what can a diagnosis mean?

This blog post by the Attachment and Trauma Network is very insightful when it comes to diagnosis’. Although I believe my daughter would have been diagnosed with the new Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder, I would conclude that we have been able to help her tremendously (through God’s guidance) without that specific diagnosis. One of the main symptoms of Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder is a child’s comfort with complete strangers (will walk away with anyone). That was my daughter, and to a certain point, it’s still there. Yet I don’t think that diagnosis would have helped us. We knew she wasn’t wary of strangers, but then what child, who has lived with several people, isn’t? Thus we worked on it, and as she has bonded, that comfort with outsiders has subsided into the background.

I would agree with the woman who wrote the post, that a diagnosis that highlights most of the struggles your child has will help in getting an IEP for school, therefore getting them assistance they need in the classroom.

finding joy

Raising children with disabilities and disorders is hard, but what most people don’t consider is everything else that plays into the word “hard.” Regular life: Normal life can be stressful for so many, and us special needs parents have to play roulette with that aspect too. Work: Are you self-employed? Is your spouse self-employed? Are changes in the economy affecting you financially? Is work a source of anxiety? Relationships: are all your relationships perfect? Is there tension within your family? Are all your friendships going well? Oh, wait, when you have children with disabilities or disorders you don’t have many close friends. You’re lucky if you have one that understands when you have to cancel a coffee date. If you’re especially fortunate your one best friend is your husband.

Life is rough, life is full of heartache, but much more so when you have a child that struggles every day. You have worry, appointments, do-it-yourself therapy at home, calls to insurance companies, discussions with doctors, horrible days, days when you regret what you say or how you acted, days when you wish for more help, days when your child’s screaming and crying make you anxious and annoyed, days when you worry incessantly about your child’s food preferences (really not preferences, as children with Sensory Processing Disorder will ONLY eat certain foods), days when you worry about their future, and of course add the worries and stress of regular life throws at you.

This list is overwhelming right? It can be, and that’s why I was so relieved to find this blog post by another mom of a special needs child. She says that one of the things us special needs mommies can agree on is not feeling like we have enough help. (Big sigh of “You know what I’m feeling.”) So nice to know that others are in the struggle with me. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t define most of it as a struggle, I am probably one of the rare ones that isn’t sure I want my son’s disABILITY to disappear. I adore him, and a big part of him is his Autism. I wouldn’t know what to do with a boy who didn’t have Autism. Is it hard? Oh God, yes! So, it’s so wonderful to know we aren’t in this alone.

We have two children that fall under this special needs category, and we have been in the “warrior mode” this author mentions far too much. When negatives come into our life, it often makes already rising rapids overflow and soon there is a waterfall of mega proportions. So how do we deal with it? How do we deal with negativity from others, lack of support from family members, friends, or even our spouse? Does joy come in the morning? Without God how do we handle it?

Yes, I pray about it, but some days that torrent is suffocating, and I can’t find my way up and out. On the days when the water isn’t so murky, I focus on my little family and finding joy where I am. This post I will link to also mentions joy.

When I’m not getting the help I need or want, I am thankful we can all go through the Chick-Fil-A drive-thru and eat in the car together, or on our Anniversary we may be lucky enough to sit down as a family inside a restaurant (a loud one, and we might only down some sugar-coated fries, but I resort to a statement I fairly loath, it is what it is). On days when there isn’t a mountain of to-do’s we can relax in our backyard, letting the kids run free. We find things to do that our whole family can participate in, and it isn’t easy, believe me. When I am able I focus on the joy my kids bring me, and push those selfish, nagging thoughts off the cliff before they suffocate me even more, I have joy, I will make it through, and I am not alone.
So onward with the post I am referring to, may it buoy your spirits today as it did mine. May you find joy.
Check Your Heart…

imagination – where is it? (adoption/foster)

“Use your imagination.” How do those words work with your kids?

Our daughter, Payton, lacked imaginative skills for years. Her imagination was so invisible that we wondered if she would ever develop in that area. I wished for her to be able to play like most other children, but it seemed it would be an unrealized dream.

From the time Payton came to us I tried to integrate imagination into her play, but most of the time it failed. I would tell her she could set up a tent in the living room, she would reply that she didn’t know how, so I  showed her. Months later, after she figured out how to construct a pretend house with blankets, she would load her animals in, and it quickly came to a halt, and an, “I’m done.”

