Monday, May 22, 2017

Letting Him Fail

We've now reached six months of having Baby S back with us.

His needs are still constant, but they are changing. He's growing so much. Our expectations for him have evolved drastically.

We can say things like, "Use your spoon!" and he'll stop shoveling milky cereal with his fingers and use his spoon instead. We can say "That wasn't nice! It's Baby Gigi's turn," and he'll give back the toy and pat her on the head - sometimes even with a swipe at his chest with his hand to sign "sorry." We can say "No flipping the light switch, buddy. Either on or off," and he'll (generally) push once or twice more, pick a direction, and then trot away to play somewhere else. At the very least, he chooses to disobey with a sly smile and obvious defiance, and we silently celebrate behind our stern faces because that is what a healthy little boy does.

I know I keep saying this, but when Baby S first came back, we had to constantly manage him for basic survival. Don't vault over the baby gate. Don't throw yourself down the stairs head first. Don't sit on the baby. Don't grab at knives. Don't run into the hot stove. Don't shove other people in the face with all of your strength. (He's strong enough to cause actual damage to a grown man. Ask Josh.) Our commands were direct, to the point, and always urgent. We were always a moment from disaster, for Baby S or those around him.

The problem is that Baby S thrives on chaos. His favorite game is chase. He's smart, and he's learned that certain adults will reward his disobedience with exactly the game he's craving. Tell him to put back the fragile glass thing he picked up, and he'll laugh and run full speed across the room so he can watch you huffing and puffing after him. Even after all of our training, he'll revert back to disobey-and-chase in an instant when he knows it will work. So when he returned, we had to engage for his safety, but always with the goal of backing off whenever it wasn't actually dangerous to do so. We had to give him the extra split second to obey BEFORE engaging in chase. After many many of those little moments of hesitation with no real guarantee that growth was happening, Baby S finally started putting his foot forward and oooooh soooooo sloooooowly coming when called to stop his mischief, and we praised Jesus for a turning point that had seemed impossible.

We've been taking baby steps to forward progress for the last six months. It's a moment's hesitation after saying "stay in the yard, buddy," to give him the chance to trip back around in my direction and engage in chase in a healthy and safe way. It's letting him go toward Baby Gigi and verbally reminding him not to take, then watching to see what he does. It's asking him to stay in a room with our words rather than holding him physically on this side of the gate; then eventually expecting him to respect the gate without reminders; and now, finally, expecting him to respect consistent boundaries - no going upstairs or into the basement alone, even when the gate is down.

He started with no regard for rules or safety. It's tempting to sit back now, baby gates up and every "no" out of reach, and bask in his ability to (sometimes) listen and engage. It's tempting to say "oh, he can't listen because he has this diagnosis and he doesn't know any better." But we've seen his ability to learn and grow, and we're not satisfied with him staying where he is right now (nor is the amazing team of teachers and therapists working alongside us).

So we take turns taking him to the grocery store, even though that might mean abandoning a cart full of groceries to take him home. We bring him to the zoo and take him out of the stroller whenever there's an adult with an extra hand and a very firm grip to hold on tight. We let go of his hand for brief moments in church to see if he'll walk alongside us (he won't, but it's safe to let him try there). We let him climb to the highest places on the playground and go down the big slides.

Look, no adult hands in the picture!
(Because even being pinned in between a lion and boarded up stairs with no where to run except into an adult mega counts as increased freedom for this sweet and crazy little man.)

The victories are amazing. Some days, we don't see a lot of them. Some days we're exhausted with constantly pushing. Often I have thoughts like "Why did I think I could walk to the playground with all three kids by myself?" or "Will I ever be able to talk to someone in the lobby at church again?" In those moments I have to remind myself that this intentional process is worth it. The moments that look like failures are carefully chosen growing moments, not just for Baby S, but for all of us. Big Bro A and Baby Gigi have their own growing areas, but additionally, they're learning from the hard moments with Baby S. We're having conversations about why we choose to bring him to the good things even when we end up all having to leave. We talk about why our family can't do things we used to, or why simple things are so much harder now, and we get to remember that Jesus gave up SO. MUCH. MORE. for us than what we will ever give up for Baby S.

When we win the victories, we still have to fight the temptation to be discouraged. Social media is always there reminding us how very little our victories seem next to where Baby S should be/could be/isn't developmentally. Baby videos of him from two years ago sound strikingly like Baby S today. Successfully getting through a shopping trip with Baby S in tow is not me able to grocery shop with all of my children, or able to take my family to fast food or dinner out, or able to go on a vacation together. But we can't focus on what we haven't achieved yet. We have to keep looking back at how far we've come, keep soaking in those giant Baby S smiles and hugs, and keep praising Jesus that he waded into the mess that is OUR lives.

That's where we are for now: setting up moments when Baby S can fail, because without those, he can't have true success. We celebrate the victories hard. We crash hard sometimes, too. There are glimpses of "normal life" that are beautiful and yet leave us hungrier for the way things should have been. These moments motivate us because they remind us yet again what we're fighting for. We're fighting for our baby boy. We're so proud of him. We're so in awe of his pure joy despite his circumstances. This child has incredible potential. We wade through these difficult moments believing that some day we will look at our adult son and be in total awe over how far he has come. His loving heart and incredible energy are going to move mountains for people some day.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Treatments and Trauma

Let me paint you a picture. It's a little simplified for where we're going with it, but maybe it could help.

