Thursday, October 9, 2008

Taking away the Weapons before Sending Us to War

As with any analogy, there are things that don't apply... and of course states differbut I've been thinking lately about foster care being like boot camp.

In foster care we are given weapons. We have a caseworker who is supposed to be at our disposal for consultation and to provide resources. Respite care is often available for foster parents. Foster children automatically receive WIC, they automatically get free lunch, they often are except from charges for sports. There are often transporters who are hired to give foster children rides to other places or, if not, mileage in some cases is covered. And in a lot of cases, foster care rates are much higher than adoption subsidy. And often, sometimes most importantly, if a If a child needs residential treatment or a psychiatric hospitalization, it is available at no cost to the foster parent.

But then boot camp is over and it's time to finalize the adoption, After court, there is no caseworker to bounce ideas off of. Finding respite care is now our responsibility and sometimes, depending on the state, is no longer paid for. Family income is used to determine WIC and free lunch and all the sudden charges for activities are at the regular charge. Subsidy in some states can be as much as half as much as the foster care rate, so the family experiences a decrease in family income.

And, most tragically, in order to get residential treatment the family must often go through a court hearing and have a CHIPS petition filed in order to get services that they don't have to pay for.

So we are sent off to war without our weapons. In boot camp we're trained to use them, but right before we're sent off to war things are taken away one by one.

If we're lucky, the war is easy -- and we were over prepared in boot camp for battles that never come. But in most situations, as a child ages their behaviors increase instead of decrease. Mental health issues become more prevalent for teens and the result can be catastrophic.

And so, without all these weapons, we are facing serious battles and the only way to get our weapons back is to be accused ourselves of neglecting or abandoning our children as a CHIPS petition is filed. Kari shared her frustration about this morning on her blog..

I don't know for sure what the answers are, and I am more than capable of arguing the other side of this issue, but it seems to me that being able to head into the battle with at least some of the weapons we've been trained to use in boot camp might not be a bad plan.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

No Kid Plays with a Broken Jack-in-the-Box for long

Looking back ten years I remember the first summer I played the part of Jack. No, I wasn't the mascot for a fast food place, but I was that little guy that lived in a tiny box. And if someone turned the crank on the box long enough, I would pop out, contorting my face and making screeching sounds.

And so my new sons turned the crank on the box all....summer....long.

There was nothing more fun to them that watching me blow. They would find something that they knew would eventually get to me and keep going until finally I exploded. And with their attachment issues, it was the most fun they could imagine having.

In my journey as a parent I have learned to be less responsive to triggers. I have learned that engaging in arguments, investing myself emotionally in black holes of nonsense, and reacting quickly and intensely to their provocation never leads to anything good. And though I wish I could report that they never see me pop out of the box, it does still happen occasionally.

The fact of the matter is this: No kid plays with a broken Jack-in-the-Box for long, No kid will sit and turn a crank for hours if Jack never pops out. Eventually they move on to something else.

So the next time you can tell your child or teenager is beginning to turn the crank, picture yourself hiding inside the box, refusing to come out. Time them if you have to. It may be a silly game, but it just might work.

And eventually, at least for the moment, they'll give up and stop turning the crank.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The First Year of Placement

It has been a while since I spent any time with a small infant. Way too long apparently. But we had friends over the other night and I was able to experience first hand a fussy 3 month old baby.

I recently returned from presenting a training for staff at You Gotta Believe in NYC and the topic was covering Erickson's developmental stages as it relates to adoption. My theory is that placement is an emotional birth and thus the first year is spent developing attachment and emotionally the child, regardless of their physical age, is a newborn.

Here is where the biggest mistake of all adoptive parents is made. Unlike with an infant, adoptive parents, because the child is older, expect to get something back. During that first year, parents should respond as patiently with a child, and expect as much from the child, as they would a newborn baby.

Here are some of my observations about my 45 minutes of attempting to comfort a crying baby (whose mother said, by the way, that it wasn't the fact that it was me ... she is like this even with her own parents).

I'm going to write these tongue in cheek but if you replace the word "baby" with newly placed child or teenager, I think you'll understand how ridiculous it is for parents to place expectations on kids.

1) The baby can't do anything. This baby was helpless. Couldn't do anything for herself. I mean, good grief, I had to do everything for her. Even when I asked her nicely, she couldn't do anything.

2) The baby screamed. A lot. She had all kinds of very vocal needs and they were expressed by screaming. I spoke to her in a calm voice and asked her many times to stop acting out, but she simply would not stop.

3) She could not communicate her needs. All of her needs were expressed in the same way. When she was hungry, or had gas, or needed a diaper change, or needed to burp, or wanted to lie down, or sit up, or be held a different way, the only way she could communicate was by screaming. You'd think she could have used some words to tell me what she wanted, but she didn't know any. In fact, there were times when I was wondering if she even knew what she wanted.

