Category: Taking care of yourself

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.

Online support groups for parents of kids with trauma

Are you parenting a child who came to you from hard places? If your child is suffering from the effects of early childhood trauma, also called adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), they may have extreme behaviors that seem impossible to manage.

Unfortunately, you may not fit into typical parenting support groups. Your child’s behaviors and emotions may be so extreme that other parents can’t relate. As their parenting-101 and common sense advice falls flat and over time, their lack of understanding can feel an awful lot like blame.

You may be feeling:

Developmental trauma (often diagnosed as Reactive Attachment Disorder) is a very serious disorder that requires specialized and specific treatment. You’re unlikely to find the support you need in typical mommy-and-me, ADHD, or other types of parenting support groups. The approaches to those parents use may not be effective with your child.

First, know you are not alone. There are thousands of us going through the same things. It’s just difficult to find each other and connect for support.

So where can you find the support and community you so desperately need? One fantastic option is a private online support group. Here are the two I like to recommend, and am most active in. (Tell them Raising Devon sent you!)

These groups are for parents and caregivers only and have strict confidentiality rules. They are a great place to ask for advice, vent, and feel understood.

You don’t have to do this alone!

Don’t miss out on these resources as well:

Post-Adoption Support
Recommended Books
Mental Health
Trauma
Blogs to Follow
Handouts
Quotes and Shareables

Parents of kids with RAD: 10 Unfortunate truths you must know

Parents of kids who have severe Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) often feel as if they are on the verge of a nervous breakdown. They are afraid – perhaps even terrified – of their children. They literally wonder how they’ll make it through the next day. Some are suicidal. Many are depressed, fearful, and unable to cope. Too many parents, years after their child is grown and gone, deeply regret sacrificing their other children, their marriages, and their mental health and wellbeing. 

I’ve been there.

This is straightforward advice, one parent to another that you’re not going to find anywhere else. It’s specifically for parents of children who are dangerous and violent and does not necessarily apply to children with mild or moderate RAD symptoms.

Let’s strip away the platitudes and talk about surviving. Here’s my unfiltered, pragmatic RAD-parent-to-RAD-parent advice: 

1. If your child has been diagnosed with RAD and is exhibiting extreme behaviors that you can’t safely deal with on your own, get your child into treatment as soon as possible.

Do whatever it takes. Go to the mental health ER every single time your child’s behavior is dangerous to himself and others – even if it’s every week or every other day. Your insurance company will be most likely to fund the treatment your child needs if they understand the gravity of the situation. When they are made aware of your child’s needs by regular ER visits made when your child needs intervention, they will be more likely to approve the needed treatment. 

2. If your child is violent towards you (Child on Parent Violence – CPV), you may need to press criminal charges.

Child-on-Parent Violence is quite common in homes where a child suffers from RAD. Yes, the justice system is unlikely to do them any good. But it may be the only option to keep you safe. Don’t put your safety in jeopardy by waiting too long.

3. Don’t beat yourself up for not having natural affection towards your child.

You have been the victim of trauma akin to domestic violence and no one believes a victim should naturally feel affection toward her abuser. It’s hard for us to think of children – even young grade school aged children – in these harsh terms, but it’s the reality. 

4. Be prepared for false allegations.

CPS will take seriously even the most absurd claims – despite witnesses and video footage – and you absolutely can lose ALL your children during these investigations. If the allegations are substantiated you can lose your children forever.  If your child has started making false allegations against you, consider this a huge warning – act fast to get help. 

5. Enjoy your summer break and let siblings enjoy it too.

If that means setting your child with RAD up with a TV and game system, do it. What good are parenting ideals if you sacrifice siblings to reach them? Someday you’ll look back on these years and be amazed at how you managed day to day. Be pragmatic and don’t lose yourself in a losing battle.

6. Your children are being exposed to domestic violence.

Exposure to hours of screaming, explosive rages, and physical attacks is harmful to siblings. They are being forced to live in a state of hyper-vigilance that can cause anxiety, depression, PTSD, and so much more. It would be considered child abuse or neglect for a mother to allow their children to be exposed to similar behavior spousal domestic abuse. Find a way to protect and provide time to talk with a therapist for siblings – they have rights too, and you have an obligation to them too. 

7. Some children with RAD abuse their siblings. 

They may bully younger siblings or abuse them physically, emotionally, or sexually. This is something you must keep a very close eye on. Remember children with RAD are often extremely manipulative and this can enable them to abuse their siblings right under your nose.

8. Realize that someday you may have to choose between protecting your non-RAD children and keeping your child who is exhibiting extreme, dangerous RAD behaviors at home. 

This may mean putting your child in residential programs that seem to be little more than “holding cells.” It may mean filing criminal charges against them. These are heartbreaking choices no parent should have to make, but they may be coming your way. Start mentally preparing yourself now.

9. If it is necessary for your child to receive help in a residential treatment facility, understand that the experience may aggravate your child’s behavior, possibly making it worse. 

Yes, in residential treatment facilities your child will be exposed to children with worse behaviors, and many of the “treatments” will empower your child to continue with his behaviors. Despite this, these facilities are sometimes the best, the necessary choice when you need to protect the child from himself and to keep siblings safe.

