Wednesday, October 15, 2014

What's Working (Part 2): Behind Us or Beside Us

About as soon as I hit "post" a couple of weeks ago after writing about what was working for us, things started to get worse. And so it goes, right?

If I relax, sit back and take a deep breath and feel, for just a brief moment, that we have in any way arrived at a better place, things start to fall apart again. 

Much of what works is staying ahead of the game, expecting difficult behaviors, bad attitudes, strangeness and chaos, and always being one step ahead. 

It's kind of like the "If You Give a Mouse A Cookie" book, except if I give my mouse a cookie, and I leave the box in the cabinet, he'll sneak down in the night and eat 10 more, along with one of his dad's protein bars he's not allowed to have, or two. Then, the next morning, he'll be slow getting out of bed, tired and irritable, and he won't feel like eating breakfast. Then, he'll get to school, and tell the teacher he's hungry, and she'll feel sorry for him and give him a snack. A week or so later, she'll come to me with a concerned and judgmental look on her face, and let me know he must not be getting enough to eat at home because every day he comes to school hungry. 

And doesn't that just bless a mama's heart.

If a teacher gives my mouse a cookie, he'll fake being "SO hungry," every day, so he can have more.

My children are broken, both of them. They lived years of their lives in the midst of chaos, trauma, and abuse. The moment I begin to think of them as healed, better, normal...things quickly spiral out of control. 

One of the things that really worked for us in the beginning of our therapeutic parenting experiment was "Listening Practice." I had kind of forgotten about it, but I had to bring it back this weekend because the disrespect and defiance were growing by the hour and my sanity was fading. 

Listening Practice is all about building trust and respect by making a game out of getting your child to do what you ask them to do, when you ask them to do it. You can't do it when you are upset. The point is that you make it fun, and through the game they practice the right, respectful responses to your directions. 

It goes like this…

"Okay guys, we're going to play a game. When I say your name, you will say, 'Yes, Mom.' Then, I''ll tell you to do something, and you'll say 'Yes, Mom,' and do what I said to do. Are you ready?"

At this point you reassure them that this is a game and it's going to be fun. You smile a lot, maybe dance around a little, giving evidence to the fun factor. 

I start with simple instructions like "Go upstairs," "Sit down," or "Take a deep breath". I get really excited about how well they are listening and praise them when they say, "Yes, Mom" loud and clear. The more silly and dramatic I am, the better. They call this "pizazz". Kids like "pizazz." If a kid gets the most "pizazz" from negative behavior, they'll keep it up. But if you give them more "pizazz" for positive behavior, they will be more likely to repeat the positive. 

Sometimes I have them go get a toy and show me how to play with it. Sometimes we play a game with a ball and make baskets (into a box or laundry basket) from different places. Sometimes I tell them to eat a piece of candy. Listening to Mom is quite rewarding!

At some point in the game I send them to their rooms, because apparently if a child does not go to their room when sent that is a huge indicator that you have a major defiance problem and things are really bad. Joe used to refuse to go to his room when sent all the time. I really think this game has helped. He practices going to his room when there is no threat or anger involved. It's just a game. It's fun. Not a big deal.

Since we played the game on Saturday, the defiance and disrespect have gone down, and I have actually received some "Yes, Mom" responses when I've given actual instructions. A month ago we were requiring this response at all times. We had gotten away from it, and we were starting to see them both grasp for control once again.

Respect is HUGE. In their earliest years, my kids learned that adults, especially parents, were not worthy of their respect. They were not to be trusted. They would only hurt and disappoint you, and the only way to be safe was to be in control. This is especially true for Joe, as he was the oldest child. The reality is, they both feel much safer when it is clear who is in charge (and it's not them), but they do everything they can to grasp for control before they will submit to that reality. My kids need their parents to be strong, to be firm and demand respect, to stay one step ahead of them at all times, literally. 

Another thing we have done to work on trust and respect is to give them boundaries about where they are allowed to walk when we are in public together. Their impulse is to lead the way. It doesn't matter if they don't have a clue where we are going, they will charge on ahead because it feels good to them. So when we get to a place and they begin to creep past us, we remind them by telling them they can walk "behind us or beside us." 

