Monday, March 11, 2013

Our Roller-coaster Days

To say that our life after international adoption is a roller-coaster ride is not a very original analogy, but it is an apt one. There are periods of great ups, periods of great downs, and times when you feel like you're in a spiral or upside down on a loop. Of course, I can only imagine how this ride must feel to an 8 year old boy. For him, there must be moments of great joy and exhilaration as well as terror. And both can be extremely overwhelming to him.

One of the things we strive hard to do is to give him a regulated routine with a lot of structure because too much freedom can be a lot for him to handle. Certainly it helps for us to give him time limits. An example of this is when we get home from school. I tell him that he can play or watch PBS Kids until 3:30 and then he has to do homework. This works for Cava. In fact, he's like an announcer on New Year's Eve because he will come and find me wherever I am in the house to tell me how much longer he has until he's got to do his homework. Or, if he's working on one of his puzzles or playing, and it is almost time to take a bath, one of us will say, "Okay, Cava, in ten minutes, you will have to stop to take your bath." Giving him this time limit, helps him adjust to going from one task to another.

We also try to keep his day on a routine by staying home after a certain time. The later it gets, the harder it is for Cava to not be at home and he begins to get tired and act out more. Part of this is due to the fact that he is more like a toddler than an eight-year-old. This is one of the ways we parent him. We cannot hold Cava to the same standard we held Benjamin when he was eight because they are not the same at all. Having come from a home where he was nurtured and raised, Benjamin understands the expectations we have for him, as well as knows how to navigate being in a family. Cava doesn't have any of that hard-wired into his brain. Having come out of being in orphanages his whole life, his brain is wired chemically like a soldier just out of a war.

It's because his brain is chemically like a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder that we have to parent Cava differently.

We have our behavioral chart that has the day broken into four periods (Morning, School / Day, Afternoon, and Evening). This makes it easier for Cava to get through a smaller block of time than trying to attempt an entire day, which he could not do. Some days are all sticker days. Some days are all "X" days. Some are a mixture of both. But he now understands what both mean and he will even tell us whether or not he feels he even deserves a sticker or an "X" depending on how he behaved towards us or his teachers. This helps us to not only help regulate his behavior based on rewards and punishments, but also to help him learn to self-regulate his own behavior.

Certainly he understands that if he strives to not kick, hit, bite, scratch or spit that he can earn stickers that, based on how many, earn him tokens that can be used to buy a prize (typically puzzles since he loves them more than toys). Below is a puzzle he got rewarded with at school using the same behavioral system that we are now using at home since we believe consistency is key to helping Cava navigate both environments more easily.  

Parenting Cava also requires a great deal of patience, which is not one of my strong suits. He is a child who acts and reacts. Sometimes he does something just to get a reaction out of Danelle or I. (Imagine that, a child who tries to push their parent's button!). Much of this is rooted in a toddler's nature to get attention. For Cava, he probably acted out in orphanages so that he could get the attention of his care-giver, whose has to take care of 10 or more kids at time. For me, as his parent, I have to step back and not just react to his behavior but to look past to what is at the heart of his actions. This is not always easy for me because if there's one thing I cannot stand it is a defiant child. And he can be very, very defiant. 

What I am having to understand is that Cava's anger is oftentimes fueled by grief from the loss he's suffered. Cava has lost all that he has known and experienced in his eight years. 

Imagine all of your life you have thought and spoken one way and then are suddenly uprooted from all you've known and now you are told that you have to speak and think in another language? So all of the thoughts you would normally have, you can't express them without having to stop and try to translate that into the new language. How much more difficult will that be for him when he's scared or angry? How can he find the words, new words, when he is feeling so overwhelmed?

Now I took French from middle school (in fact the year I started was the year my voice broke - talk about awkward, Try speaking one of the most romantic languages with a voice that you can't control it going up and down and cracking like a stick under foot) through college and, my French college professor referred to me as, "A very nice boy. Not a very good French student, but a very nice boy." My first year in college, I got assigned to a conversational French class late. When I arrived in the class, they were all seated around a long table and the professor would start the conversation and then go around the table to each student and they had to speak only in French. Needless to say, I felt a great deal of anxiety and stress, so much so that when they came to me, all I could say was, "I'm in the wrong class!" And got transferred to a basic French. But the fact was, if I had not been allowed to drop that class and take another, more remedial one, that semester would have been filled with anxiety and fear at my being overwhelmed and in over my head at not understanding anything that was being said. And I was a college student. So I have to remember that experience when I'm dealing with Cava, who's only an 8 year old boy and who cannot just drop the class.

Is it any wonder then that, unable to express himself verbally, he is resorting to expressing himself physically?

Amy Curtis, the director of Tapestry Adoption and Foster Care Ministry, put it best when she said, "Often, physical aggression is the only tool children have to let others know what they are thinking and feeling when they do not have the words. Children may lose their voice for a variety of reasons, from feeling a lack of power within their surroundings to simple language barriers. You will see many two-year-olds hit and bite because they have all of the emotions but few words to say how they really feel."

She also said, "So much of his (Cava's) anger and aggression may be fueled by grief. Until he can identify his emotion behind his behavior, I would remain focused on a nurturing approach that provides you both with the opportunity to connect, rather than separate. Anything you can do to calm his spirit will help lessen his re-activity and his recovery time."

One of the things Amy Curtis recommended to us was working with Cava on his use of language as much as possible, especially in terms of identifying his feelings. Part of doing this would be to use a feelings chart that involves faces and feelings.

Something we will begin doing is including stickers to reward him when he uses words to express himself, even negatively. As Curtis suggested, "You can add in the layer of saying things respectfully after he has learned to master saying how he feels and has developed more trust in you. If he can learn to use his words, I think you will see two benefits/outcomes:
1. A decrease in physical aggression.
2. More opportunities to connect and attach."

We understand that all of this is not an over night transformation, but a slow process that takes time and trust. There will be times when we will feel like we've made real progress, only to have set-backs (such as getting suspended from school).

We realize that there is a lot of trial and error involved, but that the key to any success will be consistency and love.

For more about Amy Curtis or the Tapestry Adoption & Foster Care Ministry, go to:

Another great one is:

1 comment:

  1. My husband and I are in the harrowing paperwork process to adopt children from foster care here in NC.

    I have to say how much you inspire me, I believe you are simply a wonderful father. I beg to differ that you are not patient.

    I also have read many of the authors you mention in your blog and believe in the methods you/they describe. My husband and I also plan on going to Empower to Connect at some point soon!

    My prayers are with your whole family. I believe that Cava is going to blossom with time. I think he is an incredibly courageous little boy.

    God Bless you and your family.