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!

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