and it worked) with a note reminding them to make good choices. I’m also going to set out cereal with bowls and spoons with a note to tell them to get the milk out and then eat.
In the past, I’ve let them get their own cereal but I was putting them in the position of taking care of themselves instead of me doing it for them. This is a subtle but important distinction. I was re-enforcing their belief that they could only trust themselves. I need to be the one who is fulfilling their need for food. I’M taking care of them instead of them taking care of themselves. I’m providing for them and fulfilling their needs. Later, when they trust me, then they can make choices and get their own breakfast again.
I think I may be able to break this battle finally. Hope!!!
For the child who tweaks every single direction I give him so that it’s HIS CHOICE instead of my direction: I’m going to give him more choices. Do you want to do this or that? Maybe when he feels like he has more choice then he will stop tweaking the directions I give him. For example, I tell him, “I need you to transfer the clothes from the washer to the dryer.” What it translated to was – I’m going to empty the lint trap even though mom hasn’t taught me to do this yet and get it stuck because I forced it back in the trap in the wrong direction and then I’m going to push buttons and change all of mom’s settings because I think she needs these settings instead. He does this EVERY SINGLE TIME when I give him a direction. At least one thing will be tweaked so he’s in control of the situation and not me. Drives me insane. This is the child that when I say “Stop doing X” he looks me straight in the eye and does it one more time – every time. That is one of my buttons. This is one of the battles I need to walk away from. I’ve been fighting it for years and they all still do it – tell them to stop and they WILL do it one more time to show me I don’t control them. I’ll tell them to stop, let them do it one more time, and say nothing because I’m not going to give them the satisfaction of letting them know it infuriates me and they are controlling my emotions. My intent anyway. The theory is that once they trust me, this defiance from them should eventually disappear. I need to fight for the bigger picture and this aspect should heal itself as I earn their trust.