Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Parent the Need, Not the Behavior

In our MAPP training, the instructor often repeated the refrain "Parent the need, not the behavior."

I find myself chanting that over and over on the treadmill sometimes.

It's alot harder than it sounds, like most things to do with parenting an older kid out of foster care. I mean, it's one thing to parent the need rather than the behavior when your three-year-old is having a freakout. It's another to sort out a 16 year-old boy.

Nevertheless, I find it a useful, somewhat meditative thought. When I'm overwhelmed by the behavior (skipping classes, for example, is this week's hot topic), I switch my focus to the need for awhile. It gets me out of policing mode and puts me back in touch with the love and the fundamental bond. It doesn't necessarily make me more effective, but it reminds me why I'm doing this and alleviates the feelings of futility that sneak up on me occasionally when the behavior feels out of my control.

I've learned never to ask him "Why are you doing this?" It sounds desperate and ignorant. (Gentler versions like "Tell me how you felt when you decided not to go to class?" are okay, but rarely result in a meaningful response because he doesn't have that self-awareness yet.) Anyway, one can pretty well guess why he's doing most things.

You only have to look at his life to figure that the realm of unmet needs is so huge you can kind of aim in a general direction and be pretty sure you're gonna hit something significant. I'd say his list of needs goes something like:

- the need to know you have a place to sleep and food to eat every day and nobody is going to come take that from you today

- the need to have one adult you can call for help when you are in trouble

- the need to be safe at home, to not be violated or hurt

- the need to be recognized for who you really are

- the need to make sense of your life and your story at your own pace

- the need to be allowed time and space to change as you're able

- the need to feel you have some control over your life

So when I get tired I aim for at least one of those needs.

He's twice had foster parents who called in the notorious "7 day notice" (a demand that must be met for the county to relocate him within a week) for infractions similar to what happened this week. In those earlier situations, he came home one afternoon, a social worker was there, all his belongings were in garbage bags (no time or money for suitcases) and he was driven to another county and dropped off at a new home in a place where he knew nobody.

Now, let me say that I understand what drove those foster parents to do that. They felt they could not parent him effectively anymore, that his behavior was disrupting their lives and their available attention for the other kids in their homes. But I also understand that T. felt that they "threw him away." It reinforced his belief that he's bad, that people grow tired of him and want to get rid of him, that he matters to nobody and nobody understands him.

When managing his behavior is wearing me out, I find it relaxing to remember that there are PLENTY of other adults on hand to help with the behavioral aspect - including his social worker, our new therapy program, certain teachers and his school counselor. But when it comes to addressing his deep underlying needs, it's mostly just us. We are the only people who can be there in that way right now.

Some days I'm afraid I won't live up to the promise - he'll do something that I just won't be able to handle. But as my mom says, what parent of a teenager hasn't felt that way?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

T. Gets a Life

Wow. A posse (actually there were just three of them) of teens just rolled through. They're on their way to a party down the block at the home of a cute kid I see around the neighborhood. T. finally has local friends! This is a momentous occasion.

He did six months of weekend visits at our house and spent every minute with us. (Because of our age - relatively young to have a teenager - and the fact that we've only lived here two years, we don't know any families with kids his age, so we couldn't offer him social contacts and he didn't seem eager to seek them out.) Then he moved in and it's been four months of slow acclimation since. Occasionally he's gone to hang out at a fast food restaurant with someone from school, but he hasn't really made friends or gone out at night except when we take him to see friends in the suburb where he used to live, an hour from here.

And then tonight, suddenly he walks in here with two baby-faced boys at least one of whom is so clearly adored by his mommy that he loves mommies of all sorts. The boys are all sixteen, but due to his height and slightly world-weary air, T. appears about ten years older than the others. Seeing him with his friends, I was surprised how young they all appear!

I dragged T. in his bedroom and gave him a quick rundown of the rules. No drugs. No drinking. If the party gets loud or crazy or someone starts beefing with someone else, go out a back door and text me and I'll pick you up no questions asked. He rolled his eyes and patted me on the head, but he acknowledged. He also said, "What kind of people do you know? I'm not going to any party that's crazy like that." Yeah he just doesn't know yet, I thought to myself.

The boys were quiet and polite and beelined it for the video games while they were here. They hit the x box, the computer, the refrigerator (consuming nearly a gallon of juice in less than a minute) and had an ogle at T.'s pet lizard before rolling out the door to continue their evening. Before they slipped out, I told T. his curfew is midnight and we'll be there on the corner to pick him up and I asked his friends if I could offer them a ride home too. "My mom is picking me up," his friends chorused in unison. Cute.

