Parents in crisis can’t parent therapeutically – so stop expecting us to.

My teenaged son called this evening to explain that he’d cursed his teacher out and thrown his desk across the classroom. He was upset because he’d lost his school issued Chrome book because he’d taken it home (not allowed, and not his first time) and had pornography on it. I listened patiently without judgement. He explained how his elopement from school ended in an entanglement in a pricker bush and contact with a concrete culvert which scratched up his arms and legs. He was covered with bloody scratches and scrapes. I expressed empathy as I sipped my coffee. I offered encouragement when he said he was going to try to earn back the Chromebook and even said I’d talk to the school to ask for a clear plan to work towards that goal. I told him I was proud of this choice to make tomorrow a new day.

Today I was a therapeutic parent superstar and here’s why:

Had this situation happened when my son was still living at home, I would have gone nuts. I would have been throwing out consequences and yelling. My anxiety would have been through the roof. I would have been angry, embarrassed, frustrated, and overwhelmed.

Back when my son was living at home, our family was in crisis. The situation had grown toxic. It took several years of his being in treatment programs, and my being in therapy and educating myself, to begin to find a positive way forward.

Unfortunately, this is not uncommon. Adoptive and foster parents aren’t prepared for the early childhood trauma most kids coming into our families have experienced. We usually reach a crisis point before we learn about therapeutic parenting. By that time, we’ve become desperate and demoralized. Our mental and physical health is so degraded that we are barely surviving. Our kids are out of control. Our life is out of control. We can’t even manage to brush our hair in the morning much less use a calm and kind voice after our child spits in our face.

No doubt, our children need us to be that calm and steady, therapeutic parent, but at that point, we simply don’t have the capacity to do it. And given the our current relationship with our kids, it’s likely we aren’t even the best person to do it. Though few dare tell the shameful truth – we likely have come to a point where we really don’t like our kid. It’s a struggle to be nice to them. It’s difficult to not feel adversarial towards them. If we’re really being honest, some days we’re as out of control as our kids.

Unfortunately, few therapists understand this. They usually underestimate our child’s extreme behaviors and the level of crisis our family is in. They assume we have the ability to parent therapeutically and shame us if we don’t. For our families to heal and thrive, this is something that must be recognized and addressed.

The only clinician I know who is talking about this and teaching other clinicians about this is Forrest Lien of Lifespan Trauma Consulting. (If you are a parent, please follow him on social media to support his efforts on our behalf.)

Families in crisis do not have the capacity to parent therapeutically. This is why we must:

1) Get help to families before they are in crisis (this means pre-adoption training and post-adoption support),

2) Support parents and families in a holistic way. Help us get to a place where we can parent therapeutically.

3) Surround families who are in crisis with supports. Stop shaming us for being broken and demoralized. Give us a hand up.

Parents must be healthy and educated to parent therapeutically.


A note about therapeutic parenting:

There are no perfect treatments for developmental trauma. My son hasn’t been able to access the highly specialized treatment he needs. My response to his phone call today doesn’t solve the problem – I realize that. However, consequences, though perhaps “deserved” won’t work, and will only further escalate my son. What I must do is choose the response that is most likely to move the ball forward. My goal is for him to remain in school and to not get kicked out of the group home. My goal is to de-escalate the situation. I highly recommend A to Z Therapeutic Parenting for practical information on therapeutic parenting.

The ugly truth about trauma

Warning: Graphic image

Because trauma from early childhood neglect and abuse is invisible to the untrained eye, we tend to imagine our children having only bruised and bleeding hearts.

In reality, some of our children have huge gaping trauma wounds. The gash is infected and oozing puss. It smells. It’s sticky and messy. No vital organ or system in our child’s body is safe from its insidious spread. As a result, our children can’t sleep or eat. They can’t learn. They don’t play nicely with others. Sometimes they spend days – years – delirious with fever and pain.

I’m sorry if this is disturbing, but that’s the point I’m making about trauma.

Our kids don’t know how to treat their own trauma gashes, but they’re afraid to let us help. They want us to just leave it alone and let it get better by itself. But trauma gashes, left to their own, can become life threatening or leave a mangled, ugly scar.

As parents we try to treat our child’s oozing trauma gash with bandaids, ice packs, and Neosporin. Afraid and in paid, they lash out at us like wounded animals no matter how lovingly we soothe and comfort. We explain the pain is only momentary, that we’re just trying to help the wound heal, but they fight to keep us far away.

Most trauma gashes need stitches or surgery. Our kids need highly specialized treatment that, more often than not, is unaffordable or inaccessible. And so, as parents, we just do the best we can with our inadequate home first aid kit.

Bruised and broken hearts can be comforted. And even trauma gashes can heal and fade with proper treatment and time, but they always leave a scar.

