This blog is my place to vent and share resources with other parents of children of trauma. I try to be open and honest about my feelings in order to help others know they are not alone. Therapeutic parenting of adopted teenagers with RAD and other severe mental illnesses and issues (plus "neurotypical" teens) , is not easy, and there are time when I say what I feel... at the moment. We're all human!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

18 is Not the Finish Line

There is so much pressure for us as parents of teens to try to heal our children and get them completely ready for adulthood by age 18. In reading a couple of blogs including Parenting 24/7 recently, I was reminded of this, and I know I am guilty of it too. It took many many years of trauma for our children to get to this point, and we can't expect them to be totally healed in just a few short years.

We want them to have all the life skills they need. We want them to be emotionally healed and ready for relationships. We want them to be ready to be independent. 

Magical Age of Adulthood

For some reason with our children, we tend to feel like this has to be done at the magic age of 18. 

Maybe because my children bluster about walking out the door the minute they turn 18. Maybe because that's when society declares them adults. 

Expiration Date on Parenting

Maybe because I know that, unlike my birth children, they don't trust/expect me to be there after they turn 18 so I feel I have to "fix" them while I can. My biokids fully expect us to continue to be their parents (and adviser, supporter, loan officer, therapist, nanny….) through college, after they get married, and on and on forever.

Did you graduate high school totally ready to be an adult? I know I didn't. Not only does our brain continue to develop on into our mid-twenties, but our hearts grow too. We made so many mistakes that we want to protect our children from. 

I know for me, I want to be the one to help my children heal. That's probably a little selfish on my part.

Their healing must continue on after they leave our home. All we can do is leave the door open.

There is a LOT of pressure to "lighten up" and give our kids the "freedom" to make mistakes, because "he's going to have to deal with the real world soon."

I believe that if we give children privileges and "freedom" that they're not ready for that we are deliberately putting them in harm's way. Contrary to popular opinion, I do not have my children on so short a leash that they can't mess up. I just try to keep them on a short enough leash that they can't hang themselves.

Many people look at our children, especially one who has lots of structure and support (and therefore is emotionally regulated and doing well) and don't/can't see the brain damage, dysfunction, and emotional immaturity. They don't understand the child's diagnosis or diagnoses, or only recognize a small part of the whole  - usually only a part that they're familiar with. [Chores, Responsibilities, and Other Things My Children Can't Handle]

I'm often told, "People with Intellectual Developmental Disabilities can live normal lives" and "p
eople with Bipolar Disorder can live normal lives" and "people with __________ can live normal lives"... Yes, they can! But that doesn't take into account ALL my child's issues. There is a limited understanding of how these diagnoses interact with each other and how they interact with trauma.  [Overlapping Diagnoses in Children]

It doesn't help that kids of trauma hide their "issues" (Kitty would literally rather die than let others see her issues), can honeymoon for long periods of time, and their charming others can be a "life or death feeling" defense mechanism (If You Find Out I'm Not Perfect, You'll Leave).

There is a lot of pressure when our kids are teens to believe that since they are practically an adult, then we need to let them discover that they can't act this way in the "real world." 

Pressure to give them the freedom and privileges that come with being an adult and assume the Natural Consequences of messing up and making poor choices will teach the child to make better choices. They don't get that our kids often don't/ can't make the connection that their choices have consequences or don't have the control needed to keep from making those choices.

Assuming that they get any consequences at all -

What my child learned from not getting consequences from school 


Like many people in Bear's life, Hubby doesn't see, and/ or understand, Bear's brain damage and dysfunction. He thinks the school's testing of Bear's IQ and abilities are wrong (he sees areas where Bear's hypervigilance and street smarts help him accomplish things that someone with Bear's "alleged" issues "shouldn't" be able to do. He thinks Bear deliberately "dumbs down" to make life easier on himself).  He also strongly believes that since Bear is practically an adult, we need to let him discover that he can't act this way in the real world. I think this is like teaching Bear to swim by throwing him in the ocean.

I've tried to explain to Hubby that Bear can't learn by watching everyone else swim. That despite his age and size he needs to go back to the baby pool and get over his fear of water by splashing around. That someone (us) needs to help him form each and every stroke and have him practice, practice, practice. That he may never be able to swim in the ocean and just because he's going to be there soon is no reason to skip steps or not take advantage of the little time left that we have in which we can force him into the baby pool.

