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X-Files and Erik Erikson

During college, a bunch of us gathered around the ancient donated television every week to watch Mulder and Scully try to catch each other—I mean, try to catch aliens. Anyone who watched the show knows the tag line…

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Photo Credit: Snailystitches

Unfortunately, wanting to believe is not the same as having the ability to trust.

Our boy has had a rough time, both at home and at school, since Dad passed away.

His Asperger’s (don’t tell me Asperger’s is not a thing…it’s a thing, DSM-V be darned) daily rears its head with tics and social ineptitude and difficulty communicating. Our ten-year-old is impulsive beyond belief and often behaves like a five-year-old. A five year old with moments of clarity in which he communicates like a forty-five-year-old…

 

Children who have missed certain phases of life may regress, especially in times of emotional upheaval. Remembering a college psych research paper on Erik Erikson, I found an article by Claudia Fletcher on the North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) website. The site itself is very basic but presents excellent information.

The information isn’t new to me, but sometimes I need a refresher…and the best way to learn is sharing with others.

If your kid appears to suddenly lose his mind, perhaps he’s experiencing a missed stage. (Or, alternately, he’s simply lost his mind.)

Stage One: The First 18 Months
Ego Development Outcome: Trust vs. Mistrust;
Basic Strengths: Drive and Hope

“[E]mphasis is on the mother’s positive and loving care…[using] visual contact and touch. If we pass successfully through this period of life, we…[can] trust that life is basically okay and have basic confidence in the future. …[I]f our needs are not met, we may end up with a deep-seated feeling of worthlessness and a [general] mistrust of the world.”1

Our kids did not have any of the above in their first eighteen months. Both have low self-esteem, and our boy in particular has an ingrained mistrust of every human he knows.

Research has shown us how important it is for children to attach. Even so, in the first year after placement, we new parents still make the mistake of dwelling on behaviors instead of attachment. Things can change if we view a newly placed children of any age as a newborn:

  • Expectations. Can a newborn give back emotionally? Do chores like everyone else? Know how to have a reciprocal relationship? Of course not. Neither do older kids in a new family.

  • Response. If expectation changes, so does the response. Instead of thinking a child is refusing to comply, assume she is unable to complete the task. This nurturing, teaching approach often nets better results whether a child is being oppositional or is truly incapable.

  • Realizations. Until a child is attached, behavior will not change. If the child cannot bond with anyone, why would he want to please anyone? Too often adoptive parents expect compliance outside the context of a relationship. Without that relationship, however, a child has no incentive to behave better.

Our kids are not newly placed (we’ve had them over five years now) but our girl has not attached appropriately due to Reactive Attachment Disorder. Although our boy seems to have attached fairly well to us, he often seems unable to control his impulses.

To help children attach, learn to gently correct behaviors without over-reacting. Picture yourself as a new husband or wife trying to please the other and be genuinely attractive and worth attaching to. Long lists of rules and consequences that require consistent behavior management should not be the focus of this first stage.

As much as possible, create good feelings for the child whenever you are around. Use lots of laughter, pop a Hershey’s kiss in her mouth when she sustains eye contact, and give as much affection as she will allow. When the child misbehaves, stay calm and point out that the behavior is not appropriate while redirecting her to a new activity with you by her side. Actions and reactions like these promote bonding between parents and children.

Honestly. A Hershey’s Kiss, really? Not for either of mine, especially him…sugar sends him over the edge (yes, I’ve read the articles proclaiming that any perceived reaction to sugar is all in my head…and deemed those articles inaccurate per my in-person observation). 

One of the most significant pieces of this stage in understanding hurt children is Erikson’s definition of hope: “enduring belief in the attainability of fervent wishes.”2 Recognizing that many children who enter care do not believe they can get what they want provides insight into their little hearts. With no hope and no belief in their own abilities, they are victims in a dim dark world. And, according to Erikson’s theory, the only way they can develop the ego quality of hope is to attach to another person.

This last bit hit me hardest.

Too often, our son can’t quite believe in hope.

He wants to believe but is certain that eventually the adults in his life will fail him—as they always did in the past. Birth parents, social workers, extended biological family members, foster carers…all eventually abandoned him, left him or outright abused him.

A few weeks after Dad died, our boy told me outright,

Sometimes I still can’t believe that you and Daddy won’t get rid of me. I want to trust you but…trusting is hard.

 

He wants to believe.

We just have to find a way to help him get there.

 

 

 

Losing Dad

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Photo Credit: Kate Gabrielle

I went to bed early, but Hubby couldn’t sleep. All four siblings and their families would be in one place the next day, arriving from other areas and states to celebrate Christmas together. Dad’s nine grandchildren would be in one room for the first time in over two years.

I woke to Hubby’s voice as he grabbed his keys.

“Dad fell; I’m headed to his house.”

When he arrived at my father-in-law’s home, Hubby could tell something wasn’t right. He couldn’t get Dad up, so called an ambulance. He and the two emergency crew members managed to lug Dad’s six-foot-five-inch John Wayne frame into a chair. They talked him into going to the hospital.

