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, December 18, 2013

Holiday (aka Traumaversaries) Trauma Tips - Updated

Holiday (aka Traumaversaries) Trauma Tips 

Between scary creatures and a sugar rush on Halloween, the start of many schedule changes with Daylight Savings Time, family gatherings on Thanksgiving stirring up feelings about family members not present (including bio), and feeling judged to see if you’re naughty or nice… there is no shortage of potential trauma and upset during the holiday season.  For parents of children with trauma and special needs, this holiday season can create significant disruption and spark some serious trouble.

Around here we usually hold our breath in October and don’t exhale until January,” says Barbara Streett, a parent of one special needs child, 10, and two neurotypical kids, 7 and 5, respectively.  “If it’s not one thing at this time of year, it’s most definitely another.”

This is a great article about why our children act the way they do on holidays. The following is a paraphrased excerpt from this article:
WHY: Adopted children have been abandoned causing deep shame and feelings of being unlovable and unworthiness of anything good. This has nothing to do with the reality that they are now in a safe, loving family. So they sabotage to gain control of what they know will be inevitable disappointment and if they trigger us into anger then it just validates their beliefs. 
WHY: "Big Days trigger Big Feelings. No matter the extreme (good or bad), it is all INTENSE and triggering." 
WHY: Holidays rarely have routine or structure and they are full of expectations and surprises (what is in the package? did she get something better than me? will I get what I desperately want? can I handle that?). The stress is overwhelming and scary! Children react to feeling unsafe by going in to fight/ flight or freeze mode (meltdowns, shut downs, attempting to totally control the situation which is impossible...). 
 WHY: "Big Days are a reminder of what should have been but wasn’t, all that was lost, all that will never be."
  • Limit the "runway." Downplay the hype and discussions of  expectations as much as possible. Avoid things like decorating for Christmas as long as possible. Not letting a child know you are leaving for a trip until the day before or even the day of prevents them angsting over it and sabotaging it.
  • KISS - Keep it simple! Keep things as lowkey as possible, don't make elaborate plans, instead schedule lots of downtime and avoid overwhelming/ overstimulating situations whenever possible (like shopping or parties). 
  • "We cast simple, manageable vision for Big Days: this is what we’ll do, this is who will be there, this is what we won’t be doing, this is about how long it will last."
  • Use calming techniques when you see a child getting overwhelmed or ramping up. 
  • Acknowledge and talk about the child's "Big Feelings." "We assure them that whether they get a handle on it or not, they could not possibly make us love them less, and if the worst thing that happens is they have a bad day, then no big deal."
  • Remember that we as parents are human too! "We’ll just keep working, keep trying, keep loving, and keep forgiving ourselves when it all goes sideways. You are not alone, know that.
Christine Moers says one of the most important things to remember, "YOU CAN'T LOSE CHRISTMAS!"
 "Trauma has jacked with the brains of our kids. In a stressful moment/week/season they get stuck in a part of their brain that was meant to only be visited on occasion, in extreme circumstances. Our kids also find themselves regressed emotionally and developmentally in those times. They can be, quite literally, a three-year-old in a 12-year-old body. 
Imagine a three year old kicking and biting and hitting two days before Christmas. Throwing toys and scratching up the family dining room set. Having a massive tantrum. Would we take Christmas away? Nope. That's crazy talk. A three year old cannot understand the magnitude of what they're doing when they feel out of control. We would redirect in the moment. When they are calm, we would reconnect with them and give them an opportunity to do the same. That is how we heal and guide young children. Our kids need the exact same thing. There is a reason they do these crazy things that are just so beyond description. They are camped in a part of their brain that wanted to kick them out long ago. 
Family celebrations and holidays are an opportunity to imprint into their minds and hearts: you are a part of this family. Period. Finito. You can never lose that. "
The challenges associated with holidays like Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year’s can be overwhelming for a family with special needs, but with preparation and awareness of the individual family member’s needs it can be done!

A few minor tweaks to holiday rituals can go a long way.
  • Instead of big family gatherings with lots of expectations, try downsizing!
  • Instead of big family gatherings, try spacing out visits with one or two relatives at a time.  Have some quiet activities for the child in case they become overwhelmed.
  • Try to stick closely to your child’s usual schedule - regular nap time, bedtime and meal times are important! 
  • If you are visiting, try sending family members a letter beforehand with some suggestions about how to make the child feel most comfortable (See appendix for sample letter.)
  • Set up a safe place in the house for your child to go if he or she just wants to be alone.  Stock this place with a few soft toys, a quiet activity or two and some books, maybe an MP3 player filled with soothing music.