I know I've talked before about the differences between Hubby and my child-rearing philosophies. After the Katharine Leslie seminars, this has become even more apparent. Katharine says we must teach, reteach, and have them practice everything. Until the child is ready to become part of the family his or her world should be pretty small (Basic Accommodations vs Luxury) and in relationships, there should be correspondent exchanges vs complementary. This is counter-intuitive in a lot of ways and most definitely is NOT FAIR.

"Fairness" is everyone getting what they need. Fairness is not equal.

Discipline problems (noncompliance, misbehavior) occur when the caregivers have not structured the child's environment for success, or when parents are inconsistent (expectations or consequences), non-responsive, or inaccessible. When adults adjust their behaviors and attitudes, often children with discipline problems can be brought under control in as few as 3 to 7 days.
Behavior problems on the other hand, lie within the child. These are persistent behaviors that do not disappear even with the best parenting (although good parenting can help to control the behaviors). These can include impulsivity, inattentiveness, and other behaviors like ADHD, FAD and immature behaviors associated with missing capacities in object relations.

We need to take into account that children with trauma issues may not be able to learn from mistakes. They may not ask for or accept help or training. One of the biggest issues though is that many of our kids' main difficulty is NOT with something he/she can be taught how to do or not do. The biggest problem is often Impulse Control.

Bear can be walking along doing exactly what he's supposed to do. He can have earned his way up to pretty high levels of privileges. When all of the sudden... WHAM! He gets an impulse to do something he's not supposed to (take something, lie, go somewhere...), and he does it. No amount of behavior modification training, anger management classes, talk therapy, EMDR, good parenting... has any effect. He's not thinking about why he should or shouldn't do something he just does it.

After the impulse, he makes choices. Whether to admit to it, lie, cover it up, manipulate, run away... these choices are the things that all of the therapy and skills training (CBTDBT) and whatever, can actually have an effect on. (Of course, sometimes he also makes conscious decisions to make a "bad" choice too).

So that's the problem. What do you do with someone with almost no impulse control? All the training and therapeutic parenting in the world are not going to "fix" or prevent that.

Cliffs and Fences

When you have a young child who tends to leap before he looks, then you control his environment - you don't remove every obstacle. You make sure he has little things to leap off of so he will learn to look before he leaps. (He learns to look because he discovers that when he doesn't he usually falls and gets hurt). You do NOT, however, move to a house on the side of a cliff. If you must live on a cliff then you put up a big fence and you keep your child inside that fence. If you didn't and your child jumped off the cliff then who is morally responsible for the death of the child? Even if the child deliberately jumped off the cliff, it is, of course, the parent who is responsible for the child

I have a child who is a known leaper. We live in a world full of "cliffs." If I put my son behind the wheel of a car, knowing that at any moment he could choose to turn left without looking, then I am endangering not only his life but the lives of those around him. 

For this reason, I choose not to enable him to get his permit and deliberately put up roadblocks.

We tried EMDR therapy with both of our children for a while. We found it was overwhelming for Kitty and had to drop it. Yes, she needs to process this trauma, but she obviously is not ready for it. Bear just flat refused to participate. This is one of those times when I have to remember that all of their healing does not have to be done right now.

Right now, I have to remember that even after almost three years we still need to focus on attachment and relationships. I read a blog recently mentioning that when you first bring a child into your home, you wouldn't shouldn't be focusing on behaviors like fixing their table manners on day one; instead, you should be focusing on attaching and bonding. Playing, laughing, joking, getting to know each other is more important than rules and reprimands. (Post about Katharine Leslie's views about Securing Attachment)

Now, we do have consequences and restitution, but I try to remember that loving fun is important too. There is a great family blogging about the process of adopting a teen that helps me remember this too.



One thing I hear a lot is that the child plans/ threatens to go back to the birth parents (Why Do Adopted Kids Go Back To Birth Family?) as soon as they are old enough. I try to remember that if they do go back to birthmom they take me with them. They will view their biomom knowing what a different life is like - having someone who cares about them no matter what they do or say, holds them accountable, provides the structure and support they need, and doesn't give up on them.

I never run down the birth parents in front of my child, no matter how tempting.

I know how important it was to me that my mom never put down my dad. Theirs was a bitter divorce and there were lots of times Mom could have presented herself as better to not have to listen to my sister or I rave about our dad. 

