Posts for childhood trauma

How I Told My Daughter That She Has Special Needs

Forever Family, Go Girl! - Allison Kenny - January 25, 2017

We are sitting at the dining room table for yet another teary session of math homework. She has used up all her focusing tools- chewing gum, lighting a peppermint candle, choosing which problem to start with…nothing is helping. Then I see the light in her eyes change. They grow dark and serious in that intense way I know so well. She is fighting for truth.

“Mom, why can the kids around me do math but I can’t? I learn it but I can’t remember it. The other kids remember. Why, mom? It doesn’t make any sense.” There is shame in these words. And desperation.

I’m not planning to have this conversation today. I didn’t wake up knowing that I would be called on to deliver this news in a way she can digest it. My wife and I are still digesting it ourselves.

We go through periods of intense grief and even anger about her special needs. Spending time with other people’s kids can trigger it. After a morning babysitting my dear friend’s toddler, I spend the afternoon sobbing. This three-year-old has social skills that are more advanced than my eight-year-old. We travel to Texas to visit cousins and breathe through frustration as my daughter’s anxiety and hypervigilance exhaust everyone in the house. We go to IEP meeting after meeting and are overwhelmed by how many professionals are engaged each week in supporting my kiddo’s learning. After weeks of her violent PTSD fits, we refocus on caring for ourselves so that my daughter’s needs don’t take over our entire lives.

More like this: Even though My Wife & I Get Away, Our Daughter Makes Us Pay

But here she is, asking for the truth. So, I share with her what gets me through my moments of fear and grief and doubt and anger. I share with her the truth about her resilience.

“I’m telling you the truth. Are you listening? Do you remember how you were born very tiny and that you came out early? One thing that happens when babies are born early is that their brains don’t get enough time to develop. This is not the baby’s fault! This is nobody’s fault. It happens to many babies who are born early. It means your brain has worked extra hard to develop and grow ever since you were born. And guess what? Your brain is doing very well. Very very well. That’s because you have a powerful quality in you. You are FIERCE. That means you are somebody who doesn’t give up. Even as a teeny little baby, you were so fierce that you fought to live. You fought to grow. And now, you are fighting to learn math. It is harder for you. You are right about that. But working hard and not giving up are wonderful qualities to have. You also have mama’s who love you and teachers to help when things feel hard. You are not alone.”

I hadn’t researched what to say. I hadn’t prepared for this question. I just opened my heart up and felt around for what she needed to hear. Of course what really happened is that I said the words I needed to hear.

I think healing the dissonance between our fantasy of parenting and the truth of it will be a long road for my wife and I. But moments to ignite our empathy and focus on our daughter’s amazing gifts help. They help a lot.

More Like This: Dear Kids At School

I’m different and that’s awesome

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An Adoptive Parents’ Guide to Finding Dory

Go Girl! - Allison Kenny - July 5, 2016


Finding Dory was aDORable, am I right? Who doesn’t love Ellen and remember Finding Nemo like it was yesterday? Nothing better than packing up your family, getting your popcorn buttered and settling in for a sweet afternoon at the movies. Unless you are an adoptive parent. If you adopted your child, you do your research before going to any movie. You know that for some reason, every other kids movie out there includes protagonists who are orphans, in foster care, have dead parents, mean parents, tragic separation from siblings they love or in the case of Finding Dory, spend the entire movie in a desperate search for their birth parents. Sigh.

I get it. The worst nightmare in the psyche of any child is to be deeply alone in the world and abandoned by their parents. I’m not a therapist, but I imagine that for kids who are securely attached, seeing their worst fears play out on the big screen feels good because it externalizes the nightmares and ties them up with a happy ending. Then, the typical kids get to hug the parents who birthed them and feel safe, secure and aware of how loved they are.

But what if the nightmare of losing your family, being abandoned or mistreated actually happened to you? Seeing it played out would not feel good. It would be scary, retraumatizing or humiliating. They would be anxious on the way to any movie and have trouble sleeping after, even though they begged to go see it.

As a parent, I have to weigh the pros and cons before seeing any flick. I heard that Finding Dory could kick up lots of grief but that it wasn’t too scary. I also knew that all my daughter’s friends at camp were seeing it and talking about it. Having things to connect with peers about is a definite pro when it comes to my quirky girl. Plus, her big cousin was in town from Texas and wanted to go. We didn’t want to deny them the sweet memory of seeing this movie together. So…we went.

We ate a big dinner before and didn’t get candy. Instead, we brought tiny treasures wrapped in tissue paper. When our daughter got anxious during the movie, she turned her eyes to her lap where she could unwrap a little something to focus on instead. While Dori was having flashbacks about the major loss in her childhood, my daughter opened and found a tiny shell. While Dori was longing for her Mommy & Daddy, my little girl found a tiny square of clay to squish into shapes. When she got bored with a treasure, she’d put it in Mama Lynn’s purse and watch the movie awhile. Then, she opened another. Bringing sensory tools to the movies was not something we’d tried before. After Inside Out, we spent 20 extra minutes in the theater holding her while she sobbed. The Good Dinosaur sent her into so many tears, I had to bring her home and rock her like a baby until she calmed down.

