Early Childhood Trauma in the News

I am writing about this because I know that anyone who’s been awake over the last year and has a RAD kiddo has been thinking the same thing I have been. What is going to be the fallout of the family separations that are taking place at the Southern Border? How will this early childhood trauma show up down the road? I am not writing this as political commentary but purely from the standpoint of the psychological aspects of what the children are going through.

It is not part of their plan for these families to be separated. The children are not aware of what is happening and why. The main difference between these children and those in an orphanage overseas is that they aren’t given up willingly. However, the separation from a primary caregiver at a crucial time of bonding without knowledge of when or if they will be reunited is the same.

I found a couple of articles which discuss the short- and long-term effects of this separation on the children. I think as you read them you’ll see astonishing similarities between how the psychologists describe the children and our own RAD kiddos. The first is this one from The Washington Post. What I find most striking is the description of the pruning of the dendrites or nerves of the brain. This is almost exactly how the psychiatrist who diagnosed August with reactive attachment disorder described what the lack of bonding with a primary caregiver did to his brain. Exactly! I couldn’t believe it. So much of the description of the symptoms is spot on.

The second one I wanted to reference is this one from The New Yorker. It’s much more recent having been written just three days ago. The psychologist in this article talks about the effects on both younger and older children and how they are different.

One of the important parts of this article is how it discussed the effects not just to the brain but to all the body systems: the immune system, the cardiovascular system and others. August is small for his age and has hung on to the bottom of the growth chart most of his life. Now we don’t know his genetics so there’s no way to know if that’s just how he is or not. But his psychiatrist told me early on about a condition called psychosocial dwarfism. It’s where children are able to actually will themselves to stay small in an effort to try and keep from having to become independent or take on more responsibility. As soon as I read that part, its immediately what I remembered!

If you Google “effects of separation on immigrant children” you can read lots of other articles on the subject. I am sure you will see your RAD kiddos in the descriptions as well. I hope there will be time for these relationships to be repaired and these children to be healed.

Until next time,

Shannon

Top 10 Ways To Help Family Understand RAD

One of the most frustrating parts of having a child with Reactive Attachment Disorder is the feeling of living in a vacuum. Having to parent differently from other parents is one part; having children who don’t socialize appropriately often keeps them cut off from social groups. But it also means that even the closest family members are often distant because they can’t understand the child or how you have to or have chosen to parent them. 

How do you help your family understand RAD and what is necessary for your child to be safe and heal? Following is a list of ways to talk to your family which may help bridge the confusion and bring some new understanding.

  • Many family members believe that traditional parenting will work with children with RAD. They do not understand that your child may not be able to partake in activities that other children can. They need highly structured environments with firm limits. Rewards and behavior modification don’t work. It usually means that family believes that parents are either too hard or too lenient.
  • RAD children are control freaks. Their belief is that they must control their environment is key to their survival. Part of this may include triangulating with parents and grandparents to get what they believe they need or are entitled to. Extended family members need to be educated to what this is and how to recognize it in order to avoid getting trapped and affecting relationships.
  • Many family members believe that love cures all. The early trauma and abuse your child suffered physically altered their brain making the ability to give and receive affection almost impossible. Your family needs to understand this in order to know that this isn’t a quick “fix”. Love is unfortunately not enough.
  • As much as parents know, you still don’t know everything. You may have read everything you can get your hands on but each child is different. Your child is continuing through therapy and medication to change and grow and your family needs to understand there will be good and bad days. And you won’t be able to control that.
  • Your child will seem very “charming” and “delightful” out in public or with your family. That will seem very confusing with stories you may have told them. What they need to know is in these situations they are “shopping” for new parents or other adults they can manipulate. It’s very shallow and all for control and manipulation.
  • If we seem hypervigilant it’s not an overreaction. We have experienced things at home we haven’t told you and we don’t want those things to happen at your house or in public. For example, August stole a variety of things from his grandparents and ran up hundreds of dollars on their cell phone. They need to know how to be just as aware.
  • We won’t tell you everything that’s happening. We don’t want you to know how bad it is. We want you to believe that your grandchild or nephew is smart and funny and charming. We would rather you think that our child is wonderful and I am a monster.
  • Please don’t give us advice. Words like “Have you tried…” or “They’ll grow out of it.” or “Let me tell you what works” don’t help. We are working with psychiatrists and doctors and reading everything. We are doing all we can. We are as informed as we can get. And it’s not for lack of trying.
  • Sometimes the best our extended family can do is be there for us as the exhausted, overwhelmed parents. It may not be able to be babysitting. But maybe it can be bringing over food, mowing the lawn, taking the other children for a day (or a weekend!)
  • Our child is the love of our life. We are going to fight for them to be safe and healed no matter what it takes. We need you to understand that even if it means we make some unusual choices for their treatment. We need you to know that we only have the best of intentions but we need your support no matter what. Please continue to love us and support our family as we work to make our family whole.