I think in some ways, T. held back from socializing until now, because he didn't want to blow it. He's been an avid if covert socializer in previous foster homes and he hasn't always made good choices. He also wanted a lot of time with us - to bond, yes, but also to check things out, see what's out there in the world with us at his beck and call in case he felt overwhelmed and needed to reverse course (he has what I might summarize as PTSD).

I also expected he might delay bringing friends home because we're white, so any friends who come over are gonna know he's not with his bio parents. Over the months, I've broached this subject with him a few times - I've offered to support any story he'd like to tell about our coming together, and offered him the example of the way I explain "chosen family". But he's straightforward by nature and he kind of shrugged me off and told me he'd already explained to his friends that we're white. I've heard him proudly refer to us as his "adoptive parents" in phone conversations, and he's not been shy about introducing us to old friends. I think our whiteness is a little geeky, but T. is also very chuffed that he set out to find adoptive parents and succeeded, so the embarrassment is offset by his pride in being self-determined.

I feel so old! I'm somebody's parent and it's Saturday night and I'm sitting here twiddling my thumbs and waiting to pick him up. I'm nervous and of two minds about letting him go, but I know that part of adopting a teenager is accepting that bonding and differentiating all happen simultaneously in one big whirl. Mostly I'm happy to see him happy, to see him in the company of people who like him, experimenting with a reasonable degree of freedom that makes him feel like a "normal" teen.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Shame and the Game Plan

One of the hardest things we grapple with is T.'s internalized belief that he's a bad person.

It's been apparent since some of our earliest conversations with him. In the beginning, he had an odd habit of opening up during happy times and merilly recounting "bad" things he'd done as a young child - school fights, stealing some candy from a store - on a "just thought you should know" basis.

It gradually became clear that he was a) testing us by seeing how we'd respond, b) letting us in on a history of misbehavior that weighs on his conscience, and c) sharing the logic he uses to make sense of what's happened to him. Like lots of traumatized kids, he believes - and has for a long time - that the abuse that was directed at him happened because he was "bad". And then, like lots of abused kids, it became cyclical, because the abuse made him feel shame and caused him to act out in ways that reinforced his belief that he's bad.

As we've bonded more deeply, I've tried suggesting that behavior is not identity, that I love him and know he's not "bad", and that young kids often indicate through their behavior things they can't explain in words. Such a suggestion often results in both a denial that he has or has ever had any feelings, coupled with further information about things that happened to him as a kid. It's a strange sort of "No, but here's another thing I should tell you that proves your point..." response.

We recently had such a conversation. He made an unwise choice at school one day. We were talking through what happened. He told me I shouldn't be surprised by his behavior because he's "always been bad." I said something like "You know, I've heard you say that a few times - that you were a bad kid. I don't think you are or ever have been a bad kid. I think you've used your behavior to send a message sometimes, and now that you're older, it's a good time for us to talk about what triggers that kind of behavior so you can make smart choices."

This time, his face contorted. He said "Sometimes people don't have a choice about how to behave." I asked him for an example. He said, "I didn't have a choice about whether to take care of my younger brother when we went to foster. I had to do it." There was real rage on his face. That happened when he was about six, and that's about the age his stories of being "bad" begin.

He told me that he thinks he's "rotten". He stopped making eye contact and curled up in fetal position in his chair. He asked me not to say nice things about him anymore. This is a painful place for him - he feels he failed to protect his little brother from some harrowing mistreatment they both endured, and at the same time, he resents his brother, who suffered from serious behavioral issues that overwhelmed T. when he was just a little kid trying to keep things under control.

He stayed quiet for a long minute. Then he snapped up, looked me in the eye, and said "Everything happens for a reason! If I hadn't been in foster care, I never would have met you guys!" He didn't smile when he said it, and he wasn't flattering me - he said it with a fierce fire. He was diverting me and changing the subject, trying to wave me off from a sensitive topic. But he was also telling himself a story that matters to him - one where fate works for him.

We came back to the topic at hand. I asked him what he would do if he were the parent and his kid were cutting class, as he's been doing. He thought for a minute, then said, "I'd observe, to see if it's a pattern. If it continued, I'd take away the things he loves most: his cell phone and the computer." I said, "Interesting, that sounds very wise. Now, how would you know for sure if it were a pattern? Would you check on him at school?" He said, "I'd ask him directly. He usually tells the truth. He told you about it in the first place." I said, "That's true. He is very honest and that's one of the things I like so much about him."