The first time we did this we were at the mall. We told them the new rule, and then every few minutes we would have to remind them again. We eventually realized it worked best to stop and have them come back to the right place, and then start walking again. They don't like this rule, at all, but they follow it pretty well. We stopped a lot that first day, but now we usually only have to remind them once. 

Behind us or beside us. We have to be careful not to let them get ahead. It's not safe, or pleasant, for any of us.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

What's Working (Part 1)

When people ask how Joseph is doing, I've been saying, "Things are much better."

The next question tends to be something along the lines of, "So, what do you think is doing it?" What's working? What's making the difference? The answer is not as straight forward as you might think. It's a lot of things, a lot of small things all put together.

This post is an attempt to describe what's working for us, for those who have been following our story, those with troubled kids of their own, and for myself so I don't forget!

People sometimes make suggestions like, "Do you think he's just growing out of it?" or "Do you think he's just getting used to you guys?" No. That's not it. He has lived with us for over two years. Things were completely and insanely out of control until this summer when we figured out he had an attachment disorder and began learning and implementing therapeutic parenting methods. We are working really hard over here. He wasn't going to grow out of it, he was going to go to juvie, or something worse, not to mention destroying our home and our family along the way.
(Deep breath. Rant over.)
The marker was permanent. The sentiment was not.
You can't really see it, but what was supposed to say
"hate" is marked out with pen and "like" written above.

Before, we were having major defiance (refusing to go to his room when told), running away, suicide threats, destruction of property (tearing through screen in window, holes in walls, etc), cursing at or provoking us, all on a regular basis. One of these things would happen about once a week, if not more.

I am excited to report that in the last 2 months, NONE of these things have happened!

So here's what's working…

Understanding Attachment Disorders - First and foremost, John and I now understand what is wrong, where the root of the problem is coming from, and we are learning how to handle behaviors differently. Joseph is 11, but emotionally he is a toddler. Keeping this in mind makes a huge difference. We have also been able to have a few sessions with a pretty great attachment therapist who "gets it". She tells us what not to do and lets us troubleshoot with her and gives us ideas of things to try.

Intentional Touch/Affection - Hugs are still not always welcomed, although I try. I do lots of gentle head scratching and shoulder squeezing, also cheek kissing when I can get it in, and sitting close when I get a chance, while watching something or reading a book together. And then there's bedtime.

Bedtime - I almost always do bedtime, usually don't miss more than once a week (this can be exhausting, but seems to make a difference). When I have the time and emotional energy, I lay down in bed with him and scoot really close, and we chat about the day or what is coming up, just for a few minutes. It's never a lecture time, and usually I let him start the talking. Even if I don't do that, I tuck him in and pray with him, always with a hand on him. This is new. It did not used to be a possibility (hard to explain but it just wasn't). I use prayer to speak positive affirmation to him ("thank you for Joe, for the great kid he is," etc), and of course to ask God to help him with anything he is struggling with, and always to help him have "really good dreams and no bad dreams" and to get good rest. Then I kiss him on the cheek dramatically (which almost always makes hime smile) and tell him I love him and goodnight.

Sweets - We used to only do sweets on special occasions. When you have hyper-active kids, sugar never seems like a good idea. But I read that sugar can be helpful in attachment, especially milk based sweets. It makes sense if you think about it. So now we have a scheduled daily dessert time and I started buying small ice cream treats or doing cookies and milk. It's still conditional on if they finish dinner and they can lose it with particularly bad behavior, but they at least know that I intend to give them something sweet every day. They are not allowed to ask for it (or any sweets for that matter) and I always give it to them (don't let them get it themselves), to get it through to them that I want to give them something sweet. I also give them caramel chews sometimes during homework, or send a small piece of candy in a little pouch on their backpacks where I leave notes and treats every now and then.

One-on-One Time - We changed Joseph's bedtime to give him an extra half hour after Michael goes to bed. Sometimes we use it as quiet bedroom time, which helps him get his reading done for school, but we also use it for one-on-one time with him. Sometimes he sits by his dad and watches football. Sometimes he sits at the table with us and has a snack and we talk. I am trying to do more one-on-one time at other times as well. Last week Michael had a playdate after school with a friend, so I took Joseph to the lake. He liked having a special outing just for the two of us.

