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, May 11, 2011

Why does my child act differently away from home?

A friend of mine with lots of kids (including 2 year old triplets!), has one of them in Residential Treatment for the first time. She's being told by the RTC that he's doing great and is sweet and wonderful. She knows in her head that he's honeymooning, but it still hurts and makes her question her parenting. I want to share what I wrote to her:

First off, STS is right that how we parent is based on life in the real world... not life as it is in RTC with 24/7 staff and PRN tranquilizers.

Second, parenting styles HAVE to be different than what works for an RTC. Kids are going to react differently too (for all the reasons STS gave). You are a good parent!!!! There is no “right” way to parent our kids (although there are definitely some wrong ways!), but I can tell that you know what works for your son in your home. It’s good that you know that when he plays video games he gets dysregulated, just because for whatever reason it’s different at the RTC, doesn’t mean it’s not true at home. Stick with what you know is right for your child!

Why kids act differently in RTC (or school or anywhere else):

1. YOU are not there (at the RTC). You are the symbol of all mom caregivers, and you dare to try to “inflict” your love on him. In an RTC our children don’t have to deal with the stress of family and emotions, which may reduce their stress to a point where they can handle it better.

2. Some kids are too “broken” to function in a family and do better in RTC. They NEED an environment without emotions and long-term consequences, and need people to keep them, and those around them, safe because they are not capable of doing it for themselves. I’m not saying this is true for your son, but for now he is not capable of being home.

3. My son deliberately acts out at public school until he gets sent back to the special school, because he needs and craves the structure and support provided by the special school.

4. It is not possible to live real life like an institution (although we sometimes come close in our house), especially when you have 2 other special needs kids and 2 year old triplets like you do! We cannot always provide the structure and concrete expectations that our kids need/ crave, especially over the long-term. RTCs have much better staff to child ratios and back up than we ever could!

5. Staff can avoid telling the kids what they don’t want to hear (like “no”), because RTC is ultimately short-term and our child’s best interest is not their problem. So our kids behave better because they like people who rarely tell them no. They can get away without telling your child no because;
  • This is a locked campus that goes way beyond child proofing, so staff don’t have to deal with watching him and correcting him when he gets into things that could hurt him. There are no small 2 year olds or pets running around that he could sexually abuse, torture, torment, or just be cruel to. They don’t have to protect a whole family, just a bunch of kids who are not exactly perceived as defenseless.
  • Your child KNOWS he has little to no flexibility or “wiggle room” on most subjects so they don’t bother to argue with staff about bedtime, computer time, respectful words…
  • It’s not personal at an RTC. It’s just a job. Staff can walk away, they can quit, they can let someone else take over for awhile… we have to protect ourselves and the rest of the family and that influences how we handle our child. Staff don’t have to do anything that isn’t in their job description. If someone vomits that’s the job of the cleaning staff. If they have the flu they can take a sick day. We have to deal with everything our children throw at us, no matter what, and it often hits home and gets personal.

6. Unlike an RTC, when a child is rude, horrible, scary, threatening, tries or succeeds in hurting a family member - we have to continue living with this child. If our significant other treated us the way our child does, then most likely the spouse would go to jail, or everyone would be encouraging us to leave him, but when it’s our child, we’re just supposed to handle the emotions and stress, not show it in any way to our child, and be warm and loving all the time.

7. RTCs are easier for the kids!
  • School is easier, with lowered expectations and lots of one on one instruction.
  • Concrete expectations (there are very few gray areas to figure out).
  • Fewer decisions to make (bedtime, where to sit, what to do next, during what little spare time they have there are very few choices).
  • No social skills needed or required. No one expects the child to care about anyone else’s feelings.
8. Blank Slate - 
  • If you (the child) mess up… you get to start all over again with a blank slate the next day.
  • NO long term expectations at all. No one cares about long-term consequences (except you!).
  • No history either – no one cares what you did last Summer (no grudges, no expectations, no hurt feelings, no holding the child to a higher standard…)
  • If someone doesn’t like you, or you don’t like them… just wait, they’ll leave and/or go home soon.
  • No one knows your family. They mostly only know what you tell them. If you say your parents beat you every day or won't let you have a cell phone because they are unreasonably strict ... well, it's entirely possible. The staff and other kids will validate your every entitled feeling.
9. RTCs can be fun. Tiny successes are celebrated and rewarded. Even with almost no positive behavior they get to go on field trips, go to the playground, have dessert… get to go out to eat with parents, and can eat all the fried foods they want. Things they get to resent you for for not doing all the time when their home.

