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Adjusting Dreams with Kids with Special Needs: 4 Tips to Help Them


This past spring we attended a high school graduation for the first time as parents of a graduate. During the ceremony, we were inundated with numbers. Ninety percent of the 470 graduates were entering college. They had been awarded $25,502,169 in scholarships. It was not as hard as I anticipated knowing that my child was not one of these students. College is not a good match for him. I know that. What was incredibly hard was watching graduates stand as their names were called along with the branch of the military they were entering. That was difficult. I cringed as I thought about unattained dreams. Our young man had dreamed of being a soldier as long as we had known him.

Unrealized Dreams

I can sympathize with unrealized dreams, as can most people who have lived a few years. My childhood dream was to be accepted to and attend Northwestern University, which was at the time ranked as 14th in the nation and was one of the very top schools in speech pathology, which I intended to major in. My childhood was not without major obstacles and struggles. I fought with fierce determination to succeed at what I put my mind to. I worked for what I got, but so much came naturally. I was not limited by a disability. While so much was unknown to me, I knew enough. I applied to Northwestern and was accepted, but after much deliberation, I chose to attend the state school offering me a scholarship as opposed to graduating with tons of debt. Looking back I know, had I gone to Northwestern, I would not have met Darren. Chances are that this crazy, dysfunctional family and Community Kids and Transfiguring Adoption would not have all come about. I still have that acceptance letter. In high school, I was voted most skilled in business, most likely to succeed, and most likely to be in politics (really???). I remain proud of my accomplishments, but that person seems far away. My dreams had to be adjusted.

Adjusting Dreams and Expectations

I talk often about adjusted dreams and expectations. I join with parents all over who secretly hurt for their kids, who feel twinges when their kids are not being recognized for how amazing they are at awards ceremonies or graduations. How I wanted to scream to the rooftop of that huge, packed out college basketball stadium about the wonders that our boy has achieved, living through horrors and overcoming obstacles those other grads could never imagine.

My life does not look like what I thought it would when I received those high school awards. Does that make me unsuccessful? Are my new dreams any less valuable? My child’s life does not look like what he had hoped. Does that make him unsuccessful? Six months post graduation, we are still struggling with our young man to figure out the next steps. We don’t know what our kids’ futures hold. We don’t know what our futures or the future of Transfiguring Adoption holds. We don’t yet have hindsight. When living as a foster or adoptive family, our dreams and expectations quite often go unmet and have to change, sometimes drastically. Our life looks SO different than what we dreamed or expected. We have had to grieve those dreams and build new ones.

But When It’s Our Kids…

It’s one thing as adults to readjust our dreams and expectations. We have more hindsight, and we have more life experience. We know there are many more types of opportunities for success. While, in the moment, it can be hard for us to access all this, our kids really do not have much in the way of life experience with other possibilities. How can we help them?

  1. Kindly offer reality.
    One thing that we have battled is people in positions of authority who are supposed to be helping kids set and reach goals telling them they can be anything they want. We can’t put a blind person in the pilot’s seat and have them fly a passenger jet. I’m sorry, but the child who is tone deaf is not going to be a famous singer, and the young adult who cannot read, is going to have limited choices. Sometimes we have to help our children ascertain between reachable dreams and those that are unattainable. To allow them to continue expecting something unrealistic is setting them up for a much greater pain and loss. For example, we helped our guy take a practice military entrance test. When we saw the results, we shared with the school and encouraged them to help us in helping him instead of continuing to focus on the military as a goal and setting him up for heartache and failure without a backup plan. They ultimately repeated the test at school and shared with him that no amount of hard work, through no fault of his, would fill the gaps.
  2. Acknowledge their pain and help them grieve.
    Do not just brush the child’s dreams aside. Let them know that it is painful to let go of dreams, allow them to grieve, and help them understand how to grieve that loss.
  3. Share your experiences.
    We have to be careful to not undermine our children’s struggles, but we can express that while our experience is quite different, we have had to face crushed dreams, share what they were, how we handled it, and positive outcomes.
  4. Show them other possibilities.
    Help your child explore other options. Is there something related to their interest that they are capable of attaining? What are other options that they may not be aware of? Help them explore.

Now It’s Your Turn:

  1. Is there anything you would add to this list?
  2. What have you done to help yourself or others to manage the loss of unrealized dreams?


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Fear of Being Invisible in Foster and Adoptive Children


Fear drives behavior. If you really think about your motivations for your actions, much of them are deeply rooted in some type of fear. When hearing from experts in foster and adoptive parenting, you will often hear that children’s problematic behaviors are all communicating an unmet need, and much of it stems from fears that are deeply rooted in their subconscious. Why do they hoard food? They have a deeply rooted fear of the past hunger they experienced, whether they remember it or not. There are so many fears that lurk in the minds of children who have experienced trauma.

