adoption and stranger danger

How do we teach our kids about stranger danger without completely scaring them out of their mind? Or do we throw all caution to the wind and tell them the whole gory story about why we don’t want them talking to the guy down the street?

Stranger danger, as we all know, is REAL, but it has come creeping into our homes in recent years. It’s the neighbors, the family friends, and the employees. This isn’t a new threat, but it seems that it’s becoming more prevalent. It’s not comforting and we don’t even feel safe in our own backyards. If I’m going to go inside for a minute while my five-year-old plays in the fenced in backyard, I have to go over the protocol to come get me immediately if someone comes to the gate.

In recent weeks, two girls were abducted and murdered (and who knows how many more that didn’t make headlines). The latest victim was twelve-years-old, and was lured into a car by a man who had been a neighbor and at one time worked for her father. He asked her to help him find his daughter.

This has been the trivial point we try to get across to our daughter, Payton, about strangers. (We actually don’t call them strangers because it takes one time seeing someone and she’s friends with them. Sound familiar?) We talk about someone asking her to help them find their lost kitty or puppy, we tell her to NEVER get in their car or go with them. She’s a very helpful girl, and she adores animals, so this would appeal to her sensitive nature.

We have never gone on to explain the results when children get in vehicles with strangers (although, like I said, it’s no longer strangers, but people we know). I don’t want to freak her out. She’s an incessant worrier. It’s something that I hope will subside after it has been proven time and time again that her fears won’t come to fruition. Maybe if she lives another three years without being struck by lightning, she won’t obsess over every impending storm.

Our hurting children worry more than the average kiddo, and making them wary of every person, every situation, isn’t going to help them feel safe and secure, which is exactly the goal we’re working towards. So what do we do?

We’ve always told Payton, “Mommy, Daddy, and Jesus will keep you safe.” But what happens when our children become more independent? Go to school? A friend’s house? Walk home from school, or a friend’s house?

I honestly don’t have the perfect answer, all I can do is share what we do, and hope the outcome is safe.

  • We tell Payton to NEVER go with anyone unless we have told her it’s okay. She can only go with the two sets of Grandparents. We wholly trust her aunts and uncles, but the more we open up the possibilities, the more it will get muddled in her mind and make her questions who she can go with.
  • One day as I was taking my kids somewhere, I was going over the “If an adult needs help with something what do you do?” and I was about to say something about a secret word. Like, if they know our secret word, then it’s safe to go with them. But I stopped, I didn’t want to add something else that could get jumbled in her young mind. I think if you have an older child this would work well, or if you don’t have one trusted friend or family member close by who could help you in a desperate situation.

For my daughter, I could see it going like this:
Pedophile: “Your parents needed me to pick you up, your mom is in the hospital and your dad’s there with her.”
Payton (if she even remembers there’s supposed to be a secret word, and doesn’t just hop in the car with her new “friend”): “What’s the secret word?”
Pedophile: “Your dad didn’t give it to me. It was such a rush getting your mom there, and he’s so worried he must have forgot.”
Payton: “Okay.”

  • As I said earlier, we have gone over scenarios with her and told her what to do, then we will occasionally ask her what she’d do in a given situation. This makes her think more broadly and beyond the simple, “If someone asks you to get in their care, what do you do?”
    For example, we talk about a nice woman offering candy, a man looking for his lost kitty that’s sick, a woman that says mommy and daddy needed her to pick her up because…, a man coming to our fence needing something or wanting to show her something.
    We go over these scenarios (which I know are very narrowed) and ask her what she should do. Like I said earlier, we don’t expound on what could happen if she did go with someone, as this would cause unnecessary fear.

We adopted both our kids from foster care, and when people who haven’t adopted hear this, it sends concern racing though their bones. We’ve been asked if we would move after our kids were adopted, if we were worried the biological parents would show up at our home.

I used to live in this carefree place where I wasn’t too worried about something like that happening. The Department of Human Services (DHS) kept our information private and we felt fairly safe. That was until this past year. When Payton was adopted, we had agreed to send letters and pictures to her bio mom, and in turn, she could do the same and include gifts. Well, she dropped off the radar for three years! Then this past year our post-adoption worker from  DHS called me from her cell phone. That in itself was strange. She said that she didn’t want to call me from the office, and that a woman claiming to be Payton’s bio aunt (who now held a position at DHS) had approached her at work and asked if she could give Payton a bag of stuff. It came as a shock, not only to us, but to our post-adoption worker.

This bio aunt shouldn’t have known who our post-adoption worker was, let alone our NAMES! It sent me into panic, protective mode. After the fear cleared, I realized I didn’t need to worry about this lady doing anything, or at least I hoped not, but I did become aware of the precaution we need to take with both of our kids. I had to become more vigilant than I had been.

Through this interaction our post-adoption worker had with the bio aunt, she learned that Payton’s bio mom has another child who is one. This means that even if Payton’s bio mom wouldn’t do anything, I DON’T know anything about the new man in her life, or who will come along in the future.

As I hear about these girls being abducted and murdered, it sends trepidation shooting through me, as it does with most moms. I feel that there is an extra measure that needs to be taken with my sweet daughter who still befriends EVERYONE she sees. We all need to assess our lives to identify where the greatest risks are, yet not ignore the areas that seem safe.