10. My adopted kids grew up in an environment of chaos, and that feels normal to them. RTC’s feel normal. Nice, quiet homes feel abnormal and “boring.”

11. Tranquilizers, lock down, big scary kids who fight back… RTC’s are scary places. It’s not safe to fight.

12. Honeymooning: I totally agree with STS on this one. RTCs are scary places. My daughter will lie, shut down/ dissociate, “talk the talk” (which she knows from years of therapy and being in hospitals)… anything to get out. With the right meds and enough motivation, they can hold it in for months – up to a year depending on whether or not they see that it’s working.

13. Trust: The kids trust you enough to “let their hair down.” They really do believe that you love them enough to put up with the behaviors. Which is true, but sometimes I wish mine didn’t trust me that much! My daughter “holds it together” all day by cramming everything inside and ignoring it – then she gets home and lets it all out on us. Those feelings have to go somewhere, but they can also hold it for a long time when they know it’s life or death (which it usually feels like it is).

14. Different expectations. I always forget that staff’s definition of “normal” and “sweet” needs to be taken with a truckload of salt. Remember what they are comparing him too – NOT neurotypical children his age! My son is the best behaved kid in the school for emotionally disturbed youth that he attends. They’re always trying to promote him back into regular public school, but that’s because they don’t even notice his “minor” behaviors, like crying, cussing, punching lockers, being rude and oppositional to staff but complying in the end… because they have kids that are listening to the voices in their head that tell them to kill, spitting in people’s faces, constantly screaming and cussing in the middle of class at other students (because he broke up with her to date her twin – yes this was my son *sigh*), destroying property…

15. The staff is used to being treated like scum, so any child that is nice to them… They don’t necessarily recognize or care that it is manipulative. My kids are what I call “Charming” RAD – they hug and are warm and sweet to everyone (as long as they aren’t family). This helps them feel safer. They don’t actually trust or care about these people, but they are pretty believable so the staff, case managers, teachers… have no clue. They want to protect this sweet, loving child from obviously crazy, overly strict parents with Munchausen syndrome. Which feeds right into what the child wants.

16. They don’t know your child’s history or what is normal for him or her. They don’t recognize his anxious behaviors. We were told our daughter was “a little homesick,” but other than that was doing great. On the same day they gave her an anti-anxiety med PRN because she told a staff that she wanted to hit a girl for telling her to “shut up.” They don’t know this is totally out of character for our daughter.

17. They tend to believe the child if he tells them that you beat him daily, or “hug him too much” (yes, my son told the staff that was one of the main reasons he was there – we’d known him less than 6 months at that point and he was in an RTC for violent behavior… let’s just say that was NOT why he was there). They’re not used to working with kids with loving, involved parents. They’re not used to working with kids with attachment issues. The staff and other kids will validate your child's every entitled feeling and pressure the family to give the child the same privileges a normal teen "deserves." Example of how we handled this once.

18. ALL the kids in RTC have poor social skills, so no one will notice that your child is not “good friend” material. So he can have lots of friends if he wants. Plus my kids are naturally attracted to other kids with issues (probably because kids with issues are more tolerant of the poor social skills or maybe because they crave chaos since that’s what they grew up with) so they have a large pool of choices… who can’t escape! It's all short term too so they can even appear to be popular.

19. The kids in RTC will reinforce your child’s beliefs, and make them feel better about themselves (usually at your expense), based on whatever the child chooses to tell them. Ask my daughter how many of her “friends” think we are evil, strict parents, and have offered to kidnap my daughter and let her live with them – most of them call us names (which she loves to share with us) and some of them have offered to hurt us for her.

20. There’s always something to do and people to entertain you. For example, if we try to stick to a schedule that says we have dinner at 6pm then we have to leave the child(ren) to their own devices for ½ an hour or so while we make the dinner. In an RTC there is staff with them entertaining them all the time, and then they get up and walk to the cafeteria where dinner is magically ready. The child rarely has to self-entertain in an RTC.

20. My daughter feels “safer” when someone who knows her issues is monitoring her 24/7. The child is so well supervised that they don’t have to stress about making bad choices. They can’t suicide, self-harm, use drugs or tobacco (supposedly anyway – my son found a way to sneak chewing tobacco).

21. RTCs can make dramatic med changes, whereas we have to work with small increments and don’t have access to 24/7 nursing/ psychiatric care if our child has a reaction.

There’s more I’m sure…

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