Tuesday, March 29, 2011

T Day

A mid-week aside:

Early on, we established "T Day" - which came to be days on which he volunteered at a local hospital. Although he was interested in and agreeable to this after-school activity (because his ambition is to be a nurse), volunteering also felt a little nerdy to him and it often left him tired at the end of his shift. So we invented "T Day": volunteer days became "T Days"--days when his will dictates our other plans, within reason.

He has since stopped volunteering but the "T Day" tradition survives. Now that he's in twice-weekly therapy and grappling with difficult memories, he has decided that therapy is his official after-school activity (fair enough!) and that therapy days are therefore "T Days". (Often, his logic is irrefutable in this way.)

On "T Day", he gets whatever he wants. Thankfully, his desires are modest. He wants a fast-food snack en route to therapy. He wants his choice of dinner. Sometimes he wants to go to a movie later in the evening, though rarely. He wants to be allowed to stay up an extra half hour.

But most of all, he loves to remind us that it's "T Day". It gives him a sense of power. If I disagree with him on "T Day" he'll get in my face and say playfully "What day is today? Did you forget? Is it not T Day?"

He refers to it that way, using the third person. It's hilarious. For example, today, Tim forgot and balked at buying an after-school fast food snack on the way to therapy. I apologized to T for forgetting to fill Tim in. "I got it covered," he texted me back "I know how to work T Day."

Indeed. A friend once commented, "He missed out on a lot of T Days growing up. Probably every day should be T Day!" I don't think we could stomach that, from a nutritional point of view. But I certainly agree - T Day gratifies an unmet need for indulgence. It also takes the edge off the intensity of therapy.

Saturday, March 26, 2011


T has been in a fascinating place for the last few weeks: calm, introspective, warm and mostly engaged. He still has troubling behaviors that dog him and, realistically, probably always will. Nothing is "fixed" or "solved". We're just in a good place right now, and grateful for it. He's managed through a combination of the right circumstances (new school, for one) and personal resolve to take better care of himself.

He has a tendency to abandon himself, no doubt stemming from harrowing experiences of abandonment in his early childhood. He'll grapple with that for his whole life, I think. But he is also capable of modulating that instinct. He tries to keep himself engaged, aware and safe most of the time and he is capable of success and growth in that effort. It's like watching someone walk on a frozen lake that you're not sure can support their weight.

To avoid the perils of co-dependency (or perhaps one could just call it disappointment), we try not to worry or fixate on the sustainability of such good times. I try not to nag him or reveal my anxiety about his fragile balancing act. I try to look laid-back, as if I'm pleased and amused but not at all surprised by this recent turnaround. I try to congratulate him, and to make sure he feels the warmth and ease that can flow when you are not in crisis mode.

It occurred to me earlier this week that what we are all learning to do together is to get past the polarity of "good" and "bad". T often strikes me as being trapped in this polarity, driven by fear of being "bad" and self-imposed pressure to be "good" that, ironically, produces a lot of stress-based acting out. (I grew up in a traditional Catholic community and attended strict Catholic schools, and while I'm grateful for many things they taught me, I also think their extreme emphasis on "good" and "bad", and the consequent shame and guilt, helps me better empathize with T.)

The foster care system, at least as we've witnessed it in LA, exacerbates this tendency I see in T. In the first place, the kids are often taken from their families because something "bad" is happening at home. So now they are taught that the consequence of that bad behavior (that of their parent or caregiver) is very extreme indeed: the loss of everything.

Then, if they are not fortunate enough to find a loving, adept foster family (and there is a dramatic shortage), they tend to skip around amongst semi-institutional foster group homes (the kind where there are six or more kids, often around the same age). T did so for about 11 of the 15 years preceding coming to live with us. Those homes tend to have elaborate systems of consequences, and because the child must operate within that system of consequences before she or he has had a chance to form any emotional bond with the adult or adults in charge, they seem to me to privilege discipline over love. If you are "good" you get rewards; if you are "bad" you get consequences - and, as T's experiences makes plain, those consequences can include being packed up and shipped off to a new foster home if you are "really bad."

