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!

Friday, March 5, 2010

You HAVEN'T Failed!!

Here's the deal, folks - IT AIN'T ABOUT YOU. It's not about your mothering, it's not about your failure (which you DID NOT FAIL, by the way), it's not about a mistake you made, NOTHING. It's about a piece of the kid that is broken. Don't take it personally, because IT'S NOT YOUR FAULT. I know you love this kid, and I know it hurts, and I know you long for that relationship... I know! 
Your role as a mother is to offer that love and mothering role. That's it. To offer it. Your job as a caretaker is to do all the other stuff - discipline, safety, etc etc. That's not the love role, that's the job. We spend most of our time in the job part, desiring so much to do the mothering part. But if they can't do their part, and come appropriately for the mothering part, then we can't give it to them, and we're stuck with the "warden" job role. 
NOT OUR FAULT. Not necessarily the kids' fault either, all the time. But don't take it personally, because you are only hurting yourself - and giving them more power to treat you like shit. Take the emotion out of the caretaker role - it has no affect on YOUR life, on how YOUR life goes - take the one who earned it to the fair, YES!!!, get the other a babysitter, that one's actions are not affecting YOUR ability to have fun....            
- this is what our psychiatrist (new) told us this past week. I didn't just make this shit up.  And if I'm reading it right, this kid will heal or not, we're doing everything we can. But this is about US surviving, OUR FAMILIES flourishing in the midst of this shitstorm."
~ A Fellow Trauma Mama

I heard something early on in this process that I try to remember often. I think of adoption of a severely traumatized child as being like CPR.

The CPR theory

In a CPR training class that I attended someone was talking to the instructor about being terrified that they would do it (CPR) wrong. The paramedic teaching the class looked at her and said, "He's already dead or you wouldn't be doing CPR in the first place. ANYthing you do leaves the person no worse off than he was.

He also said later, that even if you do everything textbook-perfectly CPR may not work. Sometimes whatever caused the damage in the first place is just too much.

I didn't do this to my children. If I did nothing, they would still be "damaged." There is a possibility that even if I do all the right things in just the right way that they might possibly get "better," but there is an equal possibility that even if I somehow do everything perfectly (and we won't go into the fact that perfect is impossible) that it could have absolutely no effect.

There is no right way to do it, and even if you could do everything "right" that does not ensure the outcome you want, or that it will happen when you want it to.

Redefining Success

I have to remind myself often that success for my child does not mean that my child will have what I consider a "perfect life" - go to college, get a good job, get married to a wonderful person, move to the suburbs and have 2.5 children and a dog (in that order!). 

Instead, my child may leave home before graduating high school, may get into drugs/ alcohol, may get pregnant, may lose his/ her college scholarship, may get arrested, might have a criminal record that prevents him/ her from getting the job he/she wanted...

I didn't do this to my child. Nothing I can do or could have done would completely rewire his/ her brain. This is not my fault. Nor is it totally my child's fault (although it is his or her responsibility). If we both regret and blame others for the past, throw up our hands, and give up then THAT is our "fault." Yes, I need to grieve the life I wanted for my child, but then I need to move on. I need to redefine "success" for my child. {Finding the Joy}

My son, Bear, wanted to be a police officer or a marine. He wanted to get married and live happily ever after. Instead, he is in prison, and will probably be in and out of prison for the rest of his life. 

This is not because he's a bad person, or because I'm a failure as a parent. It is because he needs structure to feel safe

More structure than I, or anyone else, can legally provide.

With hindsight, I can see that it is because of the parenting he received from us that the reason he's in prison was for a non-violent crime (vs a violent one). Some part of his brain is still struggling to follow the values we tried to instill.

The Chaplain

A while back, my dad wrote a novel, and let me help edit it. There was one small anecdote that really resonated in me. In the story, the main character (a soldier) was talking to a young chaplain. The chaplain gave the soldier, who knew nothing about faith, a bible. They never saw each other again.

The soldier started occasionally reading the bible and talked to a few people about it. Eventually, the soldier comes to Christ. 