10. Your child’s therapist and treatment team are very likely to turn on you. 

As the parent, you are an easy target for therapists, and much easier to focus on than RAD. Also, providers need to show positive outcomes to continue receiving funding and some will skew the truth to do it. Always remember that this is your child’s team, not yours.

Adapted from: Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD): The Essential Guide for Parents

The Secret Next Door (Child on Parent Violence)

Annie watched in horror as Charlie, red-faced with rage, snatched a picture frame off a wall and slammed it against the bedpost. The glass shattered. He picked up a long shard and brandished it like a dagger. Stalking towards Annie, he growled, “I’m gonna kill you.”

This type of abusive behavior in relationships is far too common. 29% of women and 10% of men in the US will experience domestic violence in their lifetimes. Child protective services investigates more than three million reports of abuse and neglect annually. However, Charlie and Annie’s altercation isn’t included in either of these statistics.

That’s because Charlie is a 13-year-old boy. And Annie is his mother.

What the parents living next door may be hiding

Like Annie, I’m the mother of a son who acts out. Both our boys are products of the foster care system, adopted as toddlers, and who are diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) and Conduct Disorder (CD), serious behavioral disorders. They have both received medication and thousands of hours of treatment, but nothing has helped.

When Annie and I tell friends, family, and mental health professionals about our sons’ behaviors, we are met with disdain and disbelief. In the same way many sex abuse victims are treated, parents like us are blamed and shamed into silence. We have been forced underground, into private Facebook groups where we find non-judgemental support from thousands of other parents in similar situations.

Four years ago, Lillyth Quillan founded the online parent support group, Parents of Children with Conduct Disorder. She says, “More than 1,000 families have come together to share their stories; to know they are not alone. They are emotionally raw and shredded to the marrow at how they’ve been treated and not believed by close friends and family.”

How many families this affects

The general public assumes these situations, where children are violent towards their parents, are isolated to a handful of sensationalized episodes of Dr. Phil.

This is simply not the case.

While the anecdotal evidence of children with serious disorders abusing their parents is abundant, quantitative data is desperately lacking. This is why I recently surveyed more than 200 parents of children diagnosed with, among other behavioral disorders, RAD and CD. This type of informal survey is an invaluable way to begin to understand the scope of the problem.

According to my survey, Are You In An Abusive Relationship? more than 90% of the respondents are in chronically abusive relationships – and the abuser is their child.

  • 93% say their child threatens them, other family members, or pets with physical violence.
  • 65% say their child grabs, hits, kicks, or otherwise physically assaults them.
  • 71% say their child hides their behavior from others and blames them for their outbursts.

These aren’t merely numbers; each one is a tragic story. Here are just a few of the examples shared anonymously by survey respondents:

“My son purposely hurts the cat to get my attention.”
“My daughter attacked me with a steak knife.”
“My son choked me and broke my wrist.”

Anonymous parents

These findings show that it is alarmingly common for children with serious behavioral disorders to abuse their parents.

When children abuse their parents

Intentional Child to Parent Violence (I-CPV) is deliberate, harmful behavior by a child to cause a parent physical or psychological distress. These are purposeful behaviors intended to gain control over, and instill fear in, parents. I-CPV takes many different forms and varies in severity. It is often chronic and usually directed at the child’s mother figure. [1]

One surveyed mom has a moon-shaped scar on her forehead from her 14-year-old daughter grabbing her by her hair and slamming her face onto the stove. Another mom says her son tried to push her down the stairs and makes homicidal threats towards her.

Parents like these sustain physical injuries and may develop mental health disorders including PTSD. They are isolated from friends and family. Their marriages can become irreparably damaged. They frequently lose jobs and friends. Other children in the home suffer secondary, if not primary trauma.

Without highly specialized treatment, the child perpetrating the abuse will not get better. Far too often, it becomes necessary to have them institutionalized, or end up incarcerated, for the safety of their siblings, parents, and themselves.

Hypervigilance – and fear – are common for parents in these situations. One mom describes how, “Before my son was taken to the hospital, then jail, and then a treatment center, I had to sleep with my door locked and a chair jammed under the knob because he knows how to pick locks.” She suffers with PTSD after years of chronic abuse.

Why children abuse their parents

While there is no one clear “cause” leading to antisocial behaviors like I-CPV, there are a number of underlying factors to consider. Perhaps the most significant is “developmental trauma,” a term coined by leading expert, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, MD. When a child is chronically neglected or abused at a young age, their brain development may be impacted, causing long-term issues sometimes including physical aggression. This is called Developmental Trauma Disorder (DTD) and is commonly diagnosed as CD or RAD.

While developmental trauma can explain much of RAD, not all children who are violent towards their parents have a trauma background. Some children from nurturing families are diagnosed with CD. Psychologist Stanton E. Samenow, PhD specializes in working with juvenile offenders and says early identification of emerging antisocial behaviors is key. He points to a study that found “aggression at age 8 is the best predictor of aggression at age 19, irrespective of IQ, social class or parents’ aggressiveness.” [2] He believes, regardless of environment and parenting, children become antisocial by choosing the bad behaviors that eventually become an entrenched pattern.

As a parent, I don’t believe these are mutually exclusive views and find both to be informative. My son has a history of developmental trauma. As a result he struggles with impulsivity, attachment, and cause-and-effect thinking. At the same time, his behavior is not involuntary. He is making a choice when he acts aggressively and knows right from wrong.