Eliminating Stress/Responsibilities - I'm a pastor. I love my job but it takes a lot of time and energy, and a few months ago I was all out of both. My generous, loving church gave me 12 weeks of rest, with no preaching and minimal responsibilities, kind of like maternity leave. This has allowed me to slow down and focus on my family, to give all of my time and energy to the boys during the summer weeks, and now that they are in school, to stay on top of their school work, get our household in order, do some self-care, and take care of all kinds of things that have been shoved aside for the last year because our life was such chaos. And, what do you know, the church is doing great. John is also in his second year of not coaching (a really tough sacrifice for him) so he is available to be at home with the boys and also has time to take care of himself (work out, go out with friends, etc). We also have to say "no" to things and help other people less. This is hard for us, and I'm still kind of bad at it (I signed us up to coach Michael's football team! Oops!), but there have been many things we have not done that we would have done before and it has made a difference.

Getting Help/Breaks - Our therapist says we have to get breaks and not to feel bad about it because if we don't get breaks we will go crazy. She is so right. We now have a part-time nanny. No, you didn't miss the part where we got rich… Our house happens to have a "mother-in-law suite" attached apartment space, where my actual mother-in-law used to live. Our hope was to find someone who would help out with the kids in exchange for living (bills paid) in this space, and we did! We found a wonderful young woman who moved in right before school started. Her name is Natasha and we love her! She works another job full time, but picks up the kids from school twice a week, helps with homework, and keeps them through the evening when we both have meetings or other things going on. She also helps us a little on the weekends when she can. For example, last Saturday, she watched the kids for a couple of hours in the morning while John and I had a much needed brunch date. It was magical.  Natasha was also adopted at age 12 from Russia, so she can relate to the boys and understands our issues and special rules. I also have amazing parents who have been taking the kids one weekend a month. This is so huge. They are amazing. And we have some great people in our church family who help us out every now and then. We are blessed.

Well, that was a lot. And I haven't even started on responding to behaviors! I think we will have to do a "Part 2"!

Before I end this post, though, I have to say, I truly believe that along with everything we are doing to love our son and help him heal, your prayers (and ours) are making a difference. We are not strong. We are not amazing people or parents. Our strength comes from God, and our motivation from the love we believe God has for all of creation, lived out by his Son, our constant example of self-giving love. I wish God would choose to work more like a magician, and just heal Joseph overnight, without our help, but it seems that God doesn't tend to work this way. Instead, we are called to join God in the work of loving this hurt child back to health. Healing and restoration come through relationship. In order for a person to feel loved, they have to be loved by people, and for a child with an attachment disorder this is really hard to communicate clearly, and really hard to do. Thus, the need for God's help, or maybe we are helping him…either way, it takes us both. Please continue to keep our family in your prayers!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Confessions of a Not-So-Natural Mom

Things have been better, so much better, but when things get better I tend to relax a little, and it isn't long before things start to fall apart again and I am rudely reminded that this job of mothering does not come naturally, at least not to me.

Back when I was longing to become a mother I felt like mothering was what I was made for, like I could not possibly be the "me" I should be without becoming a mother. I still think there's some truth to that, but for some reason this deep, innate desire to be a mother made me believe that once I was a mother, the mothering would come naturally. I would just be good at it. I'd be a natural, just like my mom was, or at least it seemed (still seems!) to me!

As it turns out, nothing about my motherhood has been natural. Babies did not come naturally. Then we went a completely different route and adopted a 4 and 9 year old, starting the parenting process as complete rookies with kids who were already half grown and half raised. And let me tell you, there is nothing natural about that.

I thought becoming a mother would bring out all of my nurturing, creative, and loving tendencies, but instead it mostly conjured up selfishness, anger and a capacity for violence that I didn't even know I was capable of. Even if you are able to restrain yourself, just having the impulse to spank a child out of anger or slap them across the face (even if they did just spit at you) is enough to make you hate yourself.

Ugly, ugly impulses. Human reactions, sure. But from a mother?
I thought I was going to be good at this.