When reading The A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting by Sarah Naish, I was reminded of one of the most pervasive of these fears, one which drives some maddening behaviors. That is the fear of being invisible (or forgotten). It was interesting that within a couple days of being reminded about this fear, one of my children was relating a story in which something physically painful happened when the child was younger. The child stated that the adults paid some attention, and then said …

“And then I went back to being invisible.”   

Whoa! There it was! This child shared a glimpse into an inner thought process. That experience of feeling forgotten and invisible in a previous home created a fear that persists and drives behavior years later.

Children who have been abused or neglected develop this fear often from actual circumstances, and sometimes from perceptions, and every time out of a need to survive. Children are ultimately dependent, especially at a very young age, on adults for survival. Adults provide both the physical and emotional needs of children, and when they fail to do so, children have to fight for their survival.

Behaviors Driven by Fear of Being Invisible and Possible Strategies

Now you may have a foster or adopted child whom you know is safe, whom you know you are providing for and not forgetting, and they are certainly not invisible to you. However, the child does not know, perceive, or feel this on some deep level, or they do not trust that it is a pattern that will continue due to inconsistencies in their past history. These children are afraid of being forgotten, which will ultimately lead to death, so they are going to do whatever they can to make sure you do not forget they are there.

What are some behaviors we have seen as a result? How have we dealt with them? Here are a few examples.

  • Nonsense chatter – Children who are afraid of being invisible will talk incessantly. Sometimes it is meaningless strands of words. Sometimes it is questions you know they know the answer to. Sometimes it is a conversation you have had repeatedly. Sometimes it is just obvious statements about what is happening. They may say your name repeatedly to get you to respond and then simply say, “I love you” or “I forgot.” Whatever it is, they just talk from the moment they wake until the moment they go to sleep. I once dropped one of these kiddos off with a very patient person. I had warned earlier that this child asked questions and talked incessantly. The individual responded with a love for the curiosity of children and said that there are no silly questions. A few hours later, I was greeted with a harried look and a comment about how the child really never does stop. I chuckled.
  • Incessant Noise – The noises vary from mouth-made noises to just doing everything loudly, especially if the child is in another room and wants to be sure you still hear them.
  • Clinginess – Do you ever feel like your child is your shadow? Children who are fearful of being invisible stay in close proximity. If you can’t physically be close, like while on the toilet, they may revert to talking. I hear “I love you, Mom!,” with pauses for my response, all the time while on the toilet or getting dressed.

Lack of Bubble Space – This is closely related to the last one. I have one kiddo who constantly is in other’s space and constantly touching others, particularly caregivers or someone perceived as being able to meet needs for the child. For this child, proximity is not enough. If you are looking at your food while eating, you may just get a finger on your arm. Looking at the pot of boiling water, there may be an unexpected head on your arm or side.

Eight Ways to Answer These Behaviors

These behaviors sound relatively benign. I mean, no one usually gets hurt by these behaviors, right? Until you live them, you may not understand, but these behaviors wear caregivers down to absolutely feeling insane! Here are some of the ways we have dealt with these behaviors:

  • Nonsense answers – Darren is known for answering nonsense questions, particularly those that the child definitely knows the answer to, with nonsense answers. His formula is as follows: “Because [color] [animal] [always or never] [activity] on [day of the week].” For example, Darren may say something like, “Because purple cows never blow their noses on Tuesday.” This is playful and fun. The child ultimately gets confused and distracted and giggles. Everyone wins: the child gets engagement, and the adult feels vindicated without being mean or saying, “You already know the answer to that?” for the umpteenth time.
  • Playfulness – These behaviors are stemming from fear and anxiety. The more you can respond in playfulness, the more relaxed the child will be.
  • Never ignoring – In traditional parenting, we are often told that negative behaviors will disappear if we ignore them, but with children who have a fear of being invisible, ignoring the behavior only confirms their fears and further entrenches the behavior.
  • Proximity – Even while doing different activities, it helps children to know you are nearby. You can do computer work while they sit next to you and do homework.
  • Physical touch – Physically reaching out to the child frequently helps them know you have not forgotten them. The other day a child was just insatiable at trying to engage me while I was in the middle of reading something important. I was super thankful that I was able to pull the child close, and physically touching the child while I read was enough to help the child regulate and calm the fear. The chatter slowed, though I did have to answer some questions and remind a few times that I was reading.
  • Acknowledge the Fear, Name the Need – Sometimes we simply say something that helps the child recognize what they are doing and help them understand that they are not forgotten. A simple, “I am doing my work, but I have not forgotten about you,” or “I love you and won’t forget about you when you are quiet” can go a long way. Reading books that help the child recognize their fears and behaviors can also help empower them to make changes and feel better about themselves. Sarah Naish’s books Katie Careful and the Very Sad Smile and Charley Chatty and the Wiggly Worry Worm are good examples.
  • Take breaks! – These behaviors stem from deeply entrenched fears, and even with the most therapeutic parenting, they can continue in some capacity for a number of years. It is important to get a little reprieve however you can whenever you can so that you can respond empathically and not out of frustration and exhaustion.
  • Imposing limits – There are always limits. While most of these behaviors are not harmful, they can be dangerous in the wrong context…like that head on your arm while you lift a boiling pot of water. So there are times when we need to create some rules, like no touching or being a shadow to a parent at the stove. And sometimes we need limits just for our own sanity, like “Please don’t touch my arm while I’m eating because I would rather not spill food and have a mess to clean up.”