Learn more here:

Understanding the impact of childhood trauma
Raising a child with developmental trauma

Christmas Gift List for kids in Residential Treatment Facilities (RTFs)

It can be challenging to Christmas shop for kids who are living in residential treatment facilities (PRTFs, RTFs, or group homes). There are almost always restrictive rules about personal items along with special rules for Christmas gifts. For example, in most facilities electronics, candy, and hardback books are not allowed.

So what can you give your child for Christmas? Below is a list curated from parents who have successfully navigated the holiday season while their child is living in an RTF.

But first, here are some tips.

  • Gifts deemed inappropriate or against policy will likely be thrown away and not returned to you.
  • Most facilities do not allow wrapped gifts because they need to approve the items.
  • Often gifts must be dropped off on a specific day.
  • You may not be allowed to open Christmas gifts with your child. If this is important to you, ask their therapist about doing so during a family therapy session or home visit.
  • Kids in higher level facilities aren’t allowed to have “dangerous” item which may include shoe laces, belts, hard back books, calendars with staples, etc.
  • Ask the facility if your child will be getting additional gifts from local charities or the facility. As you shop, it can be helpful to know if you are supplementing gifts or supplying all your child’s gifts.
  • Plan for the gifts you buy to be lost or destroyed. Shop at Walmart and don’t give expensive gifts. Label what you can with your child’s name.
  • To successfully navigate Christmas gift giving with the least amount of frustration and waste, email your child’s therapist your planned gift list ahead of time for approval.

Christmas Gift List
(For kids in RTF)

  • Clothes
  • Pillow
  • Stuffed animal
  • Pajamas
  • Markers and coloring books
  • Dot to Dot books
  • Playing cards
  • Family Pictures
  • Art Supplies
  • Basket ball
  • Soccer ball
  • Foot ball
  • Journal
  • Hygiene supplies
  • Hair bands
  • Stickers
  • Pillow case
  • Picture book of “happy” memories
  • Paperback books
  • Crayons
  • Teddy bear
  • Gloves
  • Hat
  • Shoes
  • Puzzles
  • Funky Socks
  • Magic 8 Ball
  • Comic books
  • MP3 Player/iPod Shuffle with no internet access
  • Stationary
  • Legos
  • Crazy Aaron’s thinking Putty
  • Blanket – burrito etc
  • Posters
  • Calendar (no staples)

Please let me know your additional ideas so I can add to this list!

A few thoughts about realistic expectations…

Kids with developmental trauma, especially those diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) are likely to turn any situation into a power struggle, including their Christmas gifts.

Even if you give them a gift they’ve been asking for – that you know they’ll love – you can expect them to:

  • Tell the therapist they know you aren’t planning to give them any gifts because you don’t love them.
  • Complain to staff about the gifts they do get, and say they don’t like them.
  • Destroy the gifts even if they love them and desperately wanted them.

It may feel personal, but it’s simply how your child relates to the world because of the lasting effects of early childhood neglect and abuse. Unfortunately, you may end up feeling manipulated, lied about, coerced, and judged. It can be tempting to withhold gifts because of these behaviors or because your child is not cooperating with treatment, but that’s not a good strategy.

First, keep in mind that it will be very difficult to execute. Staff will likely compensate by giving your child extra gifts creating an opportunity for triangulation.

Additionally, your child’s therapist will almost certainly see your lack of gifts as a sign you are a cold, and unloving parent – and the focus of your child’s treatment will be side tracked.

Most importantly, your child will internalize feelings of rejection and this will not be a learning lesson no matter how well-intentioned you are. Jessie Hogsett, who was diagnosed with RAD as a child, reminds us that our child’s actions aren’t necessarily reflective of what’s going on inside. He says “I remember being in an RTF during Christmas. So lonely. And I felt totally unwanted. Horrible times. A gift would have made me feel wanted, special, and thought about.”

So, plop on your Christmas hat, sip a peppermint latte, and go shopping.

A Dad’s Struggle Accepting Reactive Attachment Disorder Diagnosis

Learn about a Dad’s struggle with awareness and acceptance of a Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) diagnosis and helpful tips to overcome the challenge of accepting related Developmental Trauma Disorders.

click here to learn more about Christine Hartmann…

Conduct Disorder (CD) – Early detection

First published by Milk & Hugs, and republished with permission.

The Worry…

Early childhood is a wondrous time of life, for both children and parents. Watching young minds form and bodies grow is one of the true joys of parenthood. As parents, we want the best for our children. We have dreams of who they will become, the type of life they may have. Ultimately, we want the best life for our children. What happens when our child is ill or has some sort of problem? We want to fix it. We are proactive and determined to find the solution.  But what happens when our child is still very young and our concerns sound vague (and perhaps a bit ridiculous) even to ourselves? How do we respond to the pediatrician who gives us that patronizing smile while telling us the child is just being a child, we are worrying over nothing, the child will “grow out of it.”

The first thing to know is to always trust your instincts, whether your child is 2 minutes or 20 years old. Instincts have served us well from the beginning of time and will continue to do so. It doesn’t matter if the child in question is your first or your fifth, trust your instincts.