From the very beginning, I found myself having to try SO hard to be kind and loving, patient and selfless. The amount of natural affection I have for my kids is nowhere near what I thought it would be, although it is slowly growing. It's easier with Michael, our now 6 year old, because he returns affection, has from the very beginning. But dear Joe, 11 years old, affection is not his strong suit. I realize not many 11 year old boys are particularly affectionate to their parents. In fact, it seems to me that most of them are just downright awful. It is not an ideal time to work through attachment issues, but they say that 12 is basically too late, so in that sense we should consider ourselves lucky.

With tons of reading and research behind me, I know the right things to do. I know that I can't just react to bad behavior, I have to think about where it is stemming from, and help the child work through it. I have to be kind and loving even when they are being awful. I have to not take it personally. I have to be intentional about giving hugs and affection and quality time so they don't have to ask for it through negative behavior. I have to be attentive to their needs, meeting them before they have a chance to ask, in order to build trust.

All of this is really hard work, and it does not come naturally, at all.

But it's not hopeless. I just need a whole lot of Jesus, and a whole lot of intentionality. I have to work really hard at it, every moment of every day. When I get lazy, or selfish, or start to wallow in self pity, I have to recognize it and get back on track. This is not about me. The work is not over yet. We've come a long way, but there is still much work to be done.

And I have to say, when I am intentional, when I'm on top of my game, when I remember to pray for patience and help and understanding, and I put in the hard work of loving my kids with everything I've got...I can pretty much rock this whole motherhood thing.

So, if there are any other not-so-natural moms out there, don't give up! You don't have to be a natural to be a good mom. Some of us just have to work a little harder at it. Some of us have to pray for help in all the areas we lack, read books and blogs and Scripture, and go to yoga, and practice deep breathing, and remind ourselves over and over again that it's worth it, even on the days when it doesn't seem worth it at all.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Back to School: Sauce, Hugs, and Happiness

Things are good.

I'm almost afraid to share because I don't want to jinx it, but I have to tell you all that things are going awesome in the Chapman household and it's been quite a while since I could say that.

Stress ball in hand, happy as a clam!
Yesterday was the first day of school. The most stressful part of yesterday was when I tried to make Swedish meatballs for dinner and the sauce wouldn't thicken! I was actually really stressed about it, but once I got through dinner and realized that SAUCE was the worst part of my day, I was pretty thrilled.

We have seen a good amount of progress over the past month of very intentional, attachment-focused therapeutic parenting. But we were bracing ourselves for what might come with the start of school (as much as I was also so very excited for the 7 hour break each day!!).

Academics are tough for kids with attachment disorders, and in the past school has been a source of strife in our relationship with Joe.

Last year there was an "All About Me" poster assigned the first week of school. Joseph swore he had no homework the whole first week and we didn't find out about the poster until weeks after it was due. And that was the fun homework! He had a school-issued planner that everyone was instructed and helped to use…would. not. use it. He wrote half of what he was supposed to write and conveniently left out (sometimes even erased!) things he didn't want to do.

BUT. Yesterday. Seriously, this is amazing. Joe came home with a fully filled out planner! He TOLD me about all of his homework before we even got home, and then he DID it without any arguing or crying or yelling!

Today, he got this year's version of the "All About Me" assignment almost completely done and it's not even due until Friday!
(Cue the fireworks!)

Something else really awesome happened today.
Joseph gave me a hug, a real hug.

This a really big deal for us. The attachment disorder causes Joe to reject affection from his parents and seek it out from strangers and acquaintances. With the help and advice of our therapist we have been working on this by defining for him who hugs are for (right now we are keeping it to close family), and asking others not to hug him (church friends, babysitters, etc), encouraging high fives and fist bumps instead. This is super awkward to have to say to people, but it is really helping! I have also been finding ways to give him physical touch/affection without making him resist, like lying beside him and talking to him when I put him to bed at night (this has seemed to really make a difference), and also tickling, shoulder rubbing, head scratching, and cheek kisses when I get the chance!

You may remember that we got big, tight, happy hugs when we picked Joseph up in Georgia after a month apart, but after a few days he was dropping to the ground when I tried to hug him. Since then we've made some progress, but what happened tonight literally has not happened for me with Joe ever, that I can remember, in the two years we have been his parents.

