Tag Archives: reactive attachment disorder

The End of Winter

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This winter had been a weird one in Western Pennsylvania…

A bit bipolar in its behaviors with a sporadic mix of unseasonably warm days followed by an unexpected 10 inches of snow.

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There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the recent weather patterns and all creatures, great and small, seem anxious and uncertain as to what the day might bring.

Daffodils reach for the sky, teased out by the warmth of the sun, only to be covered in layer of snow hours later.

Birds are waffling in their duties, uncertain as to whether they should begin laying eggs or hunkering down in their nests for a long winter’s nap.

The furnace has had a workout, shifting from air conditioning to heat in a 12 hour span.

And  my 11 year old has given up trying to make any effort in dressing weather-appropriate and has compensated by simply pairing his flip flops with sweaters.

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The uncertainty has left everyone feeling a bit unsettled and I find myself taking note of how reflective our outside environment has been of our internal state.

Ozzie has spent the last 7 months in a residential treatment facility about 2 hours away. It was with tremendous heartache and no shortage of prayer that he was admitted. The year leading up to that decision was unimaginably traumatic for Ozzie and the rest of the family as the demons from his past history of abuse reared their ugly heads in heartbreaking, tragic, and dangerous ways. After exhausting all therapeutic support for Ozzie that could be found in an outpatient setting it became clear that for real healing to take place he would need to be immersed in an environment of intensive therapeutic support. For these last 7 months Ozzie has thrived under this higher level of care. With the sheer volume of therapeutic supports like daily therapies (individual and group,) music therapy, EMDR therapy for his PTSD, and trauma release exercises, he has found hope.

We all have.

I recently had a friend comment that they sometimes found my recordings on this blog to be disingenuous to our reality. Although not intended to be critical, merely taking note of the fact that most recent blogs have been lighter and fluffier than the heavier stuff that was more common a year ago, I have since thought much about that comment. As a mom I walk a shaky line in recording the story of my family. I share not for accolades or attention but for a mix of other reasons. I blog to record our story as a gift for my children in the decades to come. I blog as a therapeutic tool for myself. (The act of telling our story helps me process and make sense of this often hard journey.) But mostly I blog because I feel called to allow others to walk with us in the hopes that our trials and our joys might help you in your journey and that I might testify of God’s goodness in ALL seasons of life. Every blog is penned with prayer…A prayer that God might use this walk to support another in their walk. I don’t share all. Some would argue I share too much, others would say not enough, but every blog entry is prayerfully approached.

Often the struggle of what to write is not a debate of how much to share but rather HOW to share.

That is where I find myself today.

As the snow swirls outside on April 17th, I struggle to put words to the uniquely emotional journey we have been on these last 7 months. I don’t know that I have the words to fully convey the muddy mix of emotions that are connected to this unique journey. Much like the winter we have experienced these last 5 months, our experience with having a child in a residential treatment facility is a constant mix of sunshine and snow, with so many heartbreaks connected to the decision, but also immeasurable blessings. Each day I find myself uncertain of what the emotional forecast of the day will be and whether the hope or the heartache of the situation with reign supreme.

Saying good-bye to Ozzie on day one… leaving him in the care of a stranger… while I drove home… was the hardest day of my life. It was an adjustment for the entire family as we tried to find our new “normal” with Ozzie gone. As time passed the sharp ache dulled a bit, and while each home visit and the returning drive back brought tears, the situation didn’t seem so hopeless. We were seeing the fruits of God’s hand in leading us to this particular facility at this particular time.

We have watched Ozzie blossom under the intensive therapy offered him in an inpatient setting. He has worked so hard in his healing journey, has learned new ways to cope with the demons of his past that will inevitably raise their ugly head again in the future, but once again it is with a muddy mix of emotions that we transition into another new “normal.”

How do I fully articulate the emotions that fill our home this week when we ourselves struggle to name them all?

Ozzie will be discharged this Saturday. He has worked through the program and has experienced a level of success that many boys there never find. He has fought hard in his healing journey. He has faced down fears, memories of abuse, and his own destructive behaviors with the courage of a knight battling a dragon. None of this came easily and each step toward healing was paid for with blood, sweat and tears…on all of our parts.

I fully believe he is ready to return home.

Knowing his discharge date was approaching, my focus has been on preparing for that transition. Outpatient therapies have been put in place. With his return home he will continue EMDR therapy with Miss Tina, Family Based Therapy services have been put in place, and Ozzie will begin equine therapy (horse therapy) next week. Contact has been made with the school, his room has been prepared, and our schedule has been altered to account for Ozzie’s weekly appointments.

Once the logistics of this transition had been figured out it was time to address the emotional impact this transition was going to have on all members of the family.

When Ozzie left in September he was in a heightened state of crisis and his behaviors were threatening and unsafe. These last 7 months brought feelings of felt safety to the other children, feelings of safety they had not experienced in the year prior. With Ozzie’s return home pending, the anxiety in the home has increased significantly as the kids brace for the unexpected…

And while I know Ozzie is returning to us stable and safe, it will take time for the other kids to see that themselves and begin the process of trusting him, forgiving him, and reconnecting with him.

To help them express , process, and work through some of those emotions and concerns, I set up a family therapy session with Miss Tina. Knowing that Rusty and Tyler would be less comfortable/capable of using traditional talk therapy to express the emotions churning within, I suggested we do an art project.

At home we have had a great deal of success with Tyler using markers to express his emotions. When he can’t say what he is feeling he will color an abstract work of art, assigning an emotion to each marker color. The result is incredible. He is able to purge the feelings locked within and I am able to get a powerful visual of what he is feeling, and thus know how to best help him.

I suggested we use this same technique with the other kids at our family therapy session. The day before our appointment we sat down and made a list of emotions that we might all be feeling about Ozzie’s return home and then we made an emotion “key” with Tyler selecting which paint colors would be assigned to each emotion.

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On Thursday we drove to Miss Tina’s office with our paints, brushes and canvases. While the kids painted their emotions we talked through our crisis/ safety plan. When everyone’s paintings were complete we went around and talked about the emotions (and the corresponding thoughts) that went with each brush stroke of color, allowing the kids to comfortably share the muddy mix of emotions they have been feeling. I think it brought a sense of comfort to look around and see that the rest of the family had the same mix of colors/emotions that we had each been feeling individually.

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It is with great joy, gratitude, and relief that we welcome Ozzie back home, but the reality is that there are other emotions that color this transition as well.

Anxiety seems to be the prevailing constant in everyone’s work of art, so as we take this next step in our adoption journey we petition you, our fellow sojourners, to lift our family up in prayer.

We are ready to leave winter behind. We are ready for the new life and hope that comes with spring.

May the storms be over.

May the sun come out.

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Please pray for us.

I hate Blogging

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Blogging is therapeutic for me,

But sometimes I hate it…

Because by recording our journey with words, the heartbreak and pain of this journey become all the more real.

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When I decided to begin making a recording of our adoption journey I made a promise to myself that my recordings would be real and honest. That I would be brave enough to be authentic, with the hope that others might be strengthened in their own hard journeys, knowing that they aren’t alone in the struggle of mortality.

