Saturday, June 20, 2015


The Purpose of this post is to share our at-a-glance parenting. As we continue to learn and grow as parents, this post changes and grows with us.

1.  Realizing Behavior Communicates Need:  Our children from hard places most often demonstrate their fear and that they need safety not by their words but by their behavior, and when they do this, we let them know what they’re telling us and respond by creating felt safety for them.    

2.  Not Letting Our Children “Make” Us Angry:.  We also need to remember we are communicating to our children through our behavior! In our experience, our children seemed to start trusting us when we started responding to their real need (the need the behavior is communicating) with empathy, rather than anger.

3.  Safety!!!!!:  We know where our children are at each moment and who they are with and we guard against them hurting themselves and each other as well as we can.

4.  Individualizing “Safe” Limits:  As parents, we set limits according to what our children need---at the moment, not by what may seem age-appropriate or what all the other children in our family are doing. We set their personal limits according to their ability and they communicate their ability through their behavior.

5.  Parenting at Emotional Ages:  We parent our children according to their emotional ages- not their chronological ages.

6.  “Simplifying” and Tightening Boundaries:  When we simplify by creating intense structure, our children from hard places are more peaceful and feel more safe.  When a child is impulsive, we gently, subtly tighten his boundaries until he is in a safe place.

7.  Reducing Clutter:  We try to have as little clutter as possible and the possessions we have are purposeful, and [please don’t freak out] we don’t have a TV or video games (this has been good- seriously!).

8.  Self-Care:  We need to do all we can do to keep this family healthy! Care for one member cannot mean every other member is neglected.

9. Indirect Praise:  We have conversations about the things we love about each person in our family within earshot of the hurting child.

10. Limiting Relationships: We have realized both of our sons from hard places are more secure and regulated when we limit the the adults in their life to individuals they know are extremely safe and are on the same team with us, as parents.

The Letter I Should Have Written

Before our sons came home, my husband and I studied A LOT.  We also knew our sons and had seen their rages and insecurities.  We prepared like champions (or so we thought) to bring them home.  We had an amazing, supportive community of people ready to welcome them.

One problem: we didn’t realize how much it would have helped to provide a couple of succinct expectations for our family and friends so THEY would know the best way for them to welcome our sons.

The result:  we unintentionally hurt a host of relationships, many of which are unlikely to be repaired.   
So, in a better-late-than-never kind of way, I would like to share with you, “The Letter I Should have Written” (if I had known then what I know now):

Dear Friends and Family,

You have prayed for, waited for, and hoped for our sons, and you have also supported us so well as we’ve waited for them.  You have seen us preparing like crazy for their arrival.  You know we have been reading, connecting with adoptive parents, connecting with adoptees, connecting with biological siblings of adoptees, and even building furniture!  We are writing this letter to share with you some of how our lives might look when we become a family of five, and we’re asking for your patience during the transition.  Here is a general description of what we expect:

  1. We plan to stay home (as much as possible) as a family of five so that our sons understand who their new family is.  
  2. We will try to establish a predictable routine for our sons.  
  3. We do not expect to be able to answer many phone calls, text messages, or emails because we will be super focused on bonding with our children, learning how to care for them with their special needs, and setting them up with services they need to have in our hometown.
  4. We will be thankful for any meals you would like to bring, but, for the near-term, we won’t be able to invite you into our home because visits could add to our sons’ anxiety.  

Our children are lovely.  They are amazing!  They are scared.  The request that may sound the most unusual is…

  1. When you finally do meet our children (and we look forward to that day--even though we have no idea when it will be), we ask that you please do not show them physical affection.

Our children are very confused about relationships.  

As is extremely common with children who have experienced trauma, our sons have a tendency to show an inappropriate amount of affection to strangers.  We have seen them sit on the laps of people they have never before met!

Our two sons have lived in three places so far.  In all three places, the people closest to them hurt them. The only people they trust are strangers.

As they come to know us, as their parents, it is likely they will no longer “feel” safe with us.  We need to patiently provide them with [what they realize as] safety so they will eventually feel comfortable enough to accept hugs from us, as their parents.  

So, please remember, that while our children are not strangers to you, you are strangers to them.  You could very much complicate their ability to bond at home, with our family, if you are too physically close to them (as a stranger).  