Kids love their birth parents no matter what. They're biologically wired that way. We all are.

I'm not totally protecting my daughter from what happened that led to her entering the foster care system, but at the same time, I know it would damage my relationship with her if I told her that biomom was a bad person. So instead we talk about bad choices biomom may have made, and possible reasons she might have acted the way she did. 

Not judging biomom, but at the same time being VERY CLEAR that it was NOT the child's fault either. My kids have enough guilt that I will never be able to touch in the time we have (there I go again sounding like it all ends at 18!). That is something they will hopefully deal with at some point in their lives.


Trauma can cause significant delays in development (emotionally, socially, intellectually...).  Frequent moves and other traumatic life events can also cause delays or even get them stuck.  Most kids with PTSD (and brain damage from RAD) have a tough time with processing, memory, object permanence, emotional regulation... 

We need to parent our children based on where the child IS versus where they “should be.”  When trying to determine your child’s emotional age, and therefore your expectations, it helps to be aware of the typical development stages (Age 6 to young adult developmental stages)

Parent your child where they ARE, even if that means treating a teen like a 6-year-old.  Or a 4-year-old like a toddler.  They may find normal kid stuff overwhelming - we had to keep our children's rooms stripped to the essentials, avoid overwhelming places like grocery stores and birthday parties, and avoid letting them get tired or hungry...  

Once your child physically becomes an older teen or young adult. This becomes a fine line to walk - think tightrope!

I know in high school I changed personalities a lot. I tried them on like roles in a play. I moved a lot (like the kids) which made this easier to do. I thought of myself as a chameleon and didn't think I had a set personality – it changed according to who I was with and what I wanted to do. I do think this eventually made me a stronger person. I wasn't locked into an image or stereotype. As I got older, I grew out of this and finally have a strong, positive sense of self. 


I want to let my children know they can change their minds. They may see themselves as "the tough guy," "the victim," "sweet and loving"… sometimes changing on a minute by minute basis. They may be horrible to me one day and act as though nothing happened an hour later, and that's probably part of their illnesses. Maybe they really don't remember. Maybe they're being manipulative. I'm still going to act as though I know they love me. We will discuss repercussions; there are always consequences for the choices they make. I will not make them say they love me, but at the same time, I will not allow them to be disrespectful.


Bear is going through an "I don't need a family and I'm faking it" phase. While I don't think he is bonded to us, I know he is not completely disconnected either. When he says he doesn't want our family/me/any relationships, it hurts like crazy, but I work hard to keep him from seeing it. I don't want him to feel he succeeded in pushing us away. That's a terrifying unsafe feeling.

Bear did admit in therapy last week that he knew I cared about him (even though he tried to negate it in the next breath by talking about how mean I am). I hope that is enough to get him to return to us in the future. I hope that he builds on this in the future.


I wish I had the perfect answer. I wish the perfect answer existed. Here are some things we did (or wish we had done earlier):

Looking back, I wish I had changed my priorities. I realize now that by focusing all of my attention and energy on a child who may or may not heal enough to function as an adult, I sacrificed too much. Maybe I could have or did "fix" my child, but at what cost? My own health, my marriage, my other children (especially the less "squeaky wheels")... all suffered. [Prioritizing Yourself, Your Marriage, Your Family as a Whole, and Your Child - In That Order!

Of course, hindsight is 20/20. I felt a lot of guilt over not "fixing" my children but also about how devoting everything I had to trying to help them heal hurt all of us. I had major CTS [Continuous Traumatic Stress] and PTSD from it all. [Caregiver/ Compassion Fatigue, PTSD, Secondary PTSDMy other children all had varying issues caused by living with emotionally disturbed, mentally ill family members, or having undetected issues (for example, Ponito's ADD was undiagnosed until he was 17 and there were other signs of illness and abuse that I missed in him and the other children), or feeling neglected/ abandoned because my focus was elsewhere or I was overwhelmed and shut down.

At age 18, my children were not ready to heal or be "fixed." I had several choices. I could feel guilty and miserable about it... or I could release that guilt and anger, knowing that I did the best I could with what I knew at the time. No one else was going to give me permission to do that. Almost everyone was telling me what I "should" or "should not" do and oftentimes those things were conflicting!

