Monday, October 2, 2017

Conversation with a Friend


Since adopting our children, I've met wonderful friends in unlikely places (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Group Therapy). I'm constantly challenged to become a better parent and a better person by these courageous friends. Honestly, I don't wish to imagine where I would be without their honesty, support, and wisdom. 

One of these lovely friends is Melissa from The Cork Board. She recently began a Podcast and I was honored to be her guest. 

Although I don't see myself being motivated enough to begin my own podcast, I greatly appreciate the depth that accompanies our conversation. When I blog, you hear what's going on in my heart, and what works for our very unique family. In the conversation with Melissa, you hear that while many of our experiences are similar, our problem solving looks different- and it has to because our families are different.

You can listen to the Podcast HERE.  


I'd love to hear if you can relate (and, in some instances, hope you can't). 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Developmental Trauma & Back to School




A couple weeks ago was the long-awaited first day of school for two of my children...

Due to developmental trauma, they crave structure that is next to impossible for me to provide them during summer vacation. Also, we live in the city, so running in a backyard for hours, daily, isn’t an option.

All summer long, I ran our family like I was running a highly-structured day camp. Our days resembled the days I once planned when I was a houseparent at a children’s home before having children. Every single moment was accounted for.  Every single moment received vigilant attention.

Still, it wasn’t enough for two of my children, and it was far too much for my other two…

By the time their brothers were happily waving from their school bus, my other two sons were desperate for weeks of unstructured play. I had to remind them to eat meals the first day of school because they were so absorbed in playing.

Because my two children needed their unstructured play more than anything else that first week, I only planned one (super fun) outing. We ventured to the teacher store to prepare for our homeschool year. This excursion isn’t even annual for us as I don’t ever brave a retail establishment unless I find it absolutely unavoidable- so the boys spent the better part of two hours exploring necessary educational tools such as kinetic sand, planetarium projectors, and musical instruments I would never purchase for them because I place a high value on my remaining sanity.

The teacher store we (in) frequent is kind of a hike for us so by the end of our visit we were looking forward to going home and each curling up with a good book when BAM, we got rear ended trying to enter a traffic circle. Whiplash.

The outing in its entirety is a perfect picture of how school starts for my other two sons- both of whom have endured developmental trauma. They can’t wait to get back into their highly structured routine. They wave delightedly from the bus and then BAM they realize summer is over and they’re no longer in their former, trusted teacher’s care.

The specific thing they were longing for no longer exists for them, and they feel a bit lost.

Then my phone starts ringing... because no matter how much I try to prepare my children for the new school year and their teachers for my children as their students, it is never enough.

I told a friend recently that I spend an average of five hours a week on communication with teachers in my sons’ school. At the end and beginning of the school year, I spend 25-30 hours a week preparing communication with my children’s school so my sons have the scaffolding they need to transition well.

Every year I feel more prepared than the year before and, nevertheless, I end up with whiplash.

Still, we’ve made progress in our communication with teachers over the years. The conversation must evolve as our relationships with our children deepen, our understanding of trauma deepens, and even our understanding of our children’s school culture deepens.

This year we shared the following info with our children’s teachers so the teachers had the information they needed to begin building trusting relationships with our children and so our children could feel safe enough in the classroom to regulate their emotions and learn. It is always our hope that as our children get their complex emotional needs met, they are calmer, the classroom is calmer, and every student in the classroom has increased learning opportunities.

Developmental Trauma in the Classroom- An Evolving Conversation

Physical Rewards

Because of early childhood trauma, physical rewards can lead to a hoarding mentality (survival strategy) my children are healing from. For some, once earning a physical reward they can focus on nothing other than getting more rewards and (frankly) more stuff. In the past, earning a simple keychain led to one of our son’s survival skill of digging in the garbage by the end of the week (when we hadn’t seen those behaviors for over two years).

Reward Systems Create Stress

Systems can seem endless for our children who are already overwhelmed. For some of our children, systems seem so overwhelming, they would often rather give up than try. Since the system seems so big, they lose confidence in sight of it. It isn’t containing enough for them to regulate their emotions and the system (that aims to motivate) is incapable of teaching them the skills they need to succeed. On top of all of that, systems are put in place to manage rather than relate. In essence, a reward system is relationship avoidant and harmful relationally to our children who have been working hard at establishing and maintaining relationships. As their relationships suffer, their confidence suffers. As their confidence suffers, their academics suffer.

Even more importantly for some students, the reward system gives them the ability to return to a common maladaptive survival skill: manipulation. The system increases their stress because they have no way to feel safe other than testing the system via manipulation to find the boundaries. The boundaries are not clear or containing enough for them to regulate their emotions and do better as a result of the system. Whenever boundaries are unclear and children do not feel contained (safe), there is major potential for emotional, behavioral, academic and relational regression in our most traumatized children.