The part that got me was not the soldier, but the chaplain. In the epilogue of the novel, it shows the chaplain, now much older, talking to someone higher up in the church (forgive me for not knowing who that would be! *grin*) and guiltily confesses that he had always wanted to be the one to help someone come to Jesus. He had moved on to teach seminary or something after leaving the war so he wasn't out evangelizing or anything, and no one had ever fallen to their knees in front of the chaplain and accepted Christ. He never realized how many seeds he had planted or knew if those seeds had bloomed. He just assumed that because he never saw the flowers that his work had been in vain.

This touched my heart because I feel like that chaplain. I want to "fix" my children, on my time schedule (now!) and to know that all my effort made them "all better." I have to accept the fact that what I do may not have an obvious effect, but 5, 10, 15 years from now my child may make better choices because I was in his or her life.

My child may make 1000 wrong choices for every right one because that's the way his/ her brain is wired, but he/ she is still making that one right choice.

Give yourself permission to grieve for the loss of the children you dreamed about, planned for, and the lives they should have had. If you haven't read the story Welcome to Holland, I strongly suggest taking a minute and doing so.

Forgive Myself 
Not only did I need to grieve that my children didn't have the life I'd hoped for them, but I had to acknowledge it was not my fault. I did everything I reasonably could. Often more than I should.

Yet one of my children did not heal.

Deep down, I felt guilty about this. Especially because I knew I had never really emotionally bonded to this child. In fact, I don't like to be around him. As a mother, especially as an adoptive parent, I was supposed to feel nurturing and loving toward this child, right? What kind of mother am I?

I had to acknowledge that not feeling nurturing and loving toward my abuser (and yes, that is what he was) is perfectly understandable. Yes, he was a child who did not always have control over his actions. That does not change the fact that it hurt and scared me when he lashed out at me and my family. 

If my spouse had treated me the way my son did, everyone would criticize me for not leaving my husband. Because my abuser was my child, everyone told me I could not leave and, in fact, I was shamed for not being more loving and nurturing. 
I sometimes think I was better off than many of my friends because I met my son as a raging teen who was incapable of being loving toward me, so it was a little easier for me to distance myself from him emotionally when making decisions.

 My friends who met their children when they were younger tended to love their child unconditionally and therefore, it was much harder for them to step back from their child and not take things so personally. It was admittedly easier for me to make tough decisions like reporting my son to the police or school and not picking up the phone when he called collect from jail for the 3rd time that week (average $20 to $30 a call).

As I began to heal emotionally after my son moved out, ironically, I began to feel guilty for not feeling guilty! *ugh!* Then I would reread this post for the thousandth time.

I Still Felt Like a Failure

For a long time, I still felt like I was a failure. That I sacrificed all my money, time, family, and health for my child(ren) and had nothing to show for it. 

I get it. If it helps, know that these feelings did pass. Looking back, I realize that some of these feelings were depression and PTSD and some were residual guilt over not meeting society's (or my own) expectations for a "successful" child. {Continuous Traumatic Stress (CTS)Caregiver/ Compassion Fatigue, PTSD, Secondary PTSD}

I wish I could tell you that there are "10 Easy Steps to a Happier Life" and they're all listed right here! But I can't. The reality is that this healing process took time. I needed lots of support from people who "get it," therapy, medication, rereading this post, retraining my brain, growing a thicker skin... time.

All I can tell you is that it does get better. There will come a time when you won't feel like a failure. Because You HAVEN'T Failed!! 

My journey 
My rough childhood, my experiences becoming an adult, my education and work experiences as a social worker and in childcare, my love of research, parenting neurotypical biokids, parenting severely mentally ill adopted teenagers... every misstep, every failure, every success, every learning experience, has made me a stronger, better person.

I haven't failed. This was part of the journey. Yes, it often sucks (especially in the midst of it all), but it has made me appreciate my life more and it has made my life richer. I have made deep, intense friendships and relationships that would not have been possible without this journey. I have grown stronger in ways I never knew were even possible.

I gave this advice to someone else recently, and I try to remember to take it myself!

You are a good mom doing the best you can in a difficult situation. It is in God's hands.
That being said, this is a hard life. 

I know it sounds impossible sometimes, but SELF-CARE has to be your first priority!

