Monday, May 24, 2010


Oh what a funny duckie is T.

After a rough week and some rather steady decline in behavior since last month he came to family meeting tonight in a gentle mood. We wrote out an agenda. He grabbed the pen and added his two cents but kept his agenda item covered up. When it came his turn, he looked down at his notes and read his agenda item in a bashful voice: "Apology."

Apology is a concept he learned recently. Last week I wasn't being my best parent self and I let an argument with him go unresolved - I cut short a conversation and didn't return to finish it before bedtime as I try to do. I was just too exasperated with his escalating behavior at school and the chaos of it all. So the next day I texted him "I want to apologize. I should have come back and talked out our disagreement. Please forgive me. Let's make up later."

I saw him after school and he looked at me so oddly and said "I don't understand why you are apologizing?" I said, "Because we try to talk things out before bed and I left you hanging. I shouldn't have done that." He gave a surprised laugh.

So tonight he came with his own apology. He's sorry that he has been getting high after school. He wants to do what we ask, but he's having trouble resisting temptation. Consequences aren't really working for us right now - our life was turning into an unholy mess of consequences upon consequences. So I just probed for a little more information.

"Do you know why you smoke marijuana?" (we talk about this all the time, but it never hurts to see what today's answer is going to be.)

Awkward silence.

"Do you enjoy the way weed gives you a chance to hang out with certain friends and be cool and have a certain image?"


"Is it the effect it has on your thoughts?"


"Can you tell me a little bit about why you started smoking more frequently? You were doing really well getting that under control since you moved in with us. It seems like something changed."

Tentative, "I don't know. I guess I just like it."

"Oh really? That's interesting. It seems like something changed around spring break."

Here we got some adorably bad acting - totally fake gesture as if to suggest a new thought had just occurred to him. Then he said in a very soft voice, "Oh, there is this one thing. I think maybe it was when my mom stopped talking to me. She won't call me back anymore."

And there it is. I know kids can be manipulative, but sometimes you just know in your gut that the kid just spit out a kernel of pure truth and things suddenly make more sense. We have been struggling to figure out how to explain his recent spate of unusually angry behavior. Of course!

Mom is mad at him because around spring break (at his request) we took him to see the cousin who raised him for several years, and his mother found out and felt jealous. Complicated. I won't go into the whole backstory. Suffice it to say his mom has five kids who all grew up in foster care and none of them have ever spent a single night with her.

I told him that I respect his mom, because he came from her. And that I know how much it hurts when your mom isn't talking to you. And that I wanted him to know that it isn't his fault that she's angry. He listened. I asked if I could do anything to help. He said no. Then he squealed "This is like therapy! Don't ask me any more questions! Can I go play video games?"

The change was immediate. His eyes are warm. He's more relaxed and playful. He asked to go back to the gym - one of his coping strategies that he's been dodging lately.

We'll go through cycles like this for as long as he's with us, I'm sure, and substance abuse is a bitch. But I sure do appreciate the tiny bit of self awareness he's achieved.

On on unrelated note, here's another funny and some recommended reading.

My dad gave me Nurture Shock for my birthday. A short while later, T. and I were having an argument. I said, "I don't want to argue with you." He freaked and said "I hate it when you say that! I'm not arguing - I'm trying to talk to you!" I said, "You know, you're right. My dad gave me this book for my birthday. There's a chapter in the book about teenagers and it says that teenagers' brains are different. Sometimes what adults think of as an argument is just their way of saying something important. So the book recommends that you hear them out." Moment of stunned silence, then a HUGE grin spread over his face. "YES!" he yelled. "Thank you! And now Tim needs to read that book too!"

Friday, May 21, 2010

Doing the Best He Can

No week is easy with T., though they have a certain amusing rhythm, but this one just kinda sucked.

I've written often about T.'s ability to bond, which is extraordinary in a child with his background. He has a strong capacity (and even longing) for intimacy at home. Building and maintaining that bond is a first priority for us. It can make life at home a lot of fun. However, when we're all out in the world going about our daily business, outside our family life, things get messy. T.'s ability to bond does not extend to adults outside his most intimate circle.

This shows up in a pattern of defiance at school and he has conflicts with every male teacher he's encountered in the time I've known him. For a hurt child with PTSD whose been through 16 homes, school is a horror shop of noise, chaos, inconsistent authority, lax structure, social anxiety and occasional threats of physical violence.

His vulnerability does not, of course, manifest as such. It shows up as what I call peacock behavior - busting out the colors. The first time I attended his parent/teacher conference, I hardly recognized the kid that some of his teachers were describing - a defiant show off who pushes buttons. Then I realized that the teachers who describe this "other" T are all men, and tend to be the ones whose approach to discipline is to challenge him in front of other kids or threaten punishment they don't necessarily deliver. They trigger his most difficult behaviors. He doesn't even know what's happening - they set off a physical, limbic reaction in him.