Why families can’t get help

Even once parents understand the complexity and seriousness of the abuse taking place, there is nowhere to turn for help. Unfortunately, the systems designed to protect victims of other types of abuse don’t have a mandate to protect the victims of I-CPV.

Most domestic violence shelters are for intimate partners, and, for example, offer no help to a mother whose son or daughter beats her. Advice commonly given to victims of domestic violence simply doesn’t work. Take for example the following from the online article, “What to Do if You Are in an Abusive Relationship“:

1. Talk with someone you trust
Parents are rarely believed by friends, family, teachers, and mental health professionals. Instead, they’re blamed for their child’s misbehavior and labeled bad parents. One mom says, “My son can be incredibly sweet and charming when he wants to be. My friends, his teachers – my own mother – don’t believe my 9-year-old son is dangerous because he’s so good at hiding his behavior.”

2. Call the police if you are in immediate danger
Parents receive little assistance from police, especially if their child is under the age of 16. They also hesitate to press charges knowing incarceration is not the “treatment” their child needs. One mother called 911 after her son beat her. The officer said to her son, “It’s okay, Buddy, you’re not in trouble. Let’s talk.” The next time her son beat her, she ended up in urgent care.

3. Make a plan to go to a safe place such as a shelter
Despite their child’s abusive behaviors, parents are still legally and morally responsible for them. Even if parents want to seek safety, their hands are tied. “If I were treated this way by a man,” says one mother, “I would have left long ago. But because this is my daughter, my options are limited.”

Unfortunately there are no good solutions for these parents, and no quick and easy cures for their children. Few therapists and mental health professionals are equipped to offer the highly specialized treatment needed. While there are promising advances in neuroscience, emerging treatments are not accessible for most families. They’re expensive, rarely covered by health insurance, and unavailable in most areas.

Out of all the families she’s worked with, Quillian says only one family has ever received appropriate treatment. “One. One family experiencing what I believe to be the absolute bare minimum of care. One.”

What needs to change

I-CPV isn’t merely talk-show fodder. It’s happening behind closed doors in your neighborhood. It’s happening in Annie’s home. It’s happening in mine.

Intentional Child on Parent Violence (I-CPV) isn't merely talk-show fodder. It's happening behind closed doors in your neighborhood. These parents need support and viable treatment options for their kids. Click To Tweet

While the US lags behind, there appears to be growing awareness of I-CPV in the UK where a new domestic abuse bill includes I-CPV. US citizens can support these families by asking their legislators to draft similar legislation which would not only provide legal remedies, but more importantly, facilitate funding for research, prevention and treatment.

We need viable treatment options for our children, as well as resources to combat the violence and destruction we face in our daily lives,. We need help and the support of our communities. That begins with a national dialogue about I-CPV and viable treatment options for serious behavioral disorders.

Parents deserve the same support and understanding that all victims of abuse deserve. Until then, they will suffer physical and psychological harm while their child faces a lifetime of relational, educational, financial, and legal struggles.

You’re angry…I totally get it

Our homes are in utter disarray: broken toys and torn books, holes in the walls, heirlooms at the bottom of the trash can. We’re spit on, yelled at, hit, kicked, and sometimes worse. We endure hours of screaming and mayhem Every. Single. Day. We beg for help, but get criticized instead. We deal with crazy lying, poop smearing, and food hoarding. At night we sob into our pillow feeling as though we can’t bear another day. We are demoralized, frustrated, beaten down – and yes, we are angry.

People looking in from the outside have unrealistic expectations of parents who are struggling to raise kids who have developmental trauma. They seem to believe we should have an infinite well of patience, kindness, and energy. But that’s simply not reasonable or realistic. When our children flip out, they’re not the only ones who go into fight-flight-freeze mode. We do too. It’s a natural response to being physically and psychologically attacked. 

Of course, this may not happen to most parents, but that’s because their children have tantrums not rages. Picture the most calm, serene mother you know from church, the playground, or your child’s school. Know this – she too is only human. If she was struggling with what you are, she also would be on the very edge of sanity. Eventually she also would become angry too. It’s only normal.

As a fellow parent of a child diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), I completely understand your anger. However, after years of healing, I also have the benefit of hindsight. And here’s what I’ve learned: While anger is a natural response, it doesn’t serve you or your child well. And here’s why…

Your child feeds off your anger

Your child is likely unconsciously acting out of early hurts. They may have spent their formative years perpetual fight-flight-freeze mode and, as a result, thrive on the adrenaline rush of chaos. They crave control over a world they unconsciously perceive as unsafe and unpredictable. Knowing they can push your buttons gives them reassurance of their power. When anger rolls off you in waves, it bolsters the waves their anger has been building. Feeding off one another you can end up with a tsunami. 

It’s counterproductive with teachers, therapists, and others

It can be easy to let our anger fly at teachers, therapist, other parents – all the people who don’t understand and, as a result, make things worse. While this can be momentarily cathartic and feel well deserved, it ultimately does not serve us well. This is just the excuse these people need to label us as unreasonable and out of control. It also reinforces the perception that our child is merely the victim of bad parenting. Ultimately, angry outbursts undermine our credibility and it can be almost impossible to turn back that tide. 