Tonight, we went to leave for Meet the Teacher night and he came over and gave me a real hug. It wasn't a hyper, super-tight squeeze. It wasn't a manipulative, "I want something" hug or an awkward, porcupine hug; it was a soft, calm, sweet, natural, REAL hug. I almost cried. I'm really not sure how I held it together.

First Day Decorations! The boys were pretty anxious about
school, so I had them write down bad/nervous thoughts and
then crumple them up and put them in their dump trucks!
Speaking of almost crying, last night as I was washing dishes after dinner I was choking back tears as I was listening to Joe talk to John about his day. He told him about the notes he got from people at our church from Back to School Sunday. He told him about the little monster pouch I gave him to attach to his backpack where I would leave little notes and treats every now and then.

I could just hear in the things he was sharing that his little love tank was being filled up and it was making a difference.

Reading notes from church friends at breakfast.

As I listened, I thought about our church and the incredible support they have been to our family. I thought about all of the people praying for us, and I truly believe it is making a difference. We have put so much time and work into learning how to love and parent this child, and finally, it is seeming to matter. Finally, we are starting to see progress and hope as the icy walls around his heart begin to melt away.

Happy, happy choked back tears.

We are so very thankful for all the wonderful friends and family members who have been supporting us, reading up on attachment disorders, offering to help however they can, hanging out with us when we are stressed and frustrated and depressing to be around. We are so thankful for our church's love and support and the time they have given me to focus on Joe. I am so grateful for the messages of encouragement I have received and all the people cheering us on, some who barely know us or don't even know us at all!

I truly believe that God is at work in all of this, through all of you, to help and encourage John and I, and through us to love Joe and help him heal. I think we are healing too.

"The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; 
 they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness." 
- Lamentations 3:22-23

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Birthdays and Progress

Yesterday was Joe's birthday. It also marked one week since we returned from Georgia with our boys after they spent a month with their grandma and we spent a month recovering from the trauma and chaos of the past year, reading up on attachment disorders and therapeutic parenting methods, and preparing to "begin again".

The reunion in Georgia was actually pretty sweet. I was bracing for strange behaviors, hiding, avoiding, etc, but instead we were greeted with big hugs, real, genuine ones, even from Joe. A few days later he was dropping to the ground when I tried to hug him, but the first couple of days we were together he was so hungry for our love and affection, and I think truly missed us enough, that he let us love on him.

It was a good reminder that deep down inside this really is what he wants.

Over the last week we have seen many of his old behaviors start to reappear, especially the minor ones, like excessive talking, nonsense questions, arguing, resisting physical affection and eye contact, disrespect, manipulation, and stupid lying (lying about something obvious). But we are dealing with all of this differently than we did before (at least trying our best!) and adding in some new tricks from our studies, and it seems to be making a difference.

Perhaps we are simply just in the honeymoon phase and the crap is about to hit the fan any day, but it really does seem like he is responding to what we are doing and getting better.

Joe's birthday was a pretty big milestone in the getting better category. Last year, his birthday, just two weeks after the adoption, was one of the first major indicators that something was not right. He seemed completely unable to enjoy himself. We were so excited to celebrate him and did everything we could to make him feel special...a special birthday breakfast (pancakes in a 10!), decorations, tons of presents, and a fun day planned out. But to our dismay, it seemed like no matter what we did he was upset, wanting something else, wanting something different.

We had always known him to be obsessive and impulsive, but we had never seen it quite like this. The only thing he wanted to do was go to shops and spend the birthday money burning a hole in his pocket. We had other things planned that we thought he would enjoy, but we finally gave in, desperate to make this kid happy on his birthday. Still, he wouldn't decide what he wanted to buy, and he just wanted to keep shopping. All day, he was never, ever satisfied. He argued, he whined and complained.

He cried so. many. times.

We were shocked and appalled at his behavior. We got angry with him, we scolded him, we tried to reason with him. Looking back, I feel terrible. Now that we understand what was happening and how his brain works, the whole thing makes a lot more sense.

First of all, it was his first birthday with us, and birthdays are a trigger for lots of kids like Joe. The boys came to us in August of 2012, just after Joseph's 9th birthday, which he spent in a shelter. His CASA volunteer (amazing woman that she is) and her niece came to visit and brought him his only present that year. Not a word or a gift from bio mom who was still in the picture, not to mention the foster parents who had promised to adopt him and his brothers and changed their minds.

