Continued from Excruciating Ride
I often search Flickr for just the right photo, but I don’t always find what I want. In this case, the picture is worth about a million words.
The roller coaster we’re riding with our son right now isn’t any fun.
As I walked into the hall, my son whipped the pencil away from his chest.
“What are you doing?” Reaching for the pencil, I leaned over to see whether he’d progressed through his school work. I used the pencil to point, summoning as much nonchalance as I could.
“You need to fill in these blanks in pencil, please.” I handed the pencil back, adding, “Pencils are for paper; pencils are not for poking people.”
He nodded and took it.
After he finished his school work, I gave him a journal assignment. He wrote about suicide by a pencil stab.
An hour later, he growled in frustration when I wouldn’t believe an obvious lie. He left the house and headed down the driveway. The timing worked well, because we needed to head to an appointment, so I pretended to think he was going to get in the car.
Unlocking the vehicle, I called, “Hey, thanks for getting out of the house so quickly so we can be on time! Do you want me to meet you at the end of the driveway?”
He froze, then turned slowly and shuffled back to the car, muttering, “wearing the wrong shoes, anyway.”
His sister gave him a sharp look. “Were you trying to run away?”
“Yeah, but I need my other shoes.”
She shook her head. “Running away is stupid. What are you going to eat?”
In a cool, flat tone that gave me chills, he said, “Dead squirrels, probably.”
By late August, I was spending an average of seven hours per day closely monitoring our son. Completing tasks became almost impossible; he didn’t want to move, so he began a sabotage campaign. When we put the house on the market, we asked the kids to try to keep things neat for the showings. He thought buyers would refuse to purchase the house if he worked against us. He trashed his room, wrote on the walls in permanent marker, decimated a large planter…every time he wasn’t by my side, I looked for the next bit of destruction.
He did the opposite of whatever we asked and began doing things he’d never done in the past, like climbing out of his window to leave the house. Hubby and I did our best, but…have you ever tried to keep an 11 year-old in sight at all times? It’s even harder than it sounds.
Cameras and a newly-installed alarm system helped, but we still couldn’t supervise 100% of his day. Showers became especially problematic, because he’s really too old for one of us to stand there. He plugged the drain with toys and toilet paper, defecated in the tub and filled the curtain with water, letting it go when it became too heavy (all over the bathroom floor).
Because he is diagnosed as “on the edge” of the Autism spectrum, the in-home counselor suggested we apply for ABA therapy for help with behavior modification. Good ABA therapists have successfully helped non-verbal, low-functioning children learn to communicate and to perform self-care tasks. If his apparent inability to follow directions stemmed from the autism, the therapists would be able to help. And maybe, once he had a habit of doing the right things, he would feel better about himself.
While I sat outside with the supervisor, outlining the challenges of the last several months, another staff member sat with our son to evaluate him. I explained to the supervisor that he’s great one-on-one with an adult, so I expected the other therapist to find nothing. Sure enough, when she joined us, I saw The Look.
The Look, n., facial expression indicating the parent must be out of her mind, as this child is brimming with intelligence and compliance.
Thankful for backup from the in-home counselor, the supervisor and I explained there is more to this kid than becomes obvious in one meeting. We were approved for services, but staffing shortages meant ABA wouldn’t start for several weeks.
A week later, the threats of suicide came almost daily, sometimes several times a day. His moods swung between anger and depression. I couldn’t leave him alone with his sister for even a minute because he started lashing out at her.
ABA wasn’t going to be enough.
We began looking for residential treatment, this time for a program that lasted more than a few days.
Angela Duckworth, author of Grit, believes we reach “expert” level by practicing our craft for at least 10,000 hours; K. Anders Ericksson specifies those hours are spent in “deliberate practice.”
Therefore, I would like to announce that
I am an expert.
For at least thirty years, I have deliberately practiced…procrastination.
Don’t even have to try anymore; Hubby agrees my practical level of procrastination is unbelievable—even mind blowing.
Blog procrastination happens when I know it’s time to write but I’d rather pretend nothing is happening.
Writing about the last six months is painful, terrifying, discouraging.
I’ve been procrastinating.
