Thursday, July 6, 2017

Surprised by Attachment: Regulation

My entire being cringed recently as I sat beside my ecstatic son watching family videos from five years ago- a few short months after our two sons came home through foster care adoption.

As I sat beside my son, his delight barely registered to me, because I was traumatized by the video. All I could hear in the old recording from two of my children’s voices and body language was their cry of, “I’m a dysregulated mess! I can’t handle this video camera thing! Please help me feel safe. I don’t want to be like this, but I can’t stop. I need your help!”

My son unknowingly tortured me by replaying the videos several times. Eventually, I was able to hear beyond my children to my own voice behind the camera. I was surprised that, despite the fact that I in way over my head at the time, I was playing my part exactly as the books instruct:  calmly responding to each question, asking my children to redo less-than-desirable behaviors, and patiently teaching them respectful phrases that were missing from their vocabulary.

But none of my textbook interaction was making any difference. In fact, my interventions seemed to make everything worse.

The books I read to prepare for adoption had instructed me that my child must feel safe before I should attempt behavioral interventions. However, I don’t remember instruction on how to help my specific child feel safe given his traumatic past.  How would I be able to tell if my interventions were helping? How could I tell he wasn’t feeling safe in the first place?!

The reason I couldn’t help my children feel safe was that I didn’t know they were feeling unsafe. I had no idea that the absence of feeling safe led to dysregulation. I didn’t even know what regulation was!

All I knew was that time with my sons in the early days was uncomfortable. Much of the time, I couldn’t stand to be in conversation with them or even be in the same room as them, and because of that, I felt like a horrible failure as their mom. I felt like giving up.

It took me three years to begin to realize that almost any time I can barely tolerate my children, it’s because they’re dysregulated (or I’m dysregulated), and there are always ways to help them regulate.

When I give my children what they need to regulate their emotions, we can eventually enjoy each other. They can’t do this alone.

Recognizing Dysregulation

If I had immediately recognized all of my children’s dysregulated behaviors six years ago, I would have been inclined to attempt to “correct” them. My interventions would have been shaming and shame never leads to emotional or relational  health.

If I’ve learned anything about dysregulation, it’s that I can’t discipline it out of my child. I can’t have a rational discussion about it with my child. When he’s dysregulated, he’s beyond reason. He needs my calm to regulate. I have to stop thinking of him as manipulative or self-sabotaging and put aside any thought that leads me down the road toward blaming him for where he’s at- a place he needs me to help him move past. Rather I need to recognize his fear, anxiety, and stress and call his behavior what it is- dysregulation. He needs me to set him up for success by limiting his opportunities for failure. He needs me to create safe predictability and rhythm into his life. He needs me to stop overwhelming him.

Those ideas were far beyond my comprehension six years ago. At the time, I didn’t have any calm to share. I was living in a constant state of overwhelmed myself.

Dysregulation doesn’t look the same in every person. I’ve gathered a list of indicators of dysregulated family members. Even though it’s imperfect, I’ve attempted to categorize the following behaviors in an effort to simplify. Some behaviors don’t fit neatly under a category (e.g., eating non-food items). Most of the following are either efforts to self-soothe or maladaptive survival skills.

  • Tension:  
    • tense body
    • exhibits emotions too intense for a situation
  • Hyper:  
    • excessive chattering
    • silliness that seemed inexplicably unrelaxed (and not fun for anyone)
    • obsessive organizing (often in a way that actually makes a mess)
    • difficulty calming down
    • making repetitive sounds or motions
    • unusually loud voice volume
    • attention difficulties
    • incapable of rational discussion
  • Withdrawal:  
    • avoids eye contact
    • shuts down completely
    • unusually quiet voice volume
    • spaces out
    • unable to function at typical cognitive baseline
  • Aggression:
    • impulsive
    • breaks things
    • hurts people or animals (or attempts to)
    • feels attacked in circumstances that are outside of human control
    • steals items (often that are meaningless to acquire)
  • Self-Sabotaging:  
    • self-sabotages situations/events/gifts that had the potential to be enjoyable
    • exhibits controlling or manipulative behaviors
    • lies when the truth is obvious
    • urinating on self or in personal space

Helping My Children Regulate

Even though I’m not a therapist or an occupational therapist, I have figured out a few ways to help my specific children feel safe so they can regulate their emotions. I now understand that I have to maintain a family rhythm that considers my children’s sensory needs and their ever-changing tolerance for activities and relationships. It is my failure as a parent and an emotional setback for my children every time I overwhelm them and their behavior suffers.

When I notice my child is unusually dysregulated, I need to do three things:  1) help him feel safe, 2) speak to his fears (if or when he has the ability to listen), and 3) lower his stress.

