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Residential Swings

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Photo credit: Derek Bruff

I have a love-hate relationship with playground swings.

More hate than love these days, since the unreasonable swing manufacturers refuse to make swings properly. Back when I was ten, they made the swings so much larger; a perfect fit with no pinched thighs…

The part of the arc that sails me up to the sky makes my heart soar. I defy gravity. I fly like a bird. I touch the clouds. I…

drop like a rock back to earth.

As everything below rushes up to meet me, as my stomach drops away, I grit my teeth and brace for impact.

Every time.

Because once, on a cheap plastic yellow swing with a rusted chain, it happened.

Just as I realized my pinky had caught in a chain link, I fell. I don’t remember whether the seat cracked or the chain snapped, but I ended up on the ground with no nail on my pinky.

It never stopped me from swinging, but I can never fully enjoy the high of grinning madly while the wind tousles my hair.

I’m always waiting for the drop.

Having a child in residential care is a bit like taking a ride on a playground swing.

Highs, lows, devastation and recovery.

We get back on the swing, each ride a little more careful than the last.

Progress warrants rejoicing, but experience requires caution. One weak link breaks the chain.

Today, we celebrated. Our son had overall success this week, which meant he earned a 6-hour on-grounds pass.

For those of you not familiar: in most residential facilities, family may visit or come to the center to participate in family counseling as much as they like, but the child may not leave the grounds or have special privileges. In our case, the child earns passes by 2-hour increments on-grounds. Passes gradually step up to off-grounds (staying in the general area) and build up to a pass to go home. Once a child meets qualifications for 48- and 72-hour passes home, discharge from the therapy center is on the horizon. 

Before Christmas, our son earned his way to an 8-hour off-grounds pass and we expected him to have a 24- or 48-hour pass by Christmas. He regressed, once again becoming violent and suicidal. The passes were revoked for his own safety (and that of individuals around him).

His recovery from this phase has been slow; once he managed to curb the violent outbursts, he channeled his energy into testing limits. Because of his specific attachment issues, we worked with his therapist closely and kept visits to a minimum if he didn’t participate fully in his therapy plan.

In practical terms, this meant that if he didn’t do his part, we had to reschedule. (This may seem extreme, but it’s necessary for him to learn that relationships require effort on his part.)

As soon as he (finally) completed his requirements, we immediately scheduled a visit. We want him to see that he can trust us and that we’ll show up when he does. Today, we celebrated the ability to visit a second weekend IN A ROW. Swing up. 

This afternoon, just before we arrived, another child put his hands on our son’s neck. It was apparently horseplay (albeit inappropriate) on the other child’s part, with no ill intent. In months past, an incident like this would have ended with our son punching the kid in the face. Today, he simply left. He got up, went to his room and slammed the door to let everyone know he was angry.

In the grand scheme, that’s fabulous coping. Swing up. 

We had a family therapy session, discussed the situation and commended our boy for his great reaction.

The rest of the afternoon, we played Clue, Scrabble and Don’t Take My Words. (Full disclosure: we utilized several Hypervigilant Game Guidelines.)

He made the first Accusation in Clue, and I was proud because he didn’t get it rightand didn’t freak out. He helped set up and clean up each game. He offered us water. He was polite. He was kind to his sister. He hugged and kissed us each goodbye.

As we walked to the car, Hubby and I agreed he seemed better.

Swing up, up, up.

But what goes up…

A few hours after we left, he called, upset. He started crying. He said he was homesick. (I absolutely believe he is homesick, but my SuperMamaSenses started to tingle.) I asked whether he just felt homesick or was upset because something bad happened.

He said, “yes, something bad happened.” Swing down.

Then he told me about walking into a darkened room with a movie playing. Another specific child yelled at him, telling him to leave. This upset our son, so he began hitting and kicking the walls. He said he might have cracked the plaster, but the evening staff  told him he wouldn’t have to pay for it.

That last statement zinged my antennae further, because the admission contract is clear: if your kid breaks something, you pay. Big time. For the staff to say he wouldn’t have to pay…that was just weird.

I asked to speak with the staff member who’d been present.

Turns out, he made most of it up. By the time I found out, he was already in bed, so I’m sitting here trying to wrap my mind around why he might have thought it would be better to change the story. The end result in both stories was pretty much the same.

Actually, our son’s false story described a situation worse than what truly happened, because the staff member said he’s not aware our son cracked any of the walls.