But it sometimes is hard and disheartening to have to follow a good news blog with a sad news blog…

But this is the heartbreaking reality of raising a child with Reactive Attachment Disorder. Emotionally they can escalate from joyful to enraged at a speed of 0 to 60, especially when faced with a positive, happy, family bonding experience like the vacation we just arrived home from and the trip to my brother’s wedding we are leaving on in a few days.

I won’t go into the specifics of all that has transpired over the last five days, suffice it to say, it had been heartbreaking. Ozzie is in a very dark place and confirmed his struggles at therapy on Tuesday when he told his therapist that he didn’t feel safe with himself. He shared the dark thoughts and fantasies he had been having, as well as the heartbreaking flashbacks that were consuming him. It was decided at once that he had to be hospitalized again.

He wasn’t safe to travel to Texas for the wedding.

Tina was fearful for his life and said he needed to be placed under suicide watch immediately.

Once stabilized he will spend the next 4 weeks at Mercy Hospital’s DAS program where he will undergo more intensive inpatient trauma therapy to help him process the flashbacks of past abuse that are the source of his emotionally instability right now.

My heart is breaking.

This isn’t how I pictured my brother’s wedding.

This isn’t how I pictured our adoption journey.

This isn’t how I pictured my life.

I mourn for all that has been lost.

I mourn for what could have been.

But I especially mourn for this hurting, broken boy who feels so unworthy of life.

This isn’t the blog I wanted to write.

I’d like to end with a note of hope,

But I am empty.

This is me being courageously real and authentic.

Please pray for us.

 

 

Crossing the Grand Canyon

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Sometimes I feel like I am drowning under the weight of the trauma that has hijacked our lives.

Not just the trauma playing out in our own home at the hands of hurt children who are the products of past hurt,

But under the enormity of how deep their wounds run, how affecting their past stories are, and how hugely overwhelming the work ahead of us is.

I sometimes feel as though I am standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon with no ropes, no harness, and no mule, and I must figure out how to get myself (and my family) across this chasm safely.

It is enough to make me sit down and cry.

The task seems so impossible.

The work is so overwhelming.

This is the life that comes with adopting children who come from hard places. This is the impossible task I wake up to daily. And just when I think we have found the path that leads to the other side we turn a corner and find ourselves at the edge of another cliff.

I suppose this is an accurate analogy for parenting in general, and certainly relatable for any mother who is raising a child with special needs or unique challenges,

But it is especially true for raising children who have a history of trauma, a past filled with abuse, a diagnosis of PTSD or Reactive Attachment Disorder, or any child with attachment issues.

Each step forward is paved with uncertainty and unpredictability.

I step, never knowing if the ground beneath me will hold or if it will crumble.

A happy moment or a fun experience can turn to heartbreak in an instance as unseen triggers force the primitive fear part of the boys’ brains into fight, flight or freeze mode…

Instantly shutting them down and putting a halt to everything until we can work through it.

Minute by minute I am combatting every traumatic experience, every memory of untrustworthy adults, every failed attachment, every spoken lie that has cemented itself in my boys’ brains…all while working to help them feel safe.

It is a full-time job…and by full time I mean I am on duty 24/7, constantly assessing, watching for triggers, helping them to regulate and pulling them away from the edge of the abyss, all while trying to meet the needs of everyone else in my life.

It can be exhausting,

And I often go to bed feeling like a failure.

I haven’t been the sister, daughter, friend, wife, etc. that I want to be. I am in the trenches. I am trying to save two lives, and unfortunately that effort comes at the expense of other things I want to be doing for the other people in my life that I love.

What makes it doubly hard is the fact that the trauma driven behaviors of one boy will then trigger the trauma driven behaviors of the other, as we have been seeing the last few weeks.

Tyler’s trauma behaviors are very fear based. He acts up or shuts down because of debilitating fears. These fears continue to grow as he has begun remembering more about the abuse that happened in his birth home. Over the last year his fear reaction has evolved from fight mode (the body’s adrenaline-driven response to perceived threats) to the more primitive fear reaction of freeze mode.

Now when he gets anxious or fearful he just shuts down. He literally freezes. He won’t make eye contact or speak or move. He curls up or slouches down, covers his face, and is unable to respond.

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It is then up to Toby or I to help “thaw” him, or regulate him, to the point where he can process, reason, and express what he is fearful of.

It is heartbreaking to watch and literally slams the breaks on any plans we have when this happens, because we can’t move forward or do anything until I can help him out of his frozen state.

This process can take minutes or hours to work through.

The added challenge in our home, currently, is the fact that Ozzie is inducing these fear responses in Tyler.

While Tyler’s trauma behaviors tend to be fear driven, Ozzie’s tend to be anger driven.

He is so enraged about the injustice of all he has endured that his behaviors lately have been very angry and aggressive, and when Ozzie lashes out in angry tantrums, Tyler shuts down in fear.

Both are prisoners of their past abuse.

Both are in crisis.

 Both need help regulating.

Both of their behaviors are trauma driven.

 Both need me.

So, my life has become an exhausting dance of jumping from one boy to another…both in crisis, both in need of my help.

Ozzie’s biggest struggle right now is combatting and challenging the lies in his head. He has expressed that he deserved to be abused by his birth parents, and he is mad that we won’t hurt him as well. The more love and affection we show, the angrier he gets. When we don’t engage in the abusive acts he is begging for he engages in self harming behaviors and suicidal fantasies.

In therapy we are working with him to challenge those thoughts, but it is hard to reprogram the lies that were drilled into his head and heart for so long…

Lies like:

“This is all your fault.”

“If you were a good boy I wouldn’t have to hurt you.”

“This is for your own good.”

“You aren’t worthy to be my son.”

“I am ashamed of you.”

Because that is what he believes.

He doesn’t believe he is worthy of love.

He feels the abuse was completely his fault.

It breaks my heart.

As part of the process to help him understand and believe that a child NEVER deserves to be abused, we are working with baby dolls. This came as a result of a comment he made that babies deserve to be hit if they are bad and cry a lot…a lie he truly believes to be true. We are challenging that thought process by examining the relationship between babies and their parents and talking about what babies can and can’t do for themselves at various ages and what loving moms and dads do to care for their baby.

He is so very uncomfortable with the work.

He gets angry when he sees the baby dolls come out.

He is struggling with feelings of anger and resentment over what should have been his childhood, verses what was his childhood.

As part of the journey to model appropriate parent/child interactions our therapist asked us to pull out the girls’ old baby dolls and when we are sitting as a family, like during our evening devotionals, and for the older children, Toby, and I to all “care” for a baby in Ozzie’s presence. She felt it especially important that Ozzie see Toby and Rusty lovingly handling their baby dolls so that he can witness what a loving and nurturing father looks like.

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And despite the unorthodox approach and slightly uncomfortable assignment thrust upon my men, they have risen to the task beautifully.

