Monthly Archives: May 2013

Unlearning

Guest post by Denise Beeman Sasiain, foster mother to Summer, 17, who will stay with her foster family as she enters adulthood; Isabella Hope, 3, who they’ve had since birth and adopted last year; Xavier (aka X-man), 2, who they are in the process of adopting; and Daniella Joy, 1, who they’ve also had from birth and recently adopted. 

Denise and Izzie

Denise and Izzie

Yesterday I was driving in late afternoon traffic.  I was behind a slow moving vehicle that unfortunately seemed to be going the exact same place I was headed. After several delays, I said out loud, “You are driving me crazy.” Not a second later, I heard my 3 year old in the seat behind me repeat the same words, mimicking my exact intonation.  I hoped that she’d soon forget those words, but what’s the likelihood of that?

I suddenly felt a huge responsibility to make sure that I teach my children, through my example, a good way to live and to be. I also saw with amazing clarity the tremendous challenges that lie in parenting a foster and/or adopted child, who has had years or even decades to learn and imitate another’s behavior. Let’s face it, much of what they have learned and imitated is not what most would consider appropriate behavior. How a parent responds to rush hour traffic is just one small example. How do we begin to teach characteristics like discipline, integrity, and living a balanced, happy life?

The best way for children to unlearn inappropriate behaviors is for them to see correct ones lived out daily in front of their eyes.  Quality time is awesome, but it doesn’t mean quantity doesn’t matter. Lots of time being together will serve to model good behavior and has much more of an impact than any lecture ever could. Patience and understanding will be our fallback throughout the lengthy process.

As if to seal my thoughts and convictions on this topic, later that evening I heard my teenage daughter say to my son, “You are won … der … ful. I love you soooo much,” using the same intonation and wording that I typically use. With tears in my eyes, I turned away and silently hoped that those words and even the intonation will long outlive me as she says them to her future children and even her grandchildren.

It is crucial to remember as we parent, that our words, our parenting styles, and even our lifestyles can and will be passed down to future generations. Will our influence, and our legacy, be a positive or a negative one?

Making the Multitudes Laugh

This is the first in a series of guest blog posts by Denise Beeman Sasiain about the joys and struggles of being a foster and adoptive mother. She is mother to Summer, 17, who is in foster care and will stay with her foster family as she enters adulthood; Isabella Hope, 3, who they had since birth and adopted last year; Xavier (aka X-man), 2, who they are in the process of adopting; and Daniella Joy, 1, who they also had from birth and recently adopted.

Denise and Daniella

Denise and Daniella

Last week Daniella, our 14 month old, and I went to the dollar store. As she sat in the cart, she waved and smiled at the person waiting behind us in the checkout line.  As each one arrived, she would wave her hand and say her baby version of “hi.” As more and more people arrived, she became more and more animated, engaging them all.

At one point, I heard numerous people laugh and looked back to see her dancing in her seat, grinning from ear to ear. She literally had six or seven people smiling and engaged. Like any mom, I felt so proud of my daughter. I think to myself, “She has the gift to make the multitudes laugh.”

As I thanked the cashier, I turned to the people and thanked them for their patience. One person responded, “No, thank you, she is beautiful.”  As I lifted her out of the cart, a state trooper, who was about third in line, stepped forward and grabbed her hand and said, “What a happy baby.” I encouraged Daniella to wave and say “bye,” and she whole-heartedly cooperated.

As I walked out of the store, planting a big kiss on her forehead, my thoughts centered on how much children want to thrive … they just need to be given the chance.

Daniella didn’t start life out easy.  She was exposed, in utero, to both HIV and syphilis. After months of testing, we were relieved and ecstatic to see that all her blood tests came back negative. During pregnancy, her mom also took both recreational and prescription drugs.  She still has some medical & developmental challenges, but she is progressing daily.  As one of her doctors put it, “she dodged a bullet.”  This child isn’t just surviving, she is thriving!

