Sunday, June 27, 2010


One thing we learned pretty quickly is that sibling relationships can be really complicated for kids who've been in the system for a long time. According to the official record we received when we began weekend visits with T. a year ago, he is the eldest of two siblings. But according to T., he is the middle child of five, four of whom have been raised in foster care since birth.

And of course, T.'s version is the true version. (Technically, they are all half-siblings, since they have different fathers, but that hardly matters as they consider themselves brothers.) When social services took T. from his extended family when he was small, they took him along with his closest sibling who was living in the same home at the time. So in the official record, he became one of two, rather than the third of five. Social services didn't bother recording the fact that his birth mom had three other children - she was nowhere in the picture at the time and the social worker probably didn't even have a way of knowing about her other children. But of course, the birth relatives with whom he is in contact have told him of his other siblings and, despite having met them only once in his life, he considers them all something of a set.

Bringing people together is in his nature. When we recognized this and complimented him on it and made explicit that we would help facilitate his unifying instinct, he responded with great warmth and gratitude. It's a huge part of his identity. Given his history (sixteen foster placements in fifteen years), keeping in touch with his people (friends, family, extended family) is a very big deal. Anything that frustrates that instinct is a source of anxiety for him; anything that facilitates that instinct settles and soothes him.

His younger brother is coming for an overnight visit in two weeks. He lives in a group home. He's on juvenile probation for taking a kitchen knife to school because he was being bullied. He has serious behavioral and developmental challenges. T. invited him for an overnight to celebrate his fourteenth birthday without asking me first. I knew at the time the only possible response was "Fantastic. I'm going to call his social worker and his group home and make sure we have all the permissions we need in order to make that happen. I'd hate for him to be disappointed in any way on his birthday. Let's discuss the particulars together before we get any further." They want to go see a cousin in a nearby town. It's not clear whether she welcomes the visit. Everything about it is epically complicated.

We don't have both boys because T. didn't want to be placed or adopted along with his brother. He asked to be placed for adoption separately. His reasons are hard to explain and easy to understand. He tried to raise this brother for many years, from the time he was around four until the time he was around ten. In that time, they were both molested, physically abused, cycled through numerous foster homes, and finally the younger sibling was taken to a separate placement. When we talk about T.'s history, he often speaks in terms of "we" - what happened to him happened to his brother. To summarize what I intuit to be his feelings on the matter, I'd say he has tremendous survivor guilt, he torments himself about his brother's well-being, and yet he knows that, at least for a time, in order to develop himself he needs to be separate from his brother, so that he can finally be a child rather than a child-parent.

T. tells me that his next tattoo will read "My Brother's Keeper." If you've ever watched a child parent another child, you know how tragic it is to listen to him talk to his brother on the phone. He puts on a stern authoritarian air and counsels his brother with what he must imagine is fatherly wisdom, and it makes him sound so, so young.

So yes, this visit is a very big deal. I expect his brother to feel heartbroken seeing T. at home with us, in circumstances so different than the harsh environment of his group home. I half expect that in the mid-term, T. will propose that his younger brother come to live with us. I am hardly prepared for that, and yet there is only one possible way to respond: yes, of course, let's do some visits and see what we can work out. If T. feels that our home is a suitable safe place for his younger brother, there is really no deeper indication of trust. There is no way to say no. He is our child, and in some sense, his brother is his child and we will just have to stretch that far, if he asks. In an ideal world, I'd love for the county to find a foster family placement for his brother nearby, so that we could bring the boys together with the benefit of two sets of parents, one each. They deserve that intensive, exclusive parenting after what they've been through. But the realities of foster care are about as far away as one can get from an ideal world.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Parenting Child Survivors

I've hesitated to write about this topic for fear of exposing confidences. But this blog has deliberately been made anonymous, I don't share it with people who interact with us firsthand, and I want it to be a place where other parents of traumatized kids can find some common threads. So I'm going to try to address this.

I want to share some thoughts about parenting a teenage survivor of sexual abuse. I think there is way too little said about this issue, given the sheer number of people (one in three children, by some estimates) who are survivors of sexual abuse. Frankly, some of the training we got as we were getting our license to foster/adopt was misleading and barely touched on the things a kid like T. goes through.

Like many children who weren't adequately protected growing up, T. was subject to multiple forms of abuse not only by his primary parent, but also by other adults who surrounded her. Her parenting skills were so compromised that he was unprotected and therefore vulnerable to many misfortunes.

His history of sexual abuse didn't appear anywhere in his (already harrowing) case history and he never shared it with a social worker or foster parent. (I would advise potential foster/adoptive parents of children coming from severely traumatic backgrounds to assume there is a lot that isn't in the child's official record.)

I think the number one thing a kid like T. is checking for as they gradually disclose what happened to them is: Will you feel differently about me because of this? Do you think I did something wrong? He is also looking for compassion as he struggles through the aftermath in the best way he knows how. He is saying "I do the things I do for a reason, and I need you to understand."