Ozzie is still very uncomfortable with the work. He gets angry when he sees us holding the baby dolls and has expressed the fact that he always feels angry inside when he sees moms holding their babies…a sure sign that Miss Tina is emotionally probing in just the right area…but progress is being made and the more he is exposed, the less volatile his anger about the babies seems to be.

It is slow, laborious work healing broken hearts,

But I hold on to hope and lean on faith, trusting that our Heavenly Father, the ultimate example of a loving, caring, nurturing father, is performing a miraculous work in us all…

Healing our hearts,

Mending our hurts,

And molding our lives into something greater than our past.

It can be exhausting, discouraging, heart breaking work, especially if I look beyond today at wide expanse of open canyon that lies ahead.

That is when I get discouraged.

 That is when I get fearful.

That is when I lose hope and my faith falters.

When I look too far ahead I am consumed with fear.

When I spend too much time looking back I get lost in sadness,

But when I keep my eyes focused on the next step in front of me, I am at peace.

 “An accomplished Ironman triathlete once shared the secret of his success. ‘You last the long race by running the short ones.’ Don’t swim 2.4 miles; just swim to the next buoy. Rather than bike 112 miles, ride 10, take a break and bike 10 more. Never tackle more than the challenge ahead. You last the long race by running the short ones.”

This journey is not about the next 10 years, but rather the next 10 minutes.

There are days that I am overwhelmed by the task in front of me. The ravine I stand before is so wide, so deep, and oh, so daunting…

But I know that I am not traveling alone. God placed me at the edge of this cliff, which means He has already laid a path through it.

So, I will take the hands of these two boys that He has placed in my care, and we will cross this canyon together…one small step at a time.

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Moments of Summer

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I was going through my photos the other day and realized how many captured moments of our life have been missed as I blog the big events. It was time for another “catch up” recording of the little moments that make up the molecules of this beautiful life we are living.

Grace is a seminary graduate! In our church the high school students have the opportunity to participate in a daily scripture study course that takes place for an hour, before school each day. This is a huge commitment for the students that choose to participate, but also a magnificent blessing in the lives of these youth. Grace, Molly and Rusty were all seminary students this past year, and Grace completed her fourth and final year. We were attending her high school graduation on the weekend of her seminary graduation so we were unable to attend but she received her diploma and congratulatory poster after arriving back home. Congratulations, Grace! We are so proud of you!

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Around here we have been anxiously engaged in preparing for Trek. Next week my three oldest kids will be joining other youth from our area on a three day adventure in Virginia. Dressed in pioneer clothing they will have the chance to experience the joys and hardships of our pioneer ancestors as they trek across the rolling hills of the Marriott Ranch, pulling handcarts. Grace had the opportunity to participate in Trek 4 years ago and can’t wait to go again. This time the three oldest kids get to share the experience.

In preparation for their days of hiking and handcart pulling, we have been conditioning with daily walks.

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We have also been getting their pioneer clothing ready. The girls opted to sew their skirts and aprons and spent this last week completing their outfits. They can’t wait. It promises to be a life changing experience and a grand adventure!

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In between appointments and extra therapy sessions we have managed to fit in some visits to the pool. We are members of Ellwood City pool and have begun packing a lunch and spending the afternoons there following our daily trek-prep walks on non-therapy/tutoring days.

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It has been lovely to lay out in the sun, read a book, and swim in the pool…fully embracing the lazy days of summer.

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A few nights ago we had an unexpected power outage, following a summer storm. Luckily it happened just as I finished dishing up dinner so we enjoyed a romantic supper and family game night by candlelight. The kids found it to be a fun adventure.

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This summer’s primary focus has been on doing attachment and therapy work with both boys. Summer offers the perfect opportunity to really invest ourselves in a way that can be more challenging during the school year when schoolwork fills our schedules.

One way we have incorporated more intentional therapy efforts is through daily one on one sessions with the two little boys. We have always done weekly one on one sessions with the kids since my big kids were little. During their weekly one on one time they pick an activity they want to do with mom while the other kids play in their rooms. It has been a heart connecting and relationship strengthening tool that has greatly blessed me in my relationship with my kids.

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Tyler playing with edible Play-Doh that we made during his one on one time.

With the three oldest I am still doing a weekly one hour date (like this one with Grace when we made chocolate dipped frozen bananas this week,)

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But with the little boys we have started having shorter, daily one on one times. This comes from education we received at the Empowered to Connect conference this past spring. One of the three principles of Trust Based Relational Intervention is Connecting,

And one of the strategies for connecting in a very structured way is through daily 15 minute one on one time sessions with your child…a strategy I have been using this summer with Tyler and Ozzie. Much of what I was doing with the older kids was exactly what I needed to be doing with the boys, my engagement just needed to be tweaked a bit. Here are the guidelines (from TBRI principles) that I have been following as we have our daily one on one time.

  1. Start the time together by connecting. We do this through touch (taking their hands) and making eye contact.
  2. Use your voice to regulate them. If their energy is extra high use softer voice and slower cadence to bring down the energy level. If they are lethargic use a high energy voice to bring them up.
  3. Play together. This isn’t a time to instruct, teach, or question them. Just play.
  4. Copy or follow what they are doing. If you are painting together and they paint a tree, follow their lead and paint the same thing. This tells them that their ideas are worthwhile, building esteem and attachment.
  5. Praise their character. (Not what they do.) Tell them what a good kid they are, how much you love them, etc.
  6. Be close enough to touch. You want to sit in close enough proximity that you can reach out and pat their back or squeeze their arm as you praise them.
  7. At the end of your play time connect again with touch and eye contact. “Thanks for playing with me today. I love spending time with you!”

It has proven to be a powerful and effective tool to foster greater connection and stronger attachment between me and my boys.

During one of their “special times” this week each boy asked if we could print out pictures of sports cars from the computer and sketch/color our versions of them.

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It was a lot of fun and it was neat to see them both so engaged in such creative pursuits.

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Tyler even went one step further and asked me to print out a photo of him that he could cut out and glue into the drivers seat. The completed picture now hangs on his door. 🙂

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Moments like these are my greatest blessings!

 

A Sweet End to a Bitter Beginning

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Sometimes I feel as though my life has “Multiple Personality Disorder,” with multiple lifetimes occurring at the same time under the umbrella of one life.  

(Let me reiterate: My LIFE,  not my child)

Much like made for TV character that transforms from controlled to chaotic, kind to cruel, joyful to drowning in despair, our life has evolved into a hair raising, out of control ride…

Stable one minute,

 completely derailed the next.

We find ourselves living in a constant state of hyper alert watchfulness.

We spend the minutes of our day always assessing, monitoring, and anticipating what sight, smell, sound, thought or memories will transform our life from calm, controlled and happy, to raging, fearful and hopeless.

It is a hard way to live, and the effect of past traumas on my already struggling son, can result in a whole family in crisis.

The last 24 hours have been surreal, and as I sat down to record the reality of our life  I debated breaking the happenings of the last day between two blogs, one reporting the good and the other reporting the struggles, but I stopped myself. Our life can not and will not be compartmentalized. As much as I crave the order and control of defining my days in the black and white categories of “good days or bad days,”  the reality of our life is that most days are a messy mix of trauma driven struggles and merciful moments of goodness and joy.

