The Family Christmas Letter

‘Tis the season, right? In comes the floods of cards and letters from your friends and families with their pictures and the letters. The family Christmas letter. In the last decade or two it has replaced the card. It’s now the way to sum up all that has happened during the previous year. Because just wishing you the best for the coming year wasn’t getting it done. And food and little league and school pictures on social media weren’t enough either. The family Christmas letter is that place that puts a neat red and green bow on the whole year.

But, oh, the pressure! One of my favorite sayings for RAD families is , “Don’t compare your real life to someone else’s highlight reel.” And never is that more true than receiving the family Christmas letter. Have you done it? You open it up and your heart sinks. Here’s how it goes:

Bob and Trish both had amazing years. Bob got a promotion (AGAIN!) And Trish was named volunteer of the year in the county school system. She chaired the Fall fest, the Spring fest, the prom, graduation, the boosters. And she raised the most money of any parent in all the fundraisers! Little Sophie is already on pointe in ballet at three years old. And Bobby Jr. is being scouted by the Cardinals from his all-star performance little league this year. He’s getting straight A’s in fifth grade and has made his commitment to Christ at Our Lade of Heavenly Perfection Church. We are so proud…

Whew!

Now of course this is a huge exaggeration but doesn’t it feel that way sometimes? Doesn’t it feel like everyone else is living a life that just sails along so smoothly with children that never have any troubles? The biggest thing to remember is that it’s really not happening that way. These families are not living these perfect lives all day, every day. And while you may want to run away and get adopted by them, the grass is not always greener on the other side.

If you were a fly on the wall in one of those “perfect” family homes, I am sure you would hear some disagreements. I’m sure you would hear the children get in trouble. And of course I am sure you would hear stress and anxiety in the voices of the parents. Because no parent can go through life without worrying. It comes with the job. Yes, a lot of it has to do with our children. But a lot of it also has to do with how we choose to respond to that stress and anxiety as well.

So what can we do? It’s December 13th and we may not have one decoration up or one gift bought. Maybe you haven’t sent any cards and the thought of doing a whole letter give you a headache. You know what? That’s OK. Keeping up with the Joneses isn’t your job. Having the perfect house with the perfect tree or perfect Menorah and table might make you feel a little better but it’s not the most important thing that’s necessary for your holiday.

Do you need to send a letter that ducks the reality of your RAD family life and paints a rosy picture of your lives? Of course not. Don’t send one at all if you don’t want to. I haven’t sent one in a while. Of course I have this blog so anyone who wants to know what’s going on can just peek in here! You don’t have to compete with anyone and you don’t owe the world some white-washed summary of your life. You are raising traumatized kiddos and fighting everyday for the healing of their little minds. That’s your successful year. Don’t worry about whether or not anyone else thinks it means you’re not doing anything. The people in your life who matter know. Your children.

Until next time,

Shannon

Talking to Family about Gifts

This holiday season it is impossible to get away from the barrage of ads and offers of everything that a child would ever want. And every TV, radio, newspaper, onscreen ad, store and mall is filled with ads and products designed to encourage buying. And lots of it. So how do you talk to your children about keeping the buying to a minimum? And even harder, how about talking to family about gifts?

When August came home and then Spencer was due right after Christmas, we were like a UPS depot at the house. Just about the time the presents stop coming from August’s arrival, then came Christmas. We were a name drawing family. But my grandmother thought that everyone should buy for August AND for Spencer who hadn’t even been born yet! I put the stop to that. I didn’t want to start the boys down the path of expecting a blow out Christmas every year. So, I explained that the boys would go into the name draw just like everyone else. August hadn’t even met most of his relatives yet. And I was going to be too pregnant to go back East for Christmas so it was going to still be a while before he did.

It helped a little bit. But then there was Spencer’s birth followed by Valentine’s Day and Easter and I swear it was Memorial Day before the boxes stopped coming. So early on it was hard talking to family about gifts.

So what do you do when your family needs to understand the unique situation with your RAD kiddo where gifts are concerned? As August got older, he’s figured out the connection between asking for gifts, getting gifts and emotions. And with manipulation being one of the RAD tools of the trade, it is very easy for them to use that expertise at the holiday season. The idea that love can be “bought” is very easy for them to grab onto.