In order to do these three things, I need to know him well enough to notice if he needs containment or movement- both of which, when used correctly, help my children emotionally regulate. For us, movement seems to be more useful as a proactive tool and containment can be helpful both as part of our daily rhythm and as a tool used when felt safety has already been compromised. After felt safety has been established, movement can again be regulating. (The one exception for us is an outdoor chair that bounces because it is both containing and it can move, it can be regulating even when our children are suffering from a setback.)

What is Containment?

Containment is the act of providing a defined, safe place. We create safe places in the way we choose our family routine, set boundaries, create rules, repeat family mantras all based on our children’s relational and extracurricular abilities. Their behavior tells us when we need to modify our rules or routine to help them feel safer.

We also create physical safe places for our children if they are having difficulty regulating. Sometimes they need a cozy fort with pillows or a weighted blanket. I’ve heard of parents making closets into comfy retreat centers for their children to regulate in (with parental check-ins, of course). When not at home, we have to be more creative. For us, even a beach towel has become the defined space our child needed so he could begin to feel contained.

What Type of Movement is Regulating?

My children’s therapist is excellent at helping us learn ways for our children to regulate through movement. Some of our family favorites are swimming, jumping, swinging, rocking, and spinning. On a rainy day, our children find playing with play dough, weaving, or jumping on our indoor mini trampoline to be helpful for regulation. Any rhythmic, repetitive activity has the potential to be regulating.

Also, my kids love heavy work. Shoveling snow, digging anything, and scrubbing floors are all regulating activities for them. As our children complete chores, they also have increased confidence as they know they’re being helpful.

As I Attempt to Help my Children Regulate their Emotions, I Must Remember...

If something isn’t working, it just means the activity isn’t regulating for my child- yet. In the past, some of the above tools would have distracted my children or stressed them out even further. It shows major growth that previous distractions have become tools my children can now utilize to regulate their emotions. They make consistent progress as we give them what they can handle until it becomes clear they can handle more.

Even though rewatching our home videos was torture at first, I’m glad I had the opportunity to see clearly how far we’ve come as a family. Regulation is a slow road for many of our families. Some of us read through the points under “recognizing dysregulation” and think, This is my child- all day, everyday. For some of our families, we have to give our children months and months of safe activities and predictability knowing that merely making eye-contact with our child could seriously set our entire family back.

For us, felt safety has eventually led to co-regulation. Co-regulation is leading toward self-regulation. There isn’t a timeline we can follow.

I’m thankful to now recognize that dysregulation is the problem because I’m empowered to do my very best to give my child what he needs to do better.

There is hope.


Also in this series- Surprised by Attachment: Time

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Goodbye Facebook

Dear Facebook,

You’ve introduced me to some of my closest friends, which I know sounds creepy, but in the world of adoption it truly isn’t that unusual.

In fact, social media seems the least threatening place for me to share my parenting struggles with friends, most of whom I’ve never met in person, because they live too far away to be in relationship with my children. On my blog, I’m able to mostly share my part of the struggle- the part that shares few details of my children’s behavior. With my Facebook friends, I’m able to share the other part without compromising my children’s safety or trust. Without the camaraderie of these friends, I feel as if frustration and repression would have killed me years ago.

This journey has given me an unusual sense of humor, but it hasn’t killed my need for laughter. With my Facebook friends, I can laugh at instances the majority of people would find inappropriate for discussion or would shock them into putting as much distance as possible between our family and their family. Tell me your toddler found a chair to climb on, opened the fridge, and took a bite of Daddy’s surprise birthday cheesecake and I might crack a smile. Tell me your seventeen-year-old underhandedly acquired twenty-one cheesecakes from Costco because he felt hungry for a snack and was surprised when you noticed them stored in your fridge, and I’ll cackle.

I’m sure you’re now thinking, “You can’t leave. You meet some of your closest  friends through me. You keep in touch with your old friends through me. Because of me, you realize some of your “old friends” share your current struggles. Where would you be without me?”

All of the above is true and I’m truly thankful you’ve helped me build community, Facebook, but lately the cost of logging into you seems to outweigh the benefits. As I look back through my timeline, I notice how my posts increased in intensity over twelve years time. Some of the intensity is due to my own life experiences, but, honestly, very little of it. Since your sidebar now includes a constant stream of overwhelming and discouraging news and my feed is also filled with acute posts, I can’t merely visit you to get a break while connecting with good friends like I used to. Your ads are also a distraction and I’m discouraged by their ability to drag me in and cause me to question whether or not I’m content with what I currently have.

I notice the more time I spend with you, Facebook, the less patience I have with the people closest to me and that breaks my heart.