In closing, I want to thank you for sticking with us through this journey so far.  It has been emotional and unbelievable at times!  We hear the most trying times are ahead.  Please do not take it personally if we are too overwhelmed to be good friends.  If you are getting this letter, we love being in community with you!  It would be very meaningful to us if you continue to call and text, even if you don’t hear back from us.  We likely will be too overwhelmed to be part of the planning but please know that we will enjoy every bite of a meal you drop off for us.  

It is awkward for us to ask for such a high level of support from you when we know that we will not be able to reciprocate in the near future.  We’re asking you to stick with us when we have nothing to give and for your support of our family even though you won’t be able to hug our beautiful children.  We’re asking you to help us build a safe foundation for our family so our sons can grow and thrive and feel connected in our family and in our community.  

We’re looking forward to the day when our family is a stronger part of our community, and when it is healthy for our sons to be hugged by all their amazing friends, aunties, uncles, and grandparents!  

We cannot do this alone.  We are so thankful for your support!  

The “No Consequences” Confusion

There is a book I highly regard called, Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control, written by Heather Forbes and Bryan Post.  Here’s my interpretation of the basic principle:  “Our children’s alarming behavior is rooted in fear, and they feel further threatened when parents give them consequences.  In fact, the result of consequences [for our children] is generally worse behavior.”

Unfortunately, I’ve heard a lot of great parents read the above book and other similar resources and explain to their friends and family:  “We don’t give consequences because they don’t work.”

And, that’s it.

Frequently, the “no consequences” explanation is met with bewilderment, frustration, and completely freaks family members and friends out.  They have seen the child’s dangerous behavior (and heard of his violence, perpetual lying, and stealing). So, they [understandably] jump to the conclusion… This child is going to end up in prison!

Here’s a confession:  I’m not a “no consequences” kind of parent.  I’m more of an “I-don’t-give-consequences-but-I-will-keep-you-and-your-siblings-safe” kind of parent.  

[Disclaimer: When our boys came home, we desperately needed to simplify our parenting ideas so we could be on the same page. Prior to simplifying this thing, we lived in a constant state of stress, and there was tension around each individual intervention. So, the following is a description of what the "no consequences” principle looks like in our [very simple] family.]

Our children experience consequences; however, we do not “give” them consequences.  We set limits to keep them safe.  

The limits we set are according to our individual child’s emotional ability (not chronological age) and that limit is adjusted according to circumstances and external stressors.   

For example:

When my son hit his brother with a wiffle ball bat, I did NOT say, “You lost the privilege of playing wiffle ball.”  I calmly pulled him aside and said, “I’m so sorry you aren’t feeling safe enough to play with your brothers  right now.  My job is to keep you and your brothers safe.  You can come sit with Mom and Dad and watch your brothers play for now.”  

He still was NOT playing wiffle ball.  

And, in the moment, he was too stressed for a deep discussion.  Being close to Mom and Dad was regulating for him.  

Later that day, I asked him about how he was feeling before the wiffle ball incident. I wanted to see if he felt safe enough (and had processed enough) to put words to his feelings.  He hadn’t gotten to that place, but because I had some idea of what might be going on I offered, “I think you may have felt sad when you were having a difficult time hitting the ball, and it was hard to watch your brothers hit more balls than you. Am I right, or was it something else?”  He said I was right and I could read from his expression he was telling the truth and he was relieved I understood.  I said,  “I completely understand. We’ll keep practicing when you are able to be safe with your body.”

If problems persist with a particular activity, we will remove the activity (setting a safe limit) until he is ready.  He tells me with his behavior how safe he is and, when I’m reading his behavior well, I am able to set the safest limits for him to have opportunity for success.  Eventually, he develops a higher tolerance, and we can adjust the limits according to his new ability.  

When I sense he is ready to do something he has not been safe to do in a long time, I preface with this, “Your brothers are about to go play wiffle ball.  Are you safe to play with them?”  [Believe it or not, he has responded, “No,” in the past.  Then, he asks if he can watch.  Most of the time he decides he is safe, and he has never told me he would be safe when he wasn’t safe.]

So, my children do “experience consequences”, and yet what they are feeling is Mom and Dad are keeping me safe.

