The problem is that you are putting in all the effort to see me and I’m not doing any effort to show you that I want you to visit.
This was my son’s explanation of the main problem in our family relationship during a phone call.
He continued, “when I don’t do what I’m supposed to do, I’m sending the message that I don’t care if you come to see me.”
The kid is smart. He knows what he’s doing.
In the beginning of his residential treatment stay, we visited our son every weekend. However, his behavior escalated and his actions became increasingly violent. We reduced the frequency of visits based on his behavior.
His therapist agreed he needed to have some responsibility in our family connection, unrelated to other behaviors. As part of his therapy, we created a behavior plan which required our son to do a chore and a lesson in a Bible devotional each day in order to earn a visit.
Because our main objective during that time was also to ensure his sister’s safety, deleting the visit was a negative consequence if he had a violent outburst during the week. Assuming he did not assault anyone, we would show up.
Our son agreed to the plan.
The therapist ensured the chore would take fewer than 5 minutes. The devotional page also required about 5 minutes. In order to fulfill his behavior plan, our son needed to put in only 10 minutes of effort each day.
We purposely kept his responsibility simple, to ensure that he would easily be able to attain success. We wanted to show him that when he did what he needed to do, he would get what he wanted.
As the therapist worked with him to prevent thoughts from becoming behaviors, he stopped assaulting other humans. Instead, he began beating on the walls, doors or windows when frustrated. Sometimes he threw or flipped chairs.
He made the mental connection that we were not visiting during times when he had been violent with another person and assumed that we would visit if he didn’t hit someone else.
By this time, though, the behavior plan was in place and he needed to complete those two simple actions in order to have a visit. Instead of complying with the plan, he became angry that we were not visiting even though he had not hit anyone. He refused to complete chores or the devotional.
For weeks, we encouraged him during nightly family calls—as well as during family sessions with the counselor—to complete his plan.
Eventually, he began doing the chores but still refused to do the devotional work. He said he didn’t see a point because he already knows who God is. No amount of reasoning worked.
It became a power struggle and I asked the counselor if we should simply give up, but he agreed that if we did so, our son would simply see us as liars, even though we would be breaking our word in a positive way.
The counselor and I began to wonder if he was simply convinced we wouldn’t visit and was making sure that he was in control of the situation.
I wanted to make sure that he knew we would visit, so the counselor and I came up with a compromise. If our son did not finish seven lessons by Thursday, I would do the rest of them on the phone with him so they would technically be completed.
We were able to get him to do three of the lessons on his own by Thursday. On our evening call, I told him to get the book and completed the last four lessons with him on the phone so that we could make a plan to visit him on Friday.
Last night, I saw my son for the first time in over a month. Waiting until he completed his behavioral plan may seem extreme, but we wanted him to grasp the necessity of putting effort into the relationship. We also wanted him to see that we would immediately reward that effort.
We want him to know that he can trust us to show up. We also need him to grasp that relationships take work.
Last night, we had the best visit we’ve had since his treatment began. He was thrilled to see us and knew that he had completed what was required of him in order to make it happen. He had done his part and we had done ours.
Interactions weren’t perfect, and he was still less than truthful when it came to owning up to behaviors during the week. However, I have never seen him so happy.
I believe he experienced the kind of joy you feel when you know you’ve been responsible and done your part.
We played a couple of card games and spent the rest of the time playing Monopoly. It was the first time we’d ever played the game as a family, mostly because I wasn’t sure he would react well to some aspects of the game.
He amazed me, interacting and trading and paying rent and going to jail without flipping out.
I had a foot-in-mouth moment the third time his sister went “straight to jail without collecting $200.”
“I never expected you to end up in jail a bunch of times; I always thought it would be your brother,” I grinned at her.
Then, horrified, I realized what I’d said and slapped a hand over my mouth.
He cut his eyes at me, then cracked up with a true belly laugh.
He patted my arm. “It’s ok, Mom. Don’t feel bad. That was pretty funny.”