Your family decides to adopt a dog. You don't want a puppy from a pet shop; you want to maybe find a dog that's gone through some stuff. So you go to a shelter. The dog you bring home is so sweet and loves to snuggle up to you and your kids. There's a big problem, though. The dog keeps peeing all over your house!

This dog isn't a puppy, and you assumed it would be house trained. Nevertheless, you decide that you'll keep it and work through the issues, because it's a cute dog and your kids like it.

You have to figure out an approach that will work for this dog. You hire a trainer to come in and work with your dog to help her stop wetting the floor. The methods the trainer uses are standard and you've used them with other dogs in the past; but they're not working for this dog. In fact, the more the trainer shows up, the worse the dog gets. So you cancel the trainer.

What's your next move? You realize that this dog must have gone through some stuff before coming to you. The trainer's style was firm and direct. You try treating the dog with gentleness, thinking that maybe there has been some abuse in the dog's past. You find a trainer with experience in this area and the dog grows by leaps and bounds. As the dog feels safer, she starts using the bathroom outside. Hooray!

I don't know if there are really trauma trainers for dogs. But do you know what I keep hearing? That there really aren't trauma "trainers" for 3-year-olds.

We have been to so many specialists with Baby S. He's got a diagnosis, although we've questioned the validity of it from Day 1. He's been to the places that are hard to get into, and we've sat in rooms where they've told us about "kids like Baby S" and what to expect.

But the problem is, his behaviors never fit in. There's always a qualifier. "Oh, he doesn't do that? Usually kids like Baby S do..." or "Oh, he's been succeeding at this? Huh, kids like Baby S usually don't."

So let's think about this. We're grouping Baby S into a broad category that we know doesn't fit him. Then we're getting resources based on his label, NOT the behaviors. We know he doesn't fit into his category - so is it right to assume that he fits in to these programs?

One of the top specialists for "kids like Baby S" (note: that phrase makes me catch my breath every time) told us that they "treat the symptoms the same way, no matter why the symptoms appeared." This was in direct response to our questions about his past and how that plays into his current situation.

Did you catch that? They diagnose him with a label, then treat kids with that label the same, NO MATTER WHY THE BEHAVIORS STARTED. (Can you tell that this bothers me?)

That's like telling the owner of that dog in my silly example that of COURSE all dogs need to be trained the same way. Just keep scolding it in a firm voice. If the dog isn't responding, it's probably you, or else your dog just isn't trainable. If that was your dog, people would say that, and you'd look at them like they were nuts. This dog was abused, you'd think; of course we can't treat her like a puppy just being house trained.

But this is our child. And that is essentially what we are being told.

There's no trauma treatment for a child Baby S's age. There's no trauma therapy for a nonverbal child. There aren't resources that adequately address his delays in combination with his other areas of need, because kids his age aren't supposed to act like this.

I am consistently shocked by how often trauma doesn't even factor into the analysis of his needs. Wrapping him neatly in a couple of labels and shipping him off isn't even beginning to acknowledge the depth of his needs.

I'm having my rant moment because I want to help people to understand that children don't fall neatly into categories. Trauma is very, very messy. It can surface and then hide for a while and then resurface. Schools need labels to give services, and labels take time, but trauma doesn't pace itself with the school's systems.

Trauma comes in all different forms. I'm going to be so bold as to say that ALL children who have been fostered or adopted have some form of trauma. Trauma can happen before a child is born. It can be exposure to drugs and alcohol in utero, or mental health issues of a mother before birth. It is the separation of a child from its birth mother, even if it's instant. It's the loss of everything familiar. It's being shipped back and forth between birth parents and foster parents. It's living in a high-stress environment without permanency. It's not knowing whether you'll finish the school year in your current school, or whether you'll be able to live with your biological siblings again. It's being torn between two realities that can never exist together. It's moving back with a birth parent and losing a foster family, or staying with a foster family and losing the birth family. It's a million little moments that are constantly stacking up.

It's being treated like a "normal child" despite all of this. It's being punished for not paying attention in school, when you're spending the whole day worried because today is court and your judge might be sending you home today. It's struggling to work hard in school because you don't know if you'll still be here in a month, anyway. It's being put in a class for children with special needs and hearing the teachers tell your foster parents you'll never catch up, even if you've just been too busy trying to get your emotional needs met to grow in other areas.

Treating trauma like "normal" is rarely helpful, and it often makes things worse. I don't know the answer, but I do know the frustration of trying to advocate strongly for your child and hearing over and over that the resources just don't exist for "a child like that" because they're "not supposed to experience these things" at such a young age.

It's true. Baby S shouldn't have these difficulties to deal with. But he does. And we're doing the best we can to help them cope.

Now a moment of encouragement for all of my teacher friends. Do you know what keeps us moving? Teachers and therapists who "get" children like Baby S. Who install an extra lock on the door so that he can stop fixating on escape and start enjoying his environment. Who have his favorite toys in the classroom so he can have "preferred activities" to look forward to between the moments of pushing and stretching him to grow. Who advocate loudly with us for adequate labels, adequate services, and extra help. Who take the time to explain Baby S and what makes him tick to the people around him so that he's getting loved, appreciated, and pushed in all the best ways for him. Who tell us directly that their resource isn't right for him, but it's the closest to right that exists, so they're going to fight to make it the best environment possible for him.

You guys are our heroes. You make so much more difference than you can possibly know.

Thank you!