But My Child NEEDS Me! 

When my kids first got here, I was empathetic, calm and patient with them- maybe TOO patient.  I stuffed things down, let it roll off my back, and GAVE and GAVE and GAVE... until there was nothing left. Nothing left for my child, for my family and most of all, for my self. I was so burned out and overwhelmed that we were all miserable.

You can't help anyone if you're so emotionally drained that there's nothing left. 

These are some of the things that helped me fill my "tank."

Prioritizing Yourself, Your Family, and Your Child -- In That Order

We get a lot of pressure to dedicate all our time and energy to heal our child. We have to resist that pressure.
There are a lot of well-meaning people who say you "SHOULD" (or "should not") be doing ____________ for your child, have no idea what living 24/7 with a child with an attachment disorder is like (even those who have experience working with special needs children). They don't know YOUR child and how your child is with YOU - plus they work at most an 8-hour shift with your child, then they get to go home!

None of them take into account the needs of the rest of your family, your other children, your marriage, or you.  Their priority is the one child, not your family as a whole.

One thing I learned the hard way: 
You can't sacrifice the family as a whole for one child. 
There was no way to know when we started what would help my child(ren) and what wouldn't make a difference. At first, looking back, I beat myself up over what I did do, what I didn't do, and what I could have/ "should have" done differently. 

Over time, I realized that even if I'd done everything perfectly my child still may not have healed.


Hindsight being 20/20, I look back and realized that I let the rest of the family suffer to help this one child (or in our case 2 children). I let my health fail. I became overwhelmed to the point that I couldn't function. 

You can't take care of anyone if you're shut down.

Over the years, my other children got almost none of my attention. I did finally figure out how to Find the Joy and get my own needs met so I was capable of meeting theirs, but it wasn't as soon as I wish it had been. As they became young adults, I started to find out some of the things I'd missed and that they had suffered from the lack.

Unconditional Love vs Unconditional Caregiving
In a seminar, one of my favorite RAD Gurus, Katharine Leslie, brought up these points about parenting a child with unhealed RAD (who was therefore not capable of returning any love or affection):

  • There cannot be a Secure Attachment when: The parent receives little or no positive response from the child, and often the child is neglectful of and abusive to the parent. Without either one's needs being met, and unable to "exit" the relationship, there can be little to no feelings of attachment (leaving resentment and apathy).
  • Providing unconditional love to a child without getting anything in return will make you physically and emotionally ill. (If this were a stranger or a celebrity it would be called stalking!). Instead we should practice unconditional caregivingRelationships 
Loving someone who doesn't love you back is not healthy. Despite what society says, not feeling attached to an unattached child doesn't make you a bad parent. Being expected to love your abuser is crazy. In fact, if this child were an adult significant other with the same abusive behaviors, society would be telling you to leave immediately.

My job as a therapeutic parent is not to love this child unconditionally, but to help my child learn how to be in a relationship

Once that happens, if that happens, only THEN can we can develop a loving relationship.

Some Other Things That Helped Me

Detachment Parenting the Adult Child

EMDR Therapy

I worked with a therapist who specialized in trauma and I did some EMDR therapy to help with my PTSD (both from living with children with severe trauma and some from my childhood).  Learning about my own issues, including my own attachment disorder, and accepting and dealing with them has helped a lot too.

I'm mildly bipolar (Bipolar II). I don't take meds all the time, but when I need to, I take them.  

Date Night/ Respite with Someone Who "Gets It." 

We are incredibly blessed that my mom, who mostly "gets it," takes the kids overnight almost every Saturday night, keeping them through church the next day.  Honestly, Hubby and I rarely do much more than rent a movie and go to bed together, but it's a chance to recharge our batteries and remember that eventually the children will grow up and leave home, but our marriage, and each other, will still be there. But only if we prioritize our relationship (Keeping Our Marriage Strong).

Love Languages  

Discovering my love language (and those of the rest of the family) was huge for me.  Knowing what I need (Words of Affirmation), made it possible for me to focus on getting it.  I tried to teach my family to give me what I need, and they do their best, but they are overwhelmed and of course, some of them are RAD! It's not fair (and unrealistic) to expect them to be able to give me what I need. 