For the first time since October, I think perhaps we are making headway.
I know it’s a long road ahead. Expecting things to be perfect (or even to consistently go well) would be ridiculous.
But for the first time in months, I believe we will be able to have game night in our own living room, together. Not tomorrow, but someday.
I have hope, because last night, for a few hours, we had a Monopoly on Happy.
We CAN survive board games with our kids.
Tykes seem to have unlimited energy. As kids morph into teens, the frenetic level of energy diminishes, but it surges when they’re presented with an activity they love.
And they expect us to keep up.
Providing fun for kids with trauma requires even more than the usual amount of parental stamina.
When our children came to us, they embodied the focus of a hummingbird crossed with the energy of a Jack Russell terrier. They wanted to play constantly and their need for attention was all-powerful.
Like twin black holes, they absorbed our energy with ferocious intensity. No matter how hard we played or how long we interacted, they demanded more.
In desperation, we searched for a creative option to provide the attentiveness they craved while providing simultaneous relief of our exhaustion.
Hubby and I both have fond childhood memories of board games.
Board games! Of COURSE!!
We’d help them gain some focus while happily bonding as a family.
I look back at the seven-years-ago-us and shake my head. We were so earnest and adorable…
We tried Sorry, a board game with fairly easy play: pick a card and follow the directions. Get your pieces around the board and safely home.
Oh, and if another person’s game piece lands on the same spot as one of your pieces, the player yells, “SORRY!” and you get booted back to Start.
No big deal. How often could that possibly happen?
It could possibly happen a LOT.
Every time one of their pieces ended up back at Start, the kids lost it.
After thirty excruciating minutes (because I still clung to the ridiculous idea that good moms make kids finish what they begin), I started mis-counting my spaces to ensure I did not send a kid back to Start. (You perhaps call this cheating…I call it a technicality.)
The game concluded in frustration and tears.
We didn’t touch another board game for two years.
If we’d been aware of a few semi-simple principles, that night may have ended with different results.
HYPERVIGILANT GAME GUIDELINES
Only play as long as EVERYONE is having fun.
Set this expectation with the adults: it’s unlikely your trauma kids will make it through a full game without some drama.
If the game needs to end, don’t judge or shame the individual(s) responsible. If possible, shut it down before the situation devolves completely.
Say something like, “well, this has been a LOT of fun, but I really have to get back to ______. Let’s play again another time!” Then (with their involvement if possible), pack up the game. If they complain about ending the game, say with a smile, “I KNOW, it was so FUN! Want to play tomorrow?”
Stay as upbeat as possible; keep the mood light. Avoid making the game-end feel like a punishment. Be as nonchalant as possible and don’t allow yourself to be drawn into an argument.
GOAL: Associate only positive feelings with game play.
Start with an INSANELY easy game.
Choose games intended for a younger population. If your child is 7-10, select a game with a suggested age of 3-5. The goal is a gradual introduction to the idea of playing and working together. If you worry about insulting intelligence, hide the box.
GOAL: Introduce the idea that games are FUN.
EFF the rules.
And by “F,” I mean FORGET.
In the house where I grew up, we opened the box, set up the game and then—before touching anything else—we read the rules together. Even if we’d played the game for years, we read them anyway. Rules were part of the tradition. The ritual.
Most trauma kids won’t endure rule reading.
By the time you get to, “collect $200,” they’ll be rolling around on the floor or test-fitting a game piece in a random orifice.
Take a look at the rules beforehand; ensure you have a general grasp of game flow. Follow the ones that make sense for your crew. Ditch the rest.
GOAL: Hold their interest and get the game moving right away.
Simplify the game, including game aspects as appropriate.
(My apologies to the purists. Grit your teeth. It’s for the kids.)
Eliminate areas of the game which require too much of your children. Some game versions include additional requirements—jettison anything interfering with smooth play.
—In a card game, play with the minimum number of cards necessary to run the game.