These role-reversal conversations tend to work really well with T. because of the pseudo-parental role he played as a young kid - he slips easily into that frame of mind and can parent himself quite effectively. They also crack me up.

The intensity of the moment passed and we chatted a bit longer. We invited him to let us know if there's anything we can do better as parents, to help take the spotlight off him as we wound down. He loves this question and I often use it to help him end an intense conversation. "Yes," he said in a thoughtful way - at times, he can be quite professorial. "You went too far with my consequences today," he said. "My behavior isn't that bad. We should try to compromise." We did. Then he rose from the table. "Well, that was a very mature conversation," he said, "I'm glad we had this talk." He danced around for a bit, tickled and poked us, then put himself to bed.

Before I became his parent, I thought we'd have a lot more control over how and when we parented. I thought you kind of organized your talking points, sat the kid down and delivered them. I laught at myself now. I didn't know there are all these little doors opening and closing all the time, and you kind of have to lob your parenting wisdom at them and hope to hit the mark. Two parts love - BAM! A quick shot of discipline - POW! Uh oh - incoming negative peer influence. DUCK! Pop back up, articulate reasonable limits. Hope for compliance. Dodge hormonal theatrics. That sort of thing.

It's hard, but it's fun.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

I Spy Like That

I spy. I'm an unrepentant paranoid password-cracking narc of a parent sometimes. I finally confessed to our adoption worker that I spy on his AOL Instant Messenger, his cell phone text messages, and his MySpace profile. I occasionally peek (okay, dive) into his school backpack, and I am pretty familiar with the nooks and crannies of his bedroom, especially that spot behind the curtain he doesn't think I know about. I once hid inside a Best Buy across from a movie theater for over half an hour to see if he really bought a ticket and went into the theater like he promised. At this point in my career as a spy, I'm very familiar with the phenomenon known as teen "sexting", the teenage social importance of one's AOL "away message", and the symbology in MySpace profile pictures.

When I confessed my compulsion to spy, our adoption caseworker laughed and said, "Of course you spy! That's what smart parents do!"

Spying has kept me a step ahead on a number of serious issues. I found out by spying about the adult half-sibling T. had never met who was offering him pills via text message. I found out that some of his "tough" friends are actually a great support and encourage his best sense of himself. I got a peek, via his MySpace page, inside his agonizing loneliness back when he was in a respite foster care home last year when we first met.

I would encourage any parent of a complicated teenager to spy. The main reason is that adopting an older kid means coming late to a battle that's already raging, and spying can help you catch up to events. Occasionally it also provides you with an awe-inspiring appearance of omniscience. Once in a while when we nip an ill-advised plan in the bud, he looks at us like "Dang! How did they KNOW?!" He has no idea we spy, so he just thinks we can read his mind.

The flip side of that advice is that I tell myself that I must spy with respect. T. is not a habitual liar, and he mostly follows our rules. I spy lightly. I've learned that I don't need to police him - I spy to understand him and to gain some insight so I can be prepared to offer rational guidance or a welcome distraction when he needs it. I've learned not to panic when I unearth important information. Not all weather patterns that gather online materialize in a real-life storm.

I'd say I try to spy with an open-minded desire to see inside the mind and heart of my kid. I try to let my rabid curiosity be tempered by regard for his privacy and let him make certain mistakes within the bounds of safety - not all knowledge requires action. And I try to cross-reference what I learn online with real-life observed behavior lest I be led astray by braggadocio.

When I get something really juicy, unless it's a five-alarm fire (the unknown elder half-sibling headed our way, for example) I try to sit on it for at least a few days. Quite often I just file it under "Good to Know." I also have a fairly fat mental file labeled "Wish I Didn't Know."

To me, spying is a little like knowing your kid's friends. It's getting familiar with how and where they spend their time, and with whom. I look forward to being a retired spy someday, to no longer cross-referencing slang dictionaries to decode text messages. The longer I parent him, the less I feel the need to spy. But for now, it's a useful, often amusing, mostly enlightening habit, and I try to do it gently.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Age is Just a Number

The other day, we were out to eat and T. (who can be extremely controlling about food) announced that he didn't like the choices at the Mexican restaurant and he wanted a burger instead. I said, "Great, I'll give you $10 and you can go across the street to the diner and get yourself a burger."