Explaining August’s Reactive Attachment Disorder and his behaviors to our family has been one of the hardest part of what I have been through. Why we chose residential treatment. Why he was stealing, getting arrested, behaving the way he was in front of them; in radically different ways to all the other children in our family. Trying to explain why he did what he did never seemed to quite get through. Certainly doesn’t where he is now.

Obviously family is hard under the best of circumstances. They will try. They might fail. You might too. That’s what being a family is all about.

Summer “School”?

Ahh summer break. Brings joy to the hearts of school children everywhere and terror to the already weary parents who’ve endured a school year of homework supervision, lunch packing, carpooling, classroom parenting, reading prompting, field trip volunteering, awards ceremony attendance and now have their precious littles all day every day for 10 weeks and counting…

But the reality is that students lose 20-50% of what they learn in the previous school year over the summer. Isn’t that incredible? And when you add on that in this day and age that the last 3-4 months of most school year’s anymore are teaching to standardized tests I wouldn’t be surprised if it isn’t more than that. So maybe we want the summer to be more productive? Maybe we want to keep some momentum through to the next school year? But maybe we don’t want to go crazy in the process?

The idea of “teaching” your own children is probably daunting for most parents. The idea of “teaching” your own children over the summer probably doesn’t sound like much fun. If you’re a parent of a RAD child, the idea of combining those two probably sounds like the worst idea imaginable! I don’t blame you. When my boys were little, and before some of the ideas I will share in this post, I got workbooks and all sorts of tools to keep them learning through the summer. And getting August to do a few workbook pages and spend half an hour reading every day was like asking him to pull out his own fingernails. He would do almost anything rather than schoolwork. He would do chores, that’s how much he hated it!

So the key is to find ways to make learning happen while “hiding” it in plain sight. Luckily, the technology world is here to the rescue! The following is a list of some of the best ways to get your kids, RAD or not, to do some learning over the summer and head back to school without missing a beat!

  • Freerice.com
    If you only find one place to go this summer, this is it. This site has question to answer on language, geography, humanities, science and math. You can select the difficulty. But here’s the best part: for every correct question, the sponsors donate 10 grains of rice through the World Food Programme. You can watch the bowl fill up and see your progress. You can work as a team! My boys loved this one!
  • playkidsgames.com
    This site was developed by parents for children in grades 1-8 to enhance learning in math and reading. The games are fun and interactive. You can set up an account and your children can pick the games they want to play.

While websites are certainly easy and most children would love to spend the day on a computer or a phone, that’s of course not the best way to spend the summer! Here are some other creative ways to get your children to learn without them even knowing!