—In a game with multiple pawns, like Trouble, limit the number of pawns to 1 or 2.
—In games like Monopoly, leave out one or more extraneous parts of play (e.g., purchasing properties or buildings, paying rent). Keep the parts (e.g., roll dice, move silver dog) your kids can easily handle.
GOAL: Start with very basic play. As kids become used to the rhythm and are able to handle more, increase the options.
Add a third pawn to Sorry, then a fourth. Try adding the money component back to the Monopoly game. Play with a full deck.
Don’t get competitive.
In many ways, learning to lose is more important than learning how to play. Don’t allow game night to become World War III.
Learning to play means taking turns, being polite even when losing, making eye contact, finding ways to communicate, touching someone without hurting them or being hurt and learning that “I didn’t win” doesn’t mean “I will never find success.”
Once, after her younger brother won two games of Uno in a row, our girl (seven at the time) had a screaming meltdown.
“HE WINS EVERYTHING! I WILL NEVER BE AS GOOD AS HE IS!!!” The tantrum escalated as her mental state deteriorated.
“NO ONE LIKES ME AND EVERYONE LIKES HIM AND I NEVER DO ANYTHING RIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIGHT…!!!!”
The flip-out had very little to do with the game.
It had everything to do with her self-perception.
Although her ability to think with logic at that age was limited, we were able to help her recognize her feelings and show her we cared. It also gave us great insight to her thought process.
GOAL: Keep in mind, the game is not about winning. It’s an opportunity to learn your kid.
Don’t Give Up.
Success is unlikely to happen overnight. We spent several years slowly building the game mentality. Especially for kids with limited social skills, board games are important. If you encounter opposition, limit tries to once a week. Attempt different types of games. Every kid is different, but almost all children like to play. The difference between “almost all children” and ours? Most of ours have to LEARN to have fun. To relax enough to enjoy themselves. To trust the adults.
Game play is therapeutic and is an important learning experience for our kids.
GOAL: Don’t lose sight of the end result: the children are absorbing important lessons which will equip them for life.
I hope these lessons we learned on a difficult road will help you have a better time “having fun” than we did.
Try a Game Night this Friday
Let me know how it goes…may all your dice roll 6 and all your pieces make it Home!
Know why Jesus would be great at blogging?
If you correctly guess the answer, I’ll write a post involving your blog. 🙂
Hint: he’s got lots of what every blogger wants!
Just a little follow-up to Testing, Testing, 1-2-3:
After days of angst
Hours of horror
A sleepless night and
Billions of butterflies in both our stomachs
I found her on the bleachers, sitting next to a new friend.
“It wasn’t as bad as I expected. I think I did okay.”
I think I did okay, too.
Tommorow, she tests for…
Here we go again…
This week, the girl participates in her first annual testing session since we’ve been homeschooling.
It is less a test of her abilities and more a measure of my prowess as a teacher.
I’m a bit nervous. Possibly more than she is.
I actually had trouble sleeping, which is not unusual, but I don’t usually worry myself awake. Most nights, my brain spins stories or posts destined to never see an audience because I fell asleep halfway through.
Before we adopted, I didn’t understand when my friends bemoaned their children’s test anxiety. You’ve heard the phrase “pulling out my hair” in frustration…I’d never seen it in action until one of our little friends showed up with no eyebrows. He was anxious about testing and pulled them out, bit by bit. (There’s a disorder called trichotillomania, but they ruled that out and said it was just anxiety.)
I’ve always loved school and am a geek-tacular stay-up-all-night-crammer. My test grades were rarely less than stellar. (Not bragging—just explaining why I didn’t understand how tests might be scary. I just saw them as a challenge.)
Might not remember any of the material a week later, but as long as my grades were high, everyone seemed happy.
None of my peers ever talked about test-taking anxiety. On occasion, someone admitted being nervous about passing a certain test or achieving a certain grade, but no one was pulling out their eyelashes.