Then all of this instability creates difficult behavior at school. So now the kid starts getting negative feedback there. T, like other abused kids, developed an ultra-vigilant emotional intuition, such that disapproval or anger directed at him by teachers and administrators takes on a level of significance and threat in his mind out of proportion to reality. And all of that only served to confirm for him the assumption in his child-mind that all of these "bad things" happened to him because he was a "bad kid."

So all that is to say, when we are in a balanced, stable place as we are right now, I try really hard not to tell him he's being "good". I try to show him, and remind myself, that we are all capable of many kinds of behavior, some of it craven and selfish and some of it altruistic and loving. We try not to live on a rollercoaster of extremes or cast ourselves as angels or devils. We try to show him that we aim to avoid hurting ourselves or other people--and to avoid pressuring ourselves with expectations we can't sustain.

I try to do that by being specific with my praise, as in "that was so nice when you explained yourself to me in such polite terms." When I set a limit or a rule, I try to explain why I am making the request. For example, "Be home on time or you're going to lose your privileges" sounds like "don't be bad or something bad will happen". By contrast, "I'd like you home on time because I love you and when you're in the park late at night, I fear you might be hurt by someone else," feels a lot different. He sometimes looks frankly surprised by such explanations.

Surprise is a really good goal, I think. When he registers surprise, I know we've satisfied a need he didn't know he had. He's often surprised by fun, irreverence, unexpected gifts, laughter, and being listened to. Surprise is an interruption in the circuitry laid down by his early childhood. I like to imagine that, when we are most effective as his parents, we are like a gentle jack-in-the-box. "Surprise! You're loved!" or "Surprise! You're forgiven!" or "Surprise! Nothing bad is going to happen today!" The shock of abuse can dictate thought patterns that plague survivors into adulthood, but I think the shock of happiness can sometimes interrupt those patterns or suggest other, unexpected paths.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


We are making the rounds of mental health professionals at the moment. We have a great substance abuse counselor whom we love and who has proven a good match for T. We had a family therapist who wasn't a good fit for us, with whom we recently ended our relationship, and a psychiatrist who has seen T intermittently and still oversees his prescription. Since hitting a really rough patch a couple months ago, we've been looking for a trauma specialist to do some cognitive behavioral therapy, in addition to the substance abuse counseling. And coming up a bit short.

I value therapy and I've been impressed by providers who really know what they're doing with traumatized kids. But those providers seem pretty few and far between. I'm a little exhausted by the convoluted mental health bureaucracy and the general difficulty in finding experienced providers who are comfortable with a child of T's age and experience. At the same time, I find myself grappling with what, for me, feels like a very personal, very maternal instinct, to protect my kid, and make sure he is surrounded by people who love and "get" him. This instinct is almost feral, it's so strong and instinctive. I didn't expect to feel this fiercely protective, and it's exhilarating and exhausting. T is very smart and self-aware, perhaps painfully so, which makes it all the more difficult to endure the awkwardness of finding him the right therapist. Sometimes I wonder if I'm doing the right thing in promoting therapy at all - he has a very strong spirit, and occasionally I wonder if I ought to just focus on cultivating his relationship with me and Tim, and providing him with the time and peace to heal on his own.

I've written before about how I sometimes feel intimidated or just undermined by mental health professionals and social workers who seem to me to treat me like a paid babysitter, rather than a parent. When Tim and I are really overwhelmed, I've found it useful to ask "What would we do if T were our biological child?" just to be sure that we aren't being swayed by the system into anything less than parental authority and judgement.