Hopefully you’ve had some conversations with your family already about the different attributes of RAD so tailoring the conversation to the holidays shouldn’t be so complicated. Explaining that RAD behaviors don’t get suspended during the holidays shouldn’t be hard. In fact, it might be good to prepare your family that they might be heightened.

But back to presents. Talking to family about gifts will mean setting some ground rules about cost. And the type of gifts you want your RAD kiddos to receive. For example, we were concerned about August’s fascination with guns. So we asked that he get no video games with guns or toys that were guns. Sometimes that meant over-ruling his list! Of course we didn’t always let him know that. And his list was always huge so most of the time it was easy because there was no way he was going to get everything on it.

As he got older he started wanting money. We wanted to make sure it was for a specific purpose and that he was being practical. One year he wanted a Nintendo DS. My grandmother thought it would be cute to give him $50 but all in $1 bills and in multiple packages. The woman behind us at GameStop wasn’t nearly as pleased when he counted out all those ones to buy it!

The point is that there is definitely an opportunity with the holidays for the structure and rules you have put in place for your RAD kiddo to go off the rails. Well-meaning family need to know that it’s important to honor your wishes even in the season of over-indulgence. And if you get the, “But it’s just…” don’t back down. Make sure you explain plainly and clearly how much it can set back all the progress you have made.

So I tried to find some websites to help with ideas but really couldn’t find anything that made any sense for RAD kiddos. Which wasn’t at all surprising. We will be talking more about holiday traditions and how to navigate them in the weeks to come. So hang on and steel yourself for the season of peace and joy!

Until next time,

Shannon

When School Has No Recess

If your RAD kiddos are anything like August, they have more energy than you ever thought could fit in one little body. And there is some relief in knowing that a decent chunk of it gets burned off every day at school. Between gym class and recess, they get to wiggle out enough calories to make time at home more calm. But this time of year in many parts of the country the weather makes recess impossible. School rules don’t allow for it. So what to do when school has no recess?

Well it’s not very practical to dress your kid like the little brother from A Christmas Story just to go to school. But that doesn’t mean you can’t bundle them up and send them out once they get home, weather permitting. But if the weather isn’t agreeable still, there are other things you can do inside to “get the willies out”.

  • Small Trampoline: These are one of the best inventions ever. You can probably find one used fairly cheaply though they aren’t very expensive. Your RAD kiddo can jump on it while watching TV! There are exercise videos for them now. And for a challenge you can set a timer and see if they can jump for a length of time to get a reward.
  • Dancing: Get your groove on! Move the living room furniture against the wall, tell Alexa or Google to play a funky beat and let loose! You can take turns picking songs, play freeze or musical chairs. It doesn’t matter how you move, just move!
  • Introduce Old Time Workouts: Remember Jane Fonda and Jazzercise? Yes, It was all the rage in getting fit back in the 1970’s. So, how hilarious would your children find it now? YouTube is a wealth of history with all those scary videos just waiting to be unearthed. Load one up and see if your kiddos can keep up? For extra fun, try and match those groovy outfits!

These are just a few of the ways you can get moving when the weather outside is frightful. For some more creative ideas, check out this website for a bunch! Understandably, there will be some stir crazy times during the winter months. Not every day will be good to go out and play. And, some days, your RAD kiddo just can’t be pleased. But there are enough ways to keep those bodies moving to wear them out at least some of the time!

Until next time,

Shannon

Thankful for the Good Times

We’ve talked about being thankful for the bad times. This may not be easy but it is important because if we didn’t have bad times, we would be able to know the good times when they come. And of course, we must be thankful for the good times!

But I want to talk about being thankful for the good times in a different way. When we are in the midst of life with our RAD kiddos, the good times may be a day when the school doesn’t call. Or a day when there aren’t any fights (at least not big ones). If it was a day when everything goes pretty much the way it should, that’s a good day, right? I know we condition ourselves to think that way because our benchmark has gotten so small when the behaviors of these kiddos can be so extreme.

But I encourage you to be thankful for the good times by remembering the actual good times. Even in the worst of the periods with August, there were moments when we had truly joyous times. Spring break one year, I took the boys to Kentucky. We stayed in some small WPA built cabins outside the entrance to Mammoth Cave National Park. We spent the week explore the various caves, went zip-lining, went to a Cincinnati Reds baseball game. It was a perfect week.