It’s unhealthy for you

Prolonged anger can be deeply harmful to your psychological, spiritual, and physical health. Your blood pressure spikes, you over eat and can’t sleep properly. You may develop chronic health conditions or mental health problems. Anger can cause you to accidentally rear-end another car. You lose your ability to be rational. When you are already carrying such a heavy load, these health issues can be catastrophic and have long-term and lasting effects.

How to stop being angry

It’s not easy and there are no quick fixes. After all, you are living in a highly stressful environment with extreme challenges and relentless demands on you. This is why you must look for realistic ways to begin to reign in your emotions and feel good about small wins.

Here are some ways to begin: 

  • Recognize your triggers and avoid them. Just like our children, we have our triggers and we can cope by avoiding or minimizing them. For example, maybe you’re triggered more easily when you’re hot, tired, and running late. Keep a snack in your purse and simplify your calendar as much as you can. If it sets you on edge when your child slams their bedroom door, install a slow-close hinge or strategically pad the door frame.
  • Build your resilience. If you’ve been at this a while, you know it’s unlikely you’ll be able to change your child’s behavior – especially in the short term. What you can do is build your own resilience so you can tolerate more. For example, if your air conditioner is constantly breaking that extra heat may be stoking the fire within you. Repairing your air conditioner can be a pragmatic way to make it easier to cope. 
  • Understand why your child acts the way they do. You can build greater empathy and patience by learning about developmental trauma and reactive attachment disorder. By understanding why your child behaves the way they do, you can often blunt your anger with compassion and you’re better equipped to grab for your therapeutic parenting tool box
  • Seek treatment for your own mental health. It’s common for parents of children with extreme behaviors to develop PTSD. Find a therapist who can help you through this difficult time, even using tele-conferencing if that’s a way to squeeze it in. Also, consider asking your primary care doctor about options for anxiety and depression medications to help take the edge off. 
  • Take care of yourself. Easier said than done right? Girls night out, date nights, and Zumba classes may be completely out of reach.However, you can use aroma therapy, DVR your favorite shows, and fill your social media feeds with encouragement. My favorite self-care is a chair massage at the mall (20 min, no appt necessary) and a non-fat Starbucks latte pre-ordered on my app and picked up through the drive through.
  • Consider residential treatment for your child. It’s an unfortunate reality, but for some families a residential treatment facility (RTF) may be the best option. Consider RTF if your child is unsafe towards themselves or other children in the home. Remember, if you are at your breaking point, you are no longer able to effectively parent and RTF may give you some breathing space to recharge and heal. 

None of these suggestions are quick fixes or silver bullets. What they are is a way forward. This isn’t something you are going to resolve overnight. When trying to get your emotions, and especially anger, back under control it’s important to realize even small incremental improvements are a huge win. Do it for your family. Do it for yourself. 


How to Start a Local Support Group

Parenting a child with developmental trauma and Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) is extremely isolating and difficult. As parents, we simply don’t fit into the typical parenting support groups. We need our own “extreme parenting” support groups which are hard to find. Finding community and support are key to our own mental wellness and providing the best care we can to our children.

If you’re considering starting your own local group, here are some tips to help you get started.

Keep it simple

  • Create a “come as you are” atmosphere with no strings or commitments. Some parents may only come once or may not be able to attend regularly. Make sure people know it’s okay to show up in their sweats, for just an hour, or only once every few months. This is the flexibility acceptance parents desperately need.
  • Don’t overcommit yourself as the leader. Start with scheduling single events or a monthly meetings rather than weekly meetings. Most parents of kids with trauma simply won’t have time to attend more frequently and as a leader it’s important to not overcommit.

Make it comfortable

  • Select a meeting place where people will feel comfortable to share. While meeting in a coffee shop can be convenient, remember how sensitive your discussions will be. Try to meet in a home, a church conference room, or private room at a local coffee shop.
  • Limit attendees to parents only. Having social workers, therapists and other professionals changes the tone and will make parents hesitant to share transparently.
  • Set ground rules ahead of time and repeat them at every meeting. Two important ones to include are:
    • Confidentiality – What’s shared in the meeting, stays in the meeting
    • Judgement-free – Parents need to be able to share their anger, frustration, sadness, and guilt without being judged.
    • Limited advice – It’s great to provide each other with ideas and resources, but the focus of your group should be to provide encouragement and a place to be heard.

Pick a format that works

Owl timer from Amazon
  • Organic Sharing. Parents are desperate to be heard and know they aren’t alone. A wonderful way to do this is to allow people to share their stories and updates on their lives. If you choose this format here are a few things to consider.
    • Make sure everyone has a chance to share. You can do this without seeming insensitive by using a fun timer – perhaps a 5 minutes – for each person.
    • Consider a talking stick for discussions to prevent interruptions and rabbit trails.
  • Book studies. Picking a practical book to read and discuss can be an excellent way to facilitate a support group meeting. Here are a few to consider:
  • Expert presentations, videos, local events, etc…. There are all sorts of possibilities, so be creative and engage your attendees for ideas.

Find parents to invite

If you’re just getting started you may not know other parents to invite. Rest assured, there are many parents in the same position as you are – and most also feel completely alone. Here’s some ways to connect:

  • Join online support groups and write a post asking who else is in your city. The two groups I like to recommend and am most active in are Attach Families Support Group and The Underground World of RAD
  • Provide information about your group to providers you work with: therapists, exceptional children teachers, pediatricians, the agency you foster/adopted through, and others.
  • Attach Families is working to create an international directory of support groups. Here’s a flyer you can reproduce to handout and please be sure to let them know about your group.

