Thursday, January 28, 2010

On the Other Hand

Heading into month three of full-time pre-adoptive "placement" as the county likes to call it - which just means "parenting", really. And we're doing pretty good...depending how you look at it.

On the one hand, T. got caught (by us) getting high at school last week. His behavior tipped us off, but we had to insist on searching his backpack and school clothes in order to catch him out in the open so we could deliver a consequence. He was extremely upset and angry for about twenty-four hours. (As a quick aside: although we were upset that he'd lied to us and used drugs at school, we weren't too shocked, as we've been working with him on his marijuana habit all along, and we were more or less ready to respond.)

When he's upset, he often stares into my eyes with an incredibly mournful expression as if to transfer his feelings to me. The day after our confrontation, he was doing that and he looked utterly heartbroken. I took a guess and said something to the effect of: "I know right now you dislike our rules and the consequences. But I want you to know that even though we're arguing, we NEVER, EVER feel differently about you, and you are very dear to us." After that, his grief and rage started to subside. I find every act of discipline needs to be accompanied by an expression of commitment or he thinks his world is coming to an end.

Oddly, it turns out that he adores being grounded. He lost all priveleges for two weeks, including: going out without us, having friends over, playing x-box, using the computer, and using his cell phone. And we've never seen him happier.

My mom nailed it. She observed that he's overwhelmed by his social life right now. Deciding what to do and with whom every weekend means choosing between old friends and new friends, and between following our rules or reverting to old behaviors. He's got a crush on a girl and she's reciprocating, which means managing a host of expectations around what comes next. All of this makes him anxious, and being grounded simplifies his life and gives him a reason to hang around the house with us contemplating but not acting upon his options.

In addition to the security of being sequestered and secluded, I have a hunch that his happiness in the midst of discipline has another dimension: we didn't tell his social worker what happened. She visited a couple days later and we didn't lie, but we didn't offer the story either. He noticed. Our feeling is that we're the parents and we've delivered a consequence and discussed our expectations with him and that's the end of it. Now he gets a chance to try to meet those expectations without an atmosphere of lingering resentment.

T. hates his primary caseworker. She took him out of more than one home over the years, moving him from place to place without warning. She has a tendency to belittle and berate him, and to say disparaging things about his mother. (His adoption worker is a different story, and we tell her pretty much everything.) Usually, in her wake, we experience a prolonged bout of sullen angry behavior because she insults him so deeply. Not this time. He bounced back immediately after she left, chatting and playing with us.

He was utterly loving all weekend. He voluntarily cleaned the bathroom for me. He opened his arms on Sunday night and gave me a huge unprompted hug - something he's never done before. He confided in us about some problems some of his friends are facing right now. Yesterday he told me proudly that he's not getting high at school anymore. He did decide to sit out his PE class "instead" which I don't love, but I'll take a failing grade in PE (he gets Bs in everything else) over drug use at school.

T. struggles with symptoms you might call PTSD - he's overwhelmed by noise, crowds, physical proximity - and I understand why he tries in his own immature way to regulate his experience so he can get through the day. We'll grapple with these issues for as long as he's with us.

So as unpleasant as busting him was, it's been a good couple weeks. Finally he has evidence that we truly will not "give him away" when he misbehaves, that he has one set of rules and one pair of adults who offer both discipline and unconditional love, instead of a committee of bureaucrats who tear apart his entire life for infractions real and imagined. He's somehow managed to remain receptive - to love, stability, reason, and hope - and it's when he's made a mistake or misbehaved that his receptivity is most evident.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Some Kids Are Orchids

I was hanging out with a colleague who has two really great kids this week and I had a thought. People are like plants. Her kids are like daisies. They grow where they're planted, they need regular amounts of sun and water, and their faces turn toward you with straightforward openness. They're great fun to be with and it always cheers me up to see them.

T. is an orchid. He's been through several homes searching for the right conditions in which to flourish. Sometimes he barely eats and on other days he has the exclusive desire for peculiar foods. He's beautiful and complicated, and when he comes and goes he rarely says hello or good-bye unless you dance around and manage to position yourself where you can catch a glimpse of his face as it turns slightly away or down toward the floor. But when you do catch his eye, there's usually so much to see and study there. When he does open up and talk, he's so funny and wise and the things he says are so often unexpected.