    If you decide to travel, here’s a few tips: 
  • Take electronic gadgets AND the chargers.  There are inexpensive converters that can be plugged into your car allowing you to charge items that normally plug into the wall or even USB.
  • A personal DVD player or laptop stocked with movies and/or games.
  • Pack a personal back pack for child with new dollar store items, include a few favorite toys, pencils, snacks etc.  
  • A bag with new or rarely used items – like travel games and snacks, that can be introduced at various intervals throughout the trip.
  • Small heavy blanket, for sensory kids.
  • Travel pillow and soft toy/lovey.
  • Headphones.
  • Ask flight attendants and hotel about accommodation’s available to make your trip a family success.
  • Plan for frequent stops to move around (look for places with playgrounds).  Think about traveling at night, but if you travel during the day, try to stick as closely as possible to routines – especially mealtimes and bedtime.
  • Medications.
  • Visual pencil box for travel and helping child understand sequence of events.  These are simple pictures, stored in a pencil box, with Velcro dots on each picture.  The box has 3-4 Velcro dots (the soft side of the Velcro) on the outside.  Pictures are placed on the box so the child understands the order of activities.  For example: a suitcase (to show packing), a car, food (to show will eat lunch), then a picture of the destination (ex. Grandma’s).
  • Think about putting your child in respite and going without him/her! Just be sure it's not treated as a punishment for the child (it can be a low-key fun time with a family friend or relative). Trips can be just too overwhelming for some kids and can ruin the experience for everyone else.  "Re-entry" (coming back from time away from your child) can be super hard, but if it gives you some respite and a chance to recharge then most trauma mamas agree the re-entry meltdowns are worth it.

Remember, every child is different, and there is no flow chart for how this works.  The overarching goal: Be flexible, and remember that no tradition is more important than the comfort and happiness of your kids.

Holidays are supposed to be special times for the whole family.  Most of us grow up expecting them to be memorable and fun.  When we have children, we experience these dreams and expectations even more acutely.  It’s perfectly natural, then, to experience an emotional roller coaster when presented with the challenge of navigating holidays with a child with special needs.  One key to managing this inevitably frustrating situation is learning to let go.  Set realistic expectations and be flexible.

You have to be willing to modify certain traditions, or forget them all together,” says Barbara Streett, parent of a child with autism. “What you want or envision may not be the best thing for your child, so you have to change your plan accordingly.”

  • Holidays are about the kids, but a successful holiday doesn’t have to look like a Norman Rockwell painting to make the kids happy.
  • Remind yourself that it’s OK to let go of certain traditions that just won’t work… for now.
  • Allow yourself to be frustrated and anxious; there’s no shame in that.  When you feel frustrations welling up, take a step back and focus on what you’re doing.
  • Frequently remind your child that there is nothing they can do to lose Christmas.  This is frequently such a source of anxiety for children that they sabotage it rather than take that chance.  In the long run this “naughty” behavior will usually stop as the anxiety decreases.
  • Remember what your child’s “currency” is and use that to interact with him or her.
  • Streett is careful to add that especially at holiday time, the definition of a family meal should also be flexible.  “If your child doesn’t want to eat with everybody else, that needs to be OK; if the child needs to take a break, let him go,” she says. “The sooner you stop fighting the fact that these kinds of traditions must be set in stone, the more enjoyable the holiday will be.”
  • If your child tends to destroy gifts (very common when they don’t feel they deserve gifts or for now aren’t able to accept what they mean).  Try inexpensive gifts from the dollar store. The bigger the better.

At our house (2 siblings adopted as teens from foster care and 2 neurotypical biochildren), we realized our children were overwhelmed by the holidays so we started simplifying things with some new traditions:

Halloween - Children of trauma can be both attracted and triggered by the gore and scary fantasy associated with Halloween (not to mention the sugar rush!).  I love Halloween, but my kids just couldn't handle it.  We chose to turn off the porch light and have a small family Halloween party.  We ordered pizza and soda (a special treat), and I bought each child a bag of their favorite kind of snack size candy that was just for them (explained as, "This way you don't get a bunch of stuff you didn't like!"), made Halloween shaped sugar cookies they could decorate themselves, and watched a non-triggering Halloween movie (usually the "made for TV" Disney movies).  As they got a little better about handling the holiday, we left the porch light on and the kids took turns handing out treats to the little Trick or Treaters.  When they hit their tweens and young teens we dressed up and did a quick trick or treating walk of the block as a family.  They were allowed to have one or two friends join us afterward for a small Halloween party.  By their late teens they were told they were "too old" for Trick or Treating, and we went back to having a small party and handing out treats.