"I'm only 10!" he yelped. "I can't cross the street by myself!"

In earlier days, I would have been completely confounded. I might even have teased him. Now I know, although he's just hit his 16th birthday, if T. says he's ten, today he's ten.

He didn't pick that number at random. He was ten when he was taken away for the final time from the relatives who were caring for him. He was ten when some of the worst things that happened to him in his life had just taken place. He was ten when he realized he'd be in foster care for the rest of his childhood.

He probably didn't even think when he said it. The unconscious - especially when we're playing - has a way of telling the truth.

I suppose one could be spooked by a 16 year-old who occasionally thinks he's ten. I take it as an indication of where his needs are coming from. When we were fulfilling our county-mandated parenting classes before T. came to live with us, I recall the teacher saying "Parent them where they are, not where you think they should be."

There was an interesting model in the class. It showed the cycle of need and satisfaction that attends to early infancy. The teacher explained that an infant lives in a constant cycle of need and gratification, and that the average infant goes through ten thousand cycles of need and satisfaction before developing a secure attachment to its adult caretaker.

T. was born premature and drug-addicted, and he went through eleven foster homes as an infant before a cousin took him in. It's hard to imagine he got his ten thousand cycles of gratification.

I think about that when he's annoying me now. He calls out for snacks when he could easily get them himself. He asks to be picked up from school when he could easily take the bus. He wants us to be close at hand when he goes out with friends.

The other day he announced hopefully "You can clean my room." In different circumstances, it might have been annoying or just lazy. It felt different. When T. was little - around five years old - he did the ironing for a household full of adults, and if he didn't do it well, he was brutally punished. He told me that if he didn't clean the whole house properly, he had to stand in the corner facing the wall, and often the adults would get drunk and go out and he'd eventually fall asleep standing up and awaken when he hit the floor. When I met him, he lived in a home where there was little affection but lots of chores. One of his most familiar words was "mandatory", as in "Is it mandatory?" I laughed the first time he asked me that - I think I had suggested we see a movie.

So I clean his room. I love doing it. It's a way of taking care. No one has ever cleaned his room for him. I also wash his clothes. When he started doing weekend visits, I told him he could drop his dirty clothes in the hamper anytime and we'd wash them. He didn't acknowledge. After a few consecutive weekends, I found one pair of socks gingerly resting in the hamper. I washed them and left them for him the next weekend when he returned. That weekend, I got a pair of socks plus an undershirt. A few weeks later, his favorite washcloth. I knew we were on track when he started leaving his undershorts behind to be laundered between visits. By the time we all agreed to adopt each other, it was raining dirty clothes - he brought clothes from his weekday foster home and piled them in the laundry basket, deliberately leaving more and more clean clothes behind in what would be his room. It's such a simple thing, but it's a give-and-take rhythm of being cared for that was most unfamiliar to him.

I don't want to let him control the household. But there's an aspect of his behavior that I think is driven by unfulfilled early childhood needs. If he needs to be ten, or two, today, then I'll parent him like a ten or a two-year-old. He saved those parts for someone to satisfy, and by some miracle of personality, he is still largely receptive to having those unfulfilled needs parented.

Insisting on the Right to Parent

Well, we had high hopes for the wrap-around service we were referred to by our beloved adoption caseworker. (Wrap-around is a model for counseling and support for foster and adopted kids. There are different tiers of wrap-around and it can be very intense - a team of behavioral specialists who support the parents and the kids, often through crisis periods.) We aren't in a crisis, but we thought it would be good to be proactive and get involved with some of the support services available to us through the county, and our social worker thought this program (through a reputable mental health organization) looked like a good bet. (The county only funds certain mental health models - due to budget cuts - so getting a family matched to services is tricky and our caseworker was being creative.)

Mostly we were hoping for a good in-home family counsellor to help us sort through issues like birth family contact, past trauma, and the day-to-day parenting stuff like how to get T. to eat something other than a cheeseburger. We've never been parents before, and we want to rock it.

Like many aspects of the foster/adopt process, the wrap-around program sounded good and turned out to be quite awkward. I think the problem is that the wrap-around team had a one-size-fits-all approach. They kind of stormed in, with a "parent advocate" (someone to counsel us); a "behavioral specialist" (someone to counsel T.); a "team lead" (a CSW to head the team), and a therapist. They brought flip charts. They told us they had 30 days to work through various "assessments" and that we'd have to commit to weekly 90-minute meetings and some interim appointments. They started out with a "strengths assessment", asking us all to identify what each of us brings to the family - that part was fun. I thought, hey, this is going to be great! Then they moved on to the "safety plan" - that's when things started to veer off course.