Later that morning, doctors determined his hip was broken. As a candidate for surgery, Dad’s prognosis was bright—fall victims unable to have surgery don’t recover well, but those able to have surgery often move back into life just as well as before the fall. When the kids and I arrived at the hospital, Dad was sleeping. I offered to sit with him while Hubby took a nap; our brother-in-law took the kids to the waiting room.

In the peaceful, dark room, I watched dad sleep from the ubiquitous pink vinyl visitors chair. The warm smell of clean, bleached cotton permeated the room, almost overshadowing the sharp odor of disinfectant. A sharp contrast to the calm in the room, nurses bustled past the doorway, half hidden by a curtain.

A few minutes later, the anesthesiologist arrived, flipped on a light and woke Dad to discuss the surgery. I sent a text to notify Hubby, then turned to listen.

You are still a candidate for surgery but as the anesthesiologist, I want you to understand the risk. On a scale of 1 to 5, you’re a 4+. Your heart is not working properly. I need to make sure you are clear about the possible outcomes.

Dad immediately agreed that he understood his risk but wanted to do the surgery anyway. I asked him if he wanted to discuss it with Hubby first.

His eyes locked on mine. Motioning to his hip, he said, “I want to do the surgery. This is no way to live.”

He stared at me for another moment, as though making sure I received his message clearly, then nodded and looked at the anesthesiologist. “I don’t need to talk to anyone. I want the surgery.”

Hubby and my brother-in-law arrived with the kids just as a nurse swept into the room to begin surgery preparation. She allowed us time to give kisses and hugs and pray for Dad. As they wheeled him out, he gave Hubby a thumbs-up.

“I’ll beat this one, too.”

***

Several hours later, the anesthesiologist approached our group, a big smile shining through his droopy mustache.

Your dad came through the surgery just fine. He’ll be in his room in thirty minutes; then you can visit him.

In a collective exhale, our group relaxed.

Hubby chatted with his sister and her husband, their daughters played with phones, our children zoned in to their Kindles.

I tried to decipher a strange feeling, then realized it was mild surprise. I was absolutely happy he’d pulled through. However, I didn’t realize until that moment that I’d thought, during the conversation with the anesthesiologist, that he was telling me he might not make it—that he preferred heaven to living in bed.

And perhaps he was.

We waited.

Thirty minutes came and went.

Finally, the doors opened. The doctor, the nurse and the anesthesiologist appeared together, faces somber. Through the ensuing, one-sided conversation, the young surgeon sat as though in a trance, staring at the floor.

Right after I talked with you, we lost him. 

It was his heart. 

We did everything we could. 

We just couldn’t get him back. 

We did everything we could. 

Everything.

We were stunned. Two families were still traveling in, planning to come to the hospital so the grandkids could see Papa.

Holding each other tight, we sobbed. Several minutes later Hubby and I looked up, realizing together that our children—sitting several feet away—were still absorbed in their Kindle games. Thanks to headphones, they’d missed the tragedy. We experienced it again in their faces as we explained Papa had gone to heaven. Adopted grandchildren grieve just as deeply as biological grandchildren.

***

Take good care of him.

The anesthesiologist’s words have echoed in my mind all week.

I don’t know what caused him to zero in on Hubby. He shadowed us as we walked the empty, sterile hospital halls. He waited as Hubby and I held each other before approaching the bed where Dad’s still form lay. He pulled me aside as our somber group finally trickled away.

Wiping tears from his eyes, he insisted, “we did everything possible. Sometimes ‘everything’ just isn’t enough.” Nodding toward my husband’s retreating back, he said, “Please watch out for him. Take good care of him.” I hugged the good doctor, assuring him I would.

And for the past week, I’ve done my best. I know the toughest months are ahead of us.

We all knew this difficult time would eventually arrive; no one lives on this earth forever.

On the other hand, we didn’t expect it now. 

I’ve been terrified of the day we’d lose Dad because I was afraid it would destroy Hubby. We were all so close, especially since Mom died almost ten years ago. One of my favorite parts of Hubby is his loyalty to family, but I also worried how that loyalty might be torn in death.

Instead of destruction, this death brought something else.

I have never been so proud of my husband as during this week. He worked to create understanding and compromise. Took on tasks others didn’t feel emotionally able to handle. Remained strong support and loving comfort for our kids. Created a fabulous slide show to communicate the incredible story of Dad’s life. Wrote and delivered a heartfelt eulogy at the memorial service. Explained Dad’s faith in Jesus and our certain hope we’ll see him again one day.

 

Hubby is no different than he’s ever been; perhaps I just see him in a different light. Dad, who always reminded me of John Wayne, was larger than life in many ways; his escapades could fill a book and his presence filled the room. I was always focused, as was Hubby, on Dad.

Losing Dad allowed me to see that Hubby is just as much a force to be reckoned with. He generally focused that energy on helping Dad. Now, he’s the one supporting everyone, keeping the family together, guiding us all. He’s the keeper of the family spirit, the source of comfort, the voice of reason and wisdom—and everyone sees it.

I am so proud of him, and I WILL take good care of him.

 

 

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