Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Serenity Prayer and Adoptive Parents

Lord, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

As an adoptive parent, all three of these pieces are significant.

First of all, there are many things about our children that cannot be changed and we must accept them. We can't go back and change their traumatic histories. We can't change their genetic makeup. We can't change their organic brain damage or mental illness. We can't change their personalities.

Then, we have to have the courage to change the things we can. We can't back down and walk away when children need confronting. We have to work on behaviors, learn what we can about various issues, try different approaches, and work to change what can be changed.

But I think the greatest need for adoptive parents is the wisdom to know the difference. Meeting a child when he/she is 4 or 8 or 12 or 16 doesn't give us the background we need. We struggle for a long time to discover the difference between "can't" and "won't". We don't know if our children are being oppositional or simply can't do any better.

And discovering whether it's "can't" or "won't" is a difficult process for both us and our children.

I'm going to start praying the serenity prayer daily as I attempt to parent my hurt and healing children. But my emphasis is going to be a plea for the wisdom to know the difference between what I can and cannot change.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Teen Attachment Cycle

Anyone who has had pre-adoption training has heard about bonding and the attachment cycle. They have heard about how a baby has a need and expresses that need and how the parent meets the need and trust is developed.

This weekend, amidst the ups and downs of parenting a bunch of teens, I realized that teens and preteens reenact the attachment cycle over and over again with a slight twist. Because their physical needs are now being met, they don’t have to worry about them any more. So instead, they test their attachment every time they make a mistake.

So, the teen or preteen screws up. It can be something small, like manipulating by not telling the truth, or as big as getting arrested. Immediately, they go into a period not accepting responsibility and taking it out on their caregiver. This can take many forms. In my family alone, each person’s response is different. For one, it means sulking and whining. For another it means continuous arguing and not relenting. For another it means blaming me for the way I handled the confrontation. For another it means slamming doors, kicking walls. For another it means getting very angry at the person that reported their wrongdoing. I think you get the picture.

This part of the cycle can last for minutes or for days. It is a relentless unwillingness to accept responsibility, apologize and move on. It takes many forms.

Finally, though, the teen, often when they need something, must rebuild the relationship and move on. So they apologize. And, we forgive. And then they realize, “Hey, they really do love me! They’re not giving up! I didn’t screw up so bad that I can’t be forgiven!” Trust is once again rebuilt and they are calm again . . . until the next time they make a mistake and it starts all over again.

If you have heard the song “We Live” by Superchick you know that the song has a circular melody. It keeps repeating itself just as the pattern of forgiving teens must repeat itself in the lives of adoptive parents.

We live, we love, we forgive and never give up
Cuz the days we are given are gifts from above
And today we remember to live and to love

Those lyrics have been going around and around in my head as I have gone around and around the teen attachment cycle these last days. The key is to not get caught up in the myriad details, but to simply remember that each day is a test.

My kids are saying to me, “will you continue to love me no matter what? Will you accept me even if I don’t please you? Are you really there forever?”

And so just as a new parent dances the dance of attachment with a newborn, we who adopt older children must dance the attachment dance with teens. Just as a new parent is exhausted with the strain of caring for a newborn, we are exhausted with the stress of going through the cycle of blame and hatred day after day. But just as the parent of a newborn cannot get into the mode of blaming a newborn for expressing their need for a clean diaper or a bottle, neither can we get caught up in blaming an adopted teen for expressing their need for unconditional commitment and love. And finally, we cannot have expectations that are too high for our teens just like a parent of a newborn cannot demand, after six months, that the baby start feeding themselves or changing their open diaper.

I don’t know how old a child has to be before they fully believe we will love them forever. I have heard it said that it is double the number of years they lived without a family (thus, an 11 year old will feel like a member of the family when he/she hits 22). But I think for each kid it may be different, and for some people, it may take a lifetime.

For several years I think I was trying to stop the cycle. I was trying to prevent it from beginning by keeping my kids from making mistakes, hoping to avoid the trip around the forgiveness merry go round, especially the blaming, raging part. But I’m coming to realizes that I’d have no more luck getting a newborn to stop needing to be fed and changed.

And so I’ll keep on keeping on, recognizing one more piece of the puzzle that helps me to patiently do an exhausting tasks with results that are long in coming.

And I will remind myself that none of my teens chose to enter the world as a baby that nobody picked up and held. They didn’t choose to have birthparents who were addicted to drugs or alcohol. They didn’t ask to scream and cry and not be cuddled, changed and fed. They simply arrived on this earth like we all did and didn’t get what they should have. And so it’s my responsibility to make it up to them. And what I wasn’t there to do with bottles and clean diapers, I’ll do with enduring their rage and forgiving them again and again until they discover that they are worthy of love and that there is someone committed to them forever.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Step 6: Preplacement Visits

Before even discussing pre-placement visits, it is my personal opinion that these visits are not a test-run. If you are not committted to the kids, don't agree to a pre-placement visit. It is very harmful for children to meet you and then have you change your mind. So, the visits are NOT, and I repeat NOT, to help you decide. They are the beginning to a lifetime relationship.

Here are some of my ideas about how a person should act and what one should do during pre-placement visits.

1) Keep things low key and as close to family living as you can so that expectations are not created. If your family goes to Chuck E. Cheese's once a month, but only gives out a dollar of tokens, for example, don’t give the new kid a $5.00 bill the first time you meet him ... or from now on it’s going to be an expectation. Doing lots of things that cost money will make them think that is always the way it is. If your family never orders dessert, don’t do it during the first visit.