It is a feeling that is free from shame.  And, it is non-threatening.  

When our sons feel safe and less ashamed, they are able to connect with us.  They can trust us.  They can “feel” loved, and they are proud of their success.

And, they are able to connect with others’ feelings and give love.  

So…. here's to never saying, “You lost the privilege of…” and to doing our best to help our children feel safe.  

And, in our family, safe children aren't violent and they don't lie and steal.  


{A secondary reason I wrote this post is because, for a long time, our children were too scared to respond positively to the majority of specific interventions mentioned in The Connected Child. We realize our children came home with more fear than most (so we've been told) and yet it is important for us to share that when we focus on helping our children feel safe, they are still able to make incredible progress.}

I Cannot Control Attachment

Recently, I read a wonderful post by Lisa at One Thankful Mom called, Have We Made Attachment an Idol?  Prior to reading her post, I had been trying to process why the “A word” gives me the willies.  

Now, I think I have a better idea.

In foster care and adoption communities, I feel like “Attachment” is frequently seen as something an parent can and should control.

Due to our specific experience (especially with our failures), I disagree.

In fact, for a long time, the harder we “tried” to make attachment “happen”, the further away our adoptive sons became.  “Facilitating” attachment was scary for our sons.  Their fear did not bring us closer, and our “facilitating” closeness was not bringing us closer.  Their behavior began to speak loudly about how unsafe they felt.  We had to listen.  We had to learn ways to better respond.

Over the past couple of years I have been learning that the person I need to listen to first, is my child.  He will always be the number one expert on our relationship.  When he can’t tell me how he feels with his words, he tells me with his behavior.  My job is to love him and help him feel safe where he currently is.  I truly believe this is where our relationship begins.

There are only three things I know I can control:  1.  Getting to know my child as an individual, 2.  Being a safe parent, and 3.  Providing my child with a safe place.

One thing I will never be able to control:  Attachment.  

When I focus so long and hard on what ingredients and methods will ensure attachment, I’m distracted from doing the first thing that does help my child trust me: my being attuned with him.   

For example, when I trust “the books” rather than let my child set our relational pace and he ends up in a rage, I could blame my child, because I was doing everything "by the books”.  I may even think my child isn’t doing his part.

But, it isn’t his job!  He may not even be interested in being attached to me.  And that’s okay.  

I refuse to blame my child, adopted from foster care, because he is scared of homes and of me.  When I used popular methods to connect with my child before really even knowing him, I seriously freaked him out because he needed to set the pace of our relationship.  When, without his permission, I was too close to him, he felt threatened.  He freaked out.  He raged.  I have had to get to know my child well enough to understand his level of tolerance for me.  He sets the pace.  It is out of my control.  

He didn’t ask for any of this.  He didn’t ask to be in this family.  

My child is still not confident enough in our relationship to respond well to a traditional “time-in”.  Co-regulation, in close proximity, hasn’t yet happened with us.

But, I’m celebrating that he now regulates better with me in the room with him than he does further away from me.  

I’m getting to know him better.  He’s coming to trust me more.  

And it all started with me respecting him where he was.  

Now he’s closer.  

[I am mainly describing our specific relationship with one of our sons in this post because of the complexity of our relationship and all I am learning by specifically getting to know him and trying to be a better mother for him. Our son has had very few extreme behaviors since we started listening to what his behavior was telling us and responding by consistently helping him feel safe.]

Fostering Compassion

It wasn’t unusual to appear poor where I grew up. Prior to middle school, I had only one friend who purchased her clothes from a shopping mall. The rest of us were outfitted at the farm supply store- happily.
Except for “Jenny.” I don’t think anyone had ever bought clothes for Jenny.
Jenny never looked clean. She often wore the same exact clothes for days. Her hair was constantly matted. She disappeared for days at a time. Her mother was the talk of the town. At eight-years-old, I had already heard, “Jenny’s mom won’t have any more babies after this one because welfare doesn’t increase after six children,”  enough times that I believed Jenny’s mom gave birth for business purposes.
Jenny wanted to be my friend.
Fourth-grade-me knew that it wasn’t popular to be Jenny’s friend. At least I was pretty sure it wasn’t, since she didn’t have any friends.
One day I was talking with my mom trying to come up with excuses not be Jenny’s friend. I told her, “She makes up these crazy stories and says she goes places like Disney World and eats at fancy restaurants. Everyone knows she’s lying!”
There:  I had an excuse. Jenny lies. My mother wouldn’t want me to hang out with a liar.