It had turned into a task for her,

and that’s how she went about everything in her life. Sometimes I would play with her, other times I encouraged her (with much prodding) to do it on her own, using the undetectable imagination. We, or she, would get it all ready, and it abruptly came to an end.

I remember reading a Highlights High Five magazine with her, in it a boy was building a zoo out of blocks. Promptly after finishing the story, Payton lugged her blocks to the living room, and didn’t know what to do. With my assistance, she has built towns with blocks, but this seemed beyond a simple city.

I suggested she get the small animals from her brother’s room, and I proceeded to help her build stalls for the zoo creatures. When we were done putting it together, she said, “Now what?” I used one of the people figures and fed and watered the lions, tigers, and bears, and she did the same. I used other figures to pet the animals. Then I stood to finish something I’d left undone and she began to pick up.

She had completed the task.

This story, and ones where I didn’t intervene happened so many times, I don’t want to bore you with more. I will acknowledge that, yes, there are task oriented personalities, but for her lack of being immersed in video games and movies, and my consistent help, I was quite taken aback at her inability to use her imagination.

So what’s going on? Why can’t many of our children who’ve been neglected, abused, and traumatized be creative and use their imagination? I think I’ve found the answer.

In Bruce Perry’s book, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, he says, “In contrast to other specialized organs in the human body, such as the heart, lungs, and pancreas, the brain is responsible for thousands of complex functions. When you have a good idea, fall in love, fall down the stairs, gasp when walking up stairs, melt at the smile of your child, laugh at a joke, get hungry and feel full – all of those experiences and all your responses to these experiences are mediated by your brain.”

So what happens when our child’s brain isn’t fully functioning because their trauma (even the loss of a parent at birth) has stopped their brain from connecting as it should? (You can read more about the brain connections here). This does not mean that our children aren’t intelligent, as many are, even though their developmental age may be way behind. (Our daughter was reading books at age four, and is very bright, but that didn’t mean her whole brain was functioning where it should be.)

Now, also consider what happens when a child is needing to use their imagination, and that creativity depends on multiple sections of their brain to work properly.

As I was trying to figure out this lack of imagination as it pertains to children who’ve been neglected, abused, and traumatized, I found an article on WebMD that explains, “For creativity/[imagination] to have a chance, the brain needs to get out of it’s own way and go with the flow…During the study on creativity it showed…the brain regions that were quiet during improvisation are involved in monitoring, evaluating, and correcting behaviors…‘One important thing we can conclude from this study is that there is no single creative area of the brain – no focal activation of a single area,’ says Allen Braun, MD. ‘You see a strong and consistent pattern of activity throughout the brain that enables creativity.’”

Don’t get discouraged, because there is hope! Throughout the past few months we have seen glimpses of Payton’s emerging imagination. This spring she piled dirt in buckets (something she has always loved to do, but it always stopped with a bucket full of mud), placed them in her wagon, and pretended it was her ice cream truck. It was so cute, and we were delighted!

This past week, she took leaps forward and had a day filled with imaginative play. The ice cream truck took some turns around the yard, she PLAYED with her barbies, instead of only getting them dressed, and she built a zoo on her own and went beyond the set up. She had a busy day! I believe her ability to play and imagine is linked to her growing attachment and all her other subconscious fears being put aside.

The night before I read the quote from WebMD, my husband said, “How can she use her imagination, she’s always thinking. Her brain never stops.” Remember the WebMD article said, “For creativity to have a chance, the brain needs to get out of it’s own way and go with the flow…The brain regions that were quiet during improvisation are involved in monitoring [and] evaluating.”

Because of our children’s past traumatic experiences, their monitoring and evaluating areas of the brain are on overdrive, and are ALWAYS on alert.

Our children’s first experiences taught them to watch their environment closely and protect themselves. These built-in life preservers won’t shut down, or close their doors for any amount of time until our children have made significant bonds.

Because those monitoring and evaluating areas of the brain are constantly in motion, it makes sense that their brain cannot enact creativity and imagination.

So, how do you foster creativity? By first keeping bonding at the forefront of your mind. Second, find opportunities to work with your child on developing in that area. Make it fun, because it’s not something your child has to expand.