When my friends discussed their children’s test-taking anxiety , I thought it was hyperbole.
And then we adopted our kids.
The boy has no such thing as test-taking anxiety, mostly because he doesn’t care.
He likes good grades, mostly due to sibling competition. He doesn’t like it if his sister’s grades are higher than his, but he has an innate ability to both put in minimum effort and get fairly decent grades. In general, he displays an incredible lack of concern about school (the exception: history studies…the one time he has the legitimate ability to learn about war in a setting in which discussing weapons is taboo).
Our girl, on the other hand, wants to “get everything right the first time” and doesn’t understand why memorizing information requires so much effort on her part.
She should be able to assimilate it by osmosis, of course.
I’ve tried to help her understand that very few people can view text once and remember everything they need to know, but I am—thus far—unsuccessful.
Her expectation of perfection frustrates her. It often trips her up during testing, because the moment she sees a question she doesn’t know, she starts freaking out. She doesn’t necessarily have any external physical reaction, but she begins making mistakes and overlooking obvious answers.
Any information she might have known flies away like pigeons from a coop.
To prepare her for the upcoming annual test, I gave her a practice test 3 grade levels below her own. I thought it would bolster her confidence.
Instead, she stumbled over one question and spiraled from there. She ended up answering one-third of the answers incorrectly.
She KNEW all of the information.
I asked her the questions verbally and she answered all answers with 100% success.
But put that paper in front of her, and she freezes up.
Hoping to alleviate her fear, I explained the test doesn’t matter. The results are less about what she knows and more about highlighting anything I still need to teach to keep her on par with her peers. (Or, if I have my way, to get her ahead of her peers…but I don’t say this. No pressure. We’re still catching up. But I tell you, this kid is brilliant.)
I keep telling her I don’t know of anyone who takes standardized tests for a living.
None of it seems to sink in.
I am a bit concerned that the test results won’t be accurate because she may miss answers she truly knows after confronting a difficult question.
I’m fighting my own version of test anxiety,.
I want her to do well for her own sake. I want to show her that she can do well on a test. I’m hoping to help her overcome the stress induced by the public school system yearly testing.
I’m not on a witch hunt and don’t have anything against public schools but they put so much pressure on the kids with constant drilling, remedial groups before and after school, prizes for doing well and promises of ice cream for those who participated well in prep exercises.
One mother opted for her child not to take the test, which is allowed, and the school tried to fight her. Her daughter is extremely smart and would have done very well on the test, reflecting positively on the school and raising their scores.
I didn’t even know skipping the exam was an option until it was too late.
Because they drilled the importance of testing into my daughter, her already perfectionist personality can’t handle an error. Once she knows question is incorrect, it’s over.
I’m praying she does well, but to be honest, I have personally seen her growth this year and found that she is much smarter then they gave her credit for.
She just needed to hear things in a different way. Sometimes I have to explain things more than once, but once she gets it, she gets it.
I’d like to instill in her that the point of school is not to get good grades but to learn the information we need to be able to do well in life and to interact with others in a positive way.
Math is important. Most of us will never use trigonometry, but basic math, algebra, and geometry are all important for most careers.
Language is one of the most important subjects. You might be an amazing genius, but if you can’t communicate your ideas, no one will care.
History is her favorite subject and I’m so thankful for this. Learning about history and taking it to heart gives us compassion for others, helps us recognize dictators before they take over, and allows us to see the mistakes we as people have made in order to avoid repeating them.
Hubby and I also want to give our kids a love of science. Curiosity and willingness to problem-solve are key to lifelong learning and success.
We were fortunate to find a fabulous art class this year, in which she studies some of the masters and has an opportunity to try to paint in his or her style. She likes to sketch and color but has never shown much interest in painting until now. She’s very talented.
I was in grad school by the time I realized the point of school was not to cram one’s way to the highest grade possible, but to ingest and comprehend the greatest amount of information to then translate into real-life application.