Remember, small is good – a turn out of 3-4 parents is a wonderful start. If your group becomes large – regularly more than 10 people – consider breaking into two groups by geography or date/time.

A few thoughts on logistics

  • Use an RSVP system like the free version of SignUp Genius. This can be helpful because it’s easily shared on social media.
  • Start a Facebook Group to communicate with local parents about your group and share information on other local events and resources.
  • Use name tags and provide light snacks and drinks. Be sure to have a couple boxes of tissues on hand.
  • If you are a leader and need advice on handling specific situations please reach out to Attach Families.

I’d love to support you too! If you’d like copies of my book Reactive Attachment Disorder: The Essential Guide for Parents to provide free of charge to members of your support group please contact me.

When you feel like you’re on the verge of a nervous breakdown…

Unless you’ve lived through a child’s relentless screaming, violent outbursts, physical aggression, and extreme manipulation – hour-after-hour, day-after-day – it may be hard to fathom the long term impact on caregivers.

But, the truth is, it can feel like you’re on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Does that seem a bit melodramatic? Before you scoff, consider that hardened terrorists have been “broken” by being subjected to a continuous 24-hour stream of, “I Love You,” by Barney the Purple Dinosaur. Here’s how a US service member explained the impact of this psychological tactic to CNN: “Your brain and body functions start to slide, your train of thought slows down and your will is broken.”(1)

If the onslaught of an innocuous children’s song is enough to break a terrorist, it’s not hard to imagine how parents of children with serious mental illnesses like reactive attachment disorder (RAD) suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) , anxiety, depression, and more. Or to understand how they become angry, afraid, frustrated, and hypervigilant. At some point, their lofty parenting ideals end up crumpled at the bottom of the trashcan along with broken toys, shredded family photos, and burnt meals. They reach their breaking point.

I remember when I reached mine.

My son Devon’s behaviors had been unmanageable and escalating for five years. On that day, he kicked his legs and pumped his arms like a toddler in the throes of a tantrum. Sick to death of the tug-of-war, I surrendered. Or, at least I tried to. I handed him the extra pop tart he was screaming for, but he hurled it away, shrieking as if I’d handed him a coiled snake.

As Devon’s theatrics dialed up, my heart was like the rapid fire of a machine gun. I wanted to hurl him into a wall. Instead, I clawed my fingernails along the sides of my face to vent my anger on myself instead of him.

Fingers shaking, I texted my sister who lived next door: “OMG. I can’t take this. I just want to die.”

I was desperate to stay calm. To maintain control. But a runaway train had slammed into me and I was careening forward. I was frantically pumping the breaks, but there was no stopping.

Perched on the edge of the sofa, I squeezed my eyes shut, just for a moment, rubbing my temples. My eyes flew open as Devon loomed up in front of me.

Spit slapped me across the face.

I lurched up, dry heaving, desperately wiping the stringy mess off with my shirt sleeve

“Stop it! Enough! That’s enough.” My voice was shrill. Screaming. “Just stop it!”

He flung himself backward on the carpet. As I reached for him, he kicked me. 

My sister rushed through the door. Devon’s screams ratcheted up as she pulled me into the bathroom. “You need to take him to the hospital.” She jolted me out of my hysteria.

I held my side, panting. “I can’t. It’s a waste of time.”

“Someone is going to get hurt.. Take him to the hospital. Take him. Now.”

Taking Devon to the hospital that day didn’t result in any meaningful treatment for him, but it was an absolute saving grace. I’m only human. I wish I could handle the relentless pressure and onslaught of raising a child with challenging behaviors. I wish I was superhuman. But I can only take so much. Thankfully, I had my sister to help me that day.

What not to do

The challenges we face every day as parents of children with RAD are real and daunting. Because there are no quick fixes or easy answers, well-intentioned parents sometimes act out of desperation and implement solutions that are dangerous and abusive:

    • Bed “forts” or other types of cages to keep a child contained in their bed.

    • Doors that lock from the outside keeping a child in their bedroom.

    • Sealed windows to prevent a child from climbing onto the roof or running away.

    • Surveillance cameras capturing footage of a child in compromising positions.

    • Supervising an older child while they dress, shower, or use the toilet to prevent them from engaging in unhealthy behaviors.

  • Restraining a child with straps, cuffs, etc to prevent them from causing property destruction or acting out with physical aggression.

It is understandable that parents are tempted to turn to these as last resort strategies, but it’s imperative to remember the ends don’t justify the means. These “solutions” are fire hazards, violate your child’s privacy, are unsafe, and likely illegal in your state.

But let’s get real…

For parents, this can be a no-win situation.

For example,

If your child climbs on the roof they could fall off and seriously hurt themselves.

If you don’t prevent your child from climbing onto the roof, you may be considered negligent.

If you secure their door and windows, you may be considered negligent.

This is our reality: Our kids need to stay in their bedrooms at night. Unrestrained, our kids harm others in the family and create thousands of dollars in property damage. Our kids engage in self-harm, take drugs, and more when they are unmonitored. These behaviors are also unsafe, illegal, and dangerous.

Still, the “solutions” listed above are not viable options. We must find other ways to respond.