  • Make up short stories at bedtime, or anytime, and tell them to your child.
  • Ask your child if they want to tell you a story. If they don’t want to, start small, and ask what animal or person they want in your story. Next ask what should happen in the adventure.
  • Choose books that implore imagination.
  • If you haven’t done it before, make a tent out of blankets inside or outside.
  • Ask questions: If you could go anywhere, where would you go? If you could be anything what would you be? Don’t get upset with their answer, this is for fun. Also, at first you will probably get, “I don’t know,” or an “I don’t care.” If they don’t know, give them some ideas. If they don’t care, tell them what you want to be, where you would want to go.
  • Pretend play with dolls and animals.
  • When you’re driving around, ask what buildings, structures, etc. remind them of.
  • Look at clouds and tell each other what you think they look like.

Did you help your child develop their imagination? How did you do it?

Here are some posts on bonding:
let’s bond already – creating attachment with the adopted child
rocking: a simple first step to bonding (and it doesn’t just apply to infants)

how Paradoxical Parenting works

I will be writing an extremely important post on bonding next week and this information will be helpful in implementing the upcoming technique. But first, I would like to say that there is no quick fix for our hurting children. The information below is not an instant solution, but it will help you move forward with some bonding methods that truly work.

Today we will be looking at Paradoxical Parenting, which works with children who have attachment issues (any child that has been through trauma, neglect, and/or abuse). Why? Because our children are no longer in control when we use this strategy.

Our children want to be in control. When they were in their previous situation everything in their life was out of control, so they now find a need to manage all moments of their existence so that whatever happened to them in the past won’t materialize again. They assume control, and in doing so, they believe they are keeping themselves safe.

“After all, one of the defining elements of a traumatic experience…is a complete loss of control and a sense of utter powerlessness. As a result, regaining control is an important aspect of coping with traumatic stress.” Dr. Bruce Perry

Really, you have to give your child a lot of credit for their intelligence, many of them have set in motion a set of survival skills.

Is your child defiant, does he/she create tension when asked to do something other than what they want? Does it seem like everything is a battle? This is a sign that your child wants control and deals with attachment issues. The book, The Whole-Brain Child, explains why our children are defiant and respond with “No.” “When the nervous system is reactive, it’s actually in a fight-flight-freeze puzzle piecesresponse state, from which it’s almost impossible to connect in an open and caring way with another person… When our entire focus is on self-defense, no matter what we do, we stay in that reactive, “no” state of mind. We become guarded, unable to join with someone else – by listening well, by giving them the benefit of the doubt, by considering their feelings, and so on. Even neutral comments can transform into fighting words, distorting what we hear to fit what we fear. This is how we enter a reactive state and prepare to fight, to flee, or even to freeze.” Does this describe your child? If you have a child who has been through a neglectful situation, trauma, or abuse, I can bet it does.

Paradoxical Parenting sets our child’s brain in thinking mode, instead of reacting mode. It is the idea that when you foresee an issue arising, you stop it by using language that defines what your child is about to do. You tell your child how you expect them to behave, or what they will say. If you know your child will yell at you, tell you “no,” stomp their feet, slam their door, or whatever negative behavior they might exhibit, you name it.

So, you might say to your son, “You’re going to hate doing this, so I want you to yell, ‘No way!’ and stomp off to your room.” Wait and see how your child responds. At first your child will look at you like you’ve come down from Mars. You say, “No, really,” and repeat what you said the first time. If they don’t move and still seem stumped, say, “Go ahead, I’m waiting.” You might be surprised by their reaction. Your child might say, “I’m not going to [insert what you said],” then move forward with the request as if they are the ones who just came down from outer space.

When my daughter had become more bonded with us, we found that Paradoxical Parenting lightened the mood. We make it dramatic (because I am the drama Queen after all). We act like a two-year-old, whining and waving our arms in the air, and she actually laughs. I am ALWAYS a proponent of adding laughter and smiles to our every day lives.

I recommend only using Paradoxical Parenting when absolutely necessary, if it’s over-utilized, your child will anticipate what is coming, and we want to catch them off guard. This is not a permanent fix, we only want to use this method to get them to participate in a specific bonding moment, or if there is an immediate need that should be met before the caregiver pulls their hair out.

Paradoxical Parenting takes the control from your child’s hands. No matter the outcome, in the end, the child does what we need them to do. Whatever decision your child makes, it is one we have chosen for them. If they act out, we told them to have free reign, and if they choose to do what we have asked (make their bed, get their backpack, clean up their mess) they have complied with our request. Win. Win.