This particular pocket of time began Friday night with heartache.

We are all living out the effects of the early childhood trauma that has reduced my once happy boy into a child filled with despair and hopelessness.

At the root of Ozzie’s hurt is a deep-seated belief, a belief that was planted in his tender soul by abusive parents from the time he was small, that he deserves the abuse he endured, that he is not worthy of anything better, and  as a result he has decided he will sentence himself to a life of hurt and abuse if no one else will meet that request.

“What won’t you just punch me?” he will yell in desperation,

“I just need someone to hurt me!”


When those desperate requests are answered with tokens of love, nurturing acts, and additional support, he lashes out in desperation, hurting the very people who are offering him a safe harbor from the pain.

His behaviors have escalated.  

His desperation has increased.

He is determined to hurt.

He is terrified of being loved and will do anything to keep the thing he fears most, attachment to his adoptive family, at bay.

He is drowning in new flashbacks of horrific acts of abuse and is desperate to quiet the voices in his head.

 All he wants is a way out.

All I want is to keep him safe.

So my life has become a 24/7 vigil, as I work to protect him from himself. Every possible threat has been locked up, and cameras have been installed around the home, allowing for extra eyes of protection on him at all times. I don’t walk away. I don’t take a break. I am on guard. Fighting for this child who can’t fight for himself.

Things escalated to a new level last Friday when he wrote out a plan of how he was going to take his life.

Back to the Emergency Room we went.

Back to be assessed and monitored.

Back to inpatient care for another stay and another shot at stabilization.

By the time the ambulance arrived to take him back to the juvenile mental hospital that he was discharged from just weeks ago, my heart was heavy… heavier than it has ever been. There I stood, staying goodbye to my child who looks and acts more like a ten-year-old than a 13-year-old, in the hallway of the ER at 4:30 in the morning, weary.

So weary of the fight.

So weary of the battles.

So weary of the constant vigilance.

So weary of trying to hold onto hope in the midst of hopelessness.

So weary of trying to keep my family intact in the midst of constant battles against the trauma of Ozzie’s past.

So weary of smiling through the tears and finding the good in an absurdly bad situation.

So weary of being the Mom…the one who must remain hopeful, positive, optimistic and strong. The one who must help everyone else ride the waves of RAD and help the other children process the secondary PTSD occurring in the home. Being the one who must help create normalcy for the rest of the family in a situation that is anything but normal.

But weary or not, we go on.

I climbed into the car, exhausted down to the tips of my toes, drove home and crawled into bed to get a few hours of sleep before a new day began. It was going to be a full day of packing for Girls’ Camp (where I will be serving as a level leader over the 7th year girls) and then our annual strawberry picking, because despite how crazy the night was the dawn will come and the show must go on. There are other people in my family who need me, so I wake up day after day, and keep on keeping on…

Praying for strength.

Praying for grace.

Praying for hope.

Praying for wisdom.

Praying for the capacity to forgive…

And praying that there was a caffeinated Diet Coke in the fridge to fuel my efforts. 😉

From suicide watch to strawberry picking in a 12 hour stretch…

because that’s how we roll.

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Did I mention my life has Multiple Personality Disorder?

Over the last 7 or 8 years we have enjoyed the annual tradition of going strawberry picking as a family. It always seems to fall on the Saturday before Father’s Day, resulting in many strawberry themed treats for the day.

When we moved into this house we were introduced to Catalpa Farms by friends, when they invited us to go pea picking with them one year.

Since then Catalpa’s has been our go-to “you pick” farm in the area.

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Saturday was chaos (understatement of the year!) and really not the ideal day to go berry picking, but knowing the unavailability of free Saturdays for the next two weeks, and knowing how short-lived strawberry season is, it was now or never.

So, after a hard, traumatic previous 12 hours, we rallied as only the McCleerys can, gathered our strawberry boxes, and headed to Ohio.

Grace had spent the day working, while Molly and I packed and prepped for Girls’ Camp. At the end of Gracie’s shift, we drove over, picked her up, and drove out to Catalpa’s for some strawberry picking.

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Since we arrived at 4:00 in the afternoon, there was no one left in the field (pickers or field bosses) so we had free reign to pick anywhere we wanted in rows 1 and 2.

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We are accustomed to arriving early in the morning with dozens of other families and being given a small stretch of field to strip clean. It was kind of fun to be able to roam freely and have the farm to ourselves.

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Since Ozzie was back at the hospital, it was just the six of us picking. We knew we only had an hour until closing so we made quick work of berry picking.

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The job moved at a much quicker clip than usual, with the freedom of being able to move around the field, searching for untouched patches thick with strawberries.

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What a beautiful crop they had this year. The strawberries were large and sweet…a rare combination.

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One of the many reasons we love this “you pick” farm is because of their encouragement to “eat as you pick.” The kids love biting into sun-warmed, just-off-the-vine berries. It becomes a “one for me, one for the basket” dance of indulgence as the strawberry cartons slowly fill.

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We did well. In our hour, we managed to fill 24 quarts to overflowing…

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And I felt my heart lightening and my soul healing a bit under the rays of the afternoon sun.

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We finished at 5:00pm and headed back to the front to pay and treat ourselves to our traditional berry picking reward for our hard work: homemade strawberry slushies.

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Made from crushed ice and their home-grown strawberries, this sweet nectar of the gods is incredible…a perfect way to end our strawberry picking fun at Catalpa Farms!

Then it was back home for hours and hours of cleaning, hulling, chopping and canning of strawberry treats for us to enjoy in the upcoming year.

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From heartbreak to happy moment,

The tides turn as quick as that…

All within 24 hours.

A sweet end to a bitter beginning.

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Longing to heal him

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I never really experienced pain until I was a mother.

As a teen I certainly thought that my level of anguish over what seemed catastrophic to my teen self was beyond any pain anyone else, living or dead, ever experienced…

Oh, to be 16 and stupidly self-focused again.

But I had no idea what real pain and deep heartache felt like until I cared more for another than myself.

For me, this transfer of focus and newly honed empathy came with the birth of my first child when my heart first began walking around outside my body.

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With the addition of every child, biological or adopted, I lost more and more of my heart protection and experienced real, raw, heart wrenching heartache as I had to stand by powerless to protect or free my children from their pains.

This feeling of powerlessness is all the more intense when the hurts they are dealing with are not ones that I can simply “love away.” These “boo boos” are far too deep and festering to simply kiss and make better.

This weekend I spent 12 hours on Friday night at the Emergency Room, sitting by the bedside of one of my children who was in incredible pain.

As we watched the hours pass on the clock above the bed,

waiting for relief from the pain,

while listening to the incessant beep of a monitor,

completely helpless in my ability to take away the pain,

I wanted to weep.

I have never known pain as deep, and raw, and aching as the pain I feel watching my son suffer.