For more ideas on strategies, I recommend reading The A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting by Sarah Naish to see what methods others have found helpful. 

Now It’s Your Turn:

Keep the conversation going. You never know what might help someone else on their journey.

  1. What are some behaviors you have seen that you think may be caused by this fear?
  2. How did you respond?


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When Everything’s a Battle for a Foster or Adoptive Family


A Nightmare

I awoke from a dream, a dream in which I was climbing a mountain. The mountain and the view were breathtakingly beautiful, but the path was treacherous, unstable, and terrifying. It was slipping and falling apart. I’m not completely sure who the two people on the journey with me were. I was in the lead, and I knew if I fell, it would be likely backwards, and they would most likely be falling with me. Every step brought a new challenge and the fear to go with it. I would twist or roll or turn to make falling less likely until we started basically climbing what looked like a rock ladder ascending nearly straight upward that was comprised of unstable pieces of rock which were slipping and falling. I couldn’t see the top…I could scarcely see the next step for that matter.

I’m assuming we were trying to reach a peak, which is why people generally climb mountains, but this felt different. I also remember thinking there would be no way to pick up kids from school and also, as I stirred awake, that there was no way back down.

A Little Too Real

Another thought I had upon waking is that this dream felt way too familiar. No, I haven’t been climbing any mountains recently. They’re in drastically short supply in our new state of Florida. But as we navigate life with two adult children at home in need of long-term services and middle and high schoolers with special needs, it seems nothing comes without a battle…services like vocational rehabilitation or disability, academic progress, life skills, attachment, meeting medical needs, social skills, simple daily tasks…the list goes on. While trying to navigate a system or trouble shoot a problem, five new things happen: an adult child’s bank account has weird charges they swear they did not make, a worker calls to talk to a child who is not home (and not capable of answering the questions anyways) and then never calls back and never returns our calls when the child is home, a child gets a job and loses it the same day… Every thing seems hard. It seems nothing can just go smoothly. We agreed to this battle—all be it without much of the information needed to make a truly informed decision—and there is no way back down this mountain. [SIDE NOTE: NEVER tell a foster or adoptive parent that they “signed up for this.” This may just knock them off the mountain, or knock you off yours depending on what kind of day they’re having.]

Keep Climbing

This climb is not easy. There are some great views at times as we see victories, but often the views are blocked, and we can hardly see any further than the next foot hold. There are a few things that help me to keep climbing:

    Self care is necessary and very hard to come by. The other day I took some time out (after a lot of tears and a mini break down on my part) to grab a birthday child (whose birthday I missed while out of town for Transfiguring Adoption) and drive to the beach for an hour or so. There was a red flag warning on the beach due to rough surf and rip tides, so there was no swimming, but an hour of dipping our toes in the ocean and some sunshine gave me just enough sanity to fight the battles another day. Not all days allow for this long of a mental health break, so we have to make a concerted effort to find the little things that sustain us individually for the days ahead. Sometimes it is simply making sure we are taking care of ourselves physically. When the kids were younger, they used to love playing with my hair or giving me a back rub. They also loved doing foot soaks together or other little pampering activities. This was all a great way of meeting a need for myself and showing them how to care for themselves when I couldn’t actually get a break away from them.
    I could not continue climbing without those on the journey with me, whether they are fellow foster or adoptive parents, family members, understanding professionals, friends who get it…all people who are in the fight for my kids with me. I often don’t need things fixed necessarily as much as I need someone to say, “Man, that’s rough!” or “That sucks!” I love our Monday night Caregiver Check In that we do online each week. It is very validating and encouraging just knowing I’m not climbing alone, and I love providing that for other caregivers!
    I’m not talking about physical food, though that is quite necessary in households where folks have experienced trauma. (I won’t get into the science of it, but chronic trauma messes with blood sugar and creates a need for protein every couple hours to keep blood sugar level and bodies regulated.) I’m talking here about mental sustenance. I need reminders of the why’s and how’s of therapeutic parenting, reminders of why my children respond to situations the way they do, reminders of the way their brains have been impacted by trauma. Otherwise I am prone to compassion fatigue.

Some days I feel hopeless and helpless and like this climb is going nowhere. I climb and climb and find myself back at the same trail sign I passed years ago. I have to actively remind myself to get my needs for breaks, fellow climbers, and sustenance met, or I will fall, and my family will come tumbling down with me.

Now It’s Your Turn:

  1. What do you find helps you to “keep climbing” as a foster or adoptive parent? Is there something you would add to this list?
  2. What causes you to feel helpless and hopeless?
  3. What can you do to combat those feelings?