I know you’re thinking, “Yes, but you blog, so you’re stuck with me. Without me you wouldn’t have half of the blog traffic you have. Would anyone even read your blog if it weren’t for me?”

Truthfully, I have to say I no longer care. I care that the people who will be encouraged by my writing will read it, but I don’t care about numbers of pageviews. If I decided to put my hope in numbers, I would stick with you, Facebook. I’d have to, but I know that decision would be made out of fear. For now, I’m going to trust that my friends parenting children from hard places will share my writing if they think it will be helpful to their peers. I have to remind myself that my intended audience can grow even if my overall audience shrinks dramatically.

I have to remind myself that that would be a blessing.

One of my wonderful friends (whom I have never met in person) and I were chatting the other day and I told her how now that I’ve found solid friends, I yearn to dive deeper in those friendships. I’ve even considered committing a year to write actual letters each month to a handful of friends. Why is it this feels like a special project rather than just what good friends do to share life with each other?

Please don’t think I’m going to end this letter without answering your question. As I’ve already noted, I don’t know where I’d be without the friends I’ve met through you. For that, I am grateful to you, Facebook. I don’t know how I would have met some of the most admirable and brave women I know had it not been for your initial introduction. But, I now know them. We don’t have to login to be in relationship with each other. We can call. We can email. Maybe one day we’ll be able to visit in person. With the extra time I’ll have by avoiding all you have to offer, I might even take the opportunity to write a few of those letters.

It isn’t because of you, Facebook. It’s because I’ve allowed you to become a replacement for something I desperately need. I search you and search you and can’t find the depth I’m looking for.

But depth was never your intention. You are not to blame.

I am.

And I’m ready to make a change.



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Thursday, April 6, 2017

Ghosts in the Hallway (a Respite Story)

Yesterday morning, before even changing out of my pajamas or getting to the bottom of my first cup of coffee, I attended a very special concert. The venue was our unheated attic. The artist an outwardly lively four-year-old with a hint of melancholy. He was wearing superhero pajama pants with his Robin shirt and cape while strumming his guitar's remaining five strings and singing.

He introduced his first song as a “sad song.” The lyrics went something like this:

Mom and Dad left
I was all alone
My grandparents moved in
I was abandoned

And there were ghosts in the hallway
Ghosts in the hallway…

This is the song our son composed and earnestly performed five days after Matt and I returned from a three night getaway- during which our children were cared for by adoring grandparents, consumed more sugar than they had the previous three months combined, and heard a consistent stream of Granddad’s riveting tales of family members narrowly escaping being eaten by wildlife.

As I listened to the song, I was also processing our respite situation over the past six years. Getting a break that doesn’t lead to insecurity and major behavioral regression in our children has seemed an insurmountable task and that has been a challenge in our marriage.

Feeling abandoned is sad. Ghosts are scary.

Two of our children have faced- not ghosts- but very real fears. It has taken us years to establish trusting relationships with each other. We’ve been through stages where our children were more afraid of us than anything else in the world and would prefer we drop them off with any stranger to being stuck with us- which clearly wasn’t safe (or easy). We’ve been through stages where it seemed our children were fairly frightened of us and yet felt unusually abandoned when we left them in even the safest of situations. We’re currently in a stage where we’re learning how to best plan for our children to both be safe and feel secure even during our absence.

Which reminds me of the third song in our son’s set yesterday morning:

The Happy Song

Mom and Dad came back
We were laughing so hard we cried...

After our recent getaway, we returned and our children were in various states of dysregulation, but they had enjoyed themselves and they transitioned well when we came home.

There was laughter.

They were all glad we were back.

Which is something we do not take for granted in our family.

[In full disclosure, while we were happy to reunite, we were also all exhausted. Transitions are generally exhausting in our family.]

I would be glad to hear your Respite Stories

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Thursday, March 2, 2017

Surprised by Attachment: Time

Today I’m beginning a series called “Surprised by Attachment.” The only reason this subject is becoming a series is because I’ve had way too many failures (or, “learning opportunities”) to fit them into one post. It isn’t my intention to make this a weekly series or anything because you know I don’t really have my stuff together enough for that.

When we began our two-day journey home with our two new sons, limbs were flailing and voices were screaming. Within an hour, my seat had been violently kicked one too many times and shoes had been removed from the terrified offender. By hour three, we had already stopped to use the bathroom no less than sixteen times- only three of them yielding any evidence the stop had been necessary in the first place- yet all accompanied by dramatic potty dances until the confused moment of truth arrived. By hour six we had resigned to the fact that our entire trip was going to move to the rhythm of the question, “Us going on field trip?,” repeated every forty seconds by one of our sons.