Knowing what happened to him helps us better understand his physical boundaries. We let him come to us and dictate how we would share affection - tickling and bear-hugging contests were his earliest solutions to how to get close without giving up control. Grooming is also very important - helping each other touch up a hairline, for example. Those are respectful, manageable ways to be physically close, things that he associates with care. He is working out how and when he likes to touch at his own pace. Lately, he flops on our bed at night when he feels like chatting. Coming into our room and lying down on our bed is a big step and you can see in his eyes that he is experimenting with this new lowering of boundaries and find that it's not only safe, but very fun and funny to boot. He tests intimacy and physical affection like a scientist, making studied experiments and processing data before returning for more forays into family life.

Knowing what he's been through also helps us better address other parenting issues, like substance abuse. I think all parenting is a balancing act between guiding behavior and nurturing underlying needs. I find that in grappling with substance abuse, it's easy to become all about policing behavior. As we've learned more about his past, we've been better able to understand why he's drawn to numbing experiences and things that help him relax and dissociate. It's not too hard to understand why, when nobody listened to him as a child, he eventually grew into an adolescent with a weakness for anything that will help him forget. He is very brave for actively remembering now, and sometimes it's overwhelming and he retreats to old unhealthy behaviors that nevertheless feel like familiar friends to him.

A certain type of person reminds him of a perpetrator, and we try to gently redirect him when someone triggers a trauma response, stepping between him and someone who makes him feel unsafe. We've learned that means taking a stronger hand in determining his teachers, among other things. We never question why he wears three layers of clothes in even the hottest weather - there are good reasons for that. I make sure his clean laundry always includes all three layers - he has rules about what he wears on top of what.

I think adolescent boys sometimes process the experience of abuse and its aftermath through the lens of their emerging masculine identity. I see T. fretting over whether he is strong, whether he should have done more to stop what happened to him and his younger brother. I see that he feels unspoken anxiety about sex and at the same time, he feels pressured by other boys and men to express sexual confidence. He wonders if what happened to him "changed him" in some way. By way of helping, I try to be very straightforward, positive and informative about sex, to balance some shame and confusion that linger for him. We try to be proactive rather than reactive, chatting often about issues like consent, safe sex, and intimacy. The car is our Camp David for sex talk.

The adoption process itself can exacerbate his struggles. T. really wanted to be adopted, but he was told by social workers that he probably wouldn't find adoptive parents, because people want babies and younger kids. He is smart, and he understood that potential adoptive parents are looking for kids "without problems." That played into his shame and guilt about what happened to him. It caused him to suppress his child-like tendencies and put himself under enormous stress as he tried to hide all his "problems" in order to get adopted. What a hideous thing, to be made to feel like you have to mask your pain in order to be a "desirable" child.

Parenting an older child (we started the adoption process at 15) with this kind of abuse history, is beautiful and rewarding. My partner and I are the consummate amateur parents. Aren't all parents amateurs? I believe in the power of amateurs. A child like T. knows the difference between a professional who is paid to treat him and a volunteer parent who just loves him like crazy and does their best for that reason.

There is also tremendous grief in parenting him and I imagine that is to be expected for any parent of a traumatized child. I feel deeply sad that I wasn't there earlier, that I can't do anything to take away the pain of what already happened. Although it's not rational, in some sense I feel like I neglected him by not arriving in his life on time. It's part of the crazy bottomless love of being his parent. I feel hugely sad that there is no perfect thing I can say or do when he confides in me to make it go away. It's not that I don't see the value in listening and responding with compassion. But I'd be lying if I said that I ever feel like it's enough. When he mourns, I mourn.

Lest anyone who is thinking about adopting an older child be deterred, I can also say that the conversations I've had with T. about his history have been the most honest and profound in my life. Kids like T. have shouldered incredible burdens, and survived shocking things. Surely, sometimes their minds and hearts break under the stress of what they've endured and professional help can be critical. But they are not a clinical problem to solve; there is so much more than that to be done and so much reward in doing it. Becoming a "chosen family" together makes me aware of the better parts of being human like never before.

I love the Hemingway quote "The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong in the broken places." In part because of what he's been through, T. is deeper, more considerate, more articulate, more emotionally intelligent than any teenager I've ever met. When he decides to tell us something that he thinks we need to know, his self-possession and introspection take my breath away. I never feel "sorry for him" - his greatest fear. I always feel awe, and a great deal of humility and respect. There are lots of kids who, in clinical terms, are "healthy" whom I find materialistic, narcissistic and boring. T. struggles with depths of pain beyond what most adults I know have endured and, among other things, it produces in him an extraordinary wellspring of compassion and soulfulness.

I think as a culture we have strange ideas about childhood, and we tend to feel frightened by children who have been hurt and who have special needs as a result. But a child, like T, who has been hurt and still seeks and builds relationships with adults who will listen and understand is the most wonderfully innocent child in the world.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Some Good Weekend Reading

I read an excellent article by Heather Forbes titled "Issues Facing Adoptive Mothers of Children with Special Needs." I nodded so hard my neck got sore.

If you have time, I highly recommend reading it.

