For years I pulled out my hair not understanding why my parenting strategy was working with my birth and other adopted children, but not with my son, Devon. NOTHING worked. Learning that traditional parenting methods don’t work with kids who have a trauma background was a milestone for us, something I wish I’d know much earlier than I did. How to work with these kids is counter intuitive. Check out this great post by adoptive parent Mike Berry
After my son was placed in a psychiatric residential treatment facility (PRTF) I went to therapy. Something was wrong with me and I needed to fix myself before my son returned home. He was 10 and had been terrorizing our family with his violent and out of control behaviors for several years.
I was diagnosed with PTSD, but I brushed it off. How could dealing with a young child cause PTSD? Looking back I now believe I had in fact developed PTSD and it took years for me to heal.
Here are a few symptoms I experienced: hyper-vigilance, social isolation, agitation, paralyzing fear/dread, and heightened reactions
via [INFOGRAPHIC] How parents of kids with reactive attachment disorder get post-traumatic stress disorder – Institute For Attachment and Child Development
Here’s my op-ed on the Parkland shooting printed by the Sun-Sentinel (Feb 2018)
When my son, Devon, was nine he pushed his four-year-old brother down the stairs. It was one big shove that launched Brandon through the air and left him sprawled on the tile floor below. At 10, he punched his teacher and several classmates. At 11, he attacked a woman and dislocated her thumb.
Told a man had fresh dental work, Devon (for the purposes of this oped, I’ll call him Devon) promptly slugged him in the jaw. He was 12. At 13, he punched a young girl in the back of the head, unprovoked, and used his pencil to stab classmates. He still does. At 14, he grabbed a woman’s breasts and genitals threatening to rape her; using a jagged piece of plastic he stabbed a man in the cornea. At 15, he bit a man, breaking the skin and drawing blood; he did $3000 worth of property damage in mere minutes.
Devon, now 16, has verbalized detailed plans to torch the group home he lives in. He routinely threatens to kill himself, me, his siblings, his teachers, and other students.
Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland high school shooter, is a troubled kid, too. While I don’t presume to know Nikolas’ history or diagnoses, Devon and Nikolas are both teenagers, adopted males with behavioral and mental health issues. I adopted Devon from foster care in Broward County when he was four. Like Nikolas, his disturbing record of deviant behavior telegraphs worse to come.
The media is calling the Parkland massacre “preventable” and pointing to missed warning signs. But, I’ve heeded the warning signs. Devon’s received comprehensive mental health services for years. Running the gamut — outpatient therapy, day treatment, therapeutic foster care, group homes, psychiatric residential facilities, mental health hospitalizations — he’s received thousands of hours of therapy. He’s been dealt diagnoses like a hand of Go Fish and is on a cocktail of anti-psychotic drugs.
All these mental health services, like water and sunshine, have unwittingly nurtured Devon’s proclivity for violence. He’s only gotten bigger, stronger, smarter, and more dangerous. I fear he could be the next teen paraded across the headlines in handcuffs.
When Republicans call for greater access to mental health services as a remedy to school shootings, they fail to recognize the mental health system has no meaningful solutions for violent kids like Devon and Nikolas.
Take a walk. Talk to staff. Hug your pillow. These are the coping skills therapists give angry teens to reel in their extreme emotions. The absurdity comes into focus when a teen like Nikolas opens fire on hundreds of innocent victims, taking 17 lives. Would tragedy have been averted if Nikolas knew to pull off his gas mask and take some deep breaths? To put down his AR-15 and hug his pillow?
Psychiatric treatment facilities are virtual incubators for violent kids. They focus on underlying mental health issues promising the negative behaviors will diminish. In these programs, Devon has no consequences for truancy, vandalism, criminal threats, and assault. Not even a time-out. Protected from criminal charges, he’s become desensitized to his own violence and indifferent to social boundaries. It’s normalized his violent responses to even the smallest triggers: waiting his turn, a snarky look from a peer, being served breakfast he doesn’t like.
It’s unlikely Nikolas’ trajectory would have changed even if he’d received the years of intensive mental health treatment Devon has. Mental health facilities are little more than holding pens for kids who are too dangerous to live at home.
I’ve tried the system. It doesn’t work.
Funding to offer these same ineffectual services to more would-be-shooters won’t stop tragedies like the Parkland shooting, especially since Trump nixed the Obama-era regulations making it easier, not harder, for mentally ill people to buy guns. I don’t pretend to know the answers, but I do know a bad idea when I see one: giving these kids access to guns. If we’re not going to do something as basic as keeping deadly weapons out of the hands of mentally disturbed teens, what mental health interventions can possibly keep us safe?
Keri Williams, a former resident of Broward County, lives with her family in Charlotte, N.C., and is working on a memoir about raising her adopted son.
What kind of parent calls the police when her kid has a tantrum? Or, even worse, tries to check him into a mental health hospital? Me.
Every time the cops arrived or we got to the hospital, my young son Devon transformed into an angel. I’d explain that he’d been throwing a terrible tantrum. Yet, his serene affect and puppy dog eyes would belie my words. It was hard enough to ask for help but to imagine the eye-rolls behind my back was humiliating. I probably reminded them of the woman who called 911 because McDonald’s had run out of chicken nuggets.I probably reminded them of the woman who called 911 because McDonald’s had run out of chicken nuggets. Click To Tweet
Time and again, I was turned away without the help I so desperately needed because we all know what a “tantrum” looks like—a kid kicking his or her legs, crying and screaming, for maybe 10 or 15 minutes. By calling Devon’s episodes “tantrums” I was unwittingly minimizing what was actually going on and no one was taking me seriously.
These were no tantrums. Devon was:
- Screaming, spitting in my face, and making himself throw up
- Ripping his bedroom door off the hinges, and putting holes in walls
- Punching, kicking, and attacking his brothers and sister
- Pulling out his eyelashes and banking his head on the floor
These episodes of extreme behavior were happening several times a week and would often last for hours. I was in over my head and needed help, but because I was using the word, “tantrum,” people thought I was overreacting.
These weren’t “tantrums,” they were “rages.”
When I began to use the correct terminology to describe Devon’s behavior, health care and mental health professionals, even police officers, were more receptive. “Rage” was a magic word that made people pause, listen to my story, and try to help. Instead of brushing me off, they called in psychiatrists and social workers. They made referrals for local services. They stopped treating me like I was just a high-strung mother.
If your child’s behaviors are extreme, way beyond being a tantrum, your child may be having rages too. “Kids with developmental trauma can tantrum but they can also rage,” said Institute for Attachment and Child Development Executive Director Forrest Lien. “A child has a tantrum to attempt to get his way but it is contained. A rage is out of control and stems from the child’s fear and anger. It’s irrational and almost dissociative.” It can be difficult to tell the difference between a rage and a tantrum, especially when your child’s episodes have increased in severity and length gradually over time.
Here are some distinguishing hallmarks of a rage:
Rages are explosive
Rages feel scary and out of control
Rages last longer than a few minutes
Rages become physically violent and aggressive
Rages may include acts of self-harm
Rages often end in destruction of property or harm to others
These behaviors are not normal for a child of any age. If children acts out in these extreme ways, they need real help. Parents need help, too.
So, how does a parent get help? How do they get someone to understand the seriousness of the situation? They need to adequately describe and use the word “rage” when talking to therapists, pediatricians, and other professionals. The word “tantrum” paints a picture that is nothing like the extreme episodes the child experiences. When they start with, “My child has rages…” and then describe specifically what the episodes look like, how long they last, and how frequently they occur, people seem to listen more closely.
“Rage” is a word that works.
Has this worked for you? Are there other words that “work” you can share?