The last few months have been heartbreakingly hard for one of our adopted sons. This child is being consumed with newly developed flashbacks of abuse that he had blocked out. Abuse far worse than any that were reported when he was taken from his birth family. Abuse memories that cause him to curl up in a ball, squeeze his eyes shut, and cover his ears, as he tries to “turn off” the movie playing in his head.

These memories of abuse are so painful that he expressed a need to do whatever he had to, to make them go away.

He yelled, and then cried, and then whispered in defeat, exhausted by the constant torment of the past …”I think it would be better to just die. Please, just let me die.”

So there we were, at 4:30 in the morning, waiting for the ambulance to take him from the ER to a place where he could be monitored, and stabilized, and get more help than could be offered in outpatient therapy.

And it was one of the hardest nights of my life.

You know, I once thought I knew what pain felt like.

But I didn’t…not really.

Watching your son, who has lived his entire life fighting for a chance to be loved and longing to feel worthy of love, drown under the nightmares of the past…

Nightmares so horrid that death seems preferable…

That is pain.

But while suffering through the shared pain of hate and abuse, I have also discovered the redeeming power of LOVE.

Maybe I can’t “love” the pain away from my suffering son, but I know someone who can.

Because He also suffered such pain. He chose it and bore it so that He could say to each of us,

“You are not alone.”

That is the pain of Gethsemane.

That is the suffering of Christ,

From our pain,

brokenness,

hopelessness

and suffering

blooms redemption.

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Please pray for my son.

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Therapeutic Thursdays: The Power of “Yes”

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For this weeks installment of Therapeutic Thursday I want to begin with one of the three cornerstones of Trust-based Relational Intervention (TBRI), developed by the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, for parents raising children from hard places. The three cornerstones of TBRI are Empowering, Connecting, and Correcting. I thought I’d begin with one particular tool we have been applying to promote Connection with our two adopted sons.

There is an unrealistic expectation I have seen when it comes to adoption, that love is enough to solve any problem or issue that arises after adoption. That is an unfair expectation place on the adopted child and on parents raising kids who come from a life of early childhood trauma, neglect, or abuse, because those early life experiences taught them that “love” is scary, unpredictable, untrustworthy, and even painful. These kids have a very different set of experiences with love then you might have  which can result in a “Clash of the Titans” showdowns.

This is especially true when you have adopted a child with attachment issues or a diagnosis of Reactive Attachment Disorder.

When the first behaviors arise, there is an arrogant ideology that you can love the pain away. With that unrealistic expectation comes feelings of resentment when that child rejects your love and responds to each effort to get closer with behaviors designed to push you away. The more you try to love their past out of them the more they rebel in word and action.

Over time this takes its toll on a family. You morn the loss of the family you thought you’d be after adoption and the loss of who you once were. You find yourself evolving from loving mother to a Marine Drill Sergeant. Since loving acts are reciprocated with destroyed property, physical aggression. and hurtful manipulation we desperately find ourselves moving into the camp of stricter consequences and the tactic of,  “punish the behavior out of them.”

We soon discover this to be an equally ineffective tool as these behaviors are not defiance behaviors, rather they are survival behaviors. These hurt kids can no more accept our love or be moved by our consequences than I can fly to the moon. They are prisoners of their past trauma and are driven solely by the fight, flight, or freeze response of their brains.

Much like a cornered dog who has spent years chained up and kicked, these kids from hard places don’t “growl” out of aggression, but out of fear and a need to survive.

They are terrified by the love we offer. They have been burned before by the very adults that were supposed to love, nurture, and meet their most basic needs, and as a result learned early on that adults are untrustworthy, attachment results in pain, and that they can only depend on themselves to get their needs met.

This survival mindset is the foundation for the most difficult behaviors associated with RAD kids.

So, while our instinct might be to first address the behaviors that are causing havoc in our homes, we must first address the cornerstone of connection, because as Dr. Karyn Purvis always said,

“Connection must come before correction.”

So, for the next few weeks I will be talking about some of the strategies we are using in our home to foster connection.

In an effort at transparency I will admit this is by far the most challenging aspect of the program for me. Connection is easy with people who treat you kindly, but requires intentional, Christ-like effort when trying to connect with someone who wakes up daily with the sole goal of hurting you and pushing you away with their behaviors.

Loving a child from trauma can be likened to hugging a porcupine, the closer you pull them to you the more you get poked.

It requires consciously and deliberately letting go of years of hurt and the mountain of resentment and say, “I am stepping back into the minefield, for the sake of my child’s heart and healing.” It requires humility. It requires the ability to forgive (and forget) 20 times a day. It requires looking at your child through the eyes of trauma and seeing those hurtful behaviors as survival behaviors. And it requires getting closer, when all you want to do is step away. It is an exhausting test of devotion. And it starts with Connecting…reaching out and reacquainting yourself with the child you have been holding at arm’s length as a means of self-preservation.

And it isn’t easy,

But it works.

For the next few weeks I am going to share some of the strategies I have been applying in an effort to connect with my adopted son. And the first strategy I’d like to introduce is giving your child the gift of “Yes.”

This one seems so backwards and counterproductive when viewed through the lens of parenting a child who hasn’t experienced trauma. In fact it goes against everything I did as a parent to my older kids. In an effort to raise humble, grateful children that didn’t carry the “entitled child” stigma of their peers, we made every effort to say “No” more than “Yes.” I saw the effect of too much indulgence in the children of friends who parented differently than we did and was determined to not have our kids grow up believing the world owed them something. We consciously made an effort to say “No” more often than “Yes”, so that the yesses were appreciated more and so our children saw every small blessing as the gift it was.

This idea of intentionally saying “Yes” more than “No” goes against everything I believe. But this is what I needed to understand about the difference in my older children’s upbringing and my two little boys’ upbringing. The older three were given a million “yesses” in their early years, while the two younger boys were told “no” time and time again…and I am not talking about verbally “yesses” to what they wanted at Dollar Tree. I am talking about every “Yes” I gave them as infants when I came to their cry. I am talking about every feeding and changing, and snuggle I said “yes” to when I met their most basic needs. I am talking about the thousands of times I said “yes” to their need for comfort after a nightmare, or “yes” to their request for help when they couldn’t do something on their own. I think about the millions of “yesses” they received for every time they were hungry and asked for food, or thirsty and received a drink. When reflecting back on my bio kids early years, I would not consider myself a permissive parent, but when I consider the many ways they were told “yes” by simply nurturing and caring for their basic physical and emotional needs I can see clearly the millions of “yes” answers that were invested into their trust bank which is what they are healthy, attached children.

I wish I could say the same for Ozzie and Tyler, but their starts were much different and those basic needs were not met regularly or consistently. Their parents said “No” to their requests when they didn’t meet their most basic needs as infants and toddlers. Because of that they learned quickly that adults won’t take care of you and can’t be trusted. They became their own keepers and continue to apply those survival strategies today.

Our goal is to balance those early years filled with “No” with an abundance of “Yes.” They more we can say “Yes” and meet their needs they more they will trust us to meet those needs, thus feeling safe enough to abandon those survival strategies they depend on.

Saying “yes” builds trust.

Saying “yes” leads to attachment.