In reality, our son was setting up a movie in the DVD player. There was no darkened room. The child who “yelled at” him wasn’t even present. A completely different child made a suggestion for getting the machine to work, at which time our son flipped out and started hitting and kicking the walls.

Why he would make those changes confuses me. If lies, why? If he somehow perceived reality to have happened that way, well…we’ve got a whole other can of worms to deal with.

The link breaks again.

The real issue is this: he has to learn to deal with peers’ interactions. Whether they’re giving him a suggestion, yelling at him or putting their hands on him, he’s got to be able to react in ways appropriate to the community.

I TOTALLY get that his emotions are raw and that didn’t help. I know he’s homesick. But I have to consider the future.

What if he’s at school feeling homesick?

Last year, he frequently wished to return home from school; he tried to find ways to be dismissed from school. He even caused minor harm to another child. Luckily, the child’s parents accepted his apology; at the time, there was a possibility the incident was accidental. Afterward, we confirmed his intent: he’d hoped the more extreme measure would end in suspension.

What if he does it again? What if he goes further than before?

What if a peer informs him she thinks his science project is crap? What if someone runs past and knocks him down? What if he’s having a bad day and someone suggests he should try a different method for figuring out a math problem? What if one of these things sets him off?

On one hand, I could make myself crazy trying to mitigate what-ifs.

On the other hand, the past predicts the present unless a catalyst induces change. 

The what-ifs above are likely to happen unless he corrects his course.

And if he gets upset, throws a chair and hits someone in the head—even if it’s a true accident—he’ll likely go to jail.

He has a great week. Swing up. 

He has a bad week. Swing down. 

He reacts appropriately to a bad situation. Swing up. 

He flips out. Swing down.

He lies. I’m sitting on the ground. Dust off, get back on the swing. 

We want him to come home.  Swing up. 

We want to protect him from himself.  Swing down. 

Sometimes, I want to hop off the swing and leave the playground altogether.

But he needs me.

So, I won’t.

And your kid needs you.

Let’s just keep swinging.

 

 

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Once Upon a Birthmother

Have you ever noticed how many movies involve children without parents, kids in foster care and adopted children? Before our kids came to us, I noticed.

The themes made me yearn for a time when we’d have our own adopted littles.

Spawned fond ideas of happy endings, possibly after a short time of adjustment.

Let’s take a moment and smile at the memory of my innocence. 

Okay, moment of silence over. The dissonance between my dreams and my reality isn’t our topic today.

Since we’ve had the kids, both Hubby and I started noticing the plethora of movies centered around loss and adoption.

Take a minute and make a list of the movies—especially children’s movies—that do NOT have at least one missing parent.

How’s it going?

If you make a list of movies involving a loss, I believe you’ll have an easier time.

Disney movies in particular thrive on the “bio parent has disappeared; brand new mummy is horrid” idea. I am no activist (at least, not against Disney) but I do have concerns about the messages inherent in Mickey’s versions of the fairy tales.

Until Frozen, almost every Disney story involved a fairly young girl being rescued by an older guy, often against her guardian’s better judgement.

I understand that child marriage is not frowned upon in ALL countries, but in general, who thinks this is okay?

16 year-old girl rebels against protective (and fairly reasonable) father. She has no mother figure and seeks out a woman recognized by EVERYONE as a bad influence. This woman encourages her to use “body language” to go after a man who is old enough to hold a job governing a country (probably late 20’s, early 30’s, since his dad appears to be about 70). The girl runs away from home, ends up naked, finds the guy and moves in with his family. They know nothing about each other and marry within weeks.

We all recognize The Little Mermaid, of course. Sweet movie.

In real life, no one in his or her right mind thinks it’s okay for a 16 year old to marry a complete stranger twice her age. That’s a recipe for domestic abuse.

Disney isn’t the only storyteller utilizing the Hero’s Journey, in which the protagonist follows a path which often involves great loss (e.g., parents) and overcomes.

It’s a great story line, truly.

Real life, as we know, does not always follow the Journey path.

Our kids experienced loss.

Loss of biological family.

Loss of familiar surroundings.

Loss of stability (such as it was).

Loss of connection.

Loss of everything they’ve ever known.

And watching stories helps them learn to rewrite their own.

As I’ve mentioned previously, they became obsessed with the Despicable Me series. In case you’ve been living in the Amazon (rainforest, not corporation) with no electricity, you’re probably familiar with the storyline:

Three girls in foster care move in with a villain who has selfish reasons for the adoption. The girls win him over and he fights to protect and keep them. Later, he marries his adorable spy counterpart, giving them a mother. The Happy End. 