Our Christmas Traditions  For us, Christmas is very low key. We have traditions which seems to help anxiety levels, because the kids know what is coming next (helps them feel safer).
Jesus' birthday cake

Jesus’ Birthday party – To alleviate some of the building of stress and anxiety of waiting for Christmas and change the focus from the gifts, we celebrate Jesus’ birth on Christmas Eve with a birthday cake and Jesus gifts, which are similar to New Year’s Eve resolutions (everyone writes on a piece of paper what they are going to give Jesus this year, usually something we think he would want us to do – like spend more time with the family or give more time to those less fortunate.  Each person can choose to read theirs aloud and then we put the paper on the tree. Then we read last year’s gifts and see how we did. Afterward we all eat birthday cake (helps my antsy ones sit through this, knowing there's cake when it's done!).

Christmas Eve presents -  Before bed we open our Christmas Eve gift - usually a pair of PJs, and a book or stuffed toy – depending on the child’s age.  This helps the younger children wait (and makes sure everyone looks nice for pictures in the morning!

Three Gifts - A few years ago we decided to start only giving 3 gifts to the kids on Christmas morning. (It was good enough for Jesus!). It has helped me out in many ways (the kids are not quite as fond of it).  Usually at least two of the three gifts that the children get are “themed” gifts. So it’s more than one item in the package.  The cost of the gift seems to be largely unimportant – the most envied (meltdown inducing) gift was a box of highlights that one daughter got and the other (RAD) daughter didn’t.
Taken some of the focus off of gifts and put it back on the “reason for the season.”
Reduced some of the pressure to get the exact same number and equivalent gifts for each of my 4 children (I remember my sisters and I counting gifts on Christmas Eve – cost wasn’t as important).
Decreased the clutter. My adopted children can’t handle too much stuff in their rooms or lives.
Reduced the cost! Christmas is expensive enough with 4 kids.
Made shopping easier. It’s HARD to find presents for teenage boys (assuming that like us you do not want to buy expensive electronic stuff he’s only going to break or lose anyway and/or can’t handle).
Less wrapping!
Less time sitting watching everyone open presents (better for my kids with ADHD).

Scarlet Claus
Santa - My biokids (7 and 10) still believed in Santa when the older kids (11 and 13) came in to our home the month before Christmas. We made it very clear to all the kids that if they said they didn't believe in Santa then Santa wouldn't bring them presents. My insistence that Santa is real (HE IS!) caused some issues with Kitty, because she decided that made me a liar). Santa used to bring the best present, but we changed that approach when we realized we didn't want him getting all the credit! We wanted the kids to know that we were supplying the gifts that said, "We know you, we love you and we are giving you these things because we want to show you how we feel." Santa still brought stocking gifts (although the kids knew we added to those), but he started bringing "family presents" - gifts for the whole family to enjoy rather than for each child. Over the years, Santa has brought, a dog (a red husky named Scarlet Claus), a big screen TV, a Wii, a Clearplay DVD player with a bunch of movies they hadn't previously been allowed to watch...

Helpful websites:
Top Toys for children with special needs: - Model Me Kids® videos demonstrate social skills by modeling peer behavior at school, on a playdate, at a birthday party, on the playground, at a library, at the dentist, restaurant, and more. Designed as a teaching tool for children, adolescents, and teenagers with Autism, Asperger Syndrome, and developmental delays, the videos are used by teachers, parents, and therapists. Real children model each skill.

Sample Holiday Visit Letter – Adapted from article –
Holiday Survival Guide for Parents with Special Needs

Dear Family and Friends:

We look forward to seeing everyone for the holidays. I can’t wait to see everyone and celebrate
together. Before we gather this year, I would like to share with you about ______________ and let you know how you can support him and our family.

My son is loving, kind, and very affectionate. He loves to talk about his siblings, ______________
and ______________, and camping. He likes to play Candyland, Legos, and with his iPod.
He also has (attachment disorder/ autism/ sensory integration disorder...).

Holidays are a time of year that ______________ looks forward to. However, the extended
family and friends, decorations, and festive noises that the holiday brings can be frightening
and/or overwhelming for him. They also cause him anxiety because there are so many new things
happening that are different from his routine.  He is hypervigilant about new situations, and it reminds him of traumatic things from his past.  Please understand that this is not about his feelings about you or me.

______________ may need a quiet place to retreat to take in everything presented to him in this new and different environment.  Please have a quiet room available for ______________ so that he can have time to himself to process everything. This room should be off limits to everyone but ______________ and me (mom). ______________ is used to routine and all these changes can cause anxiety. Once ______________ can regroup, he may be OK to return. However, if something changes, we may need to leave suddenly.   Also, although we love being with family, we will need to leave at __pm to allow ____________ to stick as closely to his normal bedtime routine as possible.  Please support us in this.  It is very necessary to his well being.