What to do

If you feel your child’s next violent outburst may take you over the edge, as though you’re about to snap, here are “last resort” options that you may need to consider:

    1. Camp out at your local mental health emergency room.

    1. Have local crisis emergency services on speed dial.

    1. Explore residential treatment options.

  1. Involve juvenile justice.

Hopefully, you won’t have to take these steps. But, unfortunately, there aren’t perfect, or even good, solutions to this tragic issue. Sometimes this is what it takes to keep your family safe.

Here are some practical steps you can take to keep things from escalating to the point where you have to take such drastic steps.

    • Persist in finding treatment. While it is very difficult to find effective treatment for RAD we must remain vigilant in our search. As our children grow older, their behaviors typically become increasingly unmanageable. Getting therapy and treatment early is key.

    • Take care of yourself. This may seem completely out of reach, but start small with our self-care list for frazzled parents who don’t have a moment to spare.

    • Get professional help for yourself. Talk with your doctor about treatments for anxiety, depression, and other areas where you are struggling. Seeing a therapist can be worked into even a packed schedule with the growing number of therapists offering online sessions.

    • Have an emergency support person. It is critical that you have a person you can count on when you can no longer cope. Alternatively, you may need to rely on local crisis services in your community.

    • Be self-aware. Take notice of a rapid heartbeat, unnatural thoughts, feelings of hopelessness or excessive anger. Do not ignore these warning signs and get help right away.

  • Find support. Family and friends are often unaware of the struggles we face. Here’s a letter that may be helpful in educating them. Also, online Facebook support groups like The Underground World of RAD are convenient ways to connect with others across the country for support.

There are no good solutions for families in these predicaments. You’ll likely be forced to choose the best of several bad options. Take the proactive steps outlined above, never resort to dangerous strategies, and be persistent in demanding the care your child needs. Your child’s well-being, your mental health, and your family’s security depends on it.


Footnote:
Burnett, Erin. “Barney Song Used as Torture?” CNN, Cable News Network, 31 May 2012, outfront.blogs.cnn.com/2012/05/31/barney-song-used-as-torture/.

Image credit: https://www.buzzfeed.com/leonoraepstein/this-is-the-guy-who-played-barney-for-most-of-your-childhood?utm_term=.yy1KrEP9gP#.femK6B9Oo9

Parenting a challenging child? Here’s how to increase your resilience

Do you ever roll out of bed already over it? At your limit before the day starts? Knowing you can’t take even one more surly look, one more rude comment, one more call from school, one more violent outburst? I’ve been there too.

As parents of children with reactive attachment disorder (RAD), life can be so stressful it feels impossible to face another day. When we near our tipping point, our instinct is to imagine that finding a way to “fix” our child will immediately relieve the stress we are experiencing. In reality, as necessary as it is, getting help for our child often adds more stress to our lives because it comes with therapy appointments, challenging therapeutic parenting approaches, and disputes with insurance companies. Effective treatment for kids with RAD is a daunting, long-term proposition.

Raising, finding help for, and advocating for a child with RAD is difficult. It’s stressful. Parents get PTSD, become depressed, and struggle with other mental health issues. They lose friends and family, and turn into someone they feel they don’t even know. This is why we need to find ways to increase our resilience by effectively addressing the stress in our lives.

Al Coates MBE, adoptive parent and advocate, is flipping the paradigm by focusing on practical ways we as parents can increase our resilience – our ability to take whatever’s thrown our way, figuratively or literally. With his background in social work, Al has tweaked the Stress – Vulnerability Model (1) specifically for parents who are raising challenging kids.

To understand the Stress – Vulnerability Model let’s start by imagining a bucket. Inside the bucket are your stressors – each one like a cup of water that’s filling your bucket up. For now we’ll set aside the stress specifically related to parenting a child of RAD. Instead, let’s focus on the stressors that are with you before you even start your day.

    • Money – are you scraping by and just making ends meet, worried about retirement, or struggling to pay the mortgage?

    • Career – are you in a job that’s unfulfilling, or perhaps under a great deal of stress with deadlines and frustrated customers?

    • Relationships – is your relationship with your spouse strained or do you have a toxic friend or family member in your life?

    • Other children – do you have a special needs child who requires extra help, or a high school football player that needs to get to practice on time five days a week?

    • Everyday nuisances – how about that neighbor’s dog that barks like crazy, or an air-conditioner that’s on the fritz too often leaving you hot and sweaty?

    • Social history – do you have a personal history of neglect or abuse, something that can be easily triggered?

    • Medical – are you the kind of person he needs eight hours sleep or someone who has debilitating migraines?

If we think of each of these stressors as a cup of water, it’s easy to see how we can wake up with our bucket almost full. If your bucket is already filled to a quarter of an inch from the top, you simply don’t have room for a temper tantrum, a broken window, or a screaming child. That’s how we reach our tipping point. What sloshes out – over the side of our bucket – is anger, frustration, tears, and more.

If your bucket is already filled to a quarter of an inch from the top, you simply don’t have room for a temper tantrum, a broken window, or a screaming child. Click To Tweet

Now imagine waking up with your bucket only half full. You’d have a whole lot more to give your kids in terms of time, energy, and patience. You’d be a more resilient parent, able to weather the storms that come your way.

So how can we begin to reduce our normal stress?