I now realize the behavior that was (at the time) driving me quickly out-of-my-mind was a manifestation of my sons’ anxiety rooted in their early childhood trauma.

Prior to that enlightening road trip, I was adhering to a set of ideals that I knew were going to transform me into a super-mom to my sons who were coming home as older children.

With my ideals, attachment would be a breeze.

So I thought.

My first ideal was this:  What children need to attach to their caregiver is time. Spending every moment with our children would result in securely attached children.

And because my best attempts to sign our children up for our public school lottery had already failed, I planned to bring my children home and spend time with them. All day. Everyday.

...Until about an hour into our drive home, when I began frantically making calls to our school district because I knew my son had to go to school the following Monday. [In my (and in my son’s) dreams!)]

Slowly, in the years since our drive home, I’ve been processing the relationship between time and attachment in older child adoption. In the beginning of our relationship, I ignorantly believed my child’s behavior was communicating a hatred for me and an unwillingness to attach. Slowly I came to the realization that my child was threatened by me because he had no reason to believe a mother could be trustworthy or capable. He acted the way he did around me because he was facing his worst fear every time he was in my presence.

Eventually I even began to realize that I, in the face of my child’s behavior, was also living in a state of fear and stress.

I had to let go of my ideal. So, I began to simplify the situation for myself and here's what I came up with:

  1. I need to do everything in my power to lower my child’s stress level so we build a solid relationship and enjoy attachment even if that means what my child needs most is predictable breaks from me, and

  1. I need to do everything in my power to lower my own stress level so my child and I can build a solid relationship and enjoy attachment (while managing my child’s needs first- which is no small feat) even if that means what I need most is predictable breaks from my child.

Every family is different and every child has unique needs. Attachment comes quickly for some families adopting older children. For other children who haven’t yet known safe adults outside of school or group living situations, small opportunities to build trust with caregivers could be key.

Getting long, predictable breaks for children to process their decision to trust a parent for the first time in their lives could also be key.

I always have to remember, it isn’t my child’s responsibility to attach to me. And it isn’t my responsibility to try to force attachment in my relationship with my child.

It’s my responsibility to lead the attachment process by being trustworthy to my specific child. In my experience that’s meant limiting our parent/child interactions and focusing on how to make the limited interactions we have safe and fun- for both of us- and then growing from there.

I would love to hear about your thoughts and experiences!

Thursday, February 2, 2017

My Resolution: Four Years Late

Yes. That IS a toilet in our sunroom.

Four years ago, our youngest son was born. My resolution for the first year of his life was to finally organize our house because ordering our physical space seemed like the first step to creating a calm environment to lower our family stress. This seemed like a perfectly reasonable resolution given our three older sons had begun full-day school two weeks earlier.

We had only been living in our house for a few months.The previous owners had (tastefully and artistically) painted every wall in our house shades of purple, yellow, green, and dark grey (many ceilings and most trim included). With the previous owner’s exquisitely chosen decorations and funky mid-century furniture, the house had a glamorous look.

When we moved our mostly-found-on-the-side-of-the-road stuff in, it had the look of pandemonium. It felt as if a McDonald’s play area from the 1980s vomited all over my living quarters, robbing me of any chance of a quiet heart. (Without the aroma of french fries. Which is unfortunate.)

When our youngest son was six weeks old, my plans began to change.


First, I pulled one son out of school because he needed more time with me.

Before the year was complete, it became clear that another son would be joining our daytime circus as his school was refusing to follow his IEP and he was regressing socially, emotionally, behaviorally, and academically.

I didn’t have a legal battle in me and my child needed space to recover from the bullying and abuse he had endured in school.

So, rather than getting my house in order, I frantically managed piles and prayed I could locate items (such as medical records, school paperwork, and clean underwear) on an as-needed basis and frequently reminded myself that it was a blessing I could spend all this additional time with my sons. (It was.)

Four years later, I’m happy to report we’ve painted everything except for one hallway and a pantry.

And we’ve almost unpacked.

Our adoption journey is teaching me that while I can choose my battles in life, I have a limited ability to choose the amount of urgency that comes along with the battles I must fight. Order is important. Having order will be healthier for every member of our family.

And while my heart aches that I haven’t yet had opportunity to provide that order, I’m aware that for the majority of the past six years I’ve been a warrior fighting necessary battles for my family.

While engaged in combat, I haven’t had opportunity to sort through boxes, organize my children’s books, or remember to pay the water bill before our city’s notice was fixed to our front door with bright orange tape warning us we had twenty-four hours to pay it if we didn’t want to be cut off.

So, it’s taken four years. It isn’t done yet.

And I’m exceedingly grateful.

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