______________  or I may appear bossy and controlling. This is to help him cope. ___________ needs structure, and often things have to be done in a way he is familiar with or else he may get stressed and frustrated. This does not mean you have to change the way you are doing things--just please be patient with ______________, and look to me (mom) to redirect this behavior.

People with (attachment disorder/trauma/ autism/ sensory integration disorder...) often have certain behaviors to help themselves feel more comfortable and safe. ______________  is not trying to be disruptive or defiant; he is doing this to regulate himself in his surroundings. Please be respectful of these behaviors and look to me (mom) on how to handle this.

_____________ often needs to get up and walk around (maybe even go to his quiet room) to regulate himself.   I ask that you not give this a lot of attention and continue eating and conversing.

Please do not be critical of mine or my husband’s parenting skills. Remember that ____________ needs to be watched more closely than most children are his age. Like all parents, we do our best but are not perfect. Holidays are filled with new sights, sounds, and smells packed into a busy and often frantic household with a big tree plopped down in the middle of it. It is very hard work to incorporate (attachment disorder/trauma/ autism/ sensory integration disorder...) into this. I said it was hard – but it can be done. We have been doing this for ____ years, and although it is not perfect, it works for us.

We are excited to share this holiday experience with you and look forward to seeing you,

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Response to an Anonymous Comment

"How can Kitty even be expected to attach to you when you spend so much time disparaging her? Didn't you once blog that your husband curses at her and calls her names? How is that in any way "theraputic"?
Every idea Kitty has, you shoot down and mock.
You constantly talk about Kitty's mental age but I don't know any actual good parents treat ten year olds the way you treat Kitty, typical or otherwise.
How is what you do attachment parenting?
I've been reading your blog for years and the way you depict it, your home seems quite unsafe for Kitty.
Your depiction makes it seem that you are forcing yourself on her to no avail whatsoever with little to no positive results. Isn't that the definition of insanity?
Your "Fair Club" seems UNfair and not based in any kind of science or reality, especially when it is only used sporadically at your own whim.
People feel sorry for Kitty because like it or not, your description of your parenting appears abusive, infrequent and unsafe.
All I can think is that Kitty must spend much of her life bewildered and frightened, a prisoner of your slap-dash, unbalanced "parenting". Your blog is a testament to that."

Wow, this was a particularly harsh comment.  I will address each part:

"How can Kitty even be expected to attach to you when you spend so much time disparaging her?"
-- I certainly don't spend all my time disparaging her!  This blog is my place to vent. I do speak up if it will effect her future (like choosing classes that won't help her with her future), but other than that I keep my opinions to myself around Kitty.

"Didn't you once blog that your husband curses at her and calls her names? How is that in any way "theraputic"?"
--No, I didn't blog that.  You must be thinking of someone else.  Over the years my husband may have said something not very nice to her a few times, and he's not always totally empathetic, but would never curse at her and call her names!  We rarely curse or call each other names in this household.

"Every idea Kitty has, you shoot down and mock."
-- I do get frustrated with Kitty's unrealistic expectations, and that's what I talk about a lot on here, but if it makes a difference, I don't mock her to her face.

"You constantly talk about Kitty's mental age but I don't know any actual good parents treat ten year olds the way you treat Kitty, typical or otherwise."
-- First of all, Kitty is 10 in a lot of ways, but definitely not in all ways, and one of the most important ways she's different is that she is a "child of trauma."  I try to parent her where she is, and I use the age "10" as a starting point, but the truth is I can never parent her like I would a typical 10yo.  Talking about her emotional age is more about helping me remember that she's not really 18 and remembering to parent her accordingly.
The main thing is therapeutic parenting is very different than "regular" parenting.  It's not intuitive.  I doesn't look like "good parenting,"  It is what my kids need.  Yes, I make mistakes.  There is no Dummy's Guide on how to parent Kitty or kids like her.  If you know of a book or resource that tells me how to be a "good parent" to her then I'd be happy to read it.  I'm doing the best I can.