As I mentioned earlier, the roller coaster with our girl has morphed into a super-fun ride most days. (And yes, I know that super-fun is technically not a word.)
The roller coaster ride with our boy…not so much.
Right now, his roller coaster is excruciating.
When we began our journey, people supported us in the best ways they knew. However, few had the experience to understand, so we stopped trying to share our angst, because conversations went something like this:
Me: “Our foster son won’t stop screaming. Anything sets him off. He won’t let me touch him until he’s out of his mind—then, still screaming, he clings to me like the earth is falling away and I’m the last thing standing. Sometimes it lasts for hours; I don’t know what to do.”
Friends my age: “Yeah, my kid does that, too. I just turn on the TV and he settles down,” or “Put him in his room, tell him he can come out when he’s done, and shut the door.”
Friend my mom’s age: “Tell him if he doesn’t stop crying, you’ll GIVE him something to cry about.”
Friend my grandmother’s age: “He probably has gas. Have you taken him to the doctor?”
Social worker: “If he’s too much for you, we’ll find another placement.”
The above suggestions didn’t help.
But those kinds of conversations prompted me to start this blog, because Hubby and I agreed no one should feel as alone as we did.
Have a troubled kid? You are not alone.
Terrified of the future? Wondering whether your child will have the ability to function in society? “Cautious optimism” is your motto?
You’ve come to the right place.
Everyone’s story line is a little different, but the internal conflict connects across all boundaries: parents want beautiful life to happen for their kids, but we don’t always know how to best assist.
We want them to thrive, be mentally healthy and happy, be successful, have a great future.
Three months ago, the main life plan for our eleven year-old son was
His roller coaster almost went off the tracks in August. The happy boy who lived with us during the summer of 2016 was long gone. He used his intelligence to charm and manipulate adults but could not stand his peers. Aggressive behavior caused his expulsion from two summer camps.
Several life alterations (loss of Hubby’s dad, job changes, selling our home, moving) or hormones may have something to do with the downward spiral that held a tenacious grip on his personality; we don’t really know the cause. Hindsight sometimes holds clues and answers, but in this case, we can’t find any triggers.
I once read that talking about suicide is “just” a cry for attention unless the person has a plan. (We can discuss “just” another time…if a person is reaching out, there’s a reason.)
Our son had a plan.
Several plans, actually.
When he was upset, I often sent him to write in his journal; after he finished, he allowed me to read it and we took time to discuss his thought processes. As he found that I would not give him a consequence for anything he wrote (he tested this with a list of swear words), his writing became darker and included plans to run away or harm himself.
His list of ways to die included throwing himself in front of a vehicle, drowning himself in the pond or stabbing himself in the heart with a pencil.
Because of his extreme behaviors and inability to function appropriately in most settings, he had an in-home counselor ten hours a week. She became an invaluable presence in our family, mostly for me. (I no longer had to wonder whether I might be overreacting.)
We monitored him closely, working with the in-home counselor with the goal of keeping him with us.
We were, in a word, Hypervigilant.
We installed an alarm on the house to alert us if he tried to leave in the middle of the night, and cameras so I could keep an eye on him when I had to be in another room. Most of the time, I slept only when he slept, woke before he did and kept him in my physical sight almost all day. If I needed to use the restroom, I took the monitor, and only took showers when another adult was in the house. Hubby took over when he got home from work so I could get a little rest.
We were exhausted but determined to do everything we could to prevent residential care.
We believed our love could be enough.
Our in-home counselor agreed he needed immediate and urgent help after he acted out a detailed suicide scene in front of a camera in our home. We aren’t sure whether he chose the setting intending a manipulation, since he knew the camera was there. Regardless, the underlying issue remains the same: his thoughts were focused on ending his life.
As I explained that we might need to seek help from a facility outside our home, he shrugged.
“You’ve done all you can. You’ve tried everything else. We might as well try this.”
We checked him into an acute care psychiatric facility that afternoon. We visited every chance possible and each time he fed us lies (people hurting him, taking his shoes, trying to fight him). After a visit on day 5, Hubby and I resigned ourselves to the knowledge he’d be there a while as his mindset was obviously not changing.
