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

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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:

  1. BREAKS
    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.
  2. FELLOW CLIMBERS
    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!
  3. SUSTENANCE
    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?

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The A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting: Book Review

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From the Cover of The A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting: Strategies and Solutions by Sarah Naish:

“Therapeutic parenting is a deeply nurturing parenting style, and is especially effective for children with attachment difficulties, or those who have experienced trauma. This book provides everything you need to know in order to effectively therapeutically parent.

The A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting gives parents and caregivers an easy to follow step-by-step process to use when responding to common behaviors and challenges presented by traumatized children. Topics range from acting aggressively to difficulties with sleep, and include advice on what might trigger these issues, and how to respond to them therapeutically, in order to start to resolve these challenges.

Easy to navigate and written in a quick reference, straightforward style, this book is a ‘must-have’ for all therapeutic parents.”


Grade:

5 hoots out of 5

Transfiguring Adoption awarded this book 5 Hoots out of 5 based on how useful it will be for a foster/adoptive family. [Learn more about our Hoot grading system here]


What Our Family Thought:

The target audience for this book are parents who are facing parenting challenges, especially those whose children have endured trauma. Sarah Naish is a foster/adoptive mom and writes as both a professional and an experienced therapeutic parent. This is one of those books that I so wish I had in my hands as we were beginning the foster care and adoption journey a decade ago. It would have been a game changer for our home in terms of understanding and responding to children in our home.

Sarah neatly divides the book into two parts for readers.

“Part 1: The Basics” covers the foundations and models of therapeutic parenting and explains why children who have experiences trauma behave the way they do. It covers responses and strategies to avoid, as well as compassion fatigue and the importance of caregivers caring for themselves along with ways to build in that self-care. Brimming with useful, pictorial analogies to help caregivers in their understanding, encouragement for the journey, and practical solutions, this section lays the groundwork for the second part of the book.

“Part 2: A-Z of Behaviours and Challenges with Solutions” contains an alphabetical listing of behaviors and challenges that parents face when parenting foster and adoptive children. When writing the book, Ms. Naish thought she would address about twenty-five topics, but after thinking about what questions she is frequently asked and consulting therapeutic parents about what topics they would like to see addressed, the count reached over sixty. Each topic entry begins with a definition of the behavior or challenge followed by what it looks like in a child, why it might happen, and strategies, often including preventative strategies and strategies for during and after the behavior. Some of the topics also include a “reality check,” which offers “some quick and helpful facts as an overview.” This section of the book provides a quick reference that can be used when needed most.

Overall, this book is an extremely useful resource for foster and adoptive parents. Sarah Naish’s series of therapeutic books for children would make a great companion to help children understand their own behavior and challenges and find empowerment to overcome obstacles.


Buy From Our Links and Support Transfiguring Adoption:


It’s Your Turn:

  1. What analogy did you find most helpful in understanding your child(ren)? (trauma lake, child driver)
  2. Which of the topics listed do you find most challenging?
  3. What new strategies will you implement in your parenting as a result of reading this book?

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4 Tips To Help Foster and Adoptive Children with Boundaries

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When a child is born, caregivers determine where the child will go. The child’s domain usually consists of a crib, the arms of caregivers and loved ones, or a place they are buckled into such as a bouncy seat, carseat, or stroller. As the child grows and starts to become mobile, their caregivers allow them increasing areas to explore. These areas usually start with a playpen and gradually increase to a gated room, a floor of the home, the backyard, the street, and eventually the neighborhood. Once teens get their driver’s license, their reach extends as they practice being young adults.

The perimeters, or boundaries, we set for our children keep them safe. The boundaries should reflect the development of the child and their ability to be safe in the area in which we allow them to roam, whether physical, behavioral, or virtual. All children test the boundaries set for them, and sometimes they show through their behavior that they are not quite ready for the increased limits we set. So what happens when children show that they cannot be safe outside the playpen? Well, most parents put the child back in the playpen. And what is usually the child’s response to having their freedom restricted again? It is usually a very angry scream!

Sometimes, however, the child shows or expresses relief at the safety provided by the limits placed on them. Maybe the skinned knee hurt, and the child is glad for the training wheels being put back on the big kid bike because the child realizes more practice is needed with the help of the training wheels. We have had one child who was often so grateful to be metaphorically put back in the playpen, having old boundaries reimposed. As parents, the gratefulness at first was so surprising, but this child had enough self-awareness to know that the limits were needed because the child’s impulsivity or the temptation to push through the limits was just too much for the child.

So much of the child’s response depends on our approach. If we react to their behavior solely with anger and punishment, the child often does not learn anything from the situation, and our relationship suffers. So what can we do to help the child not rebel and scream at being put back in the playpen? On the child’s level of understanding:

  1. Acknowledge feelings – Acknowledge the child’s feelings. What feelings was the child having before, during, and after crossing a boundary? Help the child understand what they may be feeling, whether it is anger, frustration, fear, or so on.
  2. Express nurturing concern – Talk about your own feelings and fears resulting from the boundary the child crossed. Discuss with the child things that could happen as a result of crossing the particular boundary. It is important to let the child think through potential consequences and come to their own conclusions as much as possible.
  3. Express teamwork – Rather than just imposing boundaries on the child, expressing an attitude of teamwork and coming alongside the child to help them manage and control their actions has a huge impact on their reactions to boundaries.
  4. Express the child’s value – Leigh Anne Goldstine of the Built 2 Bond Attachment Institute in Knoxville, Tennessee, has taught us that one idea children in foster care or who have been adopted often struggle with is that making a mistake does not mean that they are a failure or that they are unlovable. This often results in either internalizing the mistake and feeling they personally are a failure who cannot do anything right, or they refuse to accept responsibility so that they can believe they are still lovable.

These steps are not in any particular order. You may need to do one before the others dependent on the situation. It is also super important to remember that if the child is in a state of “fight, flight, or freeze” or is in some way out of control, they are mentally unable to think because the child’s brain is physically unable to access rational thought, logic, or reason.

I will admit that I often respond to a child breaking boundaries with a knee-jerk attitude of anger and punishment. It never makes the child or me feel good about the situation, and it does not aid in our attachment. But when I have employed the strategies above, the results have always been increased attachment between the child and myself and growth for the child. Recently, one of our kids had a big behavioral regression and had to be “put back in the playpen” in one area. Limits had to be put back in place because the behavior showed the child could not handle the increased limits. I started to respond with anger and punishment, but I stepped back a moment and went back to the child. I used the approach above, and what resulted was an extended time holding this precious young person, discussing how to prevent the boundaries from being broken, making the child feel valued, and connecting over discussing what happened. At one point, the child broke down and cried and apologized for causing stress for us. I cupped the child’s chin in my hand, met the child’s eyes, and said that it was an honor and a privilege to be the child’s mom. The thanks and happy tears and connection that followed was a huge win, and we were able to move forward as a team to work towards healing and growth. I could have missed that moment!


Here are some great books to help children learn some important concepts related to behavioral boundaries, mistakes, and feelings:

  1. Books to Help Children Understand They Are Loveable and Valuable Even When They Make Mistakes:
    The Mermaid Who Couldn’t
    by Ali Redford [Our Review]
    What Do You Do with a Problem? by Kobi Yamada [Our Review]
    I Love You Through and Through by Bernadette Rosetti-Shustak [Our Review]
  2. Books to Help Kids See Adults Mess Up Too:
    Ellie Jelly and the Massive Mum Meltdown by Sarah Naish [Our Review]

Share with others:

What resources have you used to help your child with these concepts?
What other tips do you have for helping children with boundaries?


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