Another time was surprisingly when I went to visit August when he was in residential treatment. I spent the weekend there and I was allowed to take him out every day. We played mini-golf, we spent time with August’s therapy dog and we took a helicopter ride! The look on August’s face when we were in the helicopter is one I will always remember. He looked for a brief time like the sweet, happy little boy he had been before the cloud of reactive attachment disorder descended over him. It was such a wonderful time for us.

I’m not saying the good times have to be just fabulous family vacations. I look at photos sometimes and remember good times that happened right at home. The year I homeschooled August we worked on muscles, ligaments and tendons. One of the ways the material suggested we study this was with a chicken leg. So we got one out in the kitchen and checked it out. We were both so grossed out we gave up! And we didn’t have chicken for dinner that night!

Definitely be thankful for the good times when there aren’t any calls from school. Or when there aren’t any big fights. Because all of those are good times. But sit down with your RAD kiddo and remember those good times. Share them together. Use them to foster a shared experience of good interactions. Remind yourself and your RAD kiddo that not everything that happens between the two of you is negative.

I have said on many occasions that I will always love August. There have been times when I haven’t liked him. And that’s a tough thing to say. But I love to remember these times. I love to remember when we were as close as we could be as mother and child.

Until next time,

Shannon

A Story That Rang Too True

Well this isn’t at all what I was going to write about today. I had a light fluffy piece full of inspirational quotes planned out and in doing some research came across this old 20/20 story from four years ago. And it rocked me to my core. Here is a story that rang too true.

I don’t know how I hadn’t seen it before. It’s completeness in how it talks about reactive attachment disorder and all the ways parents and adoption organizations and therapists get it wrong was startling. And it’s thoroughness in how it shows what RAD kiddos go through was so impressive.

So here is the link to the story. It’s 40 minutes long so get settled in with time for watching the whole thing. What will jump out at you immediately is how little information the adoptive parents at the center of the story seem to get or take seriously about RAD. They talk about it initially as the cause of the first disruption. But they don’t talk about educating themselves about RAD. And I have a hard time believing that a therapist said, “Just love them enough.”

Second, there is a lot of focus on the concept of “rehoming”. That is avoiding child abandonment charges by finding a suitable family to adopt the children before surrendering your parental rights. And the end of the story talked about states passing legislation outlawing rehoming. But I’ve done some research and haven’t been able to verify states that have actual laws on the books except Wisconsin. But I also couldn’t find current information. But for information on rehoming and what it means, check out here.

This has really rattled me. I know this happens. The story that got a ton of attention of the woman in Tennessee who put her Russian adopted son on a plane back to Russia happened right about the time August got diagnosed. Because I remember his psychiatrist (the wonderful one that finally gave us the diagnosis!) asking if I’d heard about it and what I thought. I remember saying I can imagine the pain she was feeling and the despair but I can’t imagine making that decision.

I would love to know your thoughts on these issues. Particularly if you’ve adopted from foster care or adopted older children. Do you feel like you got enough training/information on RAD? If you got any, was it still not enough and why?

There’s so much to still understand about how trauma affects the little brains of these children. And how to heal what that trauma does. But we have to keep working at it.

Until Next Time,

Shannon

Did You Survive Halloween?

Halloween is always one of those holidays that can be some of the most fun or one that you absolutely dread. Scary stuff, loads of sugar, staying up way past bedtime…what could possibly go wrong? This year, with Halloween coming on a weeknight it adds to everything with then getting up and having to go to school the next day. So did you survive Halloween?

When August was little, Halloween was better than Christmas. Not something he’d ever experienced in Russia, the prospect of going door-to-door and having people just hand over candy? Too good to be true. He’d almost bathe in the pile of candy he’d have after the haul. I’d have to steal away a bunch of his candy and hide the rest so he didn’t fall into a sugar coma (unfortunately that also meant eating too much myself!)

I made August’s first costume. I had plunged into the mommy thing and I thought that came with some magical sewing skills I didn’t actually possess. So of course, I chose what I thought was a simple enough tiger costume with a velcro back closure, elastic arms and legs, a stuffed tail and a hood with ears. Doesn’t sound so bad, right? I was literally sewing him into it Halloween night. It wasn’t perfect, but he looked adorable and it was perfect for me to do it! And then his brother wore it, it had a good life in the dress-up box and then as costumes for a friend’s two children. So I guess I did OK!