*I did not come up with the concept of Paradoxical Parenting, it is a technique that is occasionally used by therapists.

let’s bond already – creating attachment with an adopted child

When our daughter, Payton, came to us, she was young, but she was completely broken. Naive people have said to us, “It’s a good thing she was so young when she came to you, she won’t be affected by what happened.”

Payton Breckenridge 2010

That’s the generally held consensus isn’t it? If a child is removed from a neglectful or abusive situation soon enough, it won’t affect them. Wrong. Sure it’s better for them, the hope is that it doesn’t take them as long to heal, but they are impacted as much, or possibly more than an older child.

In Bruce Perry’s book, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, he says, “The fact that the brain develops sequentially – and also so rapidly in the first years of life – explains why extremely young children are at such great risk of suffering lasting effects of trauma: their brains are still developing. The same miraculous plasticity that allows young brains to quickly learn love and language, unfortunately, also makes them highly susceptible to negative experiences as well.”

Payton had emotionally shut herself down because of the neglect and trauma she suffered. She would bang her head on the floor, or on a piece of furniture, but no sound escaped her lips. Never having been around a child with a traumatic past, this shocked me. She had learned early on that no one responded when she cried, so why put forth the effort?

We didn’t have any specific training in how to deal with this or many other issues that came our way, so I did what came naturally. Every time she fell, or bumped against something, I picked her up, held her against me, and said, “It’s okay, Mama’s here.” (At the time she was in foster care. Her bio mom called herself Mommy, so I referred to myself as “Mama.”) After a couple months of consistently showing her that I would rescue her when she was hurt, Payton began following me around the house! It was more of a curiosity thing, she was making a basic connection that someone cared. True bonding would take years to develop, but we had a base to begin from, and I was excited!

During this same time, I was on the floor with her a lot. How did I do this? In my years of parenting a child with attachment issues (actually she was diagnosed with RAD, you can see my opinions on that here) and one with Autism, I have come to see the benefits of a small house. I am in close proximity to my kids. (If you don’t have a smaller home, you can use baby gates to keep your kids close.) My husband and I also drastically changed our daily routines. Our focus was on our new little girl, who needed as much of us as she could get. (I will be writing more on this in the weeks to come.)

I spent as much time as I could on my daughter’s level. She hadn’t learned the basics of play, not even as an infant would do. It took a long time for her to learn to play, and even longer to use her imagination. But she had noticed I was there. She moved from following me around to mimicking me (I have a photo of her at eighteen-months loading the washing machine), and eventually moving on to sitting on my lap, etc.

This can also be called “Floortime.” I implemented this (in a way) with my daughter before I heard about Stanley Greenspan’s Floortime. We were introduced to Floortime much later when my son was diagnosed with Autism. The approach is not specific to Autism, and can be extremely helpful in the bonding between a child with attachment issues and a parent or caregiver. 

“Floortime meets children where they are and builds upon their strengths and abilities through interacting and creating a warm relationship. It challenges them to go further and to develop who they are rather than what their diagnosis says.” www.stanleygreenspan.com

The Developmental Therapist who works with our son uses a mixture of Floortime and other therapies, which I have discovered are a foundational component to bonding. We have to return to this cornerstone of Floortime because many of our children don’t know how to play, no one taught them how. Sometimes their brains can’t calm down enough to engage in free or imaginative play.

One reason I really love Floortime is because, as quoted above, “…it meets children where they are and builds upon their strengths and abilities through interacting and creating a warm relationship.” www.stanelygreenspan.com Why is this so great? Let’s look at key elements in the statement above.

  1. “…it meets children where they are.” Our hurting children are not at their actual developmental age. We have to meet them where they are so they can climb the ladder of social, emotional, and physical development with our help. There is no time limit, there is no rush when looking at the developmental age of our hurting children, it will take time. And always remember bonding takes precedence over development in any other area.
  2. “…[it] builds upon their strengths and abilities.” This is encouragement that our children need. They are constantly bombarded by negative, both from the outside and from within.
  3. “…through interacting and creating a warm relationship.” What could be better? This is what our ultimate goal is for our children with attachment issues. We want them interacting with us (by the way, that begins with constant effort on our end), and we want to create a warm relationship. Some of you who have a child that struggles day to day may not think a warm relationship is possible, but it is! Your connection with each of your children will look different, but you will be amazed at the gem you find beneath the hurt, anger, and fear your child is holding onto.