2) Do not give them a lot of gifts. Again, you’re setting up an expectation and they are going to think this is only the tip of the iceberg. Many kids in foster care have attachment issues and they are not looking at a new family as “someone to love me” but as “someone to buy me stuff.” So, the more stuff you buy upfront, the more they will look forward to stuff, stuff and more stuff.

3) If you do give gifts, give gifts that focus on the relationship. A photo album or something with the family name on it are good options or a CD of family pictures, or of favorite family songs. Things that will make connections.

4) Plan activities that will involve interraction -- watching a movie is NOT a good example. Something active or something that involves communication -- board games, card games, etc. allowing for plenty of conversation are appropriate.

5) Realize that this is the ultimate in a honeymoon. It’s OK to fall in love, but don’t think that this visit is what it is always going to be like.

First visits are fun. Enjoy them. But be careful not to set an unrealistic tone.

Step Five: Making a Final Decision after you are Matched

After you are matched, you still have to read through the case file and decide if you are willing to proceed with adopting the children. This step is much more difficult than you might seem have you never read a case file. Here are some tips based on my experience.

1) Start with the most recent information first. You are adopting a child for who he/she is today, not for who they used to be. Many families start at the beginning and by the time they read through the first year of a child's life in foster care they are sure they can't parent the child. Get a good understanding of how the child is functioniing right now before reading through the history.

2) Understand the the Difficulty of Care Cunnundrum. If you understand this you may understand a little more about why the case file reads as it does.

3) Realize that information given to a psychiatrist for an evaluation is given by someone, and that someone may have an ulterior motive. If a foster parent is having a psych eval done in order to prove that they cannot take care of the child in their home, then they will present certain information. If a parent who is disrupting an adoption is trying to justify their decision, they may paint a more negative picture of the child.

4) Realize that every situation is unique and that the way a child is doing in one situation is not a predictor of how they will do in another. Every situation and every child is different and the mix is unpredictable.

5) Remind yourself that there are no guarantees. Every adoption (just like the birth of every child) is a risk. You never will know how things are going to turn out until they do.

Step Four: Making Yourself Stand Out, Part Four: A Scrapbook

You may also want to prepare a scrapbook for situations in which your family have made the finals and you are going to staffing for a child. This scrapbook can also be used later as a gift for the children you are matched with.

I'm not going to tell you how to make your own family scrapbook. This is something that you need to determine based on your own family. But use it to tell the story of who you are. I have seen many and they are all unique, but they do a good job of explaining who you are. Try to use the best pictures you can that make sense. I could show you lots of bad examples, but won't do so for the sake of the dignity of those in the pictures.

The scrapbook can be a great tool in giving you the edge over other families in the staffing.

Step Four: Making Yourself Stand Out, Part Three: Collateral Information

Ask yourself what one other possible piece of information might be helpful to your specific situation.

Haven't parented before? Have someone write a letter who has seen you with children -- a neighbor, a friend you've babysat for, a pastor in whose church you have taught Sunday school.

Have a lot of kids? Include something like 15 Reasons why Large Adoptive Families Make Great Resources for Waiting Children.

Looking to adopt a medically fragile child? Include a letter from a clinic or hospital where you have volunteered.

The idea with this collatoral information is that it shows people that you have thought things through. It can be as unique as you are.

Step Four: Making Yourself Stand Out, Part Two: A Cover Letter

Often, writing a cover letter to go with a study that is going to a PARTICULAR worker for a CERTAIN child or sibling group is a good plan.

This letter should be addressed to the social worker of the children. You may not know their name, but it could be simply: Dear Caseworker of Joe and Mary.

In this letter, based on the description of the children, you can write why you the children would fit into your home. Show how some of their interests match yours. Conclude with a statement of commitment once again.

When you ask your worker to send your study, let her know that you have a letter made up to go with your profile and your home study. Sending this can often make a direct tie to the children.

Step Four: Making Yourself Stand Out, Part One: A Profile Page

(click to see larger image)

So, you're going to have your homestudy submitted to caseworkers for a particular child or sibling group. You want to stand out and be different from everyone else.

Ask your social worker if they would be willing to include a Profile of you when they send out each study, and then prepare a good one.

A good profile starts with one GREAT picture. Many people are tempted to include several pictures of their family doing all sorts of stuff, but I think that one really good picture of the family is sufficient. If you don't have a photo that is professional, see if you can get one done. Otherwise, have a friend who is a good photographer take one. It would be best if everyone is dressed nicely and color coordinated. If you want to use more than one picture, make sure the central one is eye catching.

Then the profile should be no more than a couple paragraphs that are well written and in first person. Have a few people proofread it for you to make sure there are no grammatical or spelling errors. In those two paragraphs, include some basic information: What do you and your spouse do for a living? What is your house and neighborhood like? What hobbies do you enjoy? And what makes you unique? Try to make your house and home kid friendly.

Finally, I would add a few sentences about commitment and your understanding about children in the system. For example, "Having spent time talking with other parents who are adopted, we understand that raising children with special needs can be a difficult undertaking. We realize that simply providing them a loving home and a permanent family may not be enough to change their behaviors, immediately heal their hearts, or fix their mental health issues. However, we are committed to raising children for the long haul and are pledging ourselves to stick by them regardless of what may come."

A great layout and fancy design is eye catching, but not necessary. If you do not know how to do layout on the computer, have a friend help. Being able to have it saved in PDF format is very helpful since a lot of social workers are now emailing profiles.

If your agency does not provide a service of making profiles, make color copies and take them to your agency. Ask your social worker to include a profile each time they send out your study.