I started to suspect this wasn't going to work out one afternoon about two weeks into it. T. had a root beer and it exploded in the car and got all over his clothes. He totally unraveled - rocking back and forth and moaning "I'm going to lose my mind!" He REALLY cares about having a neat and clean personal appearance, but his reaction was out of all proportion. Our conversation eventually came to the wrap-around appointment we had later that evening. Finally he burst out, "I don't need wrap-around! It's not for ADOPTED kids! It's for kids in GROUP HOMES! I KNOW what wrap around means! It's for PSYCHOS!"

T. is never melodramatic, so this outburst was most unusual. Although his perceptions of wrap-around might not be accurate, they are informed by a brief, terrifying stint he did in a group home before he was placed with us, where he was surrounded with kids with very serious problems with crime, gang involvement, drugs and truancy. He knew that wrap-around was an attempt to stabilize those kids, and he felt deeply insulted and worried that he was being addressed in what he saw as a similar way.

I am all for safety planning. Traumatized kids often have dangerous behaviors and identifiable triggers. And T. DOES have behaviors that concern us - a marijuana habit we've been working on, a tenuous connection to school, and some "friends" who use him. But he's in a good place right now. He's getting good grades. He's abiding by our rules. He's communicating with us openly. We gave him a crystal clear set of rules when he moved in with us, regarding the teen triumvirate of drugs, violence and sex, and he has done an astonishing job of working with us to make smart decisions for himself. The safety plan involved meeting with the whole team (three professionals, plus the family) to fill out a form where we were to fill in the blank for categories like "dangerous behaviors" "triggers" and "resources - ticking off whether we'd call the police, the fire department, or the social worker in response to whatever dangerous behaviors we came up with. It made T. feel like everyone thought he might hold a knife to our throats.

When we tried to guide the process in a way we knew would secure his buy-in, the team lead implied that we were naive and that they knew of "certain information" in his case file from his adoption worker that "raised red flags for them." They wouldn't be explicit about that information unless we agreed to come into their office with T. to meet with a "supervisor". I hate this sort of innuendo and veiled threat. We are hand-in-glove with his adoption worker, and there is nothing in that file that we don't know, and very little that we didn't unearth ourselves. None of us felt like they could hear what we were saying.

We cut it short. Our caseworker completely backed us up. In the end, it came down to a simple realization: we are his parents. We still share guardianship with the county until our adoption finalizes, but that hardly matters in the day to day. We feed him. We counsel him. We sit with him when he needs to talk. We take him to visit his birth family. We tolerate his annoying attitude during holidays when he feels confused about his relationship with us versus his birth relatives. We know his friends, and whenever possible, their parents. We talk him down when he's upset, and we laugh with him when he's being hilarious. We play tickle games, we snuggle on the sofa, we wash his clothes, and we call his teachers to check up on his progress. He calls us his "fam bam" and his "peoples". Nobody is going to come in my house and tell me they know more about what he's up to and what he needs than I do - especially before they take the time to know him.

I expect that other foster/adoptive parents feel some days like they're being second-guessed by social workers, mental health providers, teachers, counsellors, etc. No disrespect to those who labor in the trenches to help abused kids - I am the first to sing the praises of our absolutely amazing DCFS adoption worker. But these kids can come with a small army of well-intentioned "experts". Sometimes I find I want to please them - sometimes (I'm embarrassed to say) I find that secretly I want to impress them. But the only thing I have to do is be a good parent to T.

In the beginning of the placement process, it's complicated - you're getting to know the kid, his history and his needs. But there comes a day when you've made a total commitment to this kid, and you have to insist on your right to do your job as the parent. If someone offers him the wrong kind of "help", or forces him to fit a model that isn't aligned with his behavior, they have to contend with me. Getting between him and adults whose attention isn't benefitting him is part of how I show him what it means to really have a parent.

In the end, we said to him over dinner "We don't feel like the wrap around service is working out and we're ready to call it off. How do you feel?" He rolled his eyes and said, "I could have TOLD you that last week!" And that was that. That evening he was visibly relieved, resting his head on my shoulder while we sat on the sofa and chatted with Tim about music. We were alone, at home, doing regular stuff, and that was just fine.
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