Here is a great video about the power of “yes” from a TBRI parent:

http://empoweredtoconnect.org/building-trust-by-saying-yes/

I urge you to pick a day and give it a try. When your child asks for something, bite back the impulse to answer with the automatic “NO,” and consider whether this is a request you can say “yes” to. See how many “yeses” you can log in a day, and watch your relationship with your child transform and you feed his/her trust tank with each yes…

And with each met need.

That is how connections grow.

This is how our children heal.

This is how attachment forms.

Next week we will delve into another connection strategy we have had tremendous success with: “One on One Time.”

 

Angels Come in all Shapes and Sizes

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BOB

He was a big man. Standing 6’5″, he towered over Ozzie. Like Oz, he was nervous and unsettled, unsure of this unorthodox meeting. His hands were worn and calloused, and I could feel the effects of hard living on his hands as he stood to greet me with a hand shake.

He was broken.

Like, Ozzie, he carried the weight of a horrific past on his shoulders, bent by the burden and misplaced shame of an abused child.

But when he finally looked up I could see his soul shinning out of his pale blue eyes. Under that mountain of grief, pain, and survival behaviors, lay a heart so big and so vast.

He was a kind man.

While his speech and demeanor were tough and rough, it didn’t take long to see the gentle kindness that was at the heart of this goliath.

I didn’t know what to expect. I approached the meeting with prayers and fasting, certain this was orchestrated by God, but fearful of well-intended plans derailing, causing even more hurt to the two souls who we were trying to help heal.

When Tina approached me a month or two ago with a therapy idea so off the books and unorthodox, I was surprised. In a world of privacy laws and HIPPA regulations, what she was proposing was unheard of. She had never done anything like it before and all she could say to justify this unusual therapy approach is, “God has been laying this idea on my heart for 8 months. What do you think?”

My surprise turned to hope as she further explained her idea. She wasn’t even done explaining her thought process when the Spirit confirmed that this was God-orchestrated. Tina was simply the faithful messenger.

She explained that she has another patient she works with. He is a 6’5″, mid-forty year old man, who is seeking therapy for the first time to address childhood abuse he suffered at the hands of his father. She explained she had been working with him for the last two years and every time she meets with him, she sees Ozzie 30 years in the future.

Their stories are eerily similar. Their abuse, almost identical. Their self hatred and guilt and belief that they should have been able to fix it or stop it, equally misplaced. They both struggle with the same self hate, the same anger, and the same intense anxiety and depression, as a result of being abused as innocents, and Tina felt that perhaps, in a world of feeling so alone, they might finally find understanding and healing in each other.

This week they met for the first time, with Tina, Toby and I there to offer support.

As this gentle giant shared his story of abuse with Ozzie, Ozzie stared in awe, interrupting with, “Me too!”

As this grown man listened to Ozzie share the atrocities he experienced at the hand of his birth parents, we watched as this grown man wept, perhaps seeing himself as a child in Ozzie’s small stature.

They bonded over a shared past and the same current struggles.

The compared coping strategies, confided current worries, and expressed the struggles they have now in trusting people and allowing others to love them.

It was divinely therapeutic.

This grown man was able to look at Ozzie and say to Oz what his childhood self most needed to hear.

And Ozzie was able to listen to “B’s” story, and the poor choices he made in adulthood because of misplaced anger, and realize that he has a choice in what he does with his abuse story moving forward. Ozzie can choose to take that anger and hurt others, or work through that anger and choose better than his birth parents.

From this man came words of encouragement,

 As well as  words of admonishment, “Ozzie, we NEVER hurt women. It doesn’t matter how angry a man feels inside, he never takes that anger out on his mother.”

“B” cheered Ozzie’s talents, listened to his stories, wept for his pain, praised his courage as a survivor, and connected with him over their shared past.

For the first time, in perhaps both of their lives, neither felt alone in their pain.

It was an odd matching…this tall, shy, blue-collared man and this small, precocious, four-eyed boy. Who would have thought, in a world filled with 7.5 billion people, they would find their greatest support in each other…

Only a Great, Almighty, Heavenly Father…

One who looks down on both of them and sees precious, broken, greatly loved sons!

God is good. Always good!

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“Empowered to Connect”

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On April 7th and 8th I had the opportunity to attend an “Empowered to Connect” seminar, offered as a simulcast through a church in Beaver. It was 16 hours of education and insight into the effects of trauma on kids and how to parent kids from hard places.

I attended with hope that I would glean even a crumb of knowledge that would help me parent my adopted sons. We have been in crisis mode for the last six months and it has taken its toll on our family. I went, desperate for help, hoping for the missing key…and I got it.

It is not an exaggeration to say it was life changing.

And for the first time in a long time I felt HOPE.

It has been a dark, long, lonely winter and it was as though I had caught sight of the first frail crocus pressing up through the snow with promises of spring on its petals.

I felt the hope of “what could be” course through my veins as I drank in the answers to all the “whys” and hows” that have consumed me for so long.

I felt God calling.

I finally had the map to this foreign land I have been wandering through for the last four years. The key is in the trauma and how we address the trauma, rather than focusing on the behaviors which are the external manifestation to the trauma.

It was my Oprah Winfrey “ah ha” moment.

We had some pieces of the puzzle. Some of these things we were doing instinctually, some were tips we had read, and much of our wisdom came in the form of puzzle pieces given to us by our therapist, Miss Tina , but this experience was as though someone finally showed us the lid to the puzzle box. I finally understood what all those pieces were meant to look like when put together and it gave me an end vision of what we were working toward. It finally all made sense.

Now that we have answers we jump into this new way of parenting. It will be hard. It will require commitment. It will be a long, tiring, ever evolving road. But we now understand where that road began and where we are headed, and so we will begin again, better prepared for the journey!

I now give “an out” to all of you who follow and support us but perhaps aren’t in the trenches yourself from having to finish reading the second half of this blog in which I share a small sprinkling of this amazing therapeutic parenting strategy,

But if you are one of my fellow RADish families, or you are a friend or family member of someone who is struggling, perhaps you will find a nugget of wisdom that will help ease some of the weight you carry or someone you love is carrying.

For local friends: If you read this and feel so called to learn more there will be a rebroadcast of this incredible seminar, “Empowered to Connect”

“Pathway Church will be hosting the rebroadcast of the Empowered to Connect conference on Friday and Saturday, April 28th and 29th from 10:00am.-6:00pm. The program was developed by the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, a child development expert. Since its a rebroadcast, it will be a free event however childcare and lunch will not be provided. If you would like more information about the event, please contact Michelle Smith at milomiche410@gmail.com

(What you will get from the conference far exceeds what little information you can glean from my notes!)

Here is a smidgen of what I learned:

Understanding the science behind the effectiveness of TBRI:

The trauma our kids have experienced have had a neurological effect on how their brains function. Kids from hard places tend to have an underdeveloped “upstairs brain,” the part of the brain that allows us to think, reason, learn, remember and regulate our emotions. They also have a hypersensitive “downstairs brain,” that is responsible for survival responses. This means kids who have been traumatized react in extreme ways and take more time to regulate and calm down. They may even perceive non-threatening situations as threatening.

