Becoming a “Bossy” Parent to Abused Boy

Watchful’s new therapist, who I will call Maude, strongly believes that young boys who have suffered physical abuse need their foster parents to be super strong “bosses.”   Is being extra strict best?  What are your thoughts?

I’m open to learning new parenting techniques.  One thing I’ve learned about parenting kids with behavior issues, attachment issues, and past trauma is that “regular” parenting is not always the most effective.  But I wonder how well this “super boss” approach will mesh with mine and my husband’s personalities.

Maude began the therapy session telling Watchful in no uncertain terms that I am his boss and that he will listen to me.  When he complained about not liking to go to therapy, Maude’s response was that I am in charge of taking care of Watchful and I have determined that he needs therapy and that is that.

Gotta run.  But more on this therapy approach soon.  Wait until you hear about how she wants us to handle the self harming.  The overall therapy model we will be using is called the Attachment, Self-Regulation and Competency (ARC) framework.

Have you done ARC?  Did it work?

Bio Kid’s Struggle with Foster Care

My biological daughter has been struggling with the placement of two foster children in our home. So do I regret taking in these foster kids? No. And here’s why.

My bio daughter Sassy is 13. Thirteen is a tough age. It’s the time in our life that we realize life isn’t all sunshine and smiles as we had believed thanks to watching too much My Little Ponies‎ and our parents diligent efforts to shield us from the bad things lurking out there. But boogie men really do exist. We call them rapists, drug dealers, murderers, and thieves. Other “boogie men” are addiction and mental illness. Some boogie men hurt children and some of those hurt children end up in foster care.  That’s the hard facts of life.

Sassy was already learning that the world can be cruel. She was learning about anorexia, drunk driving, bullying, and war.

Learning that some parents abuse and neglect their children has been tough. But it has provided a way for my husband and me to teach Sassy how to respond to life’s ugly side. We stand up to bad things and fight for what’s right. We realize that our efforts may seem like a drop in the bucket, but we will make sure it’s the right bucket. And it makes a difference. Sassy can see the impact we are having on Joyful’s and Watchful’s lives.

We’ve sought therapy for Sassy to help guide her through this dark side of the human experience. She has been exploring how she wants to respond to nastiness, and we’ve been right by her side, sharing our values with her.  Our conversations with her have pulled us closer together than ever. As we coach her in how to be a sister to a hurt child, we are amazed by her personal growth. ‎ Her empathy and patience have dramatically increased.  It’s amazing to watch your child’s blossoming passion for doing what’s right.

So am I sad that Sassy is struggling? Yes, like any parent, I wish I had a magic wand to make all the boogie men disappear. But reality confronts us all as we turn from children into adults.  As parents, our job is to help our kids become the best possible people they can be.

And foster care is helping my daughter become an adult that I truly admire.

Yes, I have My Own Social Worker

Can I brag for a moment about my county’s foster care office?  Sure, there are hiccups (it is part of the government bureaucracy, after all), but they have social workers whose only job is to be advocates and resources for foster parents!  Wow, does that come in handy!

Take for instance my efforts to get Watchful emergency therapy for his self destructive behavior.  The kids’ social worker is a newbie, and while good hearted, she’s still learning the ropes of her job.  It’s been weeks since Watchful began hurting himself, and the kids’ social worker was still working out how to get the therapy authorized.

Enter my personal guardian angel social worker, who I will call Gorgeous Soul.  She used her insider clout to light a fire under the kids’  social worker.  Gorgeous Soul empowered us by letting us know what to do if Watchful’s situation deteriorated further, informing us of how and where to take him for emergency mental health services.  She gives the absolute best pep talks.  And when a certain somebody was dismissive of our concerns, implying we were over reacting, she came roaring to our defense.

Maybe 12-18 months ago, our county began the program of social workers for foster parents as a way to retain foster homes and ensure foster parents were a valued and integral member of the foster care team.

Mission accomplished. Well done, Department of Family Services.

New Foster Child? Meet Jumping Jack

When we first agreed to Joyful and Watchful’s placement, we said we’d take their little brother, 4-year-old Jumping Jack too, if he came into care.  But a week later, we made a different plan.  Here’s why.

