At three, Sam drank kerosene from a used “Mountain Dew” can. As a toddler he had his clothes stapled to the floor as a means of control or cruelty or deranged parenting. At four, Sam is expelled from kindergarten for a host of reasons including wiping feces on school bus windows. He was the youngest of five siblings and the sex toy for older youth in the home. He was beat with a wooden paddle drilled full of holes. Nearing his 4th birthday, Sam was locked into a van as his biological father as torching it. The police and firemen arrived in time to save him.
At 14, this boy, my adopted son, has thirteen confirmed thefts, five incidents of fire setting, nine physical attacks against siblings and staff, ten death threats to others, numerous property destructions, three cases of serious self harm, four incidents of running away (one at 20 below zero with no coat) and one school bomb threat. This is a fraction of documented information from the first of several residential placements. It doesn’t begin to tell the day-to-day heartbreak and chaos of living with my son.
And all I could ask was…What was I doing wrong? Why wasn’t my parenting working? What was I missing? What could I do differently? Be strict, be flexible, give more consequence, paste up more sticker charts, give more rewards, use deprivation or isolation. My traditional parenting bag of tricks was empty. I was tired, confused, overwhelmed, and drowning in the guilt of ineffectively parenting my son. We were sinking together.
I had raised both biological and adopted children with success, but my son came with trauma I could barely comprehend. I saw only behaviors. I didn’t understand the depth of his fear or the lengths he would go to keep himself alive. His terror of dying overrode his ability to participate in life. In his mind the pain of abuse was the pain of dying and he would avoid death and pain at the cost of destroying our world together.
The guilt stayed with me as I continued to ask what else I could have done. Medication management was the only option open at the time and Sam refused therapy. No therapy was offered to me and I didn’t know enough to ask for it. I believed the ADHD diagnosis and the medications increased on a monthly basis for 8 years. Service providers came and left and still no answers. School was a disaster and the teacher threatened to retire if he was placed back in her classroom for a 3rd year.
As Sam moved through the systems, one residential placement following another and the behaviors continued and escalated it became clear that I wasn’t the only trigger. I finally stopped taking his actions personally. Sam moved on to live in residential placements and finally an adult group home because in his mind, close relationships are deadly. I am mom. Sam is a son I love and parent from a distance.
Thirteen years pass and I adopt an infant with cocaine, alcohol and domestic violence in her history. Her behaviors mirror Sam’s. The cycle is starting again. The guilt creeps back, but this time I am determined to understand why. I meet an adoption competent therapist and our lives change forever. She provides me with a new lens to view my children. She spends our time together watching, listening, and teaching me why their brains react with such fear and volatility. She understands the terror and fear in children like my son and daughter. She throws me a safety line and I hang on as if life itself were at stake. For my children and myself it is. She ignites a spark for learning about trauma and attachment that continues to this day. She is also the birth mother of three and adoptive mother of four children with histories that parallel the histories of my children. And because of the therapist, a better parenting paradigm, and our parent support group, my infant adopted daughter is now a thriving teen with all the drama and joy that life in mainstream middle school brings.
Speaking from 25 years of foster/adoption experience, heartache and joy, this is certain. You’re not alone with your struggling children and teens. You will learn to advocate, search out support and accept it. Walk away from negativity in others; educate everyone you can about trauma and the brain’s struggle to survive. Caring, committed parents trying everything, quickly discover that everything is not enough. Lying, stealing, anger, aggression, chaos, fear and terror come from a place we can’t imagine. Our survival and ultimately our teen’s, lie in the strength, support and guidance of an adoption competent mental health provider.
Our strength will come from the therapist’s knowledge and ability to teach us the skills to understand and heal our teen. Connection to a support system that includes families who have survived the journey intact is a major part of keeping our own sanity. Just as building safe relationships is key for children and teens, building adult relationships of consistent, safe support is key to healthy parenting. While parenting our traumatized children we have lost most of our family support and many of our friends. It is crucial to find others who understand, guide and support us:
- Professionals to walk beside us and teach us the parenting tools we need to save the children and ourselves
- Families who have successfully traveled the minefield of traumatized teens to give us hope that we too can survive and thrive as families.
Some Day-to-Day Tips
- Safety first. If it isn’t a safety issue then it isn’t an issue; At least not one worth destroying a relationship over.
- Save the drama. Create calm in every interaction with your child.
- Listen more; talk less (this seems hard for us as parents to understand, but you don’t have to have the last word). Quiet parenting with teens is essential.
- No sarcasm. The word itself means to “tear flesh.” Bring that visual to mind next time you are sarcastic…it is cruelty.
- Make connections with your teen. If there is a break (such as a need to correct an action) then playfully reconnect as soon as possible. (15-30 seconds is a great time frame).
- Ask for help from professionals and supporters. We all make mistakes and that’s how we learn to do it better.
- Keep trying because your child’s ability to enjoy life depends on it.
It’s important to remember that you didn’t create the chaos in your teen’s mind. That comes from a time and place you were not part of. With foster/adoption competent help, support and education, you will be the means to creating a safe, healing environment for your child and your family.
Source: Linda Finerson, AFFCNY Board member and mother of 8 children, 6 of whom were adopted from foster care. Linda is the Program Director for the North Country Foster Adoptive Network (NCFAN) in Jefferson County.