I think what I'd say today is that I'm conscious right now of a certain toll that T's pain takes on me. At times I even follow his lead, taking his advice on when we "don't need to talk about it right now." I don't generally focus much on my own discomfort. The role of advocate parent suits me well and I enjoy it. But at the moment, perhaps because T is stable and calm and introspective and therefore doesn't need me so much, I feel bruised. I feel very aware that I feel some level of grief for the times I could not be there for him - for the things that happened before I met him, and for the suffering he endured when he didn't have any parent advocating for him. I respect him tremendously for the hard work he did to survive and raise himself in those circumstances, and deep compassion for the symptomatic behaviors that plague him to this day. I love him the same or more than I would if I had given birth to him myself, so the blunt fact that I didn't arrive in his life until it was too late to help him with his many traumas pains me greatly. It pains me all the more because he trusts me now and has recently started to refer more freely to what came before. I want so much to be worthy of his trust. It's a tremendous responsibility. My career, my relationship with Tim, my health, all struggle to compete with the obligation I feel to be available and worthy of providing stability for T. But I also know that it's extremely idealistic to subject oneself to that sense of obligation, and that if I fail to take care of myself and Tim, I'm sure to fall short.

Tim calls this vicarious PTSD and I think he's right. I am sure that if you bond strongly to an older, traumatized child, when you bond with them, you open yourself up to absorbing some part of their pain and some part of their difficulty navigating the aftermath of what they've endured. I like to think that in absorbing some of their suffering, you are lessening their burden, but I'm not sure that's really true.

It's a juggling act, with a whole bunch of needs and sensitivities up in the air, all of the time. I suppose that's how any parent feels.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Knock Wood Three Times If You're Reading This

After several really tough weeks, we are catching a wonderful week with T. Complex as he is, he does have really admirable skills at relating when he's relaxed enough to implement them. He designated Sunday "family day", and planned (and executed) a pleasurable day together. That stretched into a peaceful Monday, and a playful Tuesday evening out as a family. Knock wood three times right now if you're reading this blog.

This moment in our foster/adoptive journey seems a good time to capture my present thoughts about what is and is not as we expected it to be. When you are adopting an older child from foster care, you tend to do a lot of reading, fretting over worst-case-scenarios, and searching for advice. There isn't a lot written about such families. We read books, scoured the web, and took county-mandated parenting classes. Some things turned out to be more true than others.

This is the beginning of a list of advice/stereotypes we heard before we became T's parents, and what turned out to be true for us. I hope this will help some prospective foster/adoptive parents who are in the early stages of reading/listening/imagining.

TRUE: kids coming from long-term foster care have a lot of problems.
Okay, this is true. But I HATE the way people say it! Of course our kids have a lot of problems: often they've been abused - sometimes severely. Their developmental needs have been neglected. Sometimes they've struggled to get enough food to eat, or to find a safe place to sleep--for years on end, perhaps even during infancy. Those are big problems! They produce big symptomatic behaviors. (I've found it to be absolutely true, by the way, that a kid will show you how he feels, by trying to make you feel that way too, because he may not be able to tell you.) So I always struggle with this one. In my opinion, the important thing for someone contemplating foster/adoption of an older child is to be really frank with oneself about whether or not you have a high tolerance and compassion for "people with problems." Some people do, some don't and it isn't about being a good person. It's probably just about your point of view.

NOT SO TRUE: he'll have trouble with bonding and attachment.
We read A LOT about attachment disorders and trouble with bonding. This has not been our problem at all. He was not quick to attach, but when he did, it was like a million tender tentacles reaching out to grab you. We are exceptionally close, even when things aren't going well. T taught me that being someone's parent isn't a legal or biological situation - children MAKE you their parents. They have within them a natural dependence on adults that drives them to attach, and if that capacity can remain more or less healthy (which by some miracle, it did in him, although he suffered other deep sustained injuries) they will bond to you so strongly that you will never again doubt that you are their parent, regardless of the legal or biological circumstances. We struggle with behavior issues, separation anxiety, and a lack of impulse control - but never with a loose or fragile bond. I know many adoptive parents DO struggle with children's difficulty in attaching, and in no way do I wish to detract from that reality. I just mean that it did not turn out to be our reality as I expected. Every situation is different. We wasted a lot of time fretting over the wrong thing in this case.