  • Let your children pay for groceries or other items during shopping trips. Give them a few dollars and a small list and let them figure out if they have enough money.
  • When driving, let your children practice reading by asking them to look for street signs to help navigate.
  • Do multiplication with spaghetti or sticks in the yard. Go pick 3×5 sticks; show me 3×2 pieces of macaroni.
  • Have your child write a dinner menu
  • Open ended questions are great for building vocabulary.
    I am happiest when…
    My favorite TV show is…because…
    When I feel angry I…
    A trip I’d like to take is…
    This is especially helpful with RAD children to get them talking!
  • Have your child retell a movie you go to see from beginning to end over dinner

There are lots of ways to incorporate learning into the summer that won’t drive you OR your child crazy! I will share more tips and tricks over the next few weeks every Tuesday so stay tuned for more fun ideas!

Until next time,

Shannon

August Turns 21-A Milestone Birthday

This is the first picture I ever saw of August. It was sent by the adoption agency along with a video (which I will figure out how to get up here at some point-the technology is still a challenge). The chair was quite shocking. And that outfit. Which was the same outfit he had on when we met him in person. He’s just a little over three in this photo. An eternity away from the skinny, tattooed inmate currently sitting in a prison cell 90 minutes away from me. But those eyes are the same. They both show the same fear. The same need for love and acceptance. The same pain behind the beautiful blue. Some things I couldn’t see at first and couldn’t help when I could. I wish I could go back and tell that sweet face just to trust me and let me help him make everything OK. I can’t remember what birthday it was the last time August and I were together. I remember it was awful. We went to dinner, then I told August I’d take him to buy some clothes. He wanted to go to a store that closed in 10 minutes. I tried to convince him not to go but he was so stubborn. So we went. And we fought over the clothes after having fought over going and he spun even more out of control to the point where I just had to let him go away. He couldn’t understand how much he was taking advantage of me and the store. He couldn’t understand that his birthday was something I wanted to enjoy with him and how this falling apart made me sad. I can’t go see him on his birthday. He’s still on visiting restrictions until the 29th. I will send him a note, hopefully he will call. I sent him some money to get extra supplies. This is how birthdays have gone for the last few years. Some years I have been able to visit with him. My heart breaks for children with RAD who should be showered with love and affection on their birthdays. This disorder means that instead their need for control and unwillingness to believe the love is real or they are deserving means these celebrations many times will blow up and end in disaster like mine and August’s. I wish August a happy 21st birthday. I love you bud. Till next time, Shannon  ]]>

The Siblings in the Crossfire

He looked scared from an early age. But August seems happy to have a baby brother![/caption] As you read this I am driving down to North Carolina to see August’s brother this weekend in his Spring musical. For those who don’t know, he lives there with his dad while I’m living on my little farm in Indiana. Living away from him is one of the hardest things for me but there were a series of events that necessitated it which would require several blog posts to explain. When I moved five years ago, August stayed down there as well but that didn’t last long and he ended up in Indiana with me within six months (future blog post material…). But this trip got me thinking about the effects of RAD on our non-RAD kiddos. The groups that belong to and have over the years have been chock full of stories of the side effects of having to dedicate so much time to our RAD children that the rest of the family suffers. One of my earliest memories was the story of a woman in Oklahoma who had finally gotten her child into a psychiatric placement but her insurance had run out and she was now faced with the following dilemma: if she went and picked up the child and brought it home she would be arrested for child endangerment because she had other children at home and the RAD child had tried to poison them by putting tile grout cleaner in their shampoo bottles. If she didn’t go get the child she’d be arrested for child abandonment. Truly a no-win situation. My youngest son was not expected. Without getting too personal, near as I can tell, we accepted the referral to become August’s parents on a Wednesday and our son was conceived that following weekend. So much was going on during the time between getting the referral and preparing for going to Russia it didn’t even cross my mind that I could be pregnant. So, yet again, the two children’s fates collided when we got our court date on Friday May 1st and found out on Sunday May 3rd that a second child was on the way. My younger son witnessed a lot of things no small child should ever see. I remember one day when I was holding August during one of his rages. This meant him seated in front of me on the floor with my legs wrapped around his legs. One of my arms around both of his and the other harm holding his head so he couldn’t head-butt me. Usually I could get the door closed so my youngest didn’t have to see this but this one happened quickly. He walked by-he was maybe 5 at the time-and I remember saying in my calmest voice, “Everything’s OK”. He very quickly replied, “It doesn’t look OK.” Out of the mouths of babes. He heard all the screaming and saw all the destruction of the house. August was abusive to him both emotionally and mentally. He spent so much time alone while his father and I had to focus on his brother. I have spoken a lot about August’a resilience. He survived the first three years in Russia first being abused and neglected by his birth family then in an orphanage. But now that my younger son is a junior in high school and I’m starting to see the man he is becoming, I am in awe of his resilience as well.  Realizing what he has survived from living in a household with a child with RAD, I know he has equal survival skills. I have been guilty (as I’m sure we all have) by going down the rabbit hole with our RAD kiddos and getting too caught up in their drama and mayhem. I’ve taken for granted that my non-RAD son is good because he always has been. And I’ve dealt with the guilt of knowing that I’ve done that. I remember once my younger son realized that August got his birthday and “Gotcha Day” because he was adopted and that I got my birthday and Mother’s Day and his dad got his birthday and Father’s Day and was upset because he only got one day (I told you he was bright). That’s just the tip of the iceberg of all the ways he’s been short-changed in growing up with a RAD sibling. I must admit he and August have had some really nice conversations since August has been in prison. August has said he’d like to make amends for what he knows was horrible treatment of him when he was little. I would love to think they can repair the relationship as they become adults. They won’t have me to kick around down the road!Please feel free to share your stories of dealing with your RAD and non-RAD children. The successes and the dramas! Till next time, Shannon  ]]>