When both boys were old enough to trick-or-treat then it got even more interesting. Because it added arguments over where to go, how long to stay out and negotiations over candy to the mix. Because one parent had to take the boys and one parent had to stay and hand out candy so some compromises had to happen. August has always had boundless energy and stamina so staying out as long as possible and running from house to house to grab as much as he could would always be his plan. Having a younger brother who wasn’t as quick and didn’t have as much staying power was just a drag.

Certainly the most frightening thing was when August was old enough to go out by himself. Trusting that August would be polite. That he would be respectful at those houses that just leave out the bucket with the sign that says, “Please take one”. That he will stay with the friends he leaves with and stay in our neighborhood. All those normal parent worries that are magnified times a million when you have a RAD kiddo.

So how do you handle Halloween? Have you ever just had to cancel it completely? Did you ever end up far away from home with a raging child and a long walk ahead of you? A meltdown in the costume aisle? RAD takes the joy out of so many occasions. Our visions of the perfect family holidays get dashed by one tantrum, one manipulation, one controlling behavior.

Halloween works the same as all holidays. Set reasonable expectations. Don’t fantasize a picture perfect day. Have a back-up plan. Make sure the family knows all the rules before setting out so there’s no attempts (well, less of an attempt) at negotiating when you’re away from home. And already have a plan for that candy!

I hope you had a great holiday! Now it’s full steam ahead into Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas!

Until next time,

Shannon

Does Your RAD Child Do Sports?

Having a RAD kiddo involved in extracurricular activities is several blog posts worth of conversation. The pros and cons of whether to and how to have a lot to unpack. But I wanted to focus on this particular question…does your RAD child do sports? Because sports had a special set of potential pitfalls for the RAD kiddo that some other activities do not.

As we have discussed, our RAD kiddos are control freaks. They want things to happen when they want, how they want and the way they want. This makes team sports especially difficult when selfless play is valued or it’s the policy of the league that everyone get a chance to play. And they may not be on board with all the rules the coach requires be followed for practices, particularly if you are also dealing with additional ADHD or ODD disorders.

Then there’s the impulsivity side of RAD. Sports which don’t have constant motion like baseball or football or track can be difficult for a child who may not be able to control his impulses for action or outbursts. Sitting for long periods of time or standing in an outfield may not match a child prone to unchecked impulsive behaviors. Riding on a bus to an away game may be difficult for a child who cannot keep their hands to themselves.

August is naturally athletic. Has been since he was little. He has boundless energy and is extremely coordinated. And fearless. And he wanted to do everything. Baseball, swimming, basketball, ice hockey, you name it. But he didn’t want to learn any of it. He loved ice skating and was very good. He wanted to play hockey but we told him the league required that he take lessons to learn how to play the game and learn the rules. August said he knew how to play. We said it didn’t matter, that was the rule; he wouldn’t budge and never played hockey.

He was good at basketball but he was a ball hog. He was good at baseball but not the best on any team and quit because he kept getting put in the outfield. August thought he was better than the other kids on his team. We had some good success with lacrosse. It very closely matched his favorite non-sport activity which was whacking at things with sticks. And it was constant motion. But his off the field behavior finally got in the way of that as we had to move him to a school with no team. And eventually to a treatment center.

So, what is the answer? Of course, as with everything, you know your RAD kiddo the best. What is doable this year may not be next year and vice versa. But of course it starts with excellent conversation. If your child is young and wants to be on a city soccer team, it may mean a parent steps up to assistant coach. If that’s not an option, then an in-depth conversation with the coach is necessary so they understand your child and their particular issues. Not as a warning, but as a way to continue the treatment you provide. Make sure the language is the same from all the adults who interact with your RAD kiddo. Same as you have with teachers.

Also, consider which sports might be easiest. For August, I thought sports where he was an individual contributor but in a team environment might be best. Swimming, track (except for the down time), golf, tennis (more whacking!). Of course, things got bad before we could ever explore those avenues (though we did do golf lessons) but that always made the most sense to me.

Whatever sports your child chooses, make sure you are their biggest cheerleader on the sidelines and support their dreams. Seeing you rooting for them will be a great boost in your bond!