I don’t think anyone waiting in line at the store would ever believe that the happy, outgoing and deliciously yummy baby in front of them has overcome so many obstacles. But with a joy so contagious that it can energize an entire store, she is conquering it all!

How do I deal with my teen?

Guest post by Jennifer Evans, a licensed mental health counselor at DCF who specializes in child trauma. Have questions for Jennifer? If you think your child is showing signs of needing more help, visit our map of local children’s mental health professional s in your area.

You know teens will be teens, but what exactly does that mean and how can we let them have freedom while keeping them safe? Here are some answers to common questions I’ve heard from parents:

How can help my teen avoid peer pressure?

Teens are biologically driven to want to engage in high risk activities and be around their peers.

Failing grades, not sleeping or eating and engaging in reckless behaviors that could be life threatening are just a few warning signs to look for.

It is important to talk with them, but it can be hard. Although teens are becoming independent, an invisible string should still keep them grounded and able to be pulled back in when needed.  The best way is to have an open dialogue with your teenager.

Establishing expectations with your teen is another key in maintaining a connection in this time where they crave independence and freedom. It should be clear that they will check in and call when plans change. Know WHO they are hanging out with, WHAT they will be doing, WHERE they are going, and WHEN they will be home. Asking  WHY will create defensiveness in your teen and disrupt the whole process, so stick to the other 4 W’s.

Is my teen depressed?

Mood changes, crying, sadness, happiness, joy, excitement, and anger are emotions to be expected from teens on a daily basis. The stresses from hormonal changes, social connections, increasing responsibilities make this a very trying time. Parents should follow up with their child and ask more direct questions if these emotions or behaviors are severe, persistent and lasting longer than two weeks.

If the child mentions feeling hopeless, parents should talk to the child immediately to understand if they feel hopeless like it will never get better or do they feel helpless they can’t change the situation.  If a child mentions anything resembling thoughts of suicide or hopelessness, seek immediate help.

Until now, there may have been little to be concerned about with your child and this could be the first time you have a conversation about your adolescent’s feelings and emotions.  Say things like, “I notice you spending more time alone and not hanging out with your friends like you use to, it can be difficult to understand why we feel the way we do,  I am here to listen.”

How can I protect my teen from bullying?

With social media and technology, teens are never very far away from their social environment.  That means what used to happen for only a few hours during the day can now be expanded to encompass their entire life.  Often there is a lot of shame and embarrassment that goes along with bullying, this helps the bully maintain control and helps perpetuate the victimization.

Staying aware of your child’s social connections is important.  If your child is not showing signs of social support systems with anyone, this should be addressed.

Showing support and keeping a positive social connection for a child being bullied is very important. It can be overwhelming to feel so isolated because adolescence is a time to be joining in peer groups.  Try engaging your teenager in new activities, maybe even away from their surroundings, to let them explore.

If a child mentions they feel like there is no point, gives away things that are important to them, or lacks future orientation – be direct and ask them if they are thinking of harming themselves or others.  This is a scary question to ask, and a scary response to hear, but facing it and providing support prior is an easier feat then after.

Is my teen a wallflower?

Teens are going through a lot of changes.  It is common for teens to be scared, hesitant or even avoid taking on some of their new milestones (going to dances, starting new schools, puberty, dating, etc).  All of these are typical ways teens express themselves as they deal with stress.

When your child begins having ritualistic behaviors (checking, counting, compulsive behaviors), or the anxiety begins to interfere with their daily activities (not going to school, not eating, sleeping, grades are being affected) a professional should be consulted.

For families starting a dialogue with their kids, begin with quick statements to let them know you are aware and responsive to their needs.

Using a universal validating statement related to their personal experience will help the child not feel alone and spark interest for follow up conversation:

“I notice you are acting differently, I know this time in your life can be very difficult and stressful and it can be hard to feel like anyone will understand; I want you to know I will always make time to be here for you if you need,”

“I hear you saying things are stressful right now, it is common to feel overwhelmed or frustrated, talking to someone can sometimes be helpful.”