Less than 24 hours later, a nurse called and told me they planned discharge that day. I was shocked.
“He told the doctor he’s not thinking about suicide anymore, so he can come home now,” she chirped.
I asked to speak to the managing director, who told me they could only keep the child if the child continued to want to hurt himself or someone else. Since our boy knew the right words, he had to come home.
The next day, as I painted a closet, I glanced at the monitor to see him trying to shove a pencil through his ribs.
“These shutters are a lot more work than I expected,” I sigh. “Thanks for helping me.”
I agreed to paint shutters for a friend. Too late, I discovered they hadn’t been properly prepped before the previous owner covered them in enamel; it flaked off like autumn leaves but gummed up my sander. The only option was tedious scraping.
The paint only held fast where edges met, the hardest part to clean…on every slat.
A five-hour job ballooned into a week-long project. The only saving grace? The lead paint test was negative.
My ten year old son shrugs, scraping an edge.
“If they’re so hard, why don’t you just take them back and say you can’t do it?”
“Because I agreed to paint them. I didn’t say I’d only paint them if they were easy to prep.”
He flicks a piece of peeling paint. “But this is too hard. It’s not what you expected. You should give up. That’s what I’d do.”
After the week he had at school, I think maybe we aren’t talking about the shutters.
Watching black paint chips flutter to the ground like an apocalyptic snowfall, I shake my head.
“Nope. I said I’d paint them. I gave my word. That’s a promise, and I keep my promises.”
“But it’s too hard!” He shakes his little brass scraper in my direction.
“It’s not TOO hard. It’s difficult, yes, and more work than I expected, but I’m going to have a really good feeling when I’m done.
Often, when you work through something difficult, you find out that YOU are tougher than you expected yourself to be.
There will be lots of times in your life when things will seem harder than you expected, but when you finally have a great result, you’ll know the hard work was worth every moment.”
He pauses, thinking.
“That’s why you’ll never get rid of me, even when I’m bad?”
This has been the year from heck, educationally speaking.
Thank God for our Assistant Principal. Not only is he adopted himself, he also has an incredible ability to empathize with trauma kids and understand kids with special needs.
If only the IEP team members were all so gifted.
Several times this year, I requested meetings to discuss our boy’s classroom behavior (which is unconventional but explainable when one takes the time to see through his eyes). His Autism Spectrum Disorder has begun to shine through with amazing beauty—or a vengeance, depending upon your perspective.
I requested a one-to-one behavioral aide, which he’s had in the past but never with this particular school. The aide gave him an extra layer of self-control by monitoring the situation for triggers, then reminding him to focus.
We’re lining up for lunch. Other children will be close to you and may touch you. This is okay. You’re perfectly safe.
Sitting quietly during testing is important. You’ll need to focus. No chirping, squeaking or other noises. I’ll give you a check mark for every minute you are silent.
This didn’t always work and we went through several aides before finding the right fit, but by the end of first grade we were able to phase out the aide. In fifth, he regressed. We weren’t at physical-aggression-because-I’m-angry level anymore, but his self-management went out the window by the end of September.
There is much to be said for personality match when pairing a teacher with a special needs child. We had stellar matches for him in third and fourth grade; I credit his teachers for the incredible leaps he made both in social and educational arenas.
The fifth grade teacher is a GREAT teacher. Neurotypical kids probably adore her.
But she’s not a personality match for my son, and he’s not a match for her. No one is at fault; it’s just the way things are.
Part of the struggle, I believe, is a simple lack of exposure. Maybe she’s never had a Spectrum kid in her classroom.
Thanks to trial and error, the fourth grade teacher found that putting him in a desk by himself—in the corner with fewest articles on the walls—helped him focus. He began participating more fully in spite of the separation she perceived as potentially problematic.
I suggested (and the school psychologist agreed) that the fifth grade teacher should do the same. Until then, she’d kept her classroom desks in groups of four or five. One of the daily points of contention happened when another child touched his things (inevitable at close range, because his desk tended to overflow). The teacher disagreed with the tactic but said she would comply with the group consensus.