Initially, we were told the youngest sibling was a three-year-old girl.  Room-wise, this made it easy to house everyone, since a little girl could bunk with Joyful.  When we found out that she was a he, we still were interested in the taking Jumping Jack, and thought we’d look at moving Joyful in with Sassy.

But in the intervening week between Joyful and Watchful’s arrival and Jumping Jack entering foster care, two things happened.  First, Sassy had a hard time adjusting to Joyful and Watchful’s presence in our home.  Second, we saw how the three siblings interact together and found out there were some major issues.

Sassy is our 13-year-old (bio) daughter.  She’s a giving, sensitive teenager.  Having to confront the hard reality of abuse and neglect has been tough.  Like many young teens, Sassy had already been grappling with the harsh reality that the outside world can be cruel.  It can be a difficult transition from the age of Care Bears & My Little Ponies to burgeoning awareness of poverty, racism, inequality, etc.

It’s an even harder transition when living proof of the world’s cruelty moves into your home.  Here are two young children whom Sassy has immediately befriended.  These new friends have been abused and neglected, and they are honest and open about their experiences.  Sassy is learning how to handle hearing about the trauma or witnessing Watchful’s panic attacks.  We had deep reservations about taking away her refuge – her personal bedroom – where she could escape the craziness that foster care had injected into her life.

And then there was the matter of dysfunction in the siblings’ relationships.  Joyful and Watchful have deep resentment of Jumping Jack.  Jumping Jack was exempt from the physical abuse.  In fact, Jumping Jack was allowed to hit or throw things at Joyful and Watchful.  It’s heart breaking to see a brother hurt his brother and sister, and even harder hearing their dad tell the older two that they had to let their baby brother hurt them.  Jumping Jack is allowed to steal any toy, food or possession from Joyful and Watchful; but if Joyful or Watchful try to do the same back, they were beaten.  Jumping Jack is the favored golden child, who gets presents, cuddles from dad, and yummy treats.   Joyful and Watchful don’t receive anything.  Dad says the 10-year-old and 8-year-old are too old for toys, and dad has to be prompted to say hello to them and do stuff with them during visits.  Additionally, the three kids were frequently left home alone and Joyful was forced to be the mom.

So when the social worker asked us if we would take Jumping Jack, we expressed our concerns.  Given that Jumping Jack doesn’t speak English, we felt that having all three together would continue to put Joyful in a parentified role.  Jumping Jack would run to her as a translator, seeking her out to do things for him.  Watchful and Joyful didn’t want Jumping Jack to live with us.  Joyful didn’t want the responsibility and both were angry and resentful of him.  They would say mean things to him, taunting him and excluding him.  We were concerned that adding even more drama into the house would make Sassy’s problem coping even more troublesome.

But we are committed to keeping siblings together.  (See my previous posts Brothers and Sisters Matter to Foster KidsAdopting Siblings from Foster Care  and Fostering the Sibling of your Adopted Kid)

We’ve come up with a plan to eventually move Jumping Jack in with us, so the siblings can all be together.  First, Jumping Jack is living with another foster family where he is learning English.  He’s also learning not to scream in people’s faces, not to hit, or otherwise hurt people.  He’s learning that the world doesn’t revolve around him.  Joyful and Watchful are learning how to talk kindly and play nicely with Jumping Jack.  We practice friendly, loving interactions when the three siblings get together.

As for Sassy, we’ve started weekly therapy for her.  We are emphasizing that we adults are responsible for handling Watchful’s outbursts and Joyful’s talk of abuse.   She can come to us if she notices Watchful hiding or panicking.  We are also spending some special one-on-one time with her, so Sassy knows we continue to love and cherish her, even though we spend lots of time with Joyful and Watchful.

There’s no time table for when Jumping Jack will move in with us.  Life will unfold and we will chip away at the things that make keeping siblings apart the healthier option.

As for me, I try not to feel guilty about saying “not right now” to Jumping Jack.  I pray that we are making the right decision.   And I hope that the day when we can all live happily and safely under one roof comes soon.

Too Young for Suicidal Thoughts?

At what age should you take a child’s self-harming or suicidal thoughts seriously?  8-year-old Watchful is doing these things, and his social worker doesn’t seem to think it’s a big deal.