Logical, Intrinsic Rewards can Help Healing

Rewards can be good for our children as long as they are natural/logical and intrinsic! For example: If the students do their best work and there’s time left over, they get extra free time/recess. Since our children are already hurting for more movement time, this seems to be productive in many ways. The movement is regulating. There is no overwhelming system. Of course, for this to work with my kids it has to be really low key and it works best if there isn’t previewing (which minimizes the potential for loss and BIG feelings due to loss that can interrupt learning time). They just taste the reward for being efficient and are therefore more motivated to be efficient in the future. Previewing always has the potential to create anxiety for our children suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Logical, intrinsic rewards used without previewing can reinforce the often lacking (for our children with developmental trauma) cause-and-effect thinking.

Behavior is Communication

I’ll admit, ignoring negative behaviors was key during our early relationship with our children because we had to choose our battles. We had to establish safety and a tiny bit of trust before they could even listen to our words. Still, now that we know them, we realize that behavior is communication. If our child stomps into the house after school and snaps at all of his brothers, I might have to give him space while his feelings are so big. Later, the relational approach is to ask him what happened at school and tell him I know from watching him get off the bus that he’s dealing with something. One of our children rarely wants to verbally process, but he is almost always relieved when a trusted adult acknowledges his hurt.

Our children went through years of neglect so, while I know my kids often need time, space and physical activity to regulate enough to connect, they need to be heard. If I ignored their negative behaviors consistently, they wouldn’t be heard because they don’t yet have the communication/relational skills they need to initiate many conversations via words. When our children don’t feel heard, they cannot listen or learn.

Punishment vs. Boundaries

When behaviors are negative, we’ve learned that taking something from our children intensifies their loss. Their early lives were defined by loss. That doesn’t mean they don’t need to “lose privileges.” However, the language we’re learning to use with them is much more respectful of their experience. We simply say, “We can tell by your behavior that (this movie/game/bedtime/etc…) is too much for you. Our job is to keep you safe.”

The very best we can do with our children is monitor their tolerance level and develop a routine that considers what they can best handle. When we do this, they rarely “lose” anything. Rather, they are set up for consistent success and their confidence improves as a result. Their routine is healing, lowers their stress, and helps them learn to trust us. Eventually they can tolerate more and we can establish a new routine based off of their increased tolerance.

Our children need the adults in their lives to provide safe boundaries for them based on what their behavior is communicating. If one of our children is being silly (and he’s not naturally silly), asking for help before attempting to do his work independently, is leaving the classroom more frequently than could possibly be necessary, or is asking for a teacher to assign value to his work, he is dysregulated and needs more clear boundaries so he can feel contained enough to regulate and do his best. Our children need to know from day one that their teachers will always expect them to make an admirable attempt at independent work before offering to help them. Their teachers realize they sometimes ask to leave the room when they’re dysregulated and that the teacher will let their parents know if they’re asking to exit the classroom at an unusual rate. Their teachers will always be thrilled with their best work, but will refrain from judging it. Rather, their teachers will ask them what they think of their work. (This has been incredibly helpful because it helps our children develop confidence. Our children will only listen to external validation if the adults around him let them...which is quite dangerous in the long run. When we use this approach, our children at times realize they haven’t done their best work and opt to modify it on their own.)

Social Support  

Though our children may be social, they could have difficulty connecting with their classmates. Often their social development is delayed as a result of their early life experiences. They may misinterpret others’ behavior, and may interpret others’ behavior as being disrespectful to them. Additionally, because our children often have difficulty with social nuances, they may say things that hurt others’ feelings which aren’t intended to hurt others’ feelings. When our children are afraid, they can be mean, and they need direction to know how to repair relationships- in the moment. When our children feel wronged by a friend, they may completely shut down. They can become depressed and unable to learn when they feel left out or friendless. When our children get the support they need to build and maintain friendships, they are more confident, better team members, and are able to learn more.

Team

Beyond anything, our children need to know the adults in their lives are on the same team and are willing to communicate anytime they’re struggling. We will always give our children’s teachers the benefit of the doubt and will contact them if we have questions and we hope our children’s teachers will do the same with us. Our children need the parent/teacher relationship to be solid so they can feel secure. When our children are feeling their safest, they can do their best.

It’s important to note that the above information has been collected from our children’s gifted teachers, brilliant therapists, and parents with far more experience than we have. I have no idea where we would be without the compassionate parents and professionals who have willingly shared their wisdom with us.

What am I missing? I’d love to hear what you’ve shared with your children’s teachers!

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.

FOLLOW EMOTIONAL REGULATION TOOLS AND INTERVENTIONS HERE ON PINTEREST

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.

Farewell,

Nicole

Let's stay in touch! You can email me at coffeecoloredsofa@gmail.com.


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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


Chorus
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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