Creativity, curiosity, problem-solving ability, and the knowledge that you can find the answer to pretty much any question if you look hard enough: this is what I want my daughter to learn.
Testing this week won’t even affect her by next week. The true test will be life.
I’m thankful for the opportunity to find out what she has learned and what she still needs to know to keep up with her age group…or surpass them.
But I know that this test will not measure her ability to live a happy, successful life.
For that, we will have to rely on the test of time.
I just read a blog post from a dad who is committed to making sure he stays connected with his kids. (Click the link; his blog is super.)
His thoughts led me to a few of my own.
We so often focus on getting “quality” time with our kids and doing special things they will remember.
But what do you remember from your childhood? If you have memories of your family doing things together, what is your strongest mental image?
Most of my early memories don’t involve anything elaborate. Many relate to simple things we did each week.
Digging in a sandbox.
Swinging on the backyard set.
Board games on the floor.
We wanted to create similar happy memories with our kids.
When they first came to us, I would have argued that “board games” should just be called “bored.” Or, more accurately, “the quickest way to give yourself a migraine.”
In the beginning, they had zero focus and fought us at every turn (get it…because in games you take a turn…), even when something was supposed to be fun.
However, Hubby and I have fond memories of playing games like Risk and Monopoly, and we’re nothing if not determined. Our kids WILL play games, doggone it.
Brain-numbing (to us) choices like Memory and Guess-Who gave us our first tentative game connections with the kids, and eventually they could make it through a full round of Sorry or Trouble.
Doing puzzles also interested them, although we had to buy puzzles several levels below what you’d expect for their age. As confidence built, the number on the puzzle box rose.
Thanks to my aunts and mom, who often jigsaw when together, the kids saw puzzles as a fun hangout time for adults. This, of course, made the activity more desirable.
Our kiddos recently shocked us by asking for family game night instead of family movie night.
And we played Risk, without any actual casualties.
I call it a win.
When you have children, you finally appreciate all your parents have done for you.
You’ve heard this phrase, I’m sure (possibly from a frustrated parent when you were a teen).
For me, adopting the children did not bring the magical instant awareness, mostly because my parents never dealt with this brand of crazy or needed to make the kind of decisions we do. (That’s why I started this blog, because almost no one I know in person can say, “yes, I understand exactly what you’re talking about!”)
However, when we began home-schooling this year, I finally realized the level of work my mother did behind the scenes while teaching four children at home.
Sometimes I believed I was homeschooling myself, even in elementary grades.
I’ve seen a specific expression on my daughter’s face when I direct her to go back to the textbook and look for information. I recognize the look because I remember the way it felt from the inside of my face.
I was less forward about communicating my feelings. My girl… Not so much. She actually says the words sometimes. With that tone.
Why don’t you just teach me instead of making me look it up? Since you’re my teacher…
I smile and explain she needs researching skills.
Almost everything I do these days is with an eye toward the time she no longer needs me—which will arrive even sooner than I expect.
Being needed is a powerful urge. I find myself stepping toward my kids when I see them struggle, even for just a moment. I’m learning to stop, fold my arms and wait.
When I was 6 or 7, I read a story about a little girl who lived on a farm. She and her father were waiting for chicks to hatch. He left the barn for a bit, instructing her to leave the eggs alone.
After he left, one of the chicks managed to create a hole in the shell but struggled to break free and seemed to give up. The young girl cracked the egg for the chick. When the father returned, they cheered the birth of their first chick, but the celebration was short-lived as the chick passed away.
The man asked his daughter if she had helped the chick. When she admitted she had pulled the shell apart, he explained that the chick needed to struggle out of the shell on its own in order to be strong enough to live outside the shell.
The story was actually about obeying parents even when children don’t understand exactly why they should. However, now that I’m the parent, this story holds different meaning.
I watch my friends do things for their children (even grown children)…and in spite of my best intentions, sometimes I catch myself “doing” as well.