NOT SO TRUE: You need to work hard to facilitate and strengthen ties to birth family.
Okay, I know this is true and so essential for a lot of foster care situations. But I overprepared for this one, and overreached the goal a bit. I think we tried too hard at first. It took me some time to understand that what T. really needed was to know the door was open to have contact with his birth family and that we would support those relationships and never (ever!) criticize his birth relatives. However, this does not mean that he actually want us to make regular visits happen. He's satisfied with very occasional visits - the relationships are more distant and, in some cases, a bit more superficial than I really understood at first. It took me some time to ascertain that my role was not to deepen those relationships - it was to honor them, and to supplement them by cultivating a deep relationship with him myself.

NOT TRUE AT ALL: Adoption is just another way of making a family.
People used to say this to us a lot. They don't anymore - LOL. I feel strongly about this one: older child adoption, particularly traumatized older child adoption, is very profoundly different than other ways of making a family. I think talk about how "it doesn't matter where a child came from" is total nonsense, and worse, invites adoptive parents to feel very isolated when their experiences have nothing to do with those of their friends raising bio kids. I've found that I need friends who neither think it tragic/horrifying that T has "problems", nor that we are "saviors" for adopting him, nor that what we're doing is "just like" traditional parenting. I find it much more helpful to think of parenting traumatized older children as a kind of extreme sport, a pursuit one should train for in a specialized and rigorous way, and something one should expect to hurt, sometimes a lot.

TRUE: A child will grow and change at his own pace.
I'm certain after nearly two years with T that the surest path to insanity is to try to "fix" a traumatized, troubled kid. He will grow and change as he is able, when he is ready, and we are just like fertilizer, providing the nutrients he needs to do that work. There is no other alternative. I cannot prod, poke or provoke him to change. I must not "need" for him to change. And at exactly the moment that I give up completely and think things can't possibly continue as they are, he will change. T made me realize that children are change. That's their nature. The added complexity of raising an older kid with a trauma history is that T's development is extremely unpredictable. We can't pick up a book about time-tested wisdom for helping him navigate from teething to toddlerdom. He is all over the map. He jumps back and forth by years, sometimes decades, in a single day. He's like a cat that is sometimes a kitten and sometimes a lion and sometimes a house cat.

NOT SO TRUE: As transracial adoptive parents, you are going to need to work hard to make sure the child stays connected to his culture.
That's sound advice in general, like a lot of what we encountered before we were T's parents. T made this one very easy for us. We fretted over it a lot before he came to live with us, and it turned out to be very low on our list of things we ought to have worried about. He has a robust, healthy sense of himself as an African American young man, and he has no problem letting us know what we need to know in order to facilitate that. His friends are all Black, he takes African American studies classes, and we frequently talk about race and racism at home. We didn't have to work hard to keep him connected - he showed us where to hook up and that was it. He is interested in our cultural identities and expects we're equally interested in his. In this way, being his parent has qualities very much like a deep friendship or a marriage - he came to us already formed in some ways, and we fit our differences together.

NOT SO TRUE: the child will test you over and over again.
At various times when we've been going through some difficulty or other, someone (a therapist, a caseworker) has said "Oh, he's testing you," or even asked him directly "Are you testing them?" I find that somewhat simplistic. I'm sure it's often true that kids test their adoptive parents, in extreme ways. But in our case, I know in my gut that T is rarely testing us with his misbehavior. He misbehaves because he has faulty self-control. It has nothing to do with us. I think it's important to recognize that.

TRUE: the child is doing the best he can.
I'm a broken record on this one as any reader of this blog knows. But this simple statement by Foster Cline is my constant mantra. It is so true. Once in awhile, when we're really having a tough time, I even say to T "I know you're doing the best you can." It is so important to keep this in mind. I wish his teachers and his social worker would operate from the same assumption - it would change everything.

NOT SO TRUE: adopted kids feel grief about being adoption.
In our parenting training, we were counseled a lot not to be too quick to celebrate adoption, because it is, at best, a mixed blessing and kids naturally grieve the loss of their birth family. I think this advice conflated two different events - the loss of birth family, and adoption. For T, there was a very long lapse of time between losing his birth family and "getting adopted" (in his mind, he "got adopted" when he moved in with us) - time he spent in multiple group foster homes. So for him, adoption is a huge accomplishment. It truly carries no stigma, and has little to do in his perception with losing his birth parents. He feels he proved something to the world. Adoption represents escape from foster care and everything he associates with foster kid status. Of course he feels enduring grief about losing his birth family. My point is simply that the grief and his feelings about adoption are two entirely separate things - as I suspect they might be for other older children coming from extended foster care.