Arriving in the classroom to drop off supplies about a week later, I found that she had placed his desk alone, as asked, but IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROOM, allowing for three-hundred-sixty degrees of incoming stimulation. Anyone with experience would never consider the middle of the room a viable spot for a kid with ASD.
Our boy is focused on the end result. Consequential forethought is rare; he almost never thinks about how his choices may affect others.
For instance: a friend told him that when he stamps his foot, his shoes light up. He neglected to provide a demonstration. Our guy thought about those lights all day. His impulse control held fast until about thirty minutes prior to pickup. He couldn’t take it anymore. The light-up-shoes called his name.
He ran up and stamped the kid’s foot.
The teacher wrote me a note, stating he had “viciously kicked” another child. Write-up, suspension.
He came home with a packet of papers to complete. He sat in a chair all day and worked (and got almost everything correct).
For this kid, suspension = joy.
He can learn and do his work with no distractions.
About two weeks later, our girl was home sick. Boy wanted to stay home as well. No fever, so off he went.
I sent a note to the teacher and left a message for the assistant principal, letting them know he may be out of sorts or pretend to be ill because he really wanted to be at home.
Thirty minutes into the school day, he pulled a chair out from under another child. He truly didn’t think about whether the child would be hurt (thankfully not); he just figured that if stamping a kid’s foot sent him home, this should also do the trick.
After a phone conference with the Assistant Principal, we agreed on after-school suspension for several days, to prevent a rash of must-find-a-way-to-get-suspended behaviors.
Again, I called a meeting, explaining (for the millionth-ish time) my request for a one-to-one behavioral aide. An aide could help him process the situation. Could see—as I often must—the potential issues and prevent a problem.
For instance, the behavioral aide would have noted he left his desk and immediately required him to sit back down. He would have never made it halfway across the room in the first place, much less had the opportunity to pull out the kid’s chair.
The aide could walk him to-and-from class, preventing the spark of hallway chaos from lighting his trigger fuse. Might recognize hyper-stimulation and ameliorate his angst before it ballooned into behaviors.
The IEP team, in spite of my pleas, turned down my request because
he’s not failing.
In fact, he’s doing quite well.
He’s “unable to focus,” he “refuses to participate” and “doesn’t follow along with the class,” yet his grades are above average.
And because we must keep him in the “least restrictive environment” for his needs, this precludes the need for a behavioral aide.
When they announced the reason, I stared in shock.
You’re telling me that he constantly distracts the class, he’s not able to focus or self-manage, he doesn’t know the material, he can’t get along with others and he’s a problem that must be solved, but you won’t allow me to procure a one-to-one aide because his grades are too good.
Yes, that’s exactly what they were saying.
I Give Up.
Not on my kid, and not on his education.
And I’m sure as heck not telling him this:
I give up stressing about his classroom behavior.
Sometimes, the only thing left to do is give it up.
you have to let go of what’s in your hands before you can pick up anything else.
And because sometimes,
moving on to the next thing is more important.
Several times in the last few months, our boy has mentioned that he seems different from other kids his age. He feels they think in a different way than he does.
He isn’t wrong, since he’s on the Autism spectrum. If the DSM-V hadn’t changed everything (okay, not everything), he would be diagnosed as having Asperger’s. In fact, his earliest diagnosis listed him as an Aspie.
We have never told him, concerned that it might make him feel different, or that he might use it as an excuse. “Well, I just act that way because I have Autism.”
However, since he already feels “different,” we’ve been thinking that maybe we should tell him.
A couple weeks ago, the kids and I were watching Girl Meets World, a spinoff/sequel to my childhood favorite, Boy Meets World. In this particular episode, one of the characters had testing because the adults in his life suspected he might be on the spectrum. He was agitated and concerned over the idea that he might be Autistic. I didn’t really like the way they portrayed that part because the tone made a diagnosis sound a little scary. Test results showed the young man does not have Asperger’s and he seemed relieved. However, one of his close friends was disappointed because she is an Aspie and was hoping his diagnosis would make her feel less different. The show ended as the kids assured the girl that they all love her just the way she is.
Overall, the episode does a pretty good job of showing kids how to be inclusive. The portrayal of nervous tension about the testing, both for the parents and for the child, seems fairly accurate.