What is normal?

Some things children will grow out of as they develop and mature. Toddlers are very self-centered and their demands on our time and attention are unlimited. Eventually toddlers grow into more reasonable beings as they learn how to express themselves. They learn it is much more fun to play with another child and share toys than to hoard all of the toys for themselves. They learn that hot stoves burn and that burns hurt. They learn that “no” actually has meaning and isn’t just a weird sound mom or dad makes all day.  

Between the ages of birth to four or five, a lot is going on developmentally. While that is wonderful, it can be a confusing time for parents. What is “normal” childhood behavior and what should be of concern? How do we bring it to the attention of others without sounding paranoid? Hopefully, this article will provide a few answers for parents of young children who are dealing with some behaviors that are the cause of concern.

…but is it really normal?

We’ve all heard the horror stories surrounding “the terrible twos.” This phase of your child’s life can actually span anywhere from a year old to as much as 30 months old. Tantrums can occur for numerous reasons and may include whining, crying, screaming, hitting, kicking, biting, and throwing things. A study published in 2003 suggests that nearly 75% of tantrums last five minutes or less. Most children under the age of five have one to three tantrums a day with varying degrees of severity. How do we know when to be concerned?

Donna Christiano’s recent Healthline article mentions these indicators as reasons for concern:

  • tantrums that consistently (more than half the time) include hitting, kicking, biting, or other forms of physical violence toward the parent or caretaker
  • tantrums in which the child tries to injure themselves
  • frequent tantrums, defined as tantrums that occur 10 to 20 times a day
  • tantrums that last longer than 25 minutes, on average
  • an inability of the child to ultimately calm themselves

Children with these behaviors may have conduct disorder. Learn more about Conduct disorder here.

When other parents talk about Conduct Disorder

In addition, parents from an online Conduct Disorder support group have described the tantrums more as “rages” due to the level of anger and violence the child displays. One mother states that her 3 year old daughter will scream, hit walls, hit other people, bite, kick, and destroy whatever she can get into her hands, for hours on end.

Parents in this same support group have provided a list of other behaviors they noted in their young children which were causes for alarm:

  • deliberately cruel to people or animals
  • early sexual aggression (age 2 and above)
  • manipulative (age 3 and above)
  • flat affect
  • superficial charm (age 4 and above)
  • inability to relate actions to the consequences that follow, such as time out
  • discipline causes further rage in the child, has no effect on behavior

What can you do?

What can you do if your child exhibits some of these more extreme behaviors? The first thing is to document the behaviors in a notebook or journal that is used exclusively for this purpose. Note the behavior, total elapsed time of the behavior (if a tantrum/rage, state the total time from beginning until the child is calm), date and time of the event. Also document your actions/responses.

Try to remove emotion and extra information from the list. It’s difficult to notice these specifics under stress but at least make note of the time, you can document the rest later. You are gathering documentation that will be much needed further down the road. At the beginning of the notebook, write down when these behaviors first began (age or date if you remember). Most of the time it has been so gradual that you cannot put an exact date to the first unsettling event but you can likely pinpoint an approximate age. Physicians like to see six to eight weeks of data. This can be difficult to do if your child is having 10 – 20 tantrums/rages per day. Do the best you can while remembering that documentation is your friend.

The Doctor Visit

After you have several weeks of information, take your child to his or her pediatrician. In a calm and confident manner, state what behaviors are of most concern to you. Have a list prepared and bring your notebook with you. Be concise and do not use vague language; no sort of, kind of, maybe, like, etc. Always speak with authority with regard to your child’s behaviors. Speaking in this manner shows that you are not an insecure parent who just needs a little patronizing from your child’s pediatrician.

Remaining calm indicates that you’re not some hysterical parent in over his or her head. Knowledge and a confident attitude are part of your tools to utilize in order to obtain an appropriate response from your child’s doctor. If you do not receive the assistance you need or feel that your concerns have been brushed aside, ask for a second opinion. Keep looking for answers and help until you find it.


What is Conduct Disorder?

I stand in the bathroom stall of the courthouse, texting a friend. “I can’t do this,” I write and lean my head against the cold partition of the stall.

“You’ve got this,” she replies. “Breathe, Honey.”

I hear the restroom door open and a singsong voice I recognize as my daughter, Debbie, quietly calls my name. I quickly pull my feet up, trying to be invisible. “I know you’re in here, you stupid bitch. Come out, come out, where ever you are.”

My breath halts and my pulse pounds in my ears. Be still, be quiet, I think. Maybe she will go away.

Footsteps approach as door after door of the stalls bang open. I quake in fear as the steps come nearer until I see her shoes in front of my door. 

“You can’t hide forever,” Deb says in a lilting, singsong voice. She quickly tells me how plans to murder me and what she will do with my body before setting it and my home on fire. She reminds me that she has had months to perfect her plan, while in juvenile detention, without my interference. 

I don’t respond.