Some movies with adoption themes are helpful. They address points that we might not be comfortable bringing up (or show us ideas in our kids’ minds of which we may not be aware until they talk about the movie).

Despicable Me actually helped them form a more healthy view of family life.

However, we’ve learned that careful curation is important.

As you may know, neither Hubby or I are keen on allowing hours of screen time (the Electronic Nanny, as it were). Aside from the many negative aspects of screen time for “regular” kids (a soapbox I’ll be happy to mount another day), our kids easily pick up attitudes about adoption—both positive AND negative.

Recently, we’ve been a bit less guarded with our daughter. She’s now in her very early teens and we can’t force her to watch rated G movies forever (although that would be great…yes, you’re right…I should Let it Go, Let it Goooooo).

The three of us began watching Once Upon a Time. As a fairy tale lover (Grimm, not Disney), the retold stories make me grin. Most of the characters, especially Rumpelstiltskin, are fabulously rendered. Beginning with the first episode, we became a little addicted (okay, Hubby not so much…but the girl and I loved it).

And then we noticed a subtle change in our girl.

She began to lose some of her recent progress, sliding back into an attitude of…something difficult to describe. Derision. Passive-aggressive opposition.

She drew us into conversations about whether we were really related. About her roots. About the lack of a “blood” connection with us. She began expressing a concern that she really didn’t care about us that much, although she felt she should care more.

*I would like to take a moment to mention here that Hubby missed his calling as a child psychologist. He accurately diagnosed the problem: what I saw as a fun retelling of a story, our daughter was internalizing.

In Once Upon a Time, Emma Swan is an oblivious, non-magical person living in Boston until her birth son, Henry, tracks her down and brings her to Storybrooke, where he’s been adopted by none other than the Evil Queen (adversary of Snow White). Henry believes Emma is the fulfillment of a prophecy that Snow White and Prince Charming’s daughter will save all the happy endings.

Adoptive mother = Evil Queen (unrepentant, selfish and, well, Evil)

Birth mother = Savior (sorry she ever gave up her baby and determined to make it up to him by bringing happiness to an entire town)

I assume you see where this is going. 

Usually I’m a little quicker on the uptake, but this time I was blindsided. Could not figure out what in the world had happened to flip the switch in our now-generally-happy kid.

She started talking about memories of the past, about her biological parents (as if they were possibly very good people who made a mistake).

And began pushing me away.

The harder I worked to fix whatever “this” was, the further we slipped apart.

One day we had a conversation about Papa, Hubby’s father. When he passed away, we were all devastated, especially Hubby.

Our girl calmly informed me that she didn’t think she’d be that upset when Hubby and I passed on; she assumed Hubby felt the loss so much because of his blood connection. 

We discussed how people can be close with or without blood connection, but she didn’t seem to get it.

When Hubby arrived home, I was worn out. Once he found out about our conversation, the three of us sat down and he faced off with our girl.

You’ve been watching a lot of Once Upon a Time. Do you realize it’s affecting how you see Mom and me?

At first, she didn’t. Half an hour later, following discussions of the different characters and how they might relate to our situation, she voluntarily took Once Upon a Time off her viewing list. She has refused to watch it ever since, saying she didn’t like what it did to her thoughts.

I’m not suggesting we all make OUAT off-limits (it contains some great messages, actually), nor do I think we all need to trash our televisions.

Here’s what I do suggest:

  • Keep a close eye on program themes and watch to see how they affect your kids
  • Discuss problematic themes with your children
  • Don’t assume your children aren’t internalizing and relating to the content
  • Be willing to remove problematic programming if they’re not able to make that choice themselves
  • Keep open, honest discussion a priority
  • Remember: helping them draw their own conclusions works much better than simply telling them how it is

The battle for their minds is more difficult than I sometimes realize. They are bombarded on all fronts at this age—TV, radio, magazines, online media, friends and enemies…everything around them helps form their opinions and attitudes.

Jen Oshman makes a great point on her blog:

The only antidote for a mind that is tempted to believe what’s false is to renew it with what’s true.  Paul knew this and tells us, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).

Pouring positive influence into the minds and hearts of the children in our lives—especially for adopted kids, who may never completely shake the feelings of loss and abandonment—is one of our most important jobs.

Take a moment today to have a conversation with a kid in your life. Hearing a new perspective might be just what they need.

 

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