I wouldn’t really know, because we didn’t tell our boy we were getting him tested (yearly psychs are run of the mill here, so he didn’t even notice) and I was ECSTATIC to receive the diagnosis.
Still, I felt they could have done a better job of portraying the diagnosis as something less scary—or even cool, because truly, Spectrum Kids are gifted.
As the show closed, our boy stared me square in the eye and asked,
What do I have?
Not quite ready to have the conversation, I hedged. “What do you think you have?”
He thought for a minute, then said, “I think I have the illness of aaaaaaaaaaaa(thought he was going to say it)aaaaawesome!”
If you haven’t read Grit by Angela Duckworth, be forewarned and encouraged: the book is long AND it is worth your time. The information is enthralling. Listening to the audio (read by the author) is even more fascinating.
One of my colleagues suggested I read it after I related the latest escapades in our quest to find the best care for our children’s special needs. Grit, according to Angela, is “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”
When it comes to our adopted kiddos, any social worker, community service board member, child services team contributor, school administrator, teacher or member of the mental health community with whom I’ve interacted would agree that I tend toward dogged advocacy. Our first social worker told Hubby I’m “hypervigilant” (hence the blog name).
Their well-being is my Quest, if you will.
Our kids had such a traumatic start; Hubby and I are determined—as much as is within our power—to make the rest of their growing-up years decidedly un-traumatic. I have to tell you: spending almost every moment of my wake time (and sometimes my dreams as well) finding ways to sow seeds of future success is exhausting.
At my friend’s recommendation, I read Grit thinking it might give me some encouragement.
Perhaps some validation.
Maybe even a little focus.
What I didn’t expect: Angela talks about ways to develop Grit in our children.
Her explanation of Grit indicators enthralled me. Among other things, a huge predictor of future success is a child’s commitment to a challenging activity for a certain amount of time.
At the high school level, two years of involvement in the same activity (whether sport, club or organization) is a solid predictor of future success.
Chess club, lacrosse, football, student government, school newspaper: as long as the activity creates growth and challenges the child to learn more, improve or think more creatively, it counts. (One year of involvement predicted nothing, by the way. That second year matters.)
To grow Grit in their children (and themselves), Angela, her husband and her children all “Do Hard Things.” (As a nerd partial to ancient myth, I prefer the term”Grit Quest.” My paraphrase of quest: an adventurous search or pursuit to secure or achieve something. GQ for short. Gives more of a sense of the “bulldog determination to scale the highest limit of this mountain” ideology our family tends to embrace.)
1. Everyone does SOMEthing that requires practice (pursuit) to improve. Each family member must embrace a GQ.
“Everyone” includes parents—how can we expect the kids to do something difficult while we potato on the couch?
If you’ve followed this blog for long, you know that Hubby and I do fun things like teaching ourselves how to knock out and rebuild walls, replace the bathroom ceiling and restore cars. The kids’ counselor actually told us we needed to take time to relax, to show the kids that adulting isn’t all work. #1 will be no trouble.
2. Everyone chooses his or her own GQ. No one wants to work hard because someone else is making them.
We have a child who would prefer to do nothing at all, so #2 will be more difficult.. If we don’t choose something for her, she will sit in her room and converse with herself. We’ve come to a compromise: there will be a GQ and it will involve music; the kids can choose from the instruments we already have on hand (piano and guitar). They’ve each asked for music lessons (unwitting of the work required), so this technically follows Angela’s guideline.
Other GQ considerations are transportation and impact on family time. For instance, we’ve ruled out football (American) for now because practices every night and games on weekends would effectively preclude any other activities…for anyone, player or not. We’re open to any sports which enable the kids to play together without taking over the family schedule.
3. No quitting. At least, not on a difficult day nor due to bad attitude. Predetermine a timeline or stopping point.
Once they’ve fulfilled the terms of the agreement (e.g., eight weeks,”when you reach x level” or a sport season) they can pick a new instrument or try something else.
Angela Duckworth says, “if I’ve paid the tuition for your set of piano lessons, you’re going to take all those lessons and you are, as you promised your teacher, going to practice for those lessons.”