It is important for the parent to continue to support their willingness to be open while validating their experience as they further engage:

“I can hear how important this is to you, thank you for sharing this with me.”

If you think your child is showing signs of needing more help, visit our map of local children’s mental health professional s in your area. 

Helping Children Cope in a Stressful World

Guest post by Jane B. Streit, Ph.D.

Few children make it through the early years without experiencing a potentially traumatic event. Big things like abuse and the loss of a loved one are horrible things for anyone to live through, but even “smaller” events like taunting from classmates or a Florida hurricane can have lasting effects.

Children are born with varying degrees of resilience.  Research has shown, that even among families, how individual siblings recover from stressful events can be very different. We have also learned that both children and adults can develop resilience by:

  • Maintaining physical health,
  • Engaging in activities that they enjoy and feel competent doing, and
  • Through physical or mental activities that lower stress levels.

Resilient or not, support  from trusted and caring adults is critical to helping children through tough times. Adults who demonstrate and reinforce healthy coping behaviors are great role models. It is important to remember that while children listen to our words, they are also very sensitive to our behavior.

Just as with adults, what works for one child may not work for another.  In addition, don’t hesitate to seek professional help if children are showing signs that they are overwhelmed, and that they are not eating, sleeping or functioning well after an event is long over.

The American Academy of Pediatrics just released a new Trauma Guide that may help parents address their child’s mental health needs. You can also access this map to find a local children’s mental health professional in your area.  We’ve also posted many children’s mental health activities on our Pinterest account – check them out for activity ideas to do with your kids!

Loving a Child Through the Challenges of Life

Reprinted with permission from Rachel Macy Stafford, also known as Hands Free Mama

*Name has been changed

hands free mamaI was two years shy of becoming a mother when I learned my greatest lesson about parenting. This information was not gleaned from a New York Times bestseller, a renowned pediatrician, or an experienced parent. It came from a 10-year-old boy born to a drug-addicted mother, with an Individualized Education Plan thicker than an encyclopedia—a boy with permanent scars along the side of his left arm from a beating with an extension cord when he was three.

Kyle* taught me the one and only thing I really needed to know about loving a child through the challenges of life.

This is my story …

It had been a difficult move. I left my family and friends and the beloved mid-western state where I’d lived most of my life. My new home was thousands of miles away from anything I knew. It was hot—all the time. There were no seasons and teaching jobs were hard to come by. Having seven years experience as a behavior specialist, I was up for a challenge. I would accept any job if it meant I could do what I was born to do—teach.

I accepted a teaching position in a classroom for children with an array of educational diagnoses. They were students with severe learning and behavioral difficulties who’d been shuffled from school to school. So far, no program in the district was able to meet their challenging needs.

The first few months of school were difficult. It was not unusual for me to cry as I made my 45-minute commute to the inner city.  It required a deep breath to even open the classroom door, but I came back every day praying this would be the day—a breakthrough to one broken soul.

On this particular morning, I was excited. The other lead teacher and I had spent weeks teaching the children appropriate behavior for public outings. We would be going putt-putting and out to lunch. Miraculously, most of the children in class earned this privilege—only a few had not. Alternative arrangements were made for those students while we took the field trip.

We had an extensive plan in place to make the departure as smooth as possible. But due to the explosive behavior of many of the students, even the best laid plans could quickly turn sour.

Kyle was one of the students who had not earned the field trip, and he was determined to make that disappointment be known.

In the corridor between classrooms, he began screaming, cursing, spitting, and swinging at anything within striking distance. Once his outburst subsided, he did what he’d done at all his other schools, at home, even once at a juvenile detention center when he was angry—he ran.

The crowd of onlookers that congregated during the spectacle watched in disbelief as Kyle ran straight into the heavy morning traffic in front of the school.

I heard someone shout, “Call the police.”

Based on the information in Kyle’s file, I knew the officers would locate him and place him on a 5150 hold for a psychiatric evaluation.

But I could not just stand there. So I ran after him.