Now that we have seen the benefits of Floortime, let’s find out how to do it. There will be a progression of steps. After you feel your child is comfortable with one of the steps, move to the next one. How will you know your child is ready for the next step? They will share smiles, engage you by handing you a toy, open discussions with you, they might make eye contact for the first time, or for longer periods than they have before. If you move on and you notice they are moving away from you or avoiding you, return to the previous step and work through it some more.

At any of the stages you can begin touching your child on the back or arm. See how they respond. If they squirm away, try again the next day. Don’t force it, but don’t avoid it either.

Step 1: PARALLEL PLAY – You will begin by sitting next to your child and engaging in parallel play. (This can also be done with older children, which I will touch on in a moment.) “Parallel play is a form of play where children play adjacent to each other, but do not try to influence one another’s behavior…the children do not play together, but alongside each other.” www.wikipedia.org For our purposes, this will be done between an adult caregiver or parent and a child. Again, it’s going back to those fundamentals they never learned and have difficulty with.
Sit next to your child and engage in a similar activity. Don’t talk, only mimic what your child is doing with your own toy/book/body. It may feel goofy at first, but trust me, it works! If your child is pretending to drive a car, do the same with your own. If your child is looking at a book, sit quietly next to her reading one of her books. This will lay a foundation to build on. Be sure that you are engaging in something they have found interest in. You will do this every day if at all possible. The more you work on it, the faster bonding will come. I would begin with short sessions, around ten to fifteen minutes.

  • Older Children (including teens): It’s the same concept as above, but obviously they will be more advance. If your child enjoys coloring or drawing, sit next to her and do the same with your own paper. Whatever they enjoy doing, do it sitting next to them. Get involved with them at a basic level, being quiet, and letting yourselves exist in the same space.

Step 2: INTEREST PLAY – Next you will begin talking about what you are doing with your child. If your child has a difficult time looking at your face, bring toys to the bridge of your nose, so your child will look at your eyes. If your child looks at you say, “Thank you for looking at me,” in an excited voice. For a very young child who is beginning to talk, you describe what you are doing: “I’m driving the car. You’re driving the car.” Praise a child of any age when they do well (be real, they’ll know if you’re lying). Don’t say anything negative at this time.
“Play is the work of children. It consists of those activities performed for self-amusement that have behavioral, social, and psychomotor rewards. It is child-directed, and the rewards come from within the individual child; it is enjoyable and spontaneous.” www.healthofchildren.com

  • Older Children (including teens): Talk about what you are doing with them. You can ask them some questions, but keep those few and brief.

Step 3: INTERACTIVE PLAY –  Now you can begin interacting more, and Justin & Jeremiah 2012exchanging in play. You can begin to play with their toy with them. You can read a book to them, invite them to sit in your lap to read a book or sing a song. If you have a girl that’s interested in doing your hair (come on Dad :)), take turns playing salon. This is a great opportunity for your child to practice taking turns, caring for someone, and appropriate gentle touch is always positive.

  • Older Child (including teens): If you have a child that likes sports, you can play ball together. This exchange is a great back and forth play, your child is facing you, and they may also open up more and want to talk. Embrace what your child likes. Involve yourself by interacting and being interested.

These are some pivotal steps that will help your child bond with you. “[By using Floortime and] staying within [their] focus, you are helping [them] practice basic thinking skills: engagement, interaction, symbolic thinking and logical thinking. To master these skills requires using all these senses, emotions, and motor skills…” www.stanleygreenspan.com

When raising children with attachment issues (and for me, having an added child with Autism) it can get quite discouraging. You try something, it doesn’t work, so you try again, and again it fails. Keep trying. I have often put something on that back burner for a long time because I tried dozens of times and failed. Then one day I would try it again, and suddenly it would work! Be persistent and eventually your child will be ready for that hug, or respond to that “thank you,” or whatever you might be wanting your child to do to show connection.

There is more information to come on some very important bonding techniques that work wonders, so stay in touch. You can have any new posts sent to your inbox by visiting the upper right side of my website. You can also follow me on Facebook.

Best wishes to you and your family!

Here are some more posts related to bonding:
rocking: a simple first step to bonding (and it doesn’t just apply to infants)

attachment in adoption: the first things we need to know

play = bonding time