Tiring of her game, Deb’s voice acquires the hard edge I’ve come to associate with rage. “Get out here, you bitch. I hate you. I want to see you scream as you die. Your precious boy will die, you will all die.” I cower behind the door as her diatribe continues; the words increasingly vulgar.

Suddenly the door into the hall opens and a new voice speaks. “Deb, are you in here?”

I hear Deb whisper, “Shit.” Then she begins to sob. 

“Baby, what’s wrong? What happened?” I recognize the newcomer as Deb’s caseworker.

Still sobbing, Deb says, “I saw Mommy come in here. I just wanted a hug. She hates me.” She wails and sobs as though her world has just ended. “Why doesn’t she love me, Miss C?” 

Debbie is only 14. Debbie has Conduct Disorder.

What is Conduct Disorder?

The DSM-5 (the manual used by mental health professionals to make diagnoses) defines Conduct Disorder (CD) as “a repetitive and persistent pattern of behavior in which the basic rights of others or major age-appropriate societal norms or rules are violated.”

Children with Conduct Disorder (CD) may exhibit behaviors such as:

  • bullying, threatening, or intimidating others
  • initiates physical or verbal altercations
  • physically or verbally cruel to others
  • physically cruel to animals
  • steals
  • forces someone into sexual activity or is sexually aggressive
  • frequently lies
  • deliberately sets fires or destroys property
  • lack of empathy
  • lack of remorse
  • grandiose thinking
  • highly manipulative
  • rages (or “tantrums”) lasting 25 minutes or more
  • inability to learn from mistakes
  • lacks critical thinking skills/has difficulties understanding abstracts
  • shallow affect
  • superficial charm/has a public and private demeanor
  • lack of fear

Recent scientific studies indicate CD is in part due to abnormal brain activity, as well as an under development of the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. The amygdala is known to be responsible for controlling aggression as well as the perception of emotions. The prefrontal cortex handles executive functions such as controlling short-sighted or reflexive behaviors in order to plan long-term goals, make informed decisions, and exhibit self-control.

But what does all of this really mean?

In simple terms it means that the child with Conduct Disorder has a brain that is structurally different from that of a neuro-typical child. Because of this difference, the child with CD does not respond to rules, discipline, and societal norms the way a typical child does.

Conduct Disorder is evidenced by some, or all, of the behaviors listed above. The spectrum of behaviors is wide and varies between mild to severe. The tendency to lie, manipulate, and gaslight are strong and seemingly innate behaviors.

Standard parenting techniques are not effective. Discipline, rewards for good behavior, star charts, and other techniques fall short of managing behaviors long- term. Conduct Disorder transcends race, ethnicity, environment, location, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Unlike attachment disorders CD is not always due to trauma, abuse, or neglect. However, many children diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) at younger ages are ultimately diagnosed with CD as teenagers. CD can manifest at 2 years old or 15 years old, and any age in between.

There are an estimated 7 million children in the U.S. alone with Conduct Disorder. This translates into approximately 1 in 10 children affected.

For families affected by CD, it can mean very little in terms of treatment. Children with Conduct Disorder do not respond well to traditional talk therapy. In general, these children will use the counselor to further manipulate caregivers. Some go so far as to employ triangulation, in which the counselor becomes the unwitting accomplice of the child to further demoralize caregivers. Medication cannot relieve the symptoms of CD but it may be prescribed for co-morbid diagnoses such as ADHD.

At present there are very few viable inpatient treatment centers for children with Conduct Disorder. Many programs state that CD is treated at their facility, however most apply standard practices toward the treatment of other mental illnesses to CD. This is highly inappropriate and may lead to further issues for both the child and family living with CD.

Often, families feel vilified and become isolated due to the harsh judgment they face. Family and friends lack understanding of what is happening and drift away, unable to provide support for something they seldom witness. Parents beg doctors and mental health professionals for help, only to be mocked and treated with derision. The community, hearing of the child’s disrespect and abusive nature when the police are called, make assumptions about the parents: too lenient, too strict, not enough activities, too many activities, set boundaries, spank him/her, it’s all because of poor parenting, they say. All this does it further isolate families who are living in a constant war zone, created by someone they love and for whom they are legally responsible. Love does not cure Conduct Disorder (CD), nor does being a model family.

If there are no treatment options available, what can be done?

Fortunately, CD is being researched more in recent years. Unfortunately for those living with CD, viable treatment options are still years in the making. The founders of Compass for Conduct Disorder realized the need for community support programs, resources for parents/caregivers, and early childhood detection and intervention.

Compass for Conduct Disorder is a nonprofit organization whose goal is to provide resources, services, and hope for those living with CD. In addition to a parent/caregiver support group, Compass also provides an information and awareness group, parent advocacy, crisis buddies, the Compass Peer Network for professionals to exchange information relating to CD, and an awareness raising campaign. In the planning stages is the Compass Child and Family Support Center, which will be geared toward children ages 2 to 5 showing early signs of Conduct Disorder, and their families.