My list could go on and on...I'll stop here, but please feel free to add your own thoughts and I'll probably continue this list over time.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Just Words

After the massive meltdown I described in my last post, things moved rather quickly. We got an intake appointment with a cognitive behavioral therapy program specializing in child trauma, and we also got T into an alternative school that seems like it's going to be a really good place for him.

The principal of the new school took the kids on an orientation tour. She showed them the restrooms and explained that they are a) safe, b) extremely clean and c) always locked, only to be unlocked by a hall monitor when you have been officially excused for a break. This sounds like a small thing, but for complicated kids coming from a large urban high school where the bathrooms are a shadowy setting for drug deals, gang graffiti and filth, this is a big deal. Safety is everything to kids like T, as are clear rules and calm enforcement.

The principal also explained that the teachers have all been instructed never to agitate the kids, to find something positive to say in every interaction, and to call the parents whenever there is a disciplinary issue. She explained that she never suspends kids from school (hallelujah - I have been incensed by "trash cleanup in lieu of suspension" at the old school, which seems to turn at-risk kids into unpaid janitors). Classes have no more than ten kids, sometimes fewer.

I'm also grateful for the child trauma therapy program we found (and for the advice of people who commented on my last blog post who helped me clarify what we were looking for). We had a two-and-a-half hour intake interview. In layman's terms, I feel like this therapy program is hardcore. I appreciate their clear focus on core trauma, over behavioral symptoms.

I feel good about all this. I feel we have tapped into options that have been set up by knowledgeable people to help meet the extraordinary needs of kids like T. I commented to my mom today that I don't feel hopeful, per se; hope would suggest being attached to a particular desired outcome. I try to stay very aware that we are not trying to "fix" anything. Instead, I feel satisfied--that we are doing the best we can, that we are seeking out environments where T has the opportunity to develop and evolve, and that there are people out there who understand kids like him. In a weird way, we have achieved the only desired outcome we ever really had, which was for T to have a home with people who love and understand him, and to feel sufficiently secure that he can begin to sort out his past and define himself (which is no doubt going to continue to be a very messy and occasionally frightening process).

I realized through all this that I have been somewhat deferential to some of the professionals we've encountered along our path, and that T benefits when I am a loud, proud, assertive, knowledgeable advocate. I am reminded of Advocate Mom and her binder. Although I am an advocate mom myself, I have sometimes allowed the counselors and social workers we deal with to minimize or ignore his needs, leap to conclusions or recommend hasty solutions without paying enough attention to his abuse history. I thought that they knew better than I did, and to be honest, I also feared that they would judge me unfit in some way. His behavior can be very difficult, especially in public, and I can fall into an attitude of begging forgiveness for his misdeeds. In addition, becoming his parent has involved an obstacle course of home inspections, certifications, and other bureaucratic intrusions, and on some level, I reacted to that scrutiny with a certain defensiveness.

I am reborn after the last few weeks. I realize now that there are no answers, and that nobody has a more certain knowledge than I do about what T needs, even when I feel profoundly uncertain. I live with him, care for him, listen to him, argue with him, empathize with him, and I probably know him better than anyone has ever known him. To get him what he needs, I need to cut through the various agencies and bureaucracies involved by educating myself about their language and using their words to connect him up to the best quality services that are available. I had the help of a very good friend in doing that recently, backed up by some very thoughtful comments on this blog, and it really made a very big difference. Asking for "an elevated level of care" rather than just "help", for example, or knowing to request a "trauma-focused program" rather than just "therapy" makes all the difference in the world. At the end of the day, either words obscure, or they pinpoint complexity, and wielding them properly is very powerful.
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