Trauma is a wounding. It overwhelms the ordinary adaptations to life. Trauma can create PTSD.   This is not just an emotional response to troubling events; it’s the expression of a persistent deregulation of body and brain chemistry.   Brain is assaulted by neurotransmitters — brain chemistry can be altered for decades.  With this change, arousing events can trigger flashbacks.

Trauma creates chaos in our brain.   The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped portion of the brain.  It’s the emotional part. It’s the primitive part of the brain.  It interprets messages that there’s danger or it’s safe.  It knows nothing about reasoning or cognitive functions. It deals with feelings and emotions. It controls emotional reactions such as fear & anger.

(Amygdala) It’s the alarm portion of the brain. It becomes highly active during and while remembering a traumatic incident.  It controls our behavior. When you’ve been in trauma it’s hypersensitive–overreacts to normal stimuli.

 Trauma freezes thinking.

Traumatized people have alterations in their brain. Memory is affected by lapses–there are deficits in verbal recall.

The frontal cortex ability is decreased. Less ability to do left-brain functions–it can’t distinguish a real threat from a false threat.  Intense stress or trauma is accompanied by the release of hormones.   A nerve running out of the brain to the adrenal glands triggers adrenaline and noradrenaline secretions.   Adrenaline and noradrenaline surge through the blood stream causing the heart to beat faster and prime the body for an emergency.

Then these hormones activate receptors on the vagus nerve running back to the brain. This causes the heart to continue to beat faster, but also signals various parts of the brain to supercharge that intense emotional memory.   These hormones assist the individual to mobilize in the event of emergency. They also sweep through the body, return to the brain, and trigger the release of more equally powerful hormones (cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine, oxytocin, vasopressin and opioids).

This flood of hormones produces the “fight-flight” response in most people.  When a trauma hits up to 70% of your brain-bound oxygen is diverted into your muscles to propel you somewhere else.

(This will read as bad behavior in our kids…hitting, breaking, biting, bolting)

But for a few individuals, it produces a “freeze” mode. In this instance, all those hormones are rushing through the body and have no appropriate physical response.  The stress has paralyzed the victim.

(This can read as defiance in our kids)

The behaviors can’t be fixed through consequences or bribes because what we are dealing with isn’t a “I won’t” issue. It is a “I can’t” issue. The response is a deep seeded physiological response to a perceived threat.

Every behavior has a function so we must ask ourselves, “What is the need behind the behavior?” In other words, “The behavior is the smoke. The need is the fire. We must train ourselves to look past the smoke to see the fire.”

When parenting kids from hard places we must see the trauma behind the behavior if we are to respond in a healthy healing way.

 

“If we attack behavior without compassionate insight as to why a behavior exists, then we never generate true lasting healing for our children.” -Karyn Purvis

What does that mean in a practical sense?

Step 1: Recognize what is happening in that moment by practicing mindfulness in our parenting. We must think “trauma” not “behaviors” when we see our children losing control (ie: fight, flight, or freeze mode.)

Step 2: Once we are in the trauma mindset we must step in to help our children regulate. We do this by approaching our children calmly and connecting by getting on their level, making eye contact, through touch, behavioral matching and playful interaction.  “Connection must come before correction.”

Step 3: Ask our child two key questions:

  1. Do you need help regulating? (We need to serve as our child’s external modem until they learn to self-regulate)
  2. Then ask, “What do you need?”

Step 4:  As you engage with your child apply strategies that empower our kids to succeed.

  1. Consider their physiological state. Are we addressing their cognitive well-being by meeting their physical needs? (i.e.: sleep needs, managing hydration, managing blood sugar, regular physical activity, etc.)
  2. Apply ecological strategies. The ecological strategies help us design our schedule and environment so that we can avoid common breakdowns through the day. We do this by:
  3. Managing transitions. Transitions are hard for our kids (even good transitions) because they represent change and the unknown. Consider our children’s life experiences and what transitions they have lived through and we suddenly become more empathetic with the heightened emotional response we get when a daily or life transition takes place for our kids. We can help them manage by giving them reminders, announcing upcoming transitions, and giving five minute warnings.
  4. Develop regular rituals (routines that foster connection) to anchor parts of your day which will increase feeling of security in kids that come from hard places (i.e.: prayer times, bedtime stories, playtimes)

Step 5: Give our children the tools needed to self-regulate. Help them discover a tool box of self-regulation tools that help them regulate when they go into fight, flight or freeze mode. Some ideas include: the use of a weighted blanket, chewing gum, physical activity, or calming activities.

Step 6: Respond in an IDEAL way.

Immediately. We should be addressing behaviors within 3 seconds.

Directly. Go to them, make eye contact, use an authoritative voice, use appropriate touch and playful interaction.

Efficiently. Our level of response needs to meet the level of the behavior. “Don’t use an elephant gun to kill a fly.”

            Levels of escalation:

Level 1: (Playful Engagement) Low level of escalation, sassy tones,  interrupting.    Parent response: playful engagement, “re-dos,” actively learning.

Level 2: (Structured Engagement) Higher level but there is no physical threat. No one is in danger. Parent response: Be firmer, try to get them to express their needs verbally through negotiation rather than using behaviors to express their frustration.

Level 3: (Calming Engagement) Situation has escalated to the point where a child needs help regulating and calming themselves. Parent response: help the child regulate.

Level 4: (Protective Engagement) Active threat of danger and harm.  Parent response: Provide safety for all involved.

(If engaging in an IDEAL way the situation should never escalate to a level 4.)

 

Action Based. Resolution should be action based, allowing our kids to make amends through their actions.

Leveled at the Behavior. We never attack the child’s character. That only feeds into feelings of self-loathing and shame. Correction should ALWAYS be leveled at the behavior not the child. Making it clear that while their behavior is not o.k. they are still deeply loved. Children who come from a trauma background have a very powerful shame core. Our interactions with our children should never feed into that internal shame. “These children bled before they came to us. They shouldn’t bleed in our care.”

Step 7: Powerful response tools to help our children and the situation from escalating:

  1. “Are you asking me or telling me?” (level 1)
  2. “Try that again with respect.” (level 1)
  3. “Do you need a re-do?” (level 1)
  4. “No hurts. Please try that again.” (level 1)
  5. Give two choices. “Which one do you choose?” (level 2)
  6. “Do you need a compromise?” (level 2)
  7. “It looks like you are having a hard time regulating. What do you need right now?” (level 3)

Step 8:  After the interaction everyone involved should leave the experience feeling calm, connected, and content. That is successful engagement.

Step 9: Other strategies that build trust and foster attachment:

–         Say “yes.” For every “no” you give your child you should be seeking seven opportunities in the day to say, “yes.”

–         Use Time-in rather than Time-outs.

–         When things are hard bring the child closer rather than sending them away.

–         Parent with resolutions rather than consequences.