    1. Create a personal list of stressors and solutions. Using the list above as a starting point, write down the stressors in your life and possible solutions. For example, one of my stressors is a propensity for migraines. A solution would be to set a cell phone alarm so I remember to take my preventative medications.

    2. Go for the low hanging fruit first. Start by picking off the stressors that are easy to address. For me, that might mean asking a teammate to give my son a ride home from football practice. Look for quick and easy ways to take a scoop of stress out of your bucket.

    3. Set some longer-term goals. Other changes may be more difficult to make such as  changing jobs or affording a new air conditioner (although a rotating fan or two might be a short-term solution). Don’t stress yourself out trying to de-stress by taking on too much at one time. Pick one goal at a time to focus on.

As you work through this, remember change takes time. But, every drop of stress relief is one less drop in your bucket. Even small changes can begin to make a difference.

It’s also important to recognize that not all our buckets are the same size. Some of us have short buckets – stress is very difficult for us to handle. Others have tall buckets – they can tolerate higher levels of stress. Another way to build your resilience is to increase your stress tolerance. Here are just a few strategies to get you started.

    • Get your endorphins pumping even if the only exercise you can fit in is power walking around the field during your kids’ soccer practice.

    • Take care of yourself. It’s not as impossible as you might think. Check out our self-care list for exhausted, frazzled, frustrated parents without a minute or ounce of energy to spare.

Raising children with challenging behaviors can feel overwhelming. To be successful, we as parents, must be resilient enough to handle the inevitable stress that comes our way. Take the time to consider what stressors are in your life and ways you can lower the water in your bucket.

(1) Stress Vulnerability Model –  from Zubin & Spring (1977) Brabban & Turkington (2002).

Originally published by Institute for Attachment & Child Development

You need a safety plan

If you’re raising a child with RAD you almost certainly need a safety plan.

Our children’s dangerous behaviors can include suicidal ideation, self- harming, violent outbursts, serious property damage, and physical aggression towards others (especially siblings).

This is shared from a blog post by Renae and Jason who are grappling with their daughter’s violent episodes.

This story could be mine, and probably yours too:

It was a Monday when everything came to a head.  Sunshine couldn’t be reasoned with.  She was not functioning.  What would normally be a calm exchange of words turned violent.  Sunshine started to throw any items she could get her hands on.  She even threw a dining room chair, almost breaking a window.  And then she verbally threatened to kill me with a knife.

That’s when I knew, my dear sweet Sunshine was horribly manic.  She had become a danger to herself and to others.  The medicine had been working more than we knew.  We were in trouble.  I had to initiate our safety plan.

They also share these important steps of their safety plan:

1. Immediately remove others from harm’s way
2. Stop the child from endangering herself or others
3. Call and report
4. Lower expectations
5. Follow through with recommendations made by doctors and specialists

Renae and Jason say their daughter “had become a danger to herself and others.” If you reach this point, it’s always time to get help. Also, be sure to tell mental health professionals this – “My child is a danger to themselves and others” are ‘magic words’ that will help you get your child the acute care they need. (See my post on why I use the word “rage” and not “tantrum” for the same reason.

'My child is a danger to themselves and others' are 'magic words' that will help you get your child the acute care they need. Click To Tweet

Read more details on Renae and Jason’s safety plan in the full post here: A Safety Plan for Mental Health Emergencies 

What steps do you take to keep your family safe in a crisis?

How parents of kids with RAD get PTSD

“It’s unreasonable to force a parent to bond with a child whose behaviors have led to his or her PTSD,” said Institute for Attachment and Child Development Executive Director Forrest Lien. “The whole family needs healing in order to foster parent-child attachments.”

Published by the Institute for Attachment and Child Development.

15 Practical Self-Care Ideas for Parents

via Blog – Institute For Attachment and Child Development

A self-care list for the exhausted, frazzled, frustrated parents without a minute or ounce of energy to spare.

Buy little indulgences that help calm you. Nestle scented candles strategically throughout your home to provide scents for instant relaxation and calm. Pamper yourself with essential oils to make the most of your shower (perhaps one of the few moments of privacy you get).

Use simple tricks to feel better physically. Splurge on a really great refillable water bottle and stay hydrated to improve your overall energy and health. Stock up on grab-and-go healthy snacks (but don’t beat yourself up when you grab for a high-carb, high-satisfaction treat during a rough patch).

Look for support in the nooks and crannies of life (that can be so difficult to find from friends and family). Fill up your social media feeds with encouragement at your fingertips by following pages, people, and accounts that post motivational quotes and memes. Please, use the comments to share your favorites to follow.

Find creative ways to make up for enjoyable activities you don’t have time for anymore. Don’t miss your favorite shows. Consider DVR to enjoy them when you can sneak a few moments to yourself.

Seek the small feel-good moments in life. Open your curtains and let natural light nurture your mood and improve your concentration. Get your endorphins pumping by walking laps while your child is occupied in baseball, soccer, or football practice.

Make those few hours of sleep you get as rejuvenating as possible. Purchase a pillow that provides good support. Check out a Weighted Stress Blanket or neck wrap. (I sleep so much better with mine).

Don’t sacrifice your daily coffee even on the most chaotic of mornings. Use the app for your local coffee shop to order ahead and skip the line. (I use both Dunkin Donuts’ and Starbucks’ online apps to order ahead and earn rewards.)