"How is what you do attachment parenting?"
-- Kitty is attached now, although because of her history probably still "anxiously."  I don't really do attachment parenting anymore, just therapeutic parenting.  If you want a good description of therapeutic parenting check out Christine Moers' DVD - Chaos to Healing:  Therapeutic Parenting 101, Katharine LeslieDaniel Hughes, Denise Best, the Beyond Consequences books

"I've been reading your blog for years and the way you depict it, your home seems quite unsafe for Kitty."
-- I guess I don't express myself in my blog as well as I'd hoped.  My home is not unsafe for Kitty, or any of my children.  If my posts come across that way then it's because I'm not making it clear that most of my blog is venting and letting other parents going through similar issues know that there is no such thing as "perfect parenting" (and to share resources).  If you're really worried then try to comfort yourself with the fact that I have access to amazing, experienced therapeutic parents and lots of resources, and that Kitty (and therefore myself) is under the direct supervision of her therapist, psychiatrist, a special school for emotionally disturbed children...

"Your depiction makes it seem that you are forcing yourself on her to no avail whatsoever with little to no positive results. Isn't that the definition of insanity?"
-- Yes, that is the definition of insanity; however, I believe the only alternative is to give up on her, and I'm not OK with that.  I have to have hope.

"Your "Fair Club" seems UNfair and not based in any kind of science or reality, especially when it is only used sporadically at your own whim."
-- The FAIR Club is a combination of the many different parenting methods I've used and/or read about over the years.  It is designed to be used with both my neurotypical and not neurotypical kids.  It is definitely not perfect and probably time to update it, but I've never found any other discipline method that worked any better.  I've never claimed it would work for every child or parent, and often when people ask me how to use it, after asking lots of questions about their child, most of the time, we find that their child is developmentally too young or don't have the cognitive abilities to be able to use it completely.  Like every other parenting method, I hope that parents take what works for them and leave the rest.
We don't really use the FAIR Club anymore.  Not because it doesn't work, not because it's at my "whim," but because my kids haven't needed it.  Kitty lives a version of it daily because she needs the structure and support.  The other kids, Ponito and Bob rarely require much discipline anymore.  Coincidentally, we actually used the FAIR Club for the first time in years with Ponito earlier this week (post coming).

"People feel sorry for Kitty because like it or not, your description of your parenting appears abusive, infrequent and unsafe.
All I can think is that Kitty must spend much of her life bewildered and frightened, a prisoner of your slap-dash, unbalanced "parenting". Your blog is a testament to that."
-- Kitty came to us "bewildered and frightened" 7 years ago, imprisoned in a scary world she didn't make and had no control over.  Obviously this couldn't have had anything to do with my parenting, since I was not her parent.  Over the years we have worked hard to become the parents Kitty needs and to help her find new ways to cope and trust, and we're working on helping her accept her limitations (denying that she has any means that she feels it's her fault when she fails) and find ways to work around them.
I think the fact that she's attached to us and trusts us to the best of her ability, that she finally has access to and control of her feelings (physical and emotional), has processed some of her trauma, is properly diagnosed and medicated, has been out of the hospital and residential treatment and been stable for almost 2 years, is graduating high school, has maintained a job (even if I don't think it's the right one for her), no longer hates her siblings and grandparents - hasn't called them evil in years, rarely threatens violence or vengeance on others, rarely has meltdowns for that matter - even when asked to do chores which used to be a huge trigger for her!, will accept hugs from me and actually cares how I feel...
          ................ I think all that is a "testament" to my parenting and her hard work.  You can think I'm a bad parent, but you're wrong.
All I can say is that you don't live in my home, and this blog contains only what I intermittently choose to share here (which admittedly hasn't been much lately).  You'll have to take my word for it that I parent to the best of my ability and that's pretty darn good if I do say so myself.  This is not an easy path and Kitty has a LOT of issues that make her very difficult to parent 24/7, but she's come a really long way.  Maybe that's in spite of my parenting, and maybe there is someone out there who could do a better job of it, but I'm Kitty's mom and they aren't here.

"This sounds like a way for you to get your hands on Kitty's SS money.
Honestly, how do you live with yourself?"
Yes, we would be taking the majority of Kitty's SSI money.
1. If we didn't she would lose! her SSI benefits, because she can't accumulate more than a miniscule amount. Rent is a legitimate expense for SSI.
2. We're not rich. I haven't been able to work for many years because the kids need so much supervision, and when Kitty graduates high school she'll need even more supervision, because she won't be working. We need her income to contribute to the family. If/when she moves out either I'll go back to work, or we'll move to a smaller house.
3. We fully intend to save some of this money for her so that eventually she can use it to pay deposits and such if she ends up living on her own, or for "extras" if she ends up living in an assisted living situation.

"How do you live with yourself?" I'm fine with myself, because I know your judgment is inaccurate.

If you want to share your name and share your blog (or write one) about what an amazing parent you are to your kids who I assume are exactly like mine, then I'd be very happy to read it and respect any constructive criticism you may offer; however, until and unless you are walking in my shoes then please don't criticize me or presume to judge what makes me a good or bad parent.