Continue Reading Here

What My Son Is Telling Me Through His Behavior

Years ago, before I had ever heard the word “attunement” associated with adoptive parenting, a therapist told me, “Your son is telling you what he can handle by his behavior.”  

More than anything else, those words have impacted our family for the better.  I have learned to understand each of our children as individuals, regardless of whether they can communicate their needs verbally.  With one of our sons, this principle has given us an opportunity to build a foundation so he could begin to trust us.  As I reflect on our experience, I realize he consistently communicates what he can handle in the following three areas:

Dear Teacher, My Child Needs Us to be an Unstoppable Team

{Please feel free to share this Letter with your children’s teachers and administrators}

Dear Teacher,

Before this academic year starts I want you to know I am on your team.  I want to be and I have to be.  And, I’m asking you to be on my team too.  

Before coming to live with me, my son suffered more trauma than I am willing to describe in detail.  He loves to learn, and yet that is not always obvious by his behavior.  

You need to know that when my son looks impulsive or checks out, it is not because he has ADHD or is defiant.  He’s scared.  He’s ashamed. He’s sad.  He’s lost.  He doesn’t understand.

So, please do not try to motivate him by creating a reward system for him.  Please do not  give him a chart to monitor his behavior.  

Those things add to his stress.  To his shame.  When he’s stressed out, he cannot  do his best thinking

He needs to know that whether or not he is ever capable of earning any reward, you and I are cheering for him and excited about him.   He needs to know he cannot earn our favor because he already has it and he cannot lose it.  He needs to know we will stick with him and help him learn the skills he needs to succeed in life.  

Also, when he is stressed, he communicates that stress by checking out, lying, stealing, breaking things, and by acting violent.  In a state of stress, he can’t learn.  In fact, he regresses socially, academically, and emotionally. And, when he is stressed at school, he disconnects from his family members at home.

In those moments, he needs you to help him feel safer.  He needs you to ask him how he is feeling and empathize with him.  He needs you to get down to the root of his behavior.  He needs you to clear things up when he misunderstands.  He needs to hear your concerns about his behavior.  He needs you to problem solve with him to help him gain the skills he needs to do well both in your classroom and in life.  He needs you to remain calm and compassionate.  

Most of all, he needs to know we are a team.  So far he has had one academic year that was a success.  The main ingredient to that success was that his parents and teachers were on the same team cheering him on.  He felt safe and his behavior was not a problem.

Remember, he has not been home long.  At this moment, he has spent more of his life in extremely volatile and unsafe living situations than he has spent home with us.  When you do something to tell him you disagree with his parents and how they raise him, you are once again causing him to question his own safety.  Is his mom safe?  He’s not sure...again.  

And, again, he’s stressed.  Again, he can’t learn.  His behavior begins to spiral.

The best thing you can do for my son is be on a team with his parents.  When you don’t agree with us, please, give him absolutely no indication (verbally and non-verbally) and bring your concern to us later.  It will help him greatly, if you give us the benefit of the doubt.  And, of course, we will do the same for you.  Without a united team, my son has very little chance of being educated, and he has very little chance of making long-term meaningful connections with other human beings.  

Sadly, my son has known the world’s cruelty more intimately than the majority of adults I know.  He understands the world is cruel, and unfortunately, he expects it.  He expects pain.  He expects loss.  He expects rejection.  

When you are on the same team as his parents and you offer him the safe place he needs to learn and problem solve, you are proving to him that his world does not have to be a scary place.  You are proving to him he is worth you getting to know.  You are proving to him that he can be a healthy community member.  You are proving he is worthy of a loving family.

It is true.  He needs a lot from you.  He needs a lot from me.  When there is consistency between home and school, life is easier for all of us.  

And, he can learn.  

We can do this together!

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Better Together

One evening I was chatting with a family member and she meekly admitted that others in the family think it was wrong of us to choose this [adoption] road for our biological children.