Pamper yourself. Get a pedicure or manicure. Just a glimpse of my strawberry pink nails helps me feel good about myself even as I clutch the steering wheel, flip through paperwork, and wipe up messes. Drop in for a 15 minute walk-in chair massage at your local shopping mall for instant relief from tension headaches and tight muscles.

Escape into that guilty pleasure read with an audiobook. I’ve always got at least one audiobook* downloaded onto my phone for those endless hours of chauffeuring kids, sitting in waiting rooms, and idling in carpool.

Hire some help for everyday tasks. Look for a maid service to clean your bathrooms and kitchen every other week. This is a big bang for your buck in terms of getting a little relief. Don’t let lawn work be a time suck when there’s probably an eager teenager in your neighborhood looking for pocket cash.

Just say ‘no’ to extra activities and volunteer work you’re signing up for only out of a sense of obligation. It’s okay to prioritize yourself right now.

Ask for help that’s actually helpful when friends and family offer. Suggestions include, “Would you bring by a meal on Tuesday? Could you drop my daughter off at piano lessons this afternoon? When you swing by would you bring a gallon of milk?”

Surround yourself with people who support the incredibly challenging work you’re doing and limit time with naysayers. Don’t seek advice or support from people, even family members, who don’t ‘get’ the very real challenges you’re facing.

Join a support group. Online support groups can be a great way to feel less alone and get practical suggestions for busy parents. A favorite of mine is the private Facebook group The Underground World of RAD.

Be your own greatest fan. Be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself. Remind yourself of all the things you do well. Give yourself a generous ‘A’ for effort for those things you don’t do so well.

When a mom struggles to love her child

Originally published by the Institute for Child Development.

Carol was bitter and angry—on edge. Shortly after we met through a mutual friend, she told me about her three adopted sons. She adored her youngest son. The older two were regularly suspended from elementary school, lied incessantly, and threw screaming fits daily. They teased and bullied her 10-year-old daughter.

Her husband Ted listened to us and nodded patronizingly, as if Carol was exaggerating or over-sensitive. He sighed and said that he had told her how to fix the issues but she wouldn’t listen to him. Like my son, Carol’s boys were good in front of their dad. And, like my husband, Ted just didn’t get it.

I know Carol’s desperation well because I lived it myself for years. I told Carol and Ted about adopting siblings Devon and Kayla from foster care. Devon’s behaviors had grown so extreme and dangerous he was now living in a residential treatment facility. He was ten. “I’ll do whatever it takes to keep him there,” I told them. That’s how bad life had been with Devon at home.

I confessed that, although I feel a strong sense of responsibility for Devon, I don’t love him.

Carol burst into tears. I struggled to make out her words through her gasping and sobbing. She said that she didn’t love her two boys and she’d never been able to say it out loud. It was a dark secret she kept, afraid of what others would think.

I’d kept the very same secret as Carol for years, smothered beneath a plastered smile. Love came surely and steadily with Kayla. But it never did with Devon. I was sure something was wrong with me and was driven nearly mad in my quest to love him. I struggled to bond with this little boy who spit in my face, kicked and hit me, threw objects at me, destroyed my home, dismantled my marriage, and tormented my other children.

People understand why a woman wouldn’t love an abusive husband or partner. But this is a child.

We don’t like to admit that even a young child can perpetrate domestic violence. In fact, well-meaning family, friends, and professionals insist that all these children need is love from a “forever family.” With these platitudes condemning us, adoptive mothers struggle to find help.

Carol and I kept what was happening in our homes a secret. Here’s why—

  • We didn’t realize we were being abused. We refused to believe it’s happening because child on parent violence is taboo in our society.
  • We felt responsible. We believed our children would behave differently if only we could be better mothers.
  • We believed things can change. We kept trying to fix it, holding onto hope that we can keep our adoption dreams alive.
  • We feared how others would react. We worried about letting down family and friends who have supported our foster care or international orphan adoptions.

It took years to get help for myself and Devon. Eventually, I learned he had gone through early childhood trauma and he was diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder (RAD). While not all children with RAD are violent, some can be.

In my own therapy, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the relentless stress of raising a child with RAD.

I came to understand that my emotions of anger, frustration, exhaustion, and bitterness were normal. My therapist helped me see that feeling love for a person abusing me–even a child–was not natural, normal, or healthy. It’s unfair to expect adoptive mothers to love children with these extreme behaviors and issues. Faking-it-until-you-make it in front of friends, family, and professionals is not the answer. “It’s unreasonable to force a parent to bond with a child whose behaviors have led to his or her PTSD,” said Institute for Attachment and Child Development Executive Director Forrest Lien. “The whole family needs healing in order to foster parent-child attachments.” These mothers need compassion, understanding, and support rather than shame and guilt.

The whole family needs healing in order to foster parent-child attachments. These mothers need compassion, understanding, and support rather than shame and guilt. Click To Tweet

With the proper support and therapy there is hope for healing. There are treatments for kids with RAD that can help them learn to have healthy relationships. Their adoptive families can come to embrace and genuinely care for them. Keeping our uncomfortable, but true, feelings a secret makes it harder, if not impossible, to get the help we need.

For the sake of Carol, and countless other moms who have been shamed into the shadows, I choose to be a silence breaker. I’m not proud that I don’t love my son in that emotional way, but I’m no longer ashamed.