4) I had a long talk with her. I tried explaining how her behavior made me feel. I attempted to articulate the ways in which in which it would be helpful for her to communicate better. I told her that her screaming was making me feel a bit anxious. I told her that other babies didn't scream like she did. I was tempted to scream back but I stopped myself, realizing it might not work. I don't think she understood anything I tried to communicate. Her screaming was drowning me out and I'm not sure she really grasped the concepts I was attempting to communicate. In fact, when I suggested that she might have consequences if she didn't stop crying, it didn't even phase her.

5) Even when I was very calm, she still was agitated until she was comfortable. It took a very long time and I had to remain calm and peaceful the whole time. When she could sense my frustration, she raged more.

Let's go back and look at those again from the standpoint of a child being placed in a new home.

1) Emotionally kids at placement cannot do anything. They may revert to a very younger version of themselves. They freeze up and literally cannot do the simplest things. There may be huge regression in every developmental area.

2) Kids first placed are on emotional high alert almost all of the time. While they may not be constantly screaming, they are either constantly acting out or completely shut down. There are rare moments when they are in the middle somewhere, but typical behavior is very emotionally out of control. They are so confused and mixed up that meltdowns of varying degrees and types may occur all the time. Asking them to stop is like asking a newborn nicely not to cry. It simply does not work.

3) At the beginning of a placement a child has no way of articulating their feelings. Even if they are teenagers, they really do not know what is going on inside emotionally. They cannot express what they need, often because they may not be sure exactly what it is they need. They may need distance, or a hug. They might need boundaries or less structure. They may need to be with people or be alone. They aren't sure what they need or how to express it, so meltdowns ensue.

4) Long talks with kids explaining rational things during the first year of placement seldom reach through the emotional upheaval. Explaining how their behavior is effecting them or the rest of the family when there in an emotionally heightened state, really does not work. It's sort of like Charlie Brown's teacher moaning along in the background while they are caught up in an internal frenzy and can comprehend nothing. Threatening consequences when the child or teen is agitated is as laughable an option with these children as it is with a screaming newborn. And, even though we've all done it at some point or another, yelling back never helps.

5) Remaining calm, loving and peaceful will get the best results. It still may result in a screaming child, emotionally out of control, raging endlessly, but it won't be escalated by parental stress. While this is a difficult thing to do, not doing it serves no purpose. A parent's anxious or frustrated response is not helpful to a newborn or infant -- nor is it to a 14 year old who was just placed in an adoptive home and is cussing out their parents.

I realize that this post is fairly simplistic, but it really struck me as I was holding the baby who was screaming just how ridiculous I was during the first placement we had of older children. I was on high alert all the time, responding to 11 and 8 year olds as if they were 11 and 8. I expected them to be grateful, reciprocating, age appropriate children who should consider themselves fortunate to finally have permanent parents. I expected compliance, respect, and cooperation to a certain degree. And I was convinced that if I used enough behavior modification, talked enough, lectured enough, explained enough, that they would "get it" and grow up and move on. I couldn't have been more wrong.

So when that teenager moves in your house, or that preteen, or that school age child, or even that four year old, you may be looking at a larger person, but emotionally you've got yourself an infant. Align your expectations that way, and I'm sure you will have a better first year than the alternative.

Because the alternative stinks. Been there, done that.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Can't or Won't

I think this question is the most difficult question in raising children with mental health diagnosis, developmental delays, FASD, attachment issues .... really any child, but especially those with significant issues.

When we expect something from a child and they don’t do it ... is it because they can’t do it? Or is it because they won’t do it?

If we approach a child as if they cannot do something when in all actuality they can but won’t, then we are enabling their behavior.

However, if we approach a child as if they can do something when in reality, it is something they cannot do, then we are frustrating them.

But how do we tell?

And then there are children who have Oppositional Defiant Disorder or Conduct Disorder. Isn’t their disability that they won’t because they can’t? I realize this is confusing, but their inability to cooperate is their disability. So it often looks like won’t. But it might be that they really cannot cooperate, cannot make themself do the right thing.

I wish that I had an answer. All I know is that it is trial and error. We have to really know our children and we have to continually challenges ourselves to ask this question. Sometimes we have to play little games. Can a child do a task if there is a reward? Maybe we have to offer one sometimes to see if they are able to complete the task and then work towards getting them to do it without a reward. It involves constant re-evaluating, constant rethinking, constant conversation with the child, the therapist, other family members.

I recommend focusing on one issue at a time and determining if it is can’t or won’t. And then remember to re-evaluate after a certain period of time. Any feedback or discussion on this issue is welcome.