Sunday, April 21, 2013

Returning To The Land Of Where The Wild Things Are

When I was younger, one of my all time favorite books was Maurice Sendak's classic book Where The Wild Things Are. Back in 2009, a film adaptation was made. Unlike the children's book, the film has a darker tone as it navigates the land of the wild things, which are merely representations of the young boy Max's psyche.

The film starts with young Max struggling to control his fears, anger, and aggression as his divorced mother begins dating a new man. Max, unsure of where he will fit in, lashes out at his mother, climbs onto the kitchen counter, yells at her, and ends up biting her on the shoulder. She screams, "OWWWW! That hurt, Max! What's the matter with you? Why are you acting like this? This is not acceptable behavior!" Max realizing what he's just done, runs away.

It is by running away that he finds the boat which takes him to the land where the wild things are. There he meets Carol, leader of the wild things. He represents Max's fear of being unloved and rejected who channels that fear into aggression. At one point, Carol's anger gets so uncontrollable that he chases Max through a forest and threatens to eat him.

Later, Max has a conversation with the nurturing, mother-like K.W. Disgusted about Carol's behavior, she says, "Can you believe him?"

Max replies, "He doesn't mean to be that way, K.W. He's just scared."

"Well, he makes it harder. And it's hard enough already."

"And he loves you. You're his family," Max continues.

"Yeah. It's hard being a family."

Now I had seen this movie at the theater when it first came out, but re-watching it now, I found myself in tears. That was Cava. He loves us, we're his family, but he's deeply scared.

A couple of weeks ago, before Cava started taking his ADHD medicine, The Schiele had a free Tuesday and, as part of that, they were showing a sneak preview of the PBS film Curious George Swings Into Spring. Since Cava loves Curious George, I thought this would be perfect for him. We got there early, got a front row seat. Mrs. Beverly, the local PBS personality (she appears in the short segments between shows with Seymour Goodstuff the elephant puppet) was there and she asked who would like to be interviewed after the film. Benjamin, of course, was the first to shoot up his hand. Then came Cava. As Mrs. Beverly took down there names, Cava started talking to her in Ukrainian. 

"Where's he from?" she asked me, so I told her all about the adoption and how Cava loves Curious George.

They had a raffle and both boys won prizes: a Curious George book and a tote.

All of the kids who won had their photos taken. Then they showed the film. Cava being Cava couldn't sit still the whole time. During one of the songs in the movie, he got up and danced. He also kept telling me, "I love Curious George."

When the film was over, all those who weren't going to be interviewed filed out of the auditorium. As the cameraman was setting up his camera, Cava kept trying to touch the camera and the equipment. I kept asking Cava to please come and sit with me while they set up and wait his turn to be interviewed. He couldn't do it. He got defiant and, in the end, I had to take him out so that I could try and calm him down. As I bent down to speak to him, he hauled back and punched me in the face. That was it! I explained to him, that, while Benjamin could stay and be interviewed, since Cava hit me, I would be taking him out. 

Since it was a free Tuesday, The Schiele was packed. And Cava began screaming, kicking me, scratching at me and struggling to get free from me. Not a proud moment for me as all eyes turned on us. Hoping to calm him down, I sat down on the bench near the T-Rex and held him to me. No matter how soothingly I spoke, Cava's fury would not be abated. All he wanted to do was get back to that room and be on camera. When he realized I wasn't going to let him, he began crying and telling me repeatedly that he was sorry. I told him that while I appreciated his being sorry this would not change the fact that I was not taking him back to the auditorium. He grew upset with me again and I knew he was accusing me of favoring Benjamin by letting Benjamin stay to be on camera. I told him, "No, you aren't going to be on camera because you hit Papa, and kicked and scratched me. Your behavior is the reason you're not going to be on camera."

Sitting there, holding this child in his animalistic rage, I kept praying, "Lord, please help us. Both of us." 

What I really wanted to do was disappear from all of the observant eyes. I am a very private person and hate being stared at as a spectacle. Yet here I was, praying and desperately trying to calm this child in the midst for all to see.

Cava finally broke into tears and, even when Benjamin came out to meet us and it was time to go, Cava refused to leave the museum. I had to physically carry him out to the car, still with all eyes of passer-bys on us. 

Once again, feeling that I was keeping him from something he wanted, his anger and aggression got the better of him and he could not snap out of it. He began to hit my car door violently, tried to hit Benjamin, and kept threatening to either unbuckle his seat-belt or open the car door while we were moving. 

Like Carol in the movie, it's only after his rage subsided that Cava realized what he'd done and he wept.

An outing that was meant to be one of enjoyment was anything but and I came home exhausted, embarrassed, and defeated.

Many people who've heard me say that God gave us Cava, question that and ask why I would believe that a loving God would give us such a difficult child who has, so many times, upset our household. Because God knew that Cava needed us. We are Cava's family: something he's always needed but never had. He was put in the baby house as an infant. He has been in three different orphanages in his 8 years. So he's afraid. And, in his fears, he acts out. Like Max and the wild things, he does so out of fear of being unloved, unnoticed, unwanted, or rejected. God never said this would be easy. 

Like Max told K.W., "And he loves you. You're his family." And KW. saying, "Yeah. It's hard being a family."

To help Cava adjust to being a part of a family, Danelle and I are constantly relearning how to parent. This means not only reading books on how to parent an adopted child but getting help from trained professionals. Cava goes weekly to a play therapist and we have also taken him to a behavioral specialist. Another thing we are actively seeking is for him to be cognitively tested. As parents we are learning a whole "new view" about parenting, as Heather Forbes terms it in her book Beyond Consequences, Logic and Control:A Love Based Approach to Helping Children With Severe Behaviors.