All this leaves T. in a highly stressed state much of the time and he self-medicates by smoking - marijuana when he can get it, and it appears one can readily purchase it in the hallway between classes. The school is so short-staffed that lunch and break periods have turned into an anarchic sort of bazaar of vices. (And this high school is in the top 3 in the entire county.) So we are addressing that too, and it kicks his already tenuous situation at school up a whole other notch.

None of this is new, and we were more or less prepared for this when we started this whole journey. And I love him so much through it all. The thing I'm learning is that it's necessary to settle in to the rhythm of it - to stop responding to the drama and turmoil of the school week as a series of crises and just accept that it's where we are right now. I need to be a fierce advocate but I also need to maintain the endurance to advocate for him for a long time, so I need to weed out any desperation or self-deception that creep in. That's essential to my own well-being, of course. But achieving that resilience is also necessary in order to show him that we accept where he's at right now, and while we insist on a few really important rules and expectations, we never, ever change our minds about him. That's hard to do when you're exhausted.

Mary the Mom turned me on to a writer who said something so memorable. "Assume that the child is doing the best he can." To be honest, some days, I recite that to myself and think "Oh wow, really?" And he is. He absolutely is. He gets up and goes to school every day and mostly goes to his classes and he either gets As or Fs. He frequently acts out such that he is nailed for "cleanup in lieu of suspension" which in my book means "let the troubled kids substitute for janitorial staff because we don't really want to deal with them." And this is the best he can do right now. So my job is to talk to continue to get him to therapy, to talk to his counselors and the principals and vice principals and deans and teachers and try to work out the right equation for him so "the best he can do" can eventually grow just a little bit better.

We have an upcoming summit that we requested with one of the vice principals and his counselor. His intellect needs to be fed and challenged, and his anxiety needs to be soothed. He ought to be in a special school for kids with unusual emotional needs and behavioral challenges. He needs teachers who are cognizant that they are dealing with a CHILD, not a man, and that he will give back what he sees reflected in their eyes. Finding that in a large urban public high school system is tough.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

It's Mah Birthday

It's my birthday and I'm feeling reflective.

I always wanted to be a foster/adoptive mom to a teenager. Then I turned 35, and right around the time other people's biological clocks start to chime, the impetus acquired a momentum of its own.

I think it's just part of who I have always been. I went to a strict Catholic grammar school and in fourth grade, we had to do a presentation in the parish hall. About 80% of the class went with anti-abortion presentations. My best friend and I went a different route. We had a three-part posterboard with cartoon illustrations that we obtained from a local social worker - the "dos" and "don'ts" of child-rearing. The right panel advertised in large type the various hotline phone numbers for abused kids. My dad still jokes about the sideways looks he got from the other parents, but he proudly saved that posterboard for a long time.

So I guess it's not too surprising that I grew up and wanted to do this kind of parenting. Still, actually becoming T.'s parent has been a long, hard slog. Before him, I loved people and I was loved, but I didn't really believe in profound, life-altering commitment the way I do now. Our connection with him was like a bolt of lightening. Just under a year ago, we were volunteering at some stupid dog rescue event in Torrance, and I looked up and there was this boy, so tall and solemn and utterly withdrawn and the three of us fell into an uncanny synchronicity. It was like he had a beacon inside him sending out an unspoken message: "It's me!" On the basis of nothing other than this irrational hunch, we pursued our foster license, did five months of weekend visits while he bounced through two other foster homes, and finally wrangled DCFS into placing him with us. Keeping up the connection to him while navigating that process was like trying to keep your eye on a feather in the midst of a hurricane. But T. kept transmitting his signal, and we kept believing in him for whatever mysterious reason.

Tomorrow, the children's court hears his six-month placement review. The report going to the court contains one simple statement from an interview DCFS did with T.: "I like it here and I want to stay." The report recommends adoption (which has always been our goal, but you have to do six months of foster care before the court will consider moving forward with adoption in a case like T.'s), and we're likely to get a date now in adoption court a few months from now.

I'm not a perfect parent - in fact I'm very bad at it sometimes. And T. is not an easy kid - he has oddities and challenges that come from having been through 15 different homes before ours. I might fail him. I might be broken-hearted when he leaves home. I might foster/adopt several more kids. Or he might be the only one, and we might be close for the rest of our lives. I don't know. But if I died tomorrow, I'd be satisfied that I did this one small thing, however imperfectly

I really do feel that way.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother's Day

I had a most unexpected Mother's Day surprise. T. stumbled in to the living room early this morning with his hands hidden behind his back, then held out a card and mumbled "Happy Mother's Day." The ornate pink card included a simple handwritten note that said, "Thanks for everything. With love." Then he ordered me to go back to bed while he and Tim prepared pancakes. He brought the pancakes in and sat at the foot of my bed while we had breakfast and lounged around reading gossip magazines.