Here are a few tidbits from their survey of adoptive mothers of special needs kids that really resonated for me:

- Traumatized children may first perceive the adoptive parents’ love, not as a reward, but
rather as coercive and frightening. The child then works to attain safety through avoidance of the relationship the parents are working to develop.

- Of the mothers who were married, 100 percent of them agreed, and most strongly agreed, that their child targeted them more than he or she did the father.

- Adoptive parents were often dissatisfied with the (post-adoption) services available and used their own resources and experiences to educate the professionals who were supposed to be helping them.

- Many Americans still consider adoption as a second best to having children by birth. This prevailing mindset continues to leave adoptive parents to experience social stigmatization in their everyday lives.

- Several of the mothers identified their social service agency that placed the child as one of the most prevalent sources of adoption stress. One mother stated that social services ‘made it as hard as possible’. Another mother stated that it took almost two years to uncover the history of her child.

- In the area of grief and loss, an overwhelming percentage [of adoptive mothers] (79%) felt sad for not being able to protect and nurture their child before the adoption, indicating
that the mothers do experience the pain of not being available to their children prior to being adopted.

- Eighty-six percent stated that they have become better persons since the adoption of their child.

- ...[I]ndividual and family counseling services for special needs adoptions were less than adequate...possibly due to the fact that families who seek these services often experience difficult behavioral problems not easily remedied by any kind of intervention.

A great and thorough piece of writing on a little-understood topic that should be of great concern to anyone looking to support permanency for older children needing parents.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

No-Strings-Attached Parenting

Recently, I wrote about "no strings attached" parenting: trying to remind myself that I have no claim on T.'s feelings, and need to parent him steadily no matter what he gives back. I'm still knocking this train of thought around, holding it up to the light to see what's up with it.

Here's my new thought: maybe parenting with no emotional strings attached is particularly important with severely abused kids, because so often abusers have sought to control their thoughts and emotions earlier in life. Maybe they need safe space to learn how to have their own feelings - and to learn that feelings won't kill you.

When I listen to T.'s stories, it sounds to me like the adults who mistreated him had emotional objectives. They craved whatever state they felt they could achieve by using him to their ends. Maybe they wanted to feel powerful, or relieve stress and self-hatred by raging at a child. Maybe they lacked emotional self-control, and that was amplified by substance abuse. In any case, it sounds as if there was no distance between internal objectives and external rules - "rules" were made up on the spot in order to justify abuse. Listening to his descriptions of what happened in his early childhood, I feel utterly suffocatingly claustrophobic.

Moreover, I think he was so overwhelmed as a young kid - with hurt, shame, shock and loneliness as he cycled in and out of relative and foster homes - that simply HAVING feelings feels potentially life-threatening to him, as if he might fall into a bottomless well of unhappiness.

So I think in this musing about no-strings parenting, I'm trying to check myself, to be sure that I'm not pressuring him to give me something back for my own self-satisfaction. I want to leave open space for him to think and feel...whatever, when he's ready. I want to ask him to observe certain guidelines regarding what he DOES, but assert no restrictions or expectations of what he should FEEL.

This came up recently in family therapy because in one of his temperamental moments, T. told us that he wasn't sure he could abide by our rules and he thought maybe he should return to foster care. We were very calm and said, "No problem. You're welcome to talk to your social worker about that." I knew at the time that it was a test, and also an authentic expression of pent-up emotion: the alienation and anxiety that are a natural result of the adoption process. I wanted him to have room to air that and understand that the world wouldn't end.

Later in therapy, we went over it together. The counselor likened our relationship with T. to the early stages of marriage, and I think that's apt. On the one hand, "getting adopted" is supposed to be cause for joyous celebration, and T. avidly pursued adoption as a way out of what he saw as the depressing realities of long term foster care. On the other hand, it's a HUGE adjustment, acclimating to new parents and new expectations at the age of 15 or 16. So who wouldn't have a mix of strong feelings?

When T. was a young child, he learned that it was never okay to be mad, or to speak rudely, or to have a bratty meltdown. The abusive parent's moods ruled over everything, and subsumed everything, and the child catered to the adult. Foster care, unfortunately, reinforced the lesson that he must keep his feelings under wraps; he and his brother were both turned out of one home after years for being argumentative and disrespectful. So it's no wonder that today, he regularly denies having feelings. He was not allowed to develop a habit of expressing his feelings and learning how to do so within reasonable limits. Healing means giving ample space for him to be mad, rude, selfish and bratty. He may not hurt himself or someone else, but beyond that, most other things are okay and his internal state is his right. I want open communication, reasonable compliance, and general kindness - but I don't need him to feel a certain way.

It's so interesting to watch him learn this lesson. He looks deeply into my eyes when he's got strong feelings, and I often have the sense that he's trying to figure out if I'm making him feel the way he does, or if I'm feeling the same way he's feeling. I look back and try to help him understand by my expression that I'm not controlling his feelings, and by the same token, he isn't controlling mine. He's having his own feelings. And I'm not going to stop him. We aren't puppets ruled by a common master. It's the beauty of being human.

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