You would think these words would bring raised arms in joyful praise from my kids but really, summertime just brings stress of the unknown. The unknown and change of routine are often a trigger for children who have spent any significant time in foster care. Most times, the kids don't even know the cause of their anxiety...it's like their bodies, heart and minds just remember that this time of year is usually filled with loss. For children who have lost biological family, friends and home, routine becomes golden. So naturally when routine changes again it seems to trigger remembrance of great loss.
I'm thankful for the training and study I did before becoming an adoptive mom! But as trained as I am, I'm still human and sometimes slow to connect my child's sudden stank behavior with loss and fear. So you may be wondering, "Then how do you know when a kid's behavior is because of a trauma trigger?" Great question! My best estimation is when the reaction doesn't fit the situation. I've worked with teens for over a decade now and although we know that biologically they tend towards overreacting, my kids will go from zero to explosive faster than your head looks right. It's not violent, it's more like a sudden fight-or-flight response.
Maybe my example from last night will help? Last night, I told my kids I was going to make them an "I'm proud of you celebration end-of-school dinner." While cooking, my son mentions getting a lot of classmates' phone numbers. I think of a lot as probably 8'ish but in his mind a lot is 3 however I didn't know that at the time. He asked if I could place them all on his phone's safe list and, to try to manage his expectations in case they don't all fit, I mention that we probably could but we'd need to check because the phone company has a pre-set limit to the amount of safe list numbers. *Explosion* "Why do I have to have a safe list? I want you to check right now and see if they'll all fit! I hate summer, it's stupid! Why do I have to go to day camp?! It's just like school without learning."
Fight. So there I was exhausted and not feeling well but trying to do something nice for my children and instead of thankfulness I'm suddenly put in front of a firing squad of loud questioning and demands? So unfortunately, I tend to do what I've trained myself to do when anyone who is male starts yelling at me and treating me disrespectfully...I step forward into their space, with I'm sure a crazy, angry look on my face, and verbally put them in their place. Even adults have triggers...know yourself.
Flight. My son took off to his room.
*sigh* Defeat? Hmmm...set-back. My training didn't kick in fast enough for me to accurately evaluate what was going on at the moment or control my own reaction. In the past, I'd get mad at myself when I didn't react perfectly...but really it's an opportunity to show my kids how adults apologize, talk things out and reconcile.
So here's the real issue. My son's going into his first summer with our family. He doesn't know what to expect. He's just had 5 months of a whole lot of new...new school, finally making some new friends and is mourning the loss of not getting to see them every day. Having their numbers on his safe list is his only way to connect with them over the summer. It's priceless to him. The sudden thought of not knowing if he'd ever get to speak to them again triggers anger and loss of all the past friends he's lost each year at summer due to being in foster care. He's almost 11 years old, so do you think he knows all this in that instant and can articulate that in the moment? No way!
My daughter's summertime anxiety triggered in April but she's coming out on the other side of her stress and last night she totally recognized what was happening with her new brother. She came in to help me finish dinner and loved up on me then went and spoke softly to him through the door and brought him dinner. I let him eat in his room and went in to talk to him afterwards. I learned the things I shared above that were creating anxiety, apologized for my failure in responding well and shared with him that I'd love for him to come out and join us in the living room. But asked that he would wait until he was ready to apologize for his part too.
Ten minutes later he walked up to me, put his head on my arm and said, "Mommy, I'm sorry." Forgiveness all around and we were on our way to a night that was completely pleasant and joyful! The three of us laughed, talked and shared about our day. It was a beautiful evening with a slight smudge at the beginning. We are more bonded and all more aware of how each other is feeling. It reminds me of a muscle being built...there's a little tearing before it can get stronger!
When kids have gone through traumatic times, this quote stands true: "My kid's not giving me a hard time, he's having a hard time." And it's my job to help them put a name on what they are feeling so they can learn to heal and grow. I want to love them through those nasty triggers and I want to learn to master my own.
I'm sharing all this because maybe other parents who've adopted or foster are hitting challenges? Maybe others need a reminder that times like summer break, which may have brought us joy in our childhood, can produce a different response in our children? Maybe you feel like you reacted poorly and have blown it? I'm just reminding myself and others, to keep loving them, keep loving yourself...keep loving. Others probably won't understand all that's going on under the radar because they've not read the huge binders of hurt our kids carry but you have so keep on loving. As I always say to my kids...it takes work to make this work. Thankfully, our work is love.