If you have a child with Conduct Disorder, Compass for Conduct Disorder is a place to find support, resources, and community.

Website: www.compassforcd.org
Facebook: @CompassforCD
Twitter: @CompassforCD
Compass Cares: A Conduct Disorder Support Community
Compass for CD Information and Awareness


Karen Huff is the mother of four children, one of whom has Conduct Disorder.

She is the President for Compass for Conduct Disorder and an admin for the Compass Cares support group, as well as for the Compass for CD Information and Awareness group. 

Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.


Yoga at school may help your child, but what about mine?

Recently I’ve seen several headlines about schools who are introducing yoga as a way to address student behaviors. The West Fargo Pioneer explains this way:

Behavior issues stem from a multitude of reasons. However, studies show that students today are more likely to experience trauma and have mental health needs, increasing the likelihood of classroom disruptions and behavioral issues. 

In a classroom of 20, one or two students on average will be dealing with serious psycho-social stressors relating to poverty, domestic violence, abuse and neglect, or a psychiatric disorder, according to the Child Mind Institute.

This type of stress can shorten periods of brain development and limit brain growth in early years, making it harder for students to regulate emotions and concentrate on learning. 

And while schools can’t control students’ experiences outside the classroom, they can help students learn how to cope with stress and regulate emotional outbursts. Social-emotional curriculum aims to help students recognize and deal with emotions and tackle the increased presence of stress and trauma.

It’s absolutely true that every classroom has children who have experienced trauma. Early childhood trauma is an epidemic. It’s absolutely true that these experiences affect a student’s ability to learn and cope in school. It’s also absolutely true that some students will benefit from yoga. It will help by,

  • Reducing stress
  • Improving concentration
  • Increasing self-esteem
  • And more…

This is why PBS suggests Managing School Stress by Bringing Yoga Into the Classroom. And Education Week applauds Ditching Detention for Yoga: Schools Embrace Mindfulness to Curb Discipline Problems.

Great ideas, however news articles like these give the impression that yoga is an inexpensive, quick fix for childhood trauma. For kids on the moderate to severe end of the spectrum, this simply isn’t the case.

Here’s the problem

Many kids with developmental trauma are so dysregulated they cannot follow instructions or calm themselves enough to even choose to participate in yoga. A 10-year-old who flips desks, curses at the teacher, and fights with other kids is likely not able to safely or effectively participate in yoga.

Furthermore, kids who have extreme behaviors and emotions may be extremely disruptive during yoga activities. This can cause other students to be unable to focus and benefit from the exercises. A 6-year-old who refuses to follow instructions, pesters other kids, and runs around in circles, will disrupt the entire atmosphere.

If a child has a cold, a spoonful of honey does wonders. However, that same spoonful of honey is not able to cure a child who has strep throat. Here’s the ugly truth about trauma: Some kids who have experienced trauma have needs far beyond what a spoonful of honey can heal. Without comprehensive and specialized treatments, these children are unlikely to benefit from yoga at school. They probably won’t even be able to successfully participate.

I cringe at the “yoga in school” headlines because they minimize the devastating, often debilitating, effects of trauma on our kids. Most people who read the articles, or just skim the headlines, will assume childhood trauma is easily treated.

Don’t get me wrong – I applaud schools incorporating yoga into their curriculum and behavior programs because it can be helpful to so many children. However, yoga cannot curb extreme behaviors caused developmental trauma. It is a far more complicated and challenging issue.

Let’s get our kids to a healthy place where they can benefit from yoga. You can help by learning how trauma effects kids and sharing our video to help raise awareness for the need for accessible, affordable, and effective treatments.

5 creative ways to foster attachment

Kayla “then”

When Kayla was a newly adopted toddler I’d rub my face against her pudgy cheek as I tucked her in for the night. “Look at that,” I’d exclaim. “A freckle just jumped off my face onto yours!” She’d giggle and ask me to count her freckles.

Like most kids that come from hard places, Kayla struggles with attachment. Kids who have experienced early childhood trauma often don’t form a strong bond with a primary caregiver as an infant. As a result, they may unconsciously fear the closeness of relationships and thwart attachment. They also don’t have the context of a healthy mother-child bond from which to understand other relationships. As a result they don’t naturally form healthy relationships with family, friends, romantic partners, teachers, co-workers, and others. 

Kayla “now”

Kayla is now a persnickety 16-year-old, but I sometimes still “rub freckles” onto her face, much to her fake chagrin. While attachment isn’t easy for her, our relationship is very close and a source of safety and comfort for her. One way our bond solidified was through our silly – and simple – nightly freckle ritual. Our kids needs are challenging and complex and we need to find creative ways to reach them and help them learn healthy attachment.


Every child and parent are different, but here are five creative attachment ideas that have worked for other families. 