Until next time,

Shannon

Fall Family Fun

August at home our first Fall! I’m not sure they had Fall leaves in Murmansk. I think it went from a week of summer right back to winter!

Maybe it’s because Autumn is my favorite season that I love thinking of all the Fall Family Fun there is to have. And it may be why I’m able to think more positively and hopefully about family activities this time of year. For the most part we always had a great time doing Fall family fun adventures. August liked being outdoors so much which helped things a lot. So I thought I’d offer some ideas of fall family fun which might be good ways for your family to enjoy some time together before winter drives you all indoors (depending on where you live!)

Here is a list of 50 wonderful Fall family activities for you to try with all the information you need to pull them off. I could create a list but it would include all these activities and it wouldn’t be nearly this thorough! My personal favorite is going to an actual pumpkin patch to get your pumpkin and doing everything else that goes with that. The hayride and corn maze; the apple cider and caramel apples! The boys always enjoyed doing that also. For August the scary haunted corn mazes were his favorite. He had no fear; I should have picked up on that!

We could almost get August to participate in raking leaves just for the benefit of jumping in the piles. But jumping was so wild with him it was like no raking took place so it was kind of a wash. But looking back, anything that was an engaging family activity makes a fond memory.

That is the take-away from the change of seasons and what can be the fun of Fall. Some of these ideas are small, like reading a book. Some are more involved like going camping. But the key is everything you do together as a family is a memory. And as I’ve said before, when times might not be so memorable, having these to think back on may make a huge difference for you and your RAD kiddo. Bring them up when to your child when you feel the Grand Canyon sitting between the two of you. Share the memory and watch the Canyon disappear.

Make sure you take advantage of your Fall family fun time. The weather is great and it can be done easy and most of the time for not much money. Enjoy the views and make some memories!

August whacking at things with sticks, his favorite thing to do!

Until next time,

Shannon

When you get “that” phone call…

It took about two weeks most years for me to have the phone number of August’s school memorized so that when it appeared on my phone I knew who was calling. And you all know that feeling. You may be shopping, working, at the gym, anywhere when you get “that” phone call. And your breath gets tight and your skin crawls and you think just a bit about whether or not to answer. Right?

I confess, I have not answered more than once. Just to have a couple minutes to collect myself. And then called back and apologized. Because I just couldn’t get hit with whatever “it” is. Maybe I’d go sit in my car if I was somewhere in public, just in case. But I didn’t want to be blindsided always by whatever was on the other side of that phone.

So what could happen when you get “that” phone call? Well it could be anything like the simple, “Your child forgot their lunch” or, “Your child isn’t feeling well.” But with our RAD kiddos there is an equal likelihood that it’s something way more complicated. With August it was the interesting things he chose to bring to school like the pocket knife and the water bottle full of vodka. Or the behaviors like looking in the women’s restroom or run-of-the-mill anger. Then there were some bigger issues like the stolen cell phone or when he ran away from the residential treatment center.

So what do you do when you get “that” phone call? I think there were days when we immediately would have sided with our child and blamed the teacher. Or sided with the teacher and blamed the child. But those of us with RAD kiddos know that nothing with our children is that clear cut. Ideally, you have established a close relationship with your child’s teachers so that when situations occur, communication is easy. And hopefully, your child’s teachers have an understanding of their behavior and can put the incident in that context.

The key here is this is where all your work at the beginning of the school year pays off. And if it hasn’t been done yet, now is the time to get it done. For example, I was working as a substitute teacher a couple of weeks ago in a high school social studies class. There was a student who was giving me a lot of back talk from the moment I walked in. Now I’m not saying he was a RAD kiddo, but he did remind me a lot of August. This kept up until he asked to go to the bathroom. I said yes at which point he took all his books and left. I asked the class if he was coming back and they said probably not so I notified the Dean who let me know later they had him.

At the end of the day he came back to the room and apologized. He said he knew he wasn’t doing well so he left. He apparently has medication that he takes and he knew he needed some. I told him I understood and that I had a son very much like him. What I wish I’d been able to suggest but couldn’t is why didn’t he have a behavior plan that gave him the opportunity to leave without the chance of getting into trouble. The class knew him as a trouble-maker. There was no information from the teacher. He didn’t have any “out” to help him. I was pleased he knew himself enough to remove himself from the situation but I wish he had some support to make it easier for him.