People are always telling us about their perceptions of foster kids - many think they must be difficult, dangerous, disturbed. In our experience, some are, some aren't. It's more complicated than that. But I will say that of the foster kids we've known, very few are daisies. Some are cactuses. Others, like T., are more like exotics: unusual, complex, fragile and possessing strange exaggerated abilities and uncanny strengths.

Sometimes I catch myself shoving him into the sunlight and expecting him to grow, and instead he wilts and fades. But listen closely, switch up the routine if he's showing subtle signs of stress, keep the temperature constant and the air in the room from getting stale and he settles into being himself. An orchid never turns into a daisy, but it can be a very beautiful orchid.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Truth About Adopting A Teenager

Is it wrong how much I want T. to go back to school? He was placed with us in a "pre-adoptive" placement just over a month ago, and he's been on Christmas break for the last two-and-a-half weeks. We owe DCFS for the brilliant timing and total lack of support around that set of circumstances, but that's a matter for a future blog post.

Mary the Mom, one of my favorite bloggers and most supportive foster/adopt resources, recently told me I make adopting a teenager look easy. I'm philosophical by nature, and I think that inadvertently inclines me toward a reflective wisened tone. But I just want to be clear that I'm not that way at all in real life. I don't want to mislead. This isn't easy.

Yes, adopting an older kid from foster care is incredibly rewarding. It's the most significant thing we've ever done in our lives. It's incredibly profound to intervene in someone's destiny in that way. And I'm sure I'll feel particularly good about it decades from now when I reflect on the meaning of my life. Meanwhile, there are plenty of times when it seems like a terrible idea.

For example: as a result of a severely disrupted childhood and multiple placements, T.'s social skills...well, frankly, they suck. Half his friends are thugs. He constantly tries to buy friendship, unsure that anyone will like him beyond the perks he can provide. He's clingy. He's annoying. And he has no idea how to make constructive plans with peers. My incredibly patient partner Tim, who models unconditional love nearly all the time, referred to T.'s social life as "disgusting" and "repulsive" the other night. I have to say, that was the source of a good hard laugh. Now when we want to run away to Tahiti, we just ask each other "are you disgusted?" and it cracks us up all over again.

Here's more: T. is also rude. I love him, but let's not lie. Once he relaxes (which in our case didn't happen until after about four months of weekend overnight stays in our house) he's utterly rude. Other parents of teenagers that they've raised since birth assure me that all teenagers are obscenely inconsiderate. But he's the only one I've got and, lemme tell ya, living with him is a pain in the butt some days. He blasts his headphones and shrugs when we talk to him. He interrupts important conversations to send scandalous text messages to girls. He refuses to eat most of what we serve and usually gets up and walks away from the table halfway through dinner. Yesterday he gave all the money we gave him for the bus to a homeless man, then called us to come pick him up.

We aren't letting him get away with all this - we usually respond with a calm correction and sometimes a consequence. We're learning that you have to set up the consequences in advance, or you can really find yourself in a pickle. T. is remarkably self-correcting, and even when we think our explanation of expectations have fallen on i-Pod-deafened ears, he often returns and models exactly the behavior we asked for within a day or two. NEVERTHELESS. Having to explain and deliver appropriate consequences and make sure they are implemented is enough to make you want to take a long, long unannounced vacation some days.

We were more or less prepared. I've known a bunch of foster kids over the course of my life, and I've also had quite a few friends who were raised in chaotic circumstances and acquired feral behaviors similar to T's. But that doesn't mean it isn't majorly irksome - after all, alot of the behaviors are expressly intended to be irksome. Maybe all teenagers tend to provoke, but I'd say emotionally distressed teenagers coming out of long term foster care excel far beyond the cultural norm in their total mastery of provocation. They have way more anger to release. They have a compulsive need to try to destroy connections in order to test their strength before they get hurt again. They are hugely confused about loyalties and boundaries and what love really looks like.

So there, I said it. It's working for us - in part, I think, because all along this is the kind of parenting we wanted to do. We didn't want to have babies, we wanted to adopt older kids. We didn't expect immediate gratification- though when we get those unexpected bursts of pure affection from him, it's totally blissful. We waited until we were older - until years of experience at work and at home and with friends and with each other tempered our personalities and taught us that most conflicts eventually blow over. But it's still hard - hard to be patient enough, to be warm enough, to complement as well as criticize, to choose battles wisely and overlook the things that there isn't time to address. I'll try in the future to write more about those parts, because I think it's important for adoptive parents of older kids to be honest about the difficulties so we can be a resource for each other!
Site Meter