Of course, we knew all of this when his first birthday with us came around, but it seemed like a kid who had gone through all of that would be so happy to have a family now, to be celebrated by his family, lavished with gifts, and taken out to do fun things! We thought he was going to be thrilled! We expected him to be giddy with excitement and full of smiles to finally have the kind of birthday he deserved to have all along!

But Joseph was too full of bad memories and fears of being disappointed and hurt again, so much so, that he couldn't open himself up to just enjoy the day and the love that was being lavished on him. He didn't trust us. Everything was a surprise or a new place he had never been, and he didn't know what to expect, so he felt the need to regain control. He was functioning in survival mode.

And thus he continued, throughout his tenth year of life, grasping for control and pushing us away, a little more each day, until we all found ourselves in a very tired, angry, hopeless place.

(Big sigh…)

BUT, this year…after a week and a half back together, tons of effort to reestablish trust and respect with careful love and nurture and a much better understanding of his needs and how to respond to his behaviors, Joseph truly had a happy birthday.

Don't get me wrong, it was not a perfect day, not even a great one, but compared to the year before, it was amazing. The birthday trigger was still there and emotions were on edge, but this year he knew much more of what to expect. We continued our birthday tradition of a special birthday breakfast. He was excited and smiling when he opened his door to balloons and came downstairs to see presents on the table. He loved helping his dad make pancakes. He was super thrilled about his gifts, especially the remote-controlled fork lift he requested.

Unfortunately, he couldn't find his tiny screwdriver set, or any appropriate tools for that matter (as he has managed to lose or break most of the tools in the Chapman household), so we couldn't put in the batteries (believe me, we tried!). There were some tears, but we got through it, shifting his attention to the upcoming trip to Petco to pick out a new aquarium for his tadpole.

We had told him about this a few days before, so he was already expecting and looking forward to it (Parent win! We are learning!). There was a little redirection needed at the pet store, but he took it well and kept a pretty good attitude. We got the aquarium and picked up a new screwdriver set on the way home.

To make a long story not quite as long, the fork lift ended up not working. As you can imagine, there were more tears. (Total parent fail! I will never again give a battery-operated item for a gift without putting it together first and making sure it works!) But again, we got through it. We got the aquarium going and he loved it. He played video games all afternoon. I let him decide what we would do for dinner and he asked if we could get Taco Bell and go to the lake. This is what we did for dinner on my birthday back in October. I love the lake. When he made this request, it felt like he was my kid.

He had a blast trying to fish for turtles, and then we went home and had a movie night complete with snacks he chose from Walgreens and his choice from what was On Demand. It wasn't anything extravagant. It wasn't perfect. There were true disappointments. But he smiled a lot, even at me. I felt like we succeeded in making him happy and that is a really big deal. We were in control, enough for him to feel safe, but also gave him enough control that he didn't feel the need to fight for it. We were attentive to his emotions and able to comfort and redirect rather than scold. And instead of feeling afraid, I think he truly felt loved.

Maybe 11 is going to be a good year for us.
They say things get much less hopeful for kids with RAD at 12, so it needs to be.

I believe the prayers of many, many friends, family members, and hopeful supporters have had much to do with the success of these first couple of weeks, and we are so very thankful.

Please keep praying.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Time to Begin Again

We just celebrated the one year anniversary of our adoption ceremony, when we gathered with family and friends before God to make sacred what was made legal the day before, a great celebration, a beautiful new beginning for our family.

It really was a great day. But it hasn't been the best of years.

Have you ever had a day when you woke up feeling awesome, the sun was shining, birds were singing, you had bright hopes and big dreams and all was well with the world…and then you stubbed your toe, and spilled your coffee, and then you were late for work, and then you got a terrible phone call with really bad news, and a bill in the mail you didn’t expect, and then you got food poisoning and spent the whole night hugging the toilet?

This last year was kind of like that.