Kyle was at least a foot taller than me. And he was fast. His older brothers were track stars at the nearby high school. But I had worn running shoes for the field trip, and I could run long distances without tiring. I would at least be able to keep in him my sight and know he was alive.

With the agility of a professional athlete, Kyle dodged the moving vehicles in his path. After several blocks of running directly into on-coming traffic, he slowed his pace. Although it was still morning, the tropical sun was bearing down on the black tarmac baking anyone crazy enough to be running full speed on it.

Kyle took a sharp left and began walking through a dilapidated strip mall. Standing next to a trash compactor, he bent over with his hands on his knees. He was heaving to catch his breath. That is when he saw me. I must have looked ridiculous—the front of my lightweight blouse soaked with sweat, my once-styled hair now plastered to the side of my beet-red face.  He stood up abruptly like a frightened animal that thought it was alone suddenly discovering he’d been spotted.

But it was not a look of fear.

I saw his body relax. He did not attempt to run again. Kyle stood and watched me approach. My exhaustion caused me to slow to a walk.

Kyle remained still.

I had no idea what I was going to say or what I was going to do, but I kept walking closer.

We locked eyes, and I willed every ounce of compassion and understanding in my heart toward his own.

He opened his mouth to speak when a police car pulled up, abruptly filling the space between Kyle and me. The principal of the school and an officer got out. They spoke calmly to Kyle who went willingly into the back of the vehicle. I did not come close enough to hear their words, but I didn’t take my eyes off Kyle’s face. His eyes never left mine … even as they drove away.

It was days before Kyle would be allowed to return to school. I shared my disappointment regarding the turn of events with Kyle’s speech therapist who was familiar with Kyle’s past history and family situation.

She placed her hand on my shoulder and said, “No one ever ran after him before, Rachel. No one. They just let him go.”

But I couldn’t help but feel that I had failed him … that I should have done more or said more … that I should have fixed the situation, or better yet, prevented the situation.

Kyle eventually came back to school. I quickly noticed that when he had a choice of which teacher to work with or which teacher to accompany him to special classes, he chose me. As weeks passed, he was glued to my side, complying with instructions, attempting to do his work, and once in awhile even smiling. For a child with severe attachment issues, it was quite amazing that he was developing a bond with me.

One day on the way to art class, Kyle unexpectedly grasped my hand. It was unusual for a boy his age and size to hold his teacher’s hand, but I knew I must act like it was the most normal thing in the world.

And then he leaned in and quietly said something I will never forget.

“I love you, Miss Stafford,” he whispered. And then, “I never told anyone that before.”

Part of me wanted to ask, “Why me?”

But instead I simply relished the moment—an unimaginable breakthrough from the child whose file bore the words: “Unable to express love or maintain a loving relationship with another human being.”

Besides, I knew the turning point. Things changed the day he ran, and I ran after him—even though I didn’t have the right words … even though I wasn’t able to save him from the mess he was in.

It was the day I didn’t throw my hands up in the air deciding he was too fast … a waste of time and effort …  a lost cause.

It was the day my mere presence was enough to make a profound difference.

Ten years have passed since I’ve seen Kyle. I no longer live in the same state that I did back then. But I often think of him. When I am out running … when I am to the point where my legs are tired and aching … I think of him.

And I think of him when those really hard parenting dilemmas come my way—problems derived from inside and outside of the home—issues that make me want to beat my head against the wall or lower it in despair. I think of Kyle in those moments when I don’t know what to do or what to say when I look into my children’s troubled eyes.

That is when I see Kyle’s face and remember I don’t always have to have the answer. Because sometimes there is no clear-cut answer.

And I remember I don’t always have to “fix” their troubled hearts. Because there will be times when I can’t.

I think of Kyle and remember the power of presence. Because it’s possible to say, “I won’t let you go through this alone,” without muttering a single word.

Thank you, Kyle, for revealing the key to loving a child through the challenges of life.

Sometimes our mere presence is enough.

Sometimes it is exactly what is needed to change a dismal situation into one of hope.