Mothers and Sons

When I was young there were no boys in the house, just me and my sister. So I became the boy. I could bait my own hook, played soccer, went out at night looking for night crawlers, went ice fishing. Neither my sister nor I were particularly girly (she was a swimmer), no matter how many matching dresses my grandma made. But when I grew up I just assumed I’d have girls because that’s what I knew. And when my friends started having children their first-born’s all made sense…of course! She’s a “boy-mommy”. I just KNEW I was going to be a “girl-mommy”. Now when you adopt, the surprise is gone and when you adopt from Russia there’s even less. We knew we’d be getting a boy. It flew in the face of everything I believed about my path to motherhood. But at that point my path to motherhood had taken every twist and turn it could so I was just along for the ride. But when I saw the video…that face…he was my son. As sure as I was giving birth to him. I was a “boy-mommy”. I’ve said this to friends before but I truly believe that August saved me and his brother. Getting pregnant with Spencer wasn’t planned and if I didn’t have August, I wouldn’t have been nearly as healthy during my pregnancy. Having August meant I stayed active, ate better and didn’t obsess about being pregnant which I’d tried for eight years to become. I am forever grateful to him for that. All along this journey he has fought me. We have fought over bedtime, food, school, medication, therapy, clothing, haircuts, computer time, TV time, video time, girls, curfew, drinking, drugs, and so much more. But mothers and sons. And this mother and THIS son. I know before it’s over this current conflict will have us arguing more I’m sure. And I’ll take it. And give it back. Because that’s what mothers do. And maybe I’m having to do it on a scale many of you won’t ever have to deal with and can’t possibly comprehend. I certainly hope so! That’s the point of this whole blog and my wish for you who are dealing with these precious damaged children. Till next time, Shannon  ]]>