Granted, there were some wonderful, beautiful things about this year. Our younger son, Michael has made some incredible changes. His behavior drastically improved, he had an amazing school year, and he is truly a delight most of the time. Adoption, belonging, being part of a real family, being loved and nurtured, cared for and protected, all of this has made a huge difference in his life for the better.

Our older son, Joseph, has had a different experience. Despite his eagerness to be adopted, once it happened, everything seemed to fall apart for him. He started spiraling…awful behavior, terrible attitude, rejecting our love and grasping for control, and he basically took both of his parents down with him.

We tried every kind of discipline technique and parenting method we could find. Our therapists said we were doing everything right and it was just up to him to decide to change…or not. People gave us their advice about what they thought he needed and we tried a lot of it, but he just kept getting worse…running away, cussing at us, completely defiant, manipulative, triangulating, making suicide threats, lying, stealing, the list goes on and on.

Even with all of that awfulness, I think the hardest part has been the inability to make him happy. Nothing I do for him makes him smile. He is not enjoying any of his childhood, even when we are doing things that should be fun. He is miserable and angry and sad and we feel like prisoners in our own home.

A friend of the family, our boys’ CASA volunteer, recommended we read a book by Nancy Thomas called “When Love is Not Enough”. As I read the introduction I took in each paragraph like a gasp of fresh air after months of holding my breath.  It was the first time I felt like anyone had any idea what we were going through.

The book describes a disorder called Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). Basically, children who experience abuse, neglect, or disruptions in care during their first three years of life, who were not nurtured and cared for adequately as infants and never properly attached to their mother (or anyone else), miss out on an essential part of human development. They are kind of stuck functioning in the emotional/survival part of their brain. They do not know how to give or receive love, only how to manipulate in order to survive. They do not trust. They seek to control. This is the only way they feel safe. We think this is what is going on with Joe.

Super sad. Heartbreaking. Absolutely awful. Yes, I know.

And the worst part about it is that once these dear children finally have a family to accept and love them, care for them and keep them safe…they reject it. They literally fight against being loved, to the point of abuse. The abused becomes the abuser. And his abusive behavior makes him hurt even worse.

John and I are in an abusive relationship with our son. It is mostly emotional, and verbal, but it is abuse nevertheless, and it is deeply painful. It wasn’t until recently, as we began reading about RAD, that we were able to recognize it as such. Before, it just seemed like really bad behavior. We knew it was sucking the life out of us, but we had no idea what to do.

“When Love is Not Enough” offers a method of therapeutic parenting to help children heal from attachment disorders (and also addresses issues like Oppositional Defiant Disorder and ADD). The basic theory is that in order to attach to us, in order to heal, Joseph needs to be nurtured and loved in the way that he should have been nurtured and loved in his first three years of life. He needs to be looked lovingly in the eyes (even though he only makes eye contact when he is angry). He needs to be cuddled and hugged (even though he resists). He needs to be cared for as if he is helpless to get his own food or drink or make decisions about what he will eat or when he gets a snack, so that he can learn to trust. He needs to be supervised like a toddler, who doesn’t understand how to use things correctly, how to be responsible or take care of things, or that his actions might harm himself or others.

If a toddler hits you in the face, you look at them with loving eyes and say, “It’s not okay to hit mommy” and then go on sweetly playing with them or caring for them without any anger or resentment. This is what we need to do when our 11 year yells, “F*$% you!”

We are supposed to use humor, to stay positive and kind in the face of abuse, to be strong and patient and help him learn to respect and to trust.  

It's not going to be easy, but we are going to try it. We are going to begin again.

We found a therapist who specializes in attachment therapy and met with her for the first time tonight. She said she doesn’t take many cases like ours because they are usually pretty difficult, but she decided to take ours. (Thanks be to God!)

Tomorrow (I guess it's today at this hour) we drive to Georgia to get the boys after a month long break that was absolutely necessary for our sanity and survival. (We are so very grateful for grandmas and cousin camp!) When we return home, I will begin a 12 week leave from my full responsibilities at the church to focus on beginning this method of therapeutic parenting and helping our son to heal.

Please keep us in your prayers!

It’s not going to be easy, but I have rested and read and prepared. I have put away my anger and frustration and found compassion again for this son who is so very broken. I am determined to give it my all, and I am depending on God to take, break, and multiply what little I have to offer.