Since he's my first kid, I've never had a Mother's Day card before. Since he's been through 16 previous homes before landing with us, I didn't expect Mother's Day to fit into his realm of norm. And since this time last year I didn't even know him, I hardly thought he'd be serving me brunch in bed already. It's been a tough week, so it was a particularly sweet moment. (I find that parenting him often feels like a cupcake of struggle with a layer of delectable love frosting on top, and that's what this week turned out to be.)

He also picked out cards for his birth mom and for the cousin who raised him for several years before he was taken away from her. Even though his birth mom isn't speaking to him, he called and read the card to her answering machine, and did the same for his cousin.

I'm honored to share Mother's Day with his other mothers. It's kind of like being part of a relay race, with T. as the precious baton. It's confusing and difficult sometimes to figure out where we fit in relation to his birth family and previous caregivers, but it's sweet and humbling too. His connection to each of them is part of the equation that explains why he's been able to attach to us as strongly as he has.

Happy Mother's Day to all of you "other mothers" out there who coax, compell, urge, tug, propell, carry, drive and persuade traumatized kids forward toward the finish line of childhood and beyond.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


One of the things I find somewhat difficult about parenting an older traumatized kid is identifying and subsuming my own emotional agenda. Which isn't to say that I'm not emotionally invested in parenting him. But I find myself expending a fair amount of energy tucking my own (sometimes frayed) emotional edges out of the way before I dig in to do the hard stuff with him.

He needs intense parenting, which is to say, he needs focused exclusive unconditional attention. I can ask him for compliance, cooperation, and communication. But I can't ask him for love or gratitude - I have no claim on how he feels. What we do as his parents needs to be done regardless of whether he seems to appreciate it. It's like being a pair of headlights. I think our job is to be a strong, steady beam of light shining brightly on his path to help him see. We can't just flicker our lights at him and then disappear into darkness to see if he responds. We basically have to follow him around and light him up wherever he is. Tim did that yesterday - T. had gone awol, and Tim actually tracked him right up to the street corner where he was hanging out, and hit him with that spotlight of parental supervision and guided him home. Had he done it in anger, T. would have freaked. But he did it with the detached bemusement and calm of a sports refereee and T. didn't even really object - I think he was more surprised than anything else. Nobody has bothered to keep track of him for most of his childhood.

The second reason for keeping a lid on personal emotional needs is that he simply is not capable of a mature reciprocal relationship right now. He didn't get that early childhood experience of being the object of someone else's exclusive devoted attention, and that has to come first. He is quick to think that he must be "good" in order to be loved, and since he can't be "good", he must be unlovable. I don't think a person can give until they believe they have something to give. This must be common with abused and abandoned children. I see him reaching for an explanation for why nobody "kept" him during his early childhood, and the most readily available conclusion for his child-mind is that he must have been a bad person. So the pressure of reciprocity is too much for him - he isn't sure anybody wants what he has to give back.

And my third thought about why raising a traumatized kid isn't an emotional two way street has to do with the need for total consistency. My partner is a musician, and he always says that without the rigid structure of musical scales and notes, there would be no framework within which to create music. I think T.'s life is like that. Without a tight, predictable structure, he experiences anxiety and chaos, not freedom or creativity. Providing adequate structure means saying and doing the same things over and over again regardless of how tired or frustrated or excited or angry we might feel. It means writing down the rules, explaining them, then enforcing them over and over and over in the same exact way, in the same quiet voice, in the same few words, with the same warm facial expression. The difference to me between discipline and punishment has a lot to do with the emotional state of the person doing the disciplining or punishing; I try to feel the difference between asserting consequences in order to relieve my own frustration versus asserting consequences in order to provide predictability for T.

It's freaking hard! I've gotten incredibly attuned to the physical symptoms of my own feelings. When I feel adrenalin in my stomach, I know I'm getting angry and I need to calm down before I speak to T. When I feel my heart beat rising, I know I'm feeling frightened or out of control and I need to mellow out so I can project confidence and authority. When T. looks at me, I have to soften my eyes, even if he's driving me absolutely nuts, because he's looking to see if I've finally decided he's "bad" enough to give him back.

I don't know how you build this kind of emotional fitness and self-control. I find reading really helpful. When I'm about to pull my hair out, I often go to the computer and google crazy combinations of words until I find something apt. I google crazy things, like "foster kids fear of abandonment" and "at risk teens discipline consistency". So to all of you who write about parenting traumatized kids, thank you so much. I feel like we're a small virtual community that helps to train each other in the rules of an odd and important game.
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