Hubby is the son of a "strong, silent type", I think my father-in-law said the equivalent of a sentence a year to me, and while Hubby's not that bad, and is a great listener, Words of Affirmation is definitely not his strong suit.  I went outside my overwhelmed family to get what I needed.  I went to the internet, wrote and read blogs, found support groups, went to seminars and trainings... I also helped and mentored others.  It made me feel good about myself, and they gave me the words of affirmation that I needed.

Set limits
Once I knew what I needed, I stopped giving so much that I had nothing left.  I’ve always been a rescuer, giving even beyond what I could afford to lose.   I had learned the hard way to stop doing it with others but felt that shouldn’t apply to children, especially MY children.  

I soon found that the kids not only NEEDED the structure and boundaries that I set by saying “No,” but they also did better with them – they felt safe which allowed them to trust enough to feel loved.  

I strongly recommend reading the book, Stop Walking on Eggshells!  The first half of the book helped me develop empathy for my children by explaining why they did what they did, but the second half gave great practical advice in setting boundaries.   
"Saying "no" is not being negative.  Negative is saying "yes" to things that are destroying you."  

Find Support from People Who "Get It" 
You Are Not Alone!! It really helped to have the validation of others, and for a long time, I constantly sought it out before I finally felt OK about this path. I found a forum for those who had adopted special needs children and through that made friends in the blogging community (Life in the Grateful House and Welcome to My Brain), joined a local adoption support group (COAC), then BeTA (Beyond Trauma and Attachment), and finally Facebook groups. Now I admin a FB group called Parenting Attachment Challenged Children and try to support others. I also belong to several FB support groups for those of use parenting adult children. 

This is a good post reminding us that we are an AMAZING PARENT!

Choose joy 
Every day I try to focus on the positives.  It's hard as heck, but it is important.  I vent, but I try to limit it to a maximum of 3 vents, even less if I can.  I needed lots of validation that what I was doing was the right thing.  Over time, I eventually began to believe it, and that makes me feel better about myself.

I look back at the Godincidences (kind of like reviewing my blessings) that came out of what frequently seemed like tragedies at the time.  I try to focus on how many of these “tragedies” have made me a stronger, better person.  Most importantly, I focus on the positives and Choose Joy, like the little old lady in the nursing home:

A 92-year-old, petite, poised and proud lady, who is fully dressed each morning by eight o'clock, with her hair fashionably coifed and makeup perfectly applied, even though she is legally blind, moved to a nursing home today. Her husband of 70 years recently passed away, making the move necessary.
After many hours of waiting patiently in the lobby of the nursing home, she smiled sweetly when told her room was ready.
As she maneuvered her walker to the elevator, I provided a visual description of her tiny room, including the eyelet sheets that had been hung on her window. "I love it," she stated with the enthusiasm of an eight-year-old having just been presented with a new puppy.
"Mrs. Jones, you haven't seen the room ... just wait."
"That doesn't have anything to do with it," she replied.
"Happiness is something you decide on ahead of time. Whether I like my room or not doesn't depend on how the furniture is arranged... it's how I arrange my mind. I already decided to love it. It's a decision I make every morning when I wake up. I have a choice; I can spend the day in bed recounting the difficulty I have with the parts of my body that no longer work, or get out of bed and be thankful for the ones that do."
"Each day is a gift, and as long as my eyes open, I'll focus on the new day and all the happy memories I've stored away ... just for this time in my life. Old age is like a bank account ... you withdraw from what you've put in. So, my advice to you would be to deposit a lot of happiness in the bank account of memories.
Her five simple rules to be happy:
1. Free your heart from hatred.
2. Free your mind from worries.
3. Live simply.
4. Give more.
5. Expect less."
Not easy, but Wonderful Advice....for all of us.

An amazing post about not letting grief steal your days, and one way a woman keeps mourning about the lives her RAD children could/should have had from stealing the joy in her life.

Grateful Journal

I know several people who post a "grateful journal." Every day, they write down what they're grateful for. It helps them focus on the positives, even when the negatives are overwhelming.