–         Have daily planned one on one time daily to connect with each child. This time (10 minutes) should begin with connection (eye contact and touch), should be child led play. During this time the parent should not teach, parent, or question. Let the child lead the play. Match their behavior, praise their character and engage in healthy touch. Daily one-on-one time fosters attachment.

–          Create purposeful learning activities to teach life skills during non-escalated times. During a meltdown is not the time to teach the importance of saying, “please.” Instead these important life skills should be taught through playful engagement. (ie: playing “Mother may I “PLEASE” take three steps?”)

So how will you know if TBRI is working? Karyn Purvis’s answer:

“You will know it is working when joy and laughter return to your home.”

“Equipped with deep understanding of attachment, sensory processing, brain chemistry of fear, the impact of my history, and strategies to connect, we can bring deep healing to our children.” – Karyn Purvis

 

Welcome Home, Ozzie!

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A potholder Ozzie made me in art therapy.

Ozzie is back home.
And it is a blessing.
This last month ended up being a true gift from God and we witnessed God’s hand in the entire experience from start to finish. I am grateful for Tina’s nudge to consider the 28 day program because the experience was life changing for all involved.
It gave my other children a month of respite to heal from secondary trauma, as well as get some therapeutic help to address the hurts and fears that come with living with a loved one who has Reactive Attachment Disorder.
It also gave Toby and I an opportunity to regroup, be still, and make adjustments to our home life and parenting techniques, changes that are hard to give thought to in the midst of a crisis. We were able to do some family triage and assess the condition of our other children and address their hurts and needs during this period that Ozzie was at Mercy Hospital. We were able to move from a stance of reactive parenting to proactive parenting, considering the needs of all five of our children and putting plans and programs in place during this quiet time of rest.
And I was able to do this without any worry or guilt, knowing that God was the driving force behind this experience and that Ozzie was in a good, safe, therapeutic place getting the help he needed while we were preparing for his return home.
The 28 day treatment program he was in was through Mercy Hospital. When pushed to consider sending Ozzie away for more intensive, in-treatment therapy I was a nervous wreck. I hated the idea of one of my kids being away and I worried that the experience would expose Ozzie to worse influences as he interacted and lived with other traumatized children. I worried that he would take his hospitalization as rejection or abandonment and that would lead to a bigger setback in our attachment work. I worried that in our effort to help him heal the experience would only lead to more hurt, but God was merciful and His hand was in every step of the process, and I was given peace about this needed step, and Ozzie agreed that he needed more help than Tina could offer in outpatient therapy, so five weeks ago today we drove him down, checked him in, and said, “We love you,” as Ozzie was led back into the hospital by staff members.
It was a hard day.
But that day was the beginning of huge breakthroughs for Ozzie.
You see, as incredible as Tina is, as an outpatient therapist she only sees Ozzie once a week for an hour, and as much amazing work as she has been able to do with both my boys in their therapy sessions, at the end of that hour, despite what breakthrough we might be on the cusp of, we must end the session and pick it up again in a week. This is the greatest blessing of an in-treatment program. The breakthrough happens and then there are staff with Ozzie 24/7 that can immediately help him process the experience, and that rolls right into an individual therapy session the next hour, and then group therapy two hours after that, etc. There is a momentum that is gained through therapy session after therapy session that results in huge leaps that simply can’t be gained in outpatient therapy.
Ozzie’s experience at Mercy was incredible and I have nothing but accolades to share about the program. I appreciated how incredible the staff was. They work with highly traumatized kids, many with a diagnoses of Reactive Attachment Disorder, so they get our journey in a way that many other medical professionals don’t, and are incredibly proficient at addressing the needs of these kids. On many visits to the unit I watched as they dealt with tantrums and meltdowns and did so in a kind, but effective way, quickly establishing control over the situation.
I loved how structured the program was. This is a necessity when dealing when a floor full of kids with special needs but was especially effective for Ozzie who, as a child on the Autism Spectrum, responds well to routine, schedules, and predictability.Each day followed the same format with mealtimes, school, individual therapy, group therapy, art therapy,  gym time, and quiet time in rooms for journaling.
I love that the system for addressing behaviors is a reward based system, which I find (when dealing with traumatized children) far more effective and healthy than a consequence driven system. This tends to be the case for children who have been abused because, honestly, what consequence can one even come up with that will have any impact given the horrors they have already experienced in their young lives. This makes these kids unaffected by most consequences for their behaviors, so here they use a point system in which kids can earn points for good behavior and good choices. Their earned points give them a level ranking that determines their privileges. For example a child on level one gets to stay up an hour later than a child on level three. For snack time they can have cookies or chips while the child on level one gets to pick from the fruit bowl. A child on level one earns a longer phone call home or the privilege of picking the movie for movie night, etc. and if they stay at level one all week then on Saturday they get to pick a prize from a prize box that contains new toys like stuffed animals, books, puzzles and other fun treats.
I appreciated how strong the communication between staff and family was here. I never worried for Ozzie’s safety because everything that happened was so well documented. At our weekly update we would be read the staff’s notes for the week that would explain everything that happened that week from how many servings he had at each meal, to every good and poor choice he made in his interactions with staff and peers, as well as how staff addressed each of these incidents.
Communication with family was a high priority, as was improving family relationships. We had a family therapy session weekly, phone calls with Ozzie twice a day, and home visits weekly where he could spend up to 12 hours at home before returning to Mercy. This was an important piece of his treatment plan. First it ensured a continued, strong connection with family, dispelling any of Ozzie’s worries that his new family was leaving him, but also gave the therapist a better idea of his behaviors, as we were able to report about his interactions at home and they could talk in therapy about behaviors that maybe don’t reveal themselves in the hospital setting.
Another huge benefit of hospitalization is the fact that you have doctors and nurses on staff 24/7 which allow for drastic medication adjustments that couldn’t happen in an outpatient setting at the quick rate they can be adjusted when being monitored by medical staff. This was a key component in his treatment as we had to reduce his extreme anxiety that was at the root of many of his behaviors.
It was a month of breakthroughs for Ozzie as he delved into the past trauma and abuse at the hands of his biological parents. In one group therapy session he was asked to color a mask, reflective of his past trauma. The results were heartbreaking as he held up to his face a paper mask covered in black and blue bruises and red cuts. Following that session he was struggling so a male staff member took him for a walk to help him process the emotions he was feeling following the therapy session. He suggested another therapeutic tool and told Ozzie to imagine that he was Seth or Trista and say to his birth parents what seven year old Ozzie wished he could have said when he was being hurt by them.
Ozzie did.
He shouted and swore and released years of anger, hurt, and heartbreak that he never felt safe enough to express before…
and it was life-changing.
It was the first step in a series of major breakthroughs this past month.
Ozzie is now home, but no he is not “healed.”
The experiences he lived through will take decades to work through and process.
I don’t know that one ever completely “heals” after living through childhood abuse.
But he is feeling safer, more stable, and so much better than he was a month ago. He was very brave these past 28 days, facing some horrific demons in therapy, and making great strides which we will continue moving forward with in outpatient therapy. He is happy to be home and we are happy to have our little family back together again.
God is Good!