But she’s wrong.

We don’t like to think that a small child can honestly want to hurt themselves or take their own life.  But it happens. As a (bio, adoptive, foster) mom, I’ve seen traumatized children find ways to harm themselves.  I remember one child’s first plan was to find a snake to bite ’em, just like how Cleopatra committed suicide.  Seems laughable.  Same child eventually threw their self out of a moving car.  Not so funny.  At age 6.  Really, really not funny.

Another child, age 10, declared no more eating ever.  Just wait ’til that child gets really hungry and that problem will go away, right?  Um, it’s been several years and that child still has issues with chronic malnutrition and being underweight as they don’t eat sufficient food.

So now that Watchful has talked about ways he wants to die, says life is pointless, has repeatedly hit himself, has skipped at least one meal every day for over a week, talks constantly about death, blood, and bruises… well, listen up, social worker.  It’s serious!!!

Kendrea Johnson, aged 6, hung herself with a jump rope

Gabriel Myers, aged 7, hung himself with a shower hose

Brandajah Smith, aged 5, shot herself

Last week, social worker, I asked you for an urgent doctor’s appointment, but Watchful is still waiting.  His life is at risk!  So don’t just tell me that “maybe the psychologist will call next week to arrange an appointment.”

You (yes you!) CAN Parent an Abused Child

How do you parent a physically abused child?  Cute-as-a-button, 8-year-old Watchful has had a tough week, and I thought I’d share how we dealt with abuse-related behavior that came up to give you a sense of just how “doable” foster parenting can be.

Scenario:  Fear of Playing Outside

Last Saturday, we told all four kids it was time to play outside since it was a beautiful, sunny day.  Silent One, Sassy, and Joyful all ran out and began pulling out sidewalk chalk, bikes, and a kick ball.  Watchful lingered behind, begging to stay inside.  Since we could tell he was stressed, we opened up the garage door and said Watchful could play in the garage (hubby’s man cave occupies half of the space, so there’s room to play).  We stayed nearby.  At first, Watchful did ok, but then he hid and began to cry.  Time to take him inside.  He was too upset to talk, so we waited until later when he was calm.  When he could talk, he explained that he felt like he was going to pass out and die when we asked him to play outside.  Ah ha – diagnosis panic attack.  We discussed things he could do next time he had a panic attack.

Parenting Techniques:

Here are the parenting techniques broken out into individual pieces so you can see what steps to take for any similar situation.

1)  Expose to healthy activities.  When we asked Watchful to play outside, we were encouraging physical exercise and social interaction.

2)  Modify “normal” activities as needed.  When Watchful had a hard time being outside, we modified outdoor play to mean in the garage, which is close to the desired behavior, but scaled back to make it easier on him (i.e. “baby steps” in the right direction).

3)  Be present during hard times.  We stayed in the garage with Watchful, because his emotions were heightened.  Feeling big emotions can mean a bumpy road ahead, so sticking around can help calm a child.  Being present also positions parents to be there when needed.

4)  Remove from trigger.  Abused children can have triggers that remind them of past scary events.  To find triggers, look for heightened emotional states (crying, hiding, lying, hitting, etc.) which are a kid’s signal that something big is going on inside them.  What happened right before the behavior?  That’s the likely trigger.  Remove the trigger to help the child calm down.  We could see that even being in the garage was too much for Watchful, so we took him inside.

5)  Talk when they can hear.  Kids in the middle of big emotions cannot process information well.  Help them calm down before trying to figure out what’s really going on.  One of the best ways to calm a child is to be calm yourself.  Your peaceful attitude is contagious and reassures them that everything is going to be ok.  You may need to wait minutes or hours.  We waited seven hours until Watchful was fully back in control of himself.

6)  Diagnose.   When a kiddo is calm, ask them to describe how they felt.  I asked Watchful was his heart pounding, did his tummy hurt, etc. to get a sense of what was happening with his body.  I asked about what he was thinking or doing right before these symptoms happened.  From his physical description of “feeling like he was going to pass out and die” when he walked outside, I could tell this was a panic attack.