In their opinion, we chose our biological children’s ruin.

If our family goal had been comfort, then yes, we ruined our children's lives, and not just our biological children’s lives-  ALL of them.

Adoption is NEVER the first and best thing for our adopted children. If there had been a safe way to keep their first family together, that would have been far superior to them being adopted into our family.

For reasons I am not going to share, our adopted children needed to be adopted. They have experienced immense loss.

However, in my opinion, the rest of our family has ONLY gained.

Our biological children have become well acquainted with their brothers’ pain. It is a pain their brothers did not invite and did not contribute to. It is a pain we could have sheltered our biological children from.

We could have given them a plethora of worldly comfort, and in doing so, unintentionally sheltered them from most of what matters- most of what our family values.

Obviously we have a different set of goals and values than those relatives who are in despair over our decisions.

Our hope for ALL of our children has always been that they build character, be compassionate, and be empathetic.

Empathy, Compassion, and Character come at a cost.

All of our children have experienced pain.

As a family, we’re broken.

But, truthfully, we were broken long before our sons came home. Their pain exposed us for who we truly were and begged us to do the hard work of getting better.

So we ALL could be stronger.

While others mourn our destruction, we rejoice at the opportunity to move beyond our previously comfortable life.

I can now accept that many people will not understand and will continue to mourn the “destruction” of our family.

While we feel as if they’re the ones missing out.

And that’s okay.

But, I Have Several Children...

Like me, it's likely many of you have read oodles of adoptive parenting books and thought, “That’s a great idea, but I have more than one child.  What do I do if I have other children?”

If we had followed the most popular written rules perfectly, we would have had to drop everything (and everybody else) to parent our most hurting child. All. The. Time. Three of my four children would feel neglected by me.  My husband and I would be estranged.

And, I doubt our most hurting child would be doing very well either.  

Because our family would be miserable.  

In fact, I feel if we had followed each recommendation in the most popular adoption books, trauma would rule our household.  Peace would not exist.  The foundation for trust would be greatly hindered.  For everyone.

There was a point when we spent the majority of our energy on our most hurting child, and it was miserable- for ALL.  Then, our youngest was born.  

I would never tell a parent raising children from hard places bringing a new baby home is a formula for healing (because I can’t imagine it is). I'm simply saying our perspectives dramatically shifted as soon as we brought our youngest home.

Taking care of our newborn consumed so much of my energy I didn't have any energy left to constantly consider what our most hurting child needed.  

And, our most hurting child started getting better.  We all started getting better.  Because we knew our saddest son was scared of a baby coming home and because we knew that fear could lead to very unsafe situations, we decided to send him to the aftercare program at his school.  My husband started picking him up on his way home from work, giving him dinner, and doing his bedtime routine until it was clear he was no longer feeling threatened by his new brother.  

Our other two sons had time with their new sibling and me for a few hours after school, and they enjoyed every moment of peace.  Their relationship grew.  They came to trust us more.  Laughter became common.  

My huband and I began to smile and laugh more often.  

We watched, as our hurting son had significantly less time with us, he was less stressed during our [now much more limited] interactions.  Slowly, he became more comfortable with accepting nurture from us.   We had more energy.  Our interactions with him became more positive and even fun!  

Then, when the youngest was seven months old, he started to crawl.  He took that liberty and, with a huge goofy grin, crawled purposefully to his very sad brother.  

That’s when we saw our sad son's first reciprocal smile (that wasn’t forced) in our home.

While none of this followed any adoption book I’ve read yet, I promise you that we respected our son and his comfort level with us.  And it was also respectful of our entire family.  Nobody was neglected. 

In fact, when our family had some space from the drama, we had the freedom to become a family that even our sad son felt safe in- a family he's now glad to be part of.  

I would love to hear of unique ways your families have problem solved below in the comments section.  

[I do not think any adoption book author would suggest other children should be neglected.  However, in their not speaking to the multiple child situation, I think many of us parents feel overly burdened, lack specific direction, and even take paths that are destructive to our families as whole units.]

[I hope this post is in some way encouraging to some of you. At the moment, no one has written a book on how to raise a family like our family as a whole unit.  My children are still very young and, with tremendous support, we are learning as we go.]