  1. Taking mommy-and-me swimming lessons with younger children can be a great, natural way to facilitate physical contact. Over time a child will learn to feel secure in the safety of his or her parent’s arms. (Of course, take into consideration if your child is fearful of water or swimming before trying this.)
  2. Braiding hair, painting toe nails, and foot massages are another way to encourage gentle, loving physical touch. These activities can facilitate hours of easy conversation and connection. Gentle face massages can also be a calming bedtime ritual.
  3. Sharing a secret with your child is a way to connect in a special way. It doesn’t have to be anything big – a childhood memory, a favorite snack, or secret wish. Once you’ve shared your secret, your child might just want to share one of their own. Be sure to respect and cherish it.
  4. Sharing a sleeping space, a staple of attachment parenting, can be accomplished with older children by allowing them to sleep in your room or laying with them until they fall asleep. This can provide a tremendous amount of comfort to a young, traumatized child.
  5. Cooking and baking together is a tactile and practical way to spend quality bonding time with your children. For kids with food issues, this can also be a way to give them a sense of control over an area of their life that may seem erratic and unpredictable. (See below for our family’s chocolate chip cookie recipe.)

Don’t forget to reciprocate. Let your child brush your hair and paint your nails too. Accept their special gifts and secrets, no matter how trivial they may seem. Attachment is a two-way process and you must be as fully engaged as you want them to be.


As promised, here’s my family’s cakey chocolate chip cookie recipe passed down from my kids’ great-great-grandmother. Enjoy!

The Special Needs of Adopted Children

Whether you are religious or not, this list from Sherrie Eldridge is a powerful tool. She’s included Bible verses for those who would like them.

EMOTIONAL NEEDS

  • I need help in recognizing my adoption loss and grieving it. (Ecclesiastes 1:18)
  • I need to be assured that my birth parents’ decision not to parent me had nothing to do with anything defective in me. (Proverbs 34:5)
  • I need help in learning to deal with my fears of rejection–to learn that absence doesn’t mean abandonment, nor a closed door that I have done something wrong. (Genesis 50:20)
  • I need permission to express all my adoption feelings and fantasies. (Psalm 62.8)

EDUCATIONAL NEEDS

  • I need to be taught that adoption is both wonderful and painful, presenting lifelong challenges for everyone involved. (Ezekiel 17:10a, Romans 11:24)
  • I need to know my adoption story first, then my birth story and birth family. (Isaiah 43:26)
  • I need to be taught healthy ways for getting my special needs met. (Philippians 4:12)
  • I need to be prepared for hurtful things others may say about adoption and about me as an adoptee. (John 1:11)

VALIDATION NEEDS

  • I need validation of my dual-heritage (biological and adoptive). (Psalm 139:16b)
  • I need to be assured often that I am welcome and worthy. (Isaiah 43:4, Zephaniah 3:17)
  • I need to be reminded often by my adoptive parents that they delight in my biological differences and appreciate my birth family’s unique contribution to our family through me. (Proverbs 23:10)

PARENTAL NEEDS

  • I need parents who are skillful at meeting their own emotional needs so that I can grow up with healthy role models and be free to focus on my development, rather than taking care of them. (II Corinthians 12:15)
  • I need parents who are willing to put aside preconceived notions about adoption and be educated about the realities of adoption and the special needs adoptive families face. (Proverbs 23:12, Proverbs 3: 13-14, Proverbs 3:5-6)
  • I need my adoptive and birth parents to have a non-competitive attitude. Without this, I will struggle with loyalty issues. (Psalm 127:3)

RELATIONAL NEEDS

  • I need friendships with other adoptees. (Ecclesiastes 4:12)
  • I need to taught that there is a time to consider searching for my birth family, and a time to give up searching. (Ecclesiastes 3:4)
  • I need to be reminded that if I am rejected by my birth family, the rejection is symptomatic of their dysfunction, not mine. (John 1:11)

SPIRITUAL NEEDS

  • I need to be taught that my life narrative began before I was born and that my life is not a mistake. (Jeremiah 1:5a, Ephesians 1:11)
  • I need to be taught in this broken, hurting world, loving families are formed through adoption as well as birth. (Psalm 68:6)
  • I need to be taught that I have intrinsic, immutable value as a human being.
  • I need to be taught that any two people can make love but only God can create life. He created my life and I’m not a mistake.  (John 1:3)

This list is reprinted with permission from: Copyright, 1999, Sherrie Eldridge, Random House Publishers-TWENTY THINGS ADOPTED KIDS WISH THEIR ADOPTIVE PARENTS KNEW.

Tips to work with your child’s school (includes free teacher handout)

I can’t tell you how many days I’ve navigated through carline with a drink holder full of steaming hot cups of coffee. Every school year I’d learn how my kid’s teachers took their coffee. On my way to drop the kids off at school in the mornings, I’d pick up a coffee for myself and one more to go. Especially when they were in elementary school, the kids loved their teacher’s reaction to the nice, fresh cup of coffee – and I loved the good will it built. In fact, when I found a teacher to be particularly challenging to work with, I’d throw in a muffin or cookie. That’s right – kill them with kindness and generosity and 9 times out of 10 it paid off in spades.