I am hopeful, very hopeful. I am ready to begin again.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Six Months In

"I made my oldest son smile today. A few times, actually. It's kind of a big deal."

In November I attempted to write a blog post. The line above is as far as I got. It's been like that.

Now it's February, six months since we adopted Michael and Joseph and made them Chapmans. I thought for sure I would have done lots of blogging between now and then, fun little updates about our life together, the struggles and the victories…not so much.

It's not that there haven't been victories. It's just that the struggles have been so deep, so painful, so overwhelming, that writing about them would have been too much, and writing just about the victories would have seemed dishonest. 

"Once the adoption is final everything will get better." This is what they told us. The boys would feel secure, they would know we're not going anywhere, and their behavior and our relationships would just get better and better. 

For our younger son this was absolutely true. This is the kid who had so much anger in his little heart that multiple people, including the school principal, predicted that he might take someone's life someday. That's right, a four year old, almost kicked out of Pre-K shortly after the Sandy Hook shooting because Mr. Principal thought he needed to protect the other students from people who might turn out like that. Yep. Uh-huh. That's enough about that.

My hitting, kicking, spitting, laughing, wild, angry, almost-never-following-directions little darling, who didn't like the idea of adoption at first, who I held and rocked as he sobbed over his mother who left him, when we claimed this child as our son and promised to be his parents and love him forever he believed it. 

This year, at our first parent-teacher conference at the new school, about a month in, Michael's teacher told us his behavior was typical, that there were "lots of other boys" just like him, and he was "improving"! You can imagine our shock and joy! Not only that, but academically, he was ahead! He now gets a "color change" about once a week for talking. I'll take it. 

This child has gone from angry and awful to sweet and wonderful. He has developed empathy. He loves. He cares. It's truly amazing. I'm telling you, this kid is going places and prison is not one of them! 

If this was our only child we would be the poster family for why you should adopt children out of foster care. I have to admit, that is who I wanted to be. Not that I thought it was going to be a walk in the park, not that I didn't know it was going to be super hard and painful, but then it was going to be oh-so-wonderful! I mean look at this picture, there's so much potential! 

Perhaps we still have a chance at that, but I really don't know. 

Our older son still won't call us Mom and Dad. This was the kid who was sweet as pie when he came to us, who wanted so desperately to be adopted, who hated his mother because of what she did to him. But since the day we adopted him his behavior has spiraled. He's put up walls and pushed us away, lying, stealing, running away, throwing daggers of disrespect and disobedience at home and lavishing his sweetness on strangers and acquaintances because he still needs love and nurture and acceptance, he just won't let us be the ones to give it to him. 

He's made himself so hard to love. 

I know it's because he's been so deeply wounded. I know he's got a lot of healing left to do before he will be able to love and be loved. I know what he needs is for us to just keep loving him anyway, unconditionally, to keep nurturing and working and caring and trying and loving and loving and loving until we melt those icy walls around his heart. 

But hugging this kid is like hugging a porcupine. And most of the time it seems like what he really needs is a swift kick in the pants, and I'm being kind. 

But we're not giving up. (Cue Jason Mraz's "I Won't Give Up"…I've been listening to it all morning.)

I say this as my husband sends me an email saying he's found a juvenile boot camp in Denton. I'm so not kidding! I don't think it will come to that…it's just comforting to know there are options. 

This is what we live in right now, the constant tension of truly hoping things are getting/will continue getting better, and somewhat jokingly (but a little bit seriously) looking up juvenile boot camps. 

When people say to me that all these kids (meaning troubled kids, kids in the system, kids like mine) need is love and a family I want to laugh and cry and smack them at the same time, but instead I just agree. It's kind of true. They do need love and a family…and meds, and therapy, and consequences, and tons of grace, and lots and lots of time.

This morning I let this dear child of mine go outside to start the car to warm it up. He grabbed his backpack and opened the door and then looked back and said, "it's like I'm headed off to college! Bye!" 

It made me smile. He has no idea how desperately we dream this dream for him or how much it will take, on his part as well as ours, to make it a reality. But we'll all keep dreaming, and maybe that day will come. 

Today is better than yesterday. Last week was better than the one before it. 

And the green grass grows.