Tying the 10 year-old’s shoes. Cutting the 12 year-old’s food automatically. Helping the 14 year-old with the math problem before the child has attempted solving it alone. Never teaching the child to cook, clean up, work a dishwasher or clothes dryer, run a lawn mower, or change the oil. Driving a licensed teen to work or school, not for the lack of an extra car but because we can’t seem to let him go on his own.
Hamstringing and handicapping our kids with love.
Sometimes we can’t seem to fight that strong urge to be needed. Watching them grow up SO fast is a bit too painful. Tying the shoes “one last time” reminds us they are still our children.
I’m not suggesting we should never help our kids, nor that an occasional helping hand will keep them from learning. (Also, definitely not advocating a completely hands-off approach. Children require healthy boundaries and guidance.)
However, since my kids experienced a rough start, I found myself falling into the habit of “doing” for them. Trying to make up for their tough beginning.
About 6 months after the kids came to live with us, I was still helping them dress in the morning—using the rationalization that although they were five and seven, they were emotionally closer to two and four.
Hubby put a stop to it one morning, telling me, “the kid is capable of putting on his own underwear. He’s five. Stop holding him back.”
Disgruntled at Hubby’s interference in my fabulous parenting, I handed the boy his clothes and stepped back to prove that the child needed my help.
And I suddenly realized I was “doing” for them to try to make up for all we had missed. Innocent and loving intent, but in the process, I was actually hindering their development.
I fight the urge to over-help every day. I can’t speak for dads, not being one, but I think this is a struggle for most mothers and possibly all women. I’m not being sexist—I just think that we as women are wired to care deeply and sometimes we take it a little too far.
Allowing them to be children for as long as possible is fine. However, even children can learn to do things for themselves.
And they should.
Once, when I interviewed candidates for an open position, a mother arrived with her son and sat through the interview with him. She handed me his resume. She answered a few of the questions. She presented her unsolicited, glowing commendation of his best traits.
The young man seemed pretty sharp and appeared uncomfortable with his mother’s presence. Based on her personality, I got the feeling she didn’t give him a choice regarding her involvement.
I’m sure she thought she was giving him his best chance. She probably assumed, “as his mother, I know all of his best qualities and can vouch for his worthiness of this position. Who knows this kid better than I?”
Guess who didn’t get a second interview.
That was an extreme case, but she probably started out by tying his shoes when he was 12. The desire to be needed is difficult to release.
But I strongly believe we need to let our kids fight their way out of their own shells.
Require them to have experiences that make them uncomfortable. Allow them to fail while they still live in our house and are able to come home for support and advice.
I’m doing my best to keep myself from cracking that shell. To let them struggle. To allow them to develop the strength they’ll need to survive without me.
Especially since, some days, I’d rather duct tape the shell and let them remain children forever.
This is a week of appointments.
Ever since we adopted the kids, my life has involved appointment after appointment.
Doctor’s appointments, counseling appointments, dentist appointments, psychiatric appointments, eye appointments, in-home counseling appointments, testing appointments, occupational therapy appointments, speech therapy appointments…I see you’re getting the idea.
They used to get in the car after school and cheerily ask, “do we have an appointment today?”
They were (and still are) a little bit addicted to appointments because having one meant they got 100% attention from me, hubby, and whatever doctor or therapist might be involved.
They even love the dentist (now THAT’S just crazy).
Thankfully, as the years passed, the number of appointments have diminished in both intensity and frequency.
I added a number of appointments to our calendar over the last month. They all landed on this week, which is beginning to feel something like a flashback.
I managed to schedule routine visits with the doctor for hubby and me, the girl’s eye appointment and counseling appointment, and neurology and rule-out testing appointments for the boy almost all at once.
No idea what I was thinking at the time.
However, this little flashback has given me a moment to realize how thankful I am our life has slowed a bit. I’m not really sure how we survived those first 5 years, when this hectic week was our everyweek.
I am thankful for the reminder that life moves through seasons and everything will change in time.