Working with teachers and school staff can be challenging for any parent, but more so for parents of children with special needs. Parent’s of kids with Developmental Trauma and/or RAD struggle even more because of the nature of these diagnoses. Few schools are truly trauma informed and our children are often adept at triangulating adults.

I have five children and we’ve got 504s and IEPs. We’ve navigated suspensions and expulsions. We’ve been to alternative schools and been in co-taught classrooms. Below is my hard-earned advice for how to navigate the system successfully.

Behind the scenes

Like any “system” we work with as parents, it’s important to pull back the curtain and understand how that system works and recognize its dysfunctions. Many of us have become so frustrated with a teacher, school administrator, or principal that we blow our top. We feel justified because they are being so unreasonable, causing our child undue hardship, or simply aren’t acting fairly. Unfortunately, our strongly worded emails and outbursts can have long-reaching negative impacts on our child’s school experience.

  • Teachers and school staff talk. Teachers and administrators talk about students, and even more often about their “cranky,” “unreasonable,” “mean” parents. The 6th grade English teacher vents her frustration to the 6th grade history and science teachers. The 8th grade teachers give the high school teachers and administration a heads up. If you are perceived as a difficult parent to deal with – everyone knows.
  • Parents are labeled and handled. Administrators and teachers will make a determination about what kind of parent you are based on even one interaction. While this may not be fair, it’s simply the reality. They’ll often meet ahead of time to strategize how to “handle” you in meetings and conferences which can lead to the incredibly frustration realization it’s the one of you against all of them. And once you’ve been labeled – it sticks
  • You won’t win (at least in the long-term). Sometimes a “strongly worded email” or conference can seem to be effective. But it’s important to realize your child will be in school for 13 years. Winning one battle at all costs can have serious long-term impacts. Once the school labels you as a “problem parent’ they’ll strategize how to best handle you in the future. A nasty email may win the battle – it won’t win the war.

While we all wish this wasn’t true, it’s human nature. For the sake of our children, we must understand the reality and become pragmatic. At least that’s been my strategy and more often than not it’s been successful.

Start off on the right foot

It’s so important to start the new school year in good faith and without a chip on your shoulder. Instead of assuming your child’s teacher is “going to be a problem,” start out by believing they’re going to be a partner. This means seeing the classroom through their eyes and empathizing with their needs. I have several teachers in my family and know it is a hard, often thankless job. Many teachers spend weekends and evenings grading papers and pay for supplies out of their own pockets. Most go into the job because it’s their passion, but can become discouraged and burnt out .

  • Be polite and act in good faith. A little genuine kindness and please and thank you can go a long way – especially with teachers who are overworked. Look for opportunities to compliment your child’s teacher. If called for, apologize and seek to make amends.
  • Be reasonable and solution oriented. It’s so important to recognize and respect the limitations of schools and teachers. Don’t lock yourself into one solution. Be an active listener and go into every meeting with a spirit of collaboration and mutual support.
  • Be ‘that’ parent. Reach out to your teacher in practical ways. Be the parent who they can count on as volunteer. Send in extra supplies when they’re requested – and when they aren’t. For example, all teachers always need extra pencils, tissues, and hand sanitizer.

Let’s not forget that as parents we find it incredibly challenging to care for our child, especially when their behaviors are extreme. Imagine a teacher trying to do that while teaching a full classroom of children. A bit of empathy and consideration can go far.

Work within the system

Fighting the system for reforms is a noble cause and one we all must support. However, the strategy for personal success is almost always learning how to work within the system. Thankfully, there are standard, legal processes to insure your child receives the educational supports they need and are entitled to. It can be a long process to obtain a 504 or IEP (Individual Education Plan), but well worth it because they are comprehensive plans with legal requirements. There are also many free or low-cost parenting advocates who are trained to assist parents in negotiations with their schools and setting up of 504s and IEPs.

  • 504s A 504 is a detailed plan for how the school will remove learning barriers for students with disabilities. Most commonly these include accommodations (how a student learns) like extended time for testing or priority seating. A 504 is easier to get than an IEP and usually the best stepping stone to an IEP.
  • IEPs An IEP is a legal agreement for a student to receive special education services. The IEP agreement can include both accommodations (how a student learns) and modifications (what a student learns). For example, it may include pull out educational services or classes co-taught by a traditional teacher and a special education teacher. An IEP requires an evaluation. Typically diagnoses like ADHD or RAD can qualify a student.

Resources

Be sure to check out this excellent resources on the ins and outs of navigating special education services for your child. From Emotions to Advocacy

Here’s a handout you are welcome to reproduce or email to your child’s teacher: Remember, approach is everything. You don’t want to come across like a patient being wheeled into surgery while handing the surgeon a diagram of the heart. Just offer this handout to teachers and school staff as “helpful information about my child’s diagnoses,” I find it’s always best delivered with a cup of coffee!