Sounds great, but #3 is a bit more tricky for us, as we’re still working on motivation.
For over a year, the kids took Karate (THEIR CHOICE). We told them they could quit once they received a green belt. Most of the class attained the first belt within the first three months. Over a year later, our little darlings finally managed to pass the first belt assessment. They simply refused to practice.
No consequences mattered. Rewards, consequences, the teacher calling them out in front of the entire class…nothing mattered to them.
This lack of response to negative consequence or positive reward has been an ongoing burr under my saddle. It’s a “normal” response from trauma kids.
I literally had to stand there and watch them, directing every move. Right, it’s only fifteen minutes a day…but when it took an hour to complete thirty minutes of homework and we had Scouts (one for each) twice a week and counseling twice a week and…and…and…it just became too much.
What I learned from that experience? Pick a shorter term goal. The idea of allowing them to quit when they hit green was this: by the time they got to green, they’d be so good, they wouldn’t want to quit. Both of them have athletic physiques and our boy has flexibility any ballerina would kill for. We knew if they found success, they’d want to continue.
Problem is, they fought so hard to be complacent, they missed out. Toward the end, they both started realizing goals in karate. Unfortunately, it was too late, because they were both approved for in-home counseling (7-10 hours per week). With school, there’s currently no time for karate.
But hey, once the summer starts, we will have all kinds of time to practice an instrument. (Yep, I plan to practice as well.)
In the meantime, I’m going to go listen to Grit one more time. There was a section about the Seattle Seahawks I didn’t fully catch the first time around, and I want to listen again.
If you take time to read it (or already have), weigh in below.
What do you think? Do you have grit? How do you know?
I have been PRAYING for time to write during the last few weeks. We’ve got a lot going on.
We decided to buy out the rest of the siblings and move to Dad’s place. This means
- We need to downsize, as the house is smaller (although we plan to add on)
- We must quickly finish all home improvement projects
- We have to have our current house market-ready ASAP before the Spring House Rush begins
Our Boy had the flu for four days. The expelling-a-demonic-force-from-your-gut version. This means
- He called me to his room every fifteen minutes to ask if he were dying
- He called me to his room every thirty minutes to confirm his time of death
- I got nothing done for a week (spent Friday recovering from no sleep)
Hubby and I spent an entire day rolling around in the crawl space under the house (looking like Mars explorers in Tyvek suits and respirators) to replace the insulation and vapor barrier. This means
- We did not walk upright for almost 8 hours
- I spent three days walking around like an old lady
- I finally realized I am no longer seventeen
Hubby got laid off after almost 20 year with the same firm. This means
- We have to figure out insurance
- We found out his insane work ethic and sense of humor have won him a ton of friends and supporters; he received literally hundreds of supportive texts, email messages and phone calls
- He suddenly has time to work on the house
I was sick three days ago, then had a fever relapse today. This means
- Hubby has been Mr. Mom (and he’s done a fabulous job)
- The kids have had to take more responsibility (and have done a fabulous job)
- I completely lost my voice and spent the entire day in a chair writing and looking at the river at my aunt’s house (voice loss: not so fabulous; river: fabulous)
So, here’s the good news: my prayer was answered and I had time to write today, because with a fever and the inability to talk, I can’t do much else. (Post scheduled for tomorrow.)
This is what you call “Forced Write-irement.”
More good news: Our Boy is fully recovered and is up to most of his old shenanigans, but he also got it in his head that the flu might have been punishment for his behavior the last few months, so he’s been watching himself.
This may be my fault. Every time he asked if he might be dying, he also asked, “WHHHHHHHHHYYYYYYYYY is this happening? What have I EVER DONE to DESERVE this????” At some point, running on three hours’ sleep, I maaaaaay have responded, “Well, think through the last eight weeks. How much of that was spent on good behavior?” He didn’t ask me about it again…
Even more good news: if all goes as planned, Hubby already has another job lined up, and they’re willing to wait a couple weeks on the start date, so he’ll have time to work on the house.
It’s been busy and I’m exhausted…but God is good.
ALL the time.
Oh, and did I mention I’m thinking about writing a non-fiction bit about working with trauma kids? In case I get bored.