Reactive Attachment Disorder Reference Guide

Books When Love Is Not Enough: A Guide to Parenting with RAD-Reactive Attachment Disorder Nancy Thomas This has long been considered the gold standard in RAD therapy but it is also somewhat controversial. Nancy Thomas was the first person to really write on the subject of RAD in depth. She also has a website and conferences. I did not choose to use her treatment with my son but if you read, you will find many families who swear by her treatment methods. Beyond Consequences, Logic and Control: A Love-Based Approach to Helping Attachment-Challenged Children With Severe Behaviors  Heather T. Forbes and B. Bryan Post This was the second book I read after Nancy Thomas. It’s approach is radically different to hers but has also been very popular. I hoped this method would work with my son but it wasn’t the method that worked for him. His issues were too severe and required more intensive therapy. Building the Bonds of Attachment: Awakening Love in Deeply Traumatized Children  Daniel Hughes This book was wonderfully helpful to me. I found its information very real and could understand the connections between an older child’s behavior and the early infant’s trauma. I read almost everything by Daniel Hughes after this book. Parenting Other People’s Children: Understanding and Repairing Reactive Attachment Disorder John L. Stoller This was another book I loved. It explained RAD very well and I think it would be a great book to give to family who may not understand what’s involved in parenting a child with RAD. While it’s not necessarily for a child to have been adopted to have RAD, that is primarily where the illness arises. The Jonathan Letters: One Family’s Use of Support as They Took in, and Fell in Love with, a Troubled Child Michael Trout and Lori Thomas This is a remarkable book. It is as it says a series of letters between a mother and a therapist about a sweet, 4-year-old boy the family chose to foster. It follows their journey of his first year with them and his RAD behaviors unfold in a most profound way. You hear her heartache and resolve to breakthrough and love him and how they work together to reach him in spite of his trauma. It was a great read for me. This is not even close to an exhaustive list. There are nine pages of books on Amazon! But these are ones that I have found helpful over the years I have been living and learning with RAD.  I will continue to develop these resources as I said, over time, and add websites and other tools which I hope will help you all deal with, and maybe avoid, some of what I experienced. Knowledge is power! Till next time! Shannon  

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What comes out of that mouth…

Warning: Some of the following uses some colorful language. Apologies to those with sensitive ears/eyes. You have a small child who has a chubby little face with a precious smile and kissable cheeks. At this stage you don’t know what the future holds and occasionally you’re getting kisses from this button mouth and he’s funny and curious and charming. 12107036_10209179370107980_3794553278057878597_n Fast forward a few years and you’re sitting in a restaurant in Hollywood, CA where you’ve paid a lot of money to go and you’re trying to have a special moment and you get this: 10550373_10204464359515662_1887139728_o Much of it is normal sullen teenager but changes have started happening that are not what you expected. There is rage. There is hatred. He’s on medications that treat the symptoms but the cause lives in his body like a parasite you cannot kill. And words come out of him sometimes like he is possessed. And you wish that he was because then you could blame the devil inside him and not the sweet boy you wish he still was who is now saying he hates you. When August first got diagnosed I thought, “If I’d just never put him on the school bus…” He learned a lot of his colorful language there. His father and I were very careful not to curse in the house though as his RAD emerged that got harder and harder! When he would be raging and want to push our buttons he would just say, “shit, shit shit” over and over again. That’s when I learned from his psychiatrist that putting soap in a child’s mouth isn’t appropriate any more. As I have mentioned in past blogs we did as much harm as we did good early on in learning about RAD and how to parent August effectively but in that instance it was the only thing that made it stop. This was when he was maybe 10. He went on to use many more curse words but for some reason early on that was his favorite. He seemed to like the sound of it best. As an adoptive parent you fear hearing your child say, “You’re not my real mom.” It’s like a dagger to the heart. Children have the ability to fill you with more love than you ever thought possible and also take it away in one breath. With August, for better or worse, that became one of the least horrible things he said. He talked in his middle school years about killing us, killing himself, wishing we were dead, all of which prompted his placement in the residential treatment center in Missouri. When we got ready to leave, I hoped for a tearful goodbye to show some signs of attachment and he was able to provide another kick in the gut with, “If you’re not going to take me with you then just leave.” As a high-school age man-child he felt entitled to use all the curse words he knew. Which were plenty. “Fuck” became a punctuation mark, an adjective, a exclamation, you name it. He didn’t care that it upset me, that only made it more fun. He didn’t care about using it at school or with the police. That adorable face became unrecognizable to me whenever it spoke because it spewed hatred-filled, awful words. He manipulated and threatened and spoke with no feeling in his voice at all. But you could feel all the hurt in every word that came out of his mouth. All the pain he didn’t know how to process. All the loss and anger he feels and doesn’t know what to do with. It’s all in there trying to find an outlet and he is trying with every horrible word to control it. Not letting anyone else help him and making it worse every time he pushes someone away with the hurtful things he says. Since he’s been in prison much of that has not changed. He’s tried some amazing cons on his father and I to get money. When we don’t fall for them the tirades are pretty amazing but at least now I can hang up the phone. But more often there are these pleasant, calm phone calls. He asks me first what I’m doing and how I am. We talk about books and movies and my garden and my job. We talk about the family. When we visit together we talk about the past and things we used to do. He tells me about things that happened when he was living on the streets that both scare me to death and break my heart. Both of the phone calls and the in-person visits end with his saying “I love you” first. With a tone that says he means it. Hard to know for sure but I think so. I’ll take it.        ]]>