7)  Label.  Traumatized kids may not be able to identify their feelings well.  Sometimes it’s because of their developmental stage or because the feeling is so overwhelming.  Other times, it’s because their abusers told them not to feel scared/angry/sad.  Or  because what the kids feel is too painful.  Or because kids had to “numb” their feelings in order to hide the abuse.   When asked what he thought happened, Watchful self-diagnosed his problem as “being bored.”  By careful questioning, I was able to let him know that what he was describing sounded more like scared than bored.  This labeling of the feeling is important, so a child understands himself better and can better communicate to caring adults about what’s going on inside them.  Now, Watchful will be more likely to understand that when his heart pounds and he feels like he’s going to pass out and die, that what he is feeling is scared.

8)  Validating.  Since abused kids sometimes are not sure if it’s ok to feel the way they do, it’s important to validate their emotions.   I told Watchful that being scared can be overwhelming, but it is ok to sometimes feel that way.

9)  Give coping skills.  The last thing I did was give Watchful ideas for what he can do the next time he feels that way.  He can go to a trusted adult like a foster parent or a teacher.  He can put on a hoodie and block out everything going on by pulling the hood over his face.  He can distract himself with a favorite toy.  This way he feels like he has some control over the feelings, rather than the feelings controlling him.

Writing this post took me longer than the actual parenting interaction.  It took two minutes to realize Watchful was being triggered, a few minutes to get him inside and playing a video game to calm down, and once he was ready to talk, about 10 minutes of talking.

See?  You can TOTALLY do this!

No Adoption for You, Foster Child

How do you explain reunification to a child who desperately wants to trade in his parents and be adopted by his foster parents?  You can’t blame him for rejecting abusive/neglectful parents and wanting parents who keep him safe.  But that’s not the court’s plan.

I was reading Maybe Days:  A Book for Kids in Foster Care to my 8-year-old foster son Watchful.  Maybe Days is a great book which explains in kid-friendly terms why children are in foster care, who are the people involved in foster care (like social workers, judges, etc.), what a child in foster care can expect to have happen, and how the foster child might feel about it.  It’s a fantastic book and I highly recommend it for any children you may be fostering.

So I read the part about the people involved in foster care and I asked Watchful to identify who in our home was in foster care.  He identified himself, his sister Joyful, and my son Silent One.  I gently explained that Silent One is adopted, which is different than being in foster care.  Adoption means Silent One was born to different parents, but is our forever son.  My husband and I will be Silent One’s parents forever, Silent One will live with us until he is a grown up, and nothing will ever change that relationship.

“I want to be adopted by you, too,” Watchful whispered to me.  He was snuggled up against me on the sofa.  Looking into his brown eyes, my heart melted.  Oh, how I wanted to say I could be his mom and keep him safe for the rest of his life!!!

Instead, I told him the truth of his foster care plan – reunification with his dad.

“I really like having you live with us, too,” I said and smiled at him with love welling up in my voice.  “But the judge decided the plan is for you and Joyful to live with your dad.  Right now, your dad is learning how to be a parent who can keep you safe.  If he can learn to do that, then you and your sister will go live with him again.”

“But I feel safe living here with you,” Watchful said.  He went on to explain why he didn’t think his dad would ever be a good parent.  Honestly, I have doubts, but my job as a foster mom is to help the whole family – foster kids and their parents – on a path of healing.  And somehow still be truthful.

So I said…

“Well, I don’t really know what your dad will do.  Hopefully, the class he is taking will teach him how to be the kind of dad who can keep you safe.  I know it can be really hard to imagine life being different than what it has been, but people can learn to act differently,” I said as gently as possible.  We went on to discuss how Watchful hadn’t known how to read when he was younger, but eventually, he learned how.

Telling Watchful the truth about the current reunification plan was tough.  I needed to let him know that it’s his dad’s actions that will ultimately determine Watchful’s fate.  I tried to be hopeful without guaranteeing a particular outcome.  I wrapped up by repeating how much I really love having Watchful live with us, so that he’d know I wasn’t rejecting him.

Because if I could be his mom forever, I would.

This post is part of Adoption Talk Link Up, where people interested in learning about adoption discuss a new topic every two weeks.  Check it out!

No Bohns About It