Hopefully when you get “that” phone call you will already have the relationship that will allow you to process whatever prompted the call in the context of RAD and your child’s unique behaviors. If not, consider this your open door. One of the reasons we moved August between third and fourth grades was that he was labeled in his prior school by a teacher who wouldn’t work with us. Getting teachers informed and knowledgeable about RAD generally and your child specifically is critical to a successful partnership in handling behavior.

Of utmost importance is for the teacher to understand that you know RAD doesn’t excuse your child’s behaviors; it explains them. And you’re not using this illness to let your child get away with anything. Here’s a very good article for teachers on how to deal with a traumatized child. It may be a good reference for starting a conversation with your child’s teacher. Don’t be afraid of the phone…it’s all part of the process.

Until next time,

Shannon

Who are your child’s friends?

Sometimes RAD kiddos who don’t want to bond with anyone seem yet able to make attachments. But are they the right ones? It’s not always easy to figure out how children make the choices they do or why. But friendships are important for a child’s development. Here is a great article that talks about how it happens and about why it matters. So it can be good to know…who are your child’s friends?

August is very charming. He has a big personality and never had trouble drawing other children to him. From pre-school on he always had friends. However, it was kindergarten when I started to notice he had a gift for attracting the bad influence in any group situation. The child in his class with the spiked hair and frosted tips was like a magnetic for August. He was too cool for school and August worshiped him. It wasn’t a pattern yet but I wish I had noticed the way he was mesmerized by that child’s style because I would have known what to watch out for down the road. But five-year-olds aren’t that scary. And it can get much scarier.

As he moved through elementary school he always seemed to make friends. He had a friend who was Mormon. The seventh of nine children. This is the first child I saw August try to control. I think he was susceptible due to growing up with so many older siblings. But August had the intuition and was able to capitalize on it.

After we moved to North Carolina he made friends very quickly. As I mentioned in a prior post, the first day of school he came off the bus with a friend who he remained close to for years. But because we had to move him out of his neighborhood school, it became hard to keep friendships with the local kids. And making friends with kids at a school where kids come from all over the city was equally complicated. But he did pretty good at having friends though all the trouble he got into was by himself.

Some of his attempts to have friends came off as showing off. He didn’t have much, if any, interest in learning. His way to “fit in” was to carry around the biggest hard bound books he could find. And when taking tests if he couldn’t get the answers right he would rather be first. So he would always finish his test way ahead of anyone else.

Middle school was such a whirlwind of change that I don’t really know what to say about it. He was in sixth grade for half a year until he got in trouble and we pulled him out and I homeschooled him. We did have a good homeschool community where we lived so he did have the opportunity to spend time with other children. After a year of that, we tried putting him back into public school but that proved a disaster which ended with his bringing a water bottle full of vodka to school. That was another attempt to show off to some other kids. He was continuing to find the kids who would get him in trouble no matter where he went.

After this school attempt was the 16 months in residential treatment. It seems like maybe everyone in there would be a bad influence but there were definitely some at the extremes. And yes, August found those. The ones that set off the smoke alarms, the ones that convinced him to run away. I’m not saying he wasn’t culpable in these but he certainly was good at finding partners in crime.

Then there was high school. The first attempt was a private school designed for students who have behavioral issues. Small school, small classes, seemed like the perfect environment. He immediately found one student who thought like he did. Yes, another partner in crime. And in less than a year he’d been expelled. A new city and a new high school found new friends with whom he skipped school on a regular basis. And from there we were off to the races. The wheels fell off completely after that and the rest, as they say, is history.

It’s always good to know who your child’s friends are. They will have an influence on how your child acts. And your child will have an affect on them. The same manipulation and controlling you see used on you can be used on their peers. So don’t be surprised if they lose friends or if you hear from parents. August did have a hard time with friends who would go periods not wanting to be around him. He sometimes had to be taken in small doses.

This is another aspect of RAD that just doesn’t show up in the same way with every child. But it will take some vigilance on your part to try and surround your child with the friends who will help them feel secure and validated. Here is an article with ideas about what to do when your child has a friend who is maybe a bad influence. And teach your child how to be a good friend and try and make sure that happens.

Until next time,

Shannon