Nature vs. Nurture

But I digress. So the boys are almost four years apart in age. And arriving so close in time we didn’t know much how to parent either one of them. But we felt like we did things pretty much the same with each one and August hadn’t been identified as RAD yet. We didn’t know we were going to need to parent him differently. Of course they had different interests. But we read books to both, sang songs at night, said a prayer at dinner time, went to church, tried to carve out time for each of them individually. August was always more independent. When he was three and four years old he could leave his bed at night in total darkness and roam the house with no fear. He’d fall asleep wherever he got sleepy and we’d be terrified trying to find him under the guest bed or behind the living room couch or wherever he landed. He could sneak down into the kitchen and get food and take it back to his room without us ever hearing him. The food hoarding started way back then. His brother went to bed and never woke up. As the RAD behaviors started to emerge we probably made a lot of mistakes in how we addressed them. Hours and hours trying to calm August’s rage and keep him from hurting himself or us. A lot of it including us yelling too. A lot of time with him in his room and learning later that separating him from us was the worst thing to do. And then all the time we were spending trying to help him. Teacher meetings and psychiatrists and counselors and extra time with him doing homework and taking him to tutors. All the time this was happening his brother was also growing up. And everything came so easy to him. He was smart, gentle, easy-going. He had several interests which we were able to fit in. He was fine being alone and developed a love for reading. When I had to spend hours dealing with August’s rages, he could occupy his time. I felt terribly guilty about what having a child like August who required so much of my time and who created so much chaos in the house was doing to him. So fast-forward. It’s 10 years later. I continued to raise two sons with the same love and caring. As I learned about RAD I did parent them differently, understanding what would work for August. They both dealt with the end of my marriage and seemed to handle it much the same. I moved to Indiana, away from both of them, something I hated doing, but needed to do. I have already talked about August’s path. School never worked for him. IEPs and homeschooling and constant behavior issues and run-ins with the law. A residential treatment program then more arrests and eventually his current time now in prison. And his brother has been in advanced classes, won awards, starred in school productions. Doesn’t need to be told to do homework, overachieves on projects, goes to a gifted and talented high school and will graduate with almost a year’s worth of college credits. Two children, raised identically except for the first three years. Given all the love and caring and opportunity two parents can give. And even when problems arose, all efforts were made to help and heal. August’s brain was altered before we ever met him. The abuse and neglect of his first three years had set his course. And while he could have healed and overcome his demons (and still can), the psychiatrist that diagnosed him said that the angst and discomfort that bonding feelings cause makes the RAD child fight like crazy against it. So it seems that I was waging an uphill battle against nature with August. I don’t know if I did everything right (probably not). It seems to have helped with his brother (or maybe that’s in spite of me!) I hope I’m not out of time. I love both my boys so very much. 10306234_10203907719320005_801684289185291184_n]]>