I would love to hear what you do to keep your kids safe. What do you tell your kids, what do you avoid saying?

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make this school year exceptional (adoption/foster)

This article originally appeared in Adoption Today magazine.

Make This School Year Exceptional
by Tracy Dee Whitt

The kids have enjoyed swinging, swimming pools, sidewalk chalk, and scrumptious mud pies, but now it’s time to think about school. Some kids are excited about the new year and some are wary and worried.

My daughter, Payton, is a mixture of both. She has looked forward to kindergarten since she began uttering her first words, it has seemed to constantly be on her mind. Yet, despite the excitement, there is always trepidation when she enters a new situation; a new Sunday school class, another year of preschool, or Vacation Bible School. The jitters are fairly pointless, as she walks in with her fingers in her mouth, barely moving her feet forward, but when she is among the new kids, it all flitters away because she soon has friends, who she just met, following her every move.

I still have to pay attention to her worries and concerns, because in her mind they are real. We try to prepare her as best as we can. In the past months we’ve talked with her about what the new year, at a new school, will bring. At Kindergarten Roundup we found out class time would be vastly different from what we told her. Whoops. There are now so many requirements for teachers, they don’t have time for recess, indoor playtime, or snack. You’re most likely responding just as I did, “What?”

We made sure to share this with Payton right away so she wouldn’t go through the summer imagining something different. Many children like to know what’s happening in their world, and this is especially true for adopted children, and kids with attachment issues. The more you can prepare them for, the better it will go for them.

As school approaches, you will also want to consider what you want to share with your child’s teacher. Does your child have any behavior issues that you need to notify them about before school begins? Is your child ahead or behind academically? Do certain situations set your child off? If there is any information that will help your child succeed and the teacher to keep her hair intact, consider taking some time communicating this with them. Most teachers will be open to hearing what you have to say, will be willing to work with you, and will be happy you care about your child’s education.

Our daughter, Payton, had a very difficult time in preschool. Part of the issue was that she wanted to be in control. She would rush through her work and begin helping other kids with theirs. Most days she is a blessing at home in how she helps with her brother, who has Autism, but this proactive spirit of hers proved as a detriment in a school setting.

There were other behavior issues, many stemming from inconsistency in discipline between home and school. She was getting away with far too much in class, and most of the time it corresponded with having free time. She knew she would be warned several times without consequences, which reinforced the idea that she could manipulate her environment, and by the time consequences were put in place, she was out of control.

“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

We waited far too long before sitting down with the teachers to discuss what our daughter would need to succeed. We thought we had explained enough, but months later it was evident we hadn’t.

This idea of communicating with your child’s teacher applies to any parent of any kids, but it’s particularly important if you have a child who has behavior issues. We went to Payton’s preschool teachers with a printout they could keep and refer to. We laid out where she had come from, and what her life had looked like, they knew she had been adopted from foster care, but I don’t believe they understood the logistics of it all.

We didn’t write out all the specifics, just letting them know that your child was in an orphanage or foster care, and that they experienced neglect, abuse, and trauma is enough. On the paper we wrote what her triggers were, what behaviors might pop up, why she acted and reacted that way, and then we listed what to do about it.

I then asked the teachers to focus on what Payton did well, because there is so much negative in our kid’s lives. You can give the teacher specifics on what your child does well, where they can see them shine. At the end I wrote in bold letters, “If we are all on the same page, her behavior will get better!” You can add a little smile emoticon there if you’d like. Then welcome their questions, but try not to be offended by what they ask, as this may be something completely new to them.

I would suggest letting the teachers know that you want to hear about how your child is doing in class. Don’t wait for parent/teacher conferences to come around, continually keep yourself updated. Ask them how your child is doing at least on a biweekly basis. If you always get the same answer, “He’s doing fine/good/great,” ask pointed questions occasionally. How is he doing with the other children? What are her interactions like? How is she doing in (subjects she struggles in)? Does he listen to instructions?

You can consider volunteering in the classroom. If your child doesn’t tolerate you spending time in their class, dropping in periodically will help you get a feel for how he or she is doing.

We had a meeting with my son’s preschool teachers, aids, and therapists last year. One of them said, “When a parent is involved in their child’s education, the child is worked with more [in school].” Right or wrong, everyone around the table agreed, and they are all truly amazing educators. It’s sad that this is true in many instances, but now you know how it works in some school settings.

As my daughter has healed from her past trauma, we have found it less critical to share information with teachers. I was relieved this summer when I dropped Payton off at Vacation Bible School and didn’t need to go through her behaviors and worry about what she would do when I left. I didn’t pester the teachers when I picked her up, I knew that things had gone fairly well. Because school is every day, for most of the year, I will still need to talk to the teacher about things to look for, but the list has dwindled significantly from last years. You can decide what to share, and maybe as the year moves forward you will find more transparency is best for everyone.

Communicate with your child’s teacher so they will be better equipped to teach your child, communicate with your child so he or she is prepared for change in the coming school year. Everyone will benefit from knowing what to expect and what to do in given situations. May you and your children have a great school year!

How have you made a school year improve? I’d love to hear your ideas.
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