Helping someone else
Sometimes it is not about what we, or even our kids, need. Now I work with other parents on a similar journey. Maybe everything didn't work out the way I wanted it to, but how not to do it might be what I need to share. Helping others has helped me with my own recovery from this journey.

Redefine Failure
Hubby and I purchased a company right before the recession. We did everything we could to save it and save the jobs of our employees, but after several years, just before the end of the recession, we finally had to give up. My husband was (understandably) upset -- kicking himself for purchasing this company, feeling guilty because it had failed, and causing our family to be in overwhelming debt.

I think it helped a little for him to step back from looking at this as a failure on his part because it didn't turn out the way he thought it should, and instead look at all the good things purchasing the company did:

  • We employed people during the recession who otherwise would have lost their jobs and been unable to support their families.
  • Not working for someone else gave me the flexibility to take my kids to work with me or leave work early if they needed to be out of school (which was often).
  • It gave me affirmation of my own abilities (during a time when it felt like all I was hearing was that I was a horrible person and parent).
  • It gave us both experience running a company that we used in the future to qualify for better jobs.
The Starfish Story

The Future
Our adoption of these children may not have turned out like we wanted it to but a lot of good things came from it as well. Plus, it's not over yet. I don't know what the future will bring for my children or myself. 

UPDATE: My children are now 25, 23, 22, and almost 20. Every day I see new evidence that something good came from this "experience." 

Bear(25) is about to get out of prison. I fully expect him to be in and out of prison for the rest of his life but I still see him as a "success" story. 

When he came to us at age 13, he was an improperly diagnosed and medicated, raging, aggressive, self-destructive delinquent. We were told by experienced professionals that if he even survived past the age of 18, that he would be violent and dangerous, would drop out of school, join a gang, and hurt a lot of people. We were advised not to adopt him and to run as fast as we could in the other direction. 

I still don't know if we did the right thing for our family by adopting him but he is still alive, graduated high school, has not committed a violent crime, and still maintains some connection to us (mostly wanting money or help, but it's more than we expected).

Kitty(23) is engaged to be married, has no children and is not pregnant, is living outside of our home, and usually has a job (although not currently). She is happy.

Bob(22) recently graduated from college. She is working on her portfolio and I have no doubts that she will have a job soon. She is in a healthy relationship. Kitty has asked Bob to be her Maid of Honor and Bob accepted. I won't say the girls are best friends but Bob has come a long way from hating Kitty's guts! Bob is an amazing young woman with deep empathy and understanding that I believe she wouldn't have if we hadn't adopted.

Ponito (almost 20) had a rough time but I see more and more positive growth from him. He starts community college in a few days and I have hope that he will get a handle on his ADD and emotional troubles and be highly successful (I believe he and Bob will achieve the more "typical" definition of success - college, job, marriage, children). He and Bob are very close. Probably much closer than they would have been if we hadn't adopted (I'm assuming there would have been a lot more sibling rivalry than there is).

I hope this post helps you.


Marty Walden said...

I agree wholeheartedly. We are not in control of our children. We plant the seeds, praying that God will bring them to fruition. But for many of our children there are years of generational sin that requires everything of them to overcome. Patterns and beliefs were established way before we came into the picture. In the end, God requires our best effort, reliance on Him and our heart to be broken for our kids. The rest is up to them and God.

GB's Mom said...

So true

Tara - SanitySrchr said...

This is awesome! So awesome in fact that I had to read it multiple times, as I am sure I will read it again and again and again and again!

marythemom said...

Ooh! This is going in my Words of Affirmation folder! Thanks for the compliments!


Integrity Singer said...


Anonymous said...

I needed that today. Thanks Mary.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post : )

Anonymous said...

I needed this today. And I suspect my husband needs it too. Sometimes I think this is where I struggle the most. I always say this kid makes me feel so dumb. Not because he is a genius, but because despite everything I read and google I just can't seem to make it work. I think because I am still trying to fix him. And maybe that's one of the things I just need to let go of. Thank you!!

MArgaret Lintott said...

Great blog and I would add, have NO expectations, therefore you won't be disappointed!