Here’s a social media shareable:

As parents of children with special needs, we’ve all had that sick feeling when we realize teachers and school staff have circled the wagons – and it’s “us” against “them.” Use the strategies in this article to make sure you are part of the team and that everyone – teachers, school counselors, principals, and you as the parent – are linking arms and circling your child with the supports they need.

Video: Early Childhood Trauma – we need treatments now!

Learn more

Aging out of RTF and into the real world: A dangerous proposition

Raising a child with Developmental Trauma

Immigration isn’t the only “system” that’s harmful to children

Why adoption stories aren’t fairy tales

It takes a village

Adoption: How not to be like a frog boiling in a pot

Adoption can be a lot like the Frog Boiling in a Pot metaphor. We jump in heart-first and are deliriously happy to have finally made it through the long, emotional, and expensive adoption process. We relax back to enjoy our new family without realizing there’s a fire beneath the pot we’ve leapt into. As the water gradually warms around us and we adjust and acclimate.

Tantrums evolve into rages.
Late potty training graduates to poop smearing.
And squabbles escalate into fist fights.

Meanwhile we’re unaware of how serious the situation is becoming. By the time we realize the danger, the water is already boiling.

Due to our child’s early trauma,
we’re often jumping into a heating pot.

Unfortunately, many children who are adopted have gone through early childhood traumas which can result in a myriad of issues: severe behaviors, sensory processing issues, attention deficits, learning disabilities, attachment challenges, and more. Early intervention is key, but often the gradual worsening of the symptoms makes it difficult to recognize when to get help. As a result, our kids don’t get the early interventions they need which is a delay that has significant impacts on their prognosis as well as the family’s health.

When I adopted my son at the age of 3, there were plenty of warning signs that we needed professional help – at least in hindsight. As things grew gradually worse over the years, I didn’t realize how serious the situation was. When had he gone from toddler tantrums to chasing siblings with a baseball bat? When had he begun to weaponize urination when he was mad? Sometimes, when we are living in these types of situations we are much like the frog in the pot – we don’t realize what’s happening because we are acclimating to it bit by bit. In my case, it took a scary incident for me to recognize the danger and act.

We have dreams and high hopes wrapped up in adoption that make it hard to admit we need help. That’s why it’s so important to understand that, for kids with severe trauma, love alone is not enough. To heal and thrive these children need highly specialized services and, even so, may continue to struggle at some level throughout their whole life.

For the best prognosis, early intervention for childhood trauma is key. This is why every adoptive (and pre-adoptive) parent must know the warning signs and where to find help.

The warning signs

In our pre-adoption classes we learn some behaviors are “normal” for kids who have been in the system. This includes issues related to food, potty training, aggression, hygiene, attachment, and learning. What we often don’t understand is that adverse childhood experiences (ACES) affect each child differently and some children have such severe symptoms they cannot be managed by parents – especially when there are other children in the home. You must know the warning signs.

Here’s what you need to look for:

  • Behaviors are creating a safety issue for the child, their siblings, or parents.
  • Over time you do not see any improvements; only a worsening of symptoms.
  • The child is unable to successfully function in school, daycare, or other settings.
  • They are perpetually “in punishment” at home.
  • You are being triggered and feeling depression, anxiety, anger, or other PTSD symptoms.
  • Your child’s tantrums are lasting hours and/or are violent.
  • You dislike your child and begin to dread spending time with them.
  • There is not a growing attachment between you and your child.

If you’re unsure, remember, it’s always better to reach out for help early than to wait too long. Waiting is not simply wasted time. It exacerbates your child’s condition and can damage their relationship with you and other family members.

Getting help

Even more challenging than recognizing you need professional help, is finding it. Children who have been traumatized in foster care or orphanages need more than “trauma informed” resources. They need help from individuals who are experienced working with this specific population of children and their families. If you begin to work with a pediatrician, therapist, or other professional who “doesn’t get it,” don’t stick around. Though well-meaning, those without this specialized background can make things worse.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • Your child needs a comprehensive psychological evaluation for the most accurate diagnosis (ask your pediatrician for a referral).
  • As soon as your child begins to experience learning or behavioral problems at school ask for a 504 or IEP evaluation.
  • Look for therapy services that are for the whole family:
    • Outpatient FAMILY therapy (not individual)
    • In-home FAMILY treatment
  • Know where your local mental health hospital is (google “Mental Health Emergency Care” for your city).
  • Contact the police department ahead of time and ask how to reach the CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) should you require law enforcement help.
  • If you adopted from foster care, contact your agency about respite, medicaid coverage, and other services.
  • Join online support groups to network with other parents and find the best local resources. These are my favorite groups and the ones I’m most actively involved with:

Remember, even in the most severe cases, with early interventions and specialized treatment, there IS hope for kids who have experienced early childhood trauma. Here’s one story where early interventions saved a family.