So here's my permission (not that you need it) to LET IT GO

You Have Not Failed - I reread this post so often, especially over the first 2 years after my son moved out and I realized I didn't want anything to do with him (my abuser). It reminded me to release the guilt that created. What kind of mom doesn't want to be around her child?! One who needs to heal. 

At What Point Do You Let Go?
Detachment Parenting the Adult Child

Self-Care! - Take care of yourself. Remember the things you used to love and love about yourself. Pick up or pick back up hobbies. Do fun and healing things. Go to therapy. You're allowed to be someone besides Mom - you have many names. Daughter, friend, wife, mentor, artist... 

Then what happened?

I Redefined Success. 

Like many moms, success for my children meant college, finding a career they loved and that supported them in a lifestyle similar to what they have now, finding true love, getting married, living near me (but not with me!), having children... preferably in this order!  Basically living "happily ever after." When I realized that this was not the path Bear and Kitty were on, or even capable of, I grieved. A lot. Then I took a deep breath and redefined success for each of my children individually. [Finding the Joy]

My kids are now 26, 24, 23, and 21. I can second guess everything I did and didn't do but overall they healed (or didn't) without me. I definitely had some influence, but the rest had to be left up to them.

Bear(26) has been mostly incarcerated since just before he turned 19. It took me a while but now I realize that he needs this. He can't live without the structure that we could no longer provide. His only choices to get that structure were the military or prison, and he wasn't eligible for the military. I no longer feel guilty about this happening, I choose to recognize that it was our influence on him that meant:

  • He's still alive. This is a major accomplishment. He had a death wish when we met him. Many doubted that he would make it alive to 18. 
  • He went to prison for a non-violent crime. [Jail/ Prison]
  • Years of being on the right medication gave him the chance to develop, learn, and mature. For most of his life, he was living in a "war zone." Long after the trauma and abuse ended, he was still living with it. Stuck with dysfunctional defense mechanisms, negative self-image, and a feeling that the world was against him.
  • He has a high school diploma. He may never be able to keep a job that requires one but at least this gives him options.
  • He has some trust. He occasionally reaches out to us for things other than money. 

Kitty(almost 25) - As she approaches the age when the brain is finally fully developed, Kitty has come a LOOOONNNGG way  - in ways I'd feared she would never be capable of achieving. I helped her a lot to get here but some of it just took time.

Some of our journey:


  • Kitty is living with her fiancĂ© and her 3 cats and they are getting ready to move from their apartment to a rental house. She feels safe. [Safety First]
  • She is taking online classes at the local community college that she registers for all on her own. She's found a way to deal with her crippling anxiety and continue her education.
  • She pays her bills and manages her own money. She calls me for small loans/gifts occasionally and I'm still her SSI rep payee, so I do help her with that, but in general, she's got a handle on it.
  • She is taking care of her own mental health. She is stable on her meds, schedules and attends appointments with her psychiatrist independently, and has a therapist she sees through a Skype-type program.
  • She recognizes and gets emotional support. She calls me often for emotional support but she also has a support system made up of friends and family.

The biokids, Bob(23) and Ponito(21) are mostly on the path I dreamed of for all of my children, but if/when they step off that path that will be OK too.


Bill said...

Thank you so much for this post! We are where you are at with Bear with our daughter. Our problem is that she is an only child. We have not had the experience of a biological child that we may or may not have gotten the love we are looking for from.

It is really hard to hear her talk about going back to Bio Mom as soon as she can, and not talking to you ever again, when you know Bio Mom is the whole problem and she refuses to deal with the trauma in therapy.

We don't badmouth Bio Mom, but we make it very clear that she had some serious mental health issues and because of that caused some serious damage to J and her brain development.

Not sure what to do now. We can't physically or emotionally do this anymore. We are both healer types and this is killing us. And my younger half-brother just died.

Anonymous said...

My eldest, now 21, struggles greatly with how he has his dad's genes and that he is destined to be a total screw-up like his dad. I admit, I did say bad things about the man. But my son is old enough now to really see how bad his dad is -- and sometimes he is completely miserable, thinking that genes are what matters.

My grandfather abused my mother so badlly she developed DID (multiple personalities). It is hard for me to realize that I have some of that evil inside me. It can be hard to listen to the logical, educated brain tell me that enviornment counts a whole lot more than genes.

Perhaps your kids (and Bill's) are idealizing biomom as a way of confirming that what they have inherited does not doom them.