She lists 4 key principles:

1. All negative behavior arises from an unconscious, fear-based state of stress.
2. There are only two primary emotions: love and fear.
3. There is both negative and positive repetitious conditioning. We are all conditioned to behave in various ways, both good and bad.
4. Negative and positive neurophysiologic feedback loops exist beyond our conscious awareness. They occur at an unconscious, physiologic level, and we have the ability to change or add to these feedback loops.

There are many childhood traumas that can effect all of us, but Cava has already faced some of the worst: being abandoned by his mother, loss of caregivers, bullying, and physical abuse. Even adoption is a major trauma. Heather Forbes writes that, "When seeking to understand children of trauma, we must fully comprehend that at their deepest core is an emotional state of fear."

All of Cava's negative behaviors: anger, defiance, arguing, aggression, screaming, and tantrums are all caused by the underlying sense of fear. When he hit me at the Schiele, beneath his act was the fear that I was taking away from him the chance to be on camera. He did not see that I was attempting to remove him from the setting to calm him down.   

One night, after he'd gotten in trouble, Cava  got so angry that he told us, for the first time in a long while, that he wanted to go back to Ukraine. He told us Ukraine was good and America was "pogano." It did not matter that we told him how much we would miss him, he went to bed that night unwilling to respond to our love. The next morning, he awakened and was still convinced that he wanted to return and that he was unhappy with us. Until Danelle asked him if he wanted a waffle for breakfast. Cava stopped, thought about it, and he said, "Yes." 

As she started to fix him a waffle, he finally said, "Mama." 


"I'm sorry."  

She went over to him and hugged him, "I'm sorry to. But it's a new day. A new beginning. I love you."

"I love you."

In her book Molecules of Emotion, Candace Pert wrote, "If you look underneath your depression, you'll find anger. Look underneath your anger, and you'll find sadness. And under sadness is the root of it all, what's really masquerading all the while - fear." 

Because Cava has felt rejection his whole life, when he got mad at us, he translated his fear into rejecting us and threatening to return to Ukraine. As Forbes stated in her book, "There is no such thing as willful disobedience or manipulation without first seeds of fear and distress."

In the film Where The Wild Things Are, Judith, one of the wild things, and Max get into an argument. It breaks down with Max mockingly imitating her. She gets upset and tells him, "You know what? You can't do that back to me! If we're upset, your job is not to get upset back at us. Our job is to be upset. If I get mad and want to eat you, then you have to say: "Oh okay. You can eat me. I love you. Whatever makes you happy, Judith." That's what you're supposed to do!"  

Cava is the same way. When he gets upset, it only escalates if we get upset back. Instead, we have to communicate calmly to him. If we raise our voices, then, in fear, he feels threatened and it escalates. We have to model behavior to teach him how to react and behave in order that he can learn to self-regulate, which is something he has been unable to do. So when we start to notice that he is getting frustrated or angry, we have to become a calming influence, like Mister Rogers. Proverbs 15:1 tells us, "A soft answer turns away wrath."

In the end of the film, Max leaves the land of the wild things to return home. When he enters his house, he is nervous and apprehensive. Then he encounters his mom. She bends down and hugs him. Her expression is one of relief and sadness. She is nearly in tears. But she kisses her son and pulls the hood of Max's wolf suit down so that he is just a boy and not a wild thing. Then, they sit at the kitchen table. Starving, Max hungrily wolfs down his food. His mom rests her head on her hand. She's exhausted and begins to fall asleep. Max stops. He looks at his mom and a gentle smile comes across his face. He realizes now, to some degree, what it's like for her. He has gained a small glimpse of understanding about her love for him and he loves her in return. It's a poignant moment and one that brought tears to my eyes (surprise, surprise).

Loving a child who has behavioral problems is far from easy, but to truly love someone is to be fully present in the moment with them, even the bad ones and loving them still. We have to be in the moment with Cava and love him, no matter how he acts or reacts because we understand that, at the base of all his actions, is fear. 1 John 4:18 says, "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear." Through Christ, this is our goal for Cava. It is only then, that Cava will leave the land of the wild things behind and embrace his new home.


  1. You are so brave to share these stories with us. As a fellow "private person" I really admire that. You are changing lives of so many people by being open and honest about your experiences so we can all learn together.

    There is no question fear is at the root of every "bad" behavior. Whether conscious, or deeply subconscious, there is a constant fear of rejection that Cava has to fight each day. That is an enormous battle he is fighting, and the three of you are actively fighting that battle with him. God Bless you for that, this sweet little boy needs you so much.

    Have you ever seen the movie "What Dreams May Come?" There is a line in the movie which goes "I rather be in hell with you, than heaven without you." I think this summarize the way anyone feels when they have true love whether for a spouse or a child.

    It has to get worse before it gets better, hang in there God is with you and will not abandon you. He has his hand on your family.

  2. I just wanted to take the time to thank you for sharing your faith through this difficult time in your lives.

    My husband and I have bio children and one adopted from EE. She has been home for five months. Details are different, but the circumstances play out remarkably similarly with our littlest sprout. I read your blog because you communicate *hope* well. It is hope that we cling to; hope that the Lord is working for the good of MANY in these circumstances.

    The pain of seeing my own weaknesses in the face of our daughter's brokenness has been the hardest, but... I remind myself that I TOO am a work in progress, and that the Lord is faithful to complete this work in me.

    Blessings to you, and thank you for your encouragement.

    1. Thank you so very much for your kind words. It means a lot to me that anything I write has any impact on anyone. Hope is something we cling to in all things because we serve a God of hope. As Romans 12:12 tells us, "Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer." This is definitely a verse that strikes a chord in our family's life. Again, thank you for taking the time to write me.