But I’m glad we tried Finding Dory before giving up on going to movies all together. With tools to manage her triggers, our daughter got to see a girl lead character take center stage in her own life. Dory and lots of the animals in this film have a vulnerability that makes them different. Dory’s “short term memory loss” and distractibility were a wonderful mirror of my daughter’s special needs. Dory is loveable and adored. Just like my little girl. Dory is a leader. She has courage. She overcomes her biggest challenges. I want my daughter to get to see examples like these of girls in media.

After the movie, my daughter’s review was “ I liked it Mommy. But some parts were sad.” OMG she used a feeling word! Success.

Go see Dory. Pack treasures and tissues. Let me know how it goes.

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6 Ways to Be in the Presence of Trauma: Yours or Someone Else’s

Forever Family, Girl Power, Self-care - Allison Kenny - November 5, 2015

6 Ways to be With Trauma- Yours or Someone Else's

We’re on our way to camp and I hear that familiar longing in her voice.

“Mommy, I just really want to take my locket into camp today.”

“I know, love. That’s so disappointing that you can’t bring toys in. I’m glad you are getting to hold it in the car and play with it now.”

Silence. I look in the rearview mirror and see a single tear fall from her left eye. Her right eye is covered by a mermaid eye patch so the scene is particularly heart-wrenching. She drops her head and I can see the wave of grief coming on. Having to leave something she loves behind is an enormous trigger for a girl who lost her family, her neighborhood, her toys, and all of life as she knew it before coming to live with us. I take a deep breath, like I’ve learned to do, and focus on my own heartbeat to stay calm.

“I see you are so sad. I understand. As soon as we park the car, I can hold you.”

And I do. We sit in the backseat rocking while I kiss her teary face and hold her tight. She lets me. After a few short moments, I see her take a deep breath.

“Are you ready?” I ask. She nods and we stand up. I offer to hold the locket and key in my pocket so she knows it’s safe. I reassure her that she’ll get to hold it again when I pick her up after camp. She nods again and we walk hand in hand into Art Yowza Camp where a dozen kids are running happily and playing tag. She drops my hand immediately and joins the game.

Let me break down exactly why this scenario is a HUGE FREAKING MIRACLE. Just three months ago, the drive would have been very different. My daughter’s grief would have been mixed with rage and fear so enormous that her tears would escalate into screaming, taking her seat belt off, kicking the driver’s seat with full force and on the worst days, pounding the glass window with her fists. And it would have lasted anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. And on one terrible day, four hours. Literally. But the difference in her behavior now is not the miracle I even want to focus on. The real magic is in how differently I behaved.

Her rage and PTSD used to trigger my own rage and PTSD before I could stop it. If I was alone with her in the car during an epic tantrum, I had no way to access all my skills as a compassionate girl advocate and educator. I became a frightened child and my logical brain shut down completely. More often than I’d like to admit, I responded by yelling, shaming, and on the worst days, grabbing her arm or leg roughly to try and make her stop. I felt so ashamed of myself. Why couldn’t I be compassionate? I knew that meeting a child’s trauma response with a calm voice and reassuring presence was the only thing that could help. Why couldn’t I stay calm when I knew I was “supposed to?” I was afraid it meant I was a bad mom.  Luckily, just a few months later, I know it means I was a triggered mom. And I knew enough to get help managing my PTSD symptoms so I could do better. Here’s the best of what I’ve learned to be the compassionate Mama I want to be… most of the time

  1. Try to notice when I’m triggered and say to myself, “Oh, I’m triggered.”
  2. Keep my mouth shut (Kidpower says, “Mouth closed power!) and breathe. Focus on my own breath. Notice my heartbeat. Breathe to help it slow down. Did I mention, DO NOT TALK?
  3. Accept that her tantrum is not my fault. I did not cause it. I cannot stop it. It’s just what is happening.
  4. Help keep her physically safe—like putting a pillow under the head of someone having a seizure (move tables out of the way, pull the car over, move out any objects she’s throwing or hitting).
  5. Hug her and tell her I love her when it’s over. Wait until everyone feels better before talking about anything logical like what she can do to feel her big feelings without hurting herself or anyone else.
  6. Forgive myself immediately if I cannot do any of the first five things.

My therapist is a PTSD specialist. She works with war vets and now…foster parents to stay in the moment and help our brains rewire to feel safe. She recommends mindfulness practice as the number one tool to deal with fight, flight or freeze symptoms. Pema Chodron’s Unconditional Confidence, Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach and John Kabat-Zinn are the resources she shared with me.

For any of you parents who need a miracle to shift the way trauma plays out in your homes, I hope this helps!

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What Halloween is teaching me about the power of choice

Foster/Adoption, Girl Power, Tales from the Maxi Pad - Lynn Johnson - October 28, 2015

power of choiceFor Halloween this year, the Squirrel is going to be a cat.  A “spy kitty,” to be exact.  Yes, that means a cat who spies on people.  How cool is that?  

We bought the costume – one of the only age appropriate/not hyper-sexualized cat costumes for young girls – at the Halloween Super Store back in the beginning of October.  She loves it and she can’t wait to premiere it this Saturday.

Last year, just weeks after the Squirrel coming to our home, we got her both an Elsa and an Ariel costume a few days before Halloween.  She couldn’t decide which one to be so, she wore both.

A lot has changed in a year.

Imagine you had to choose between 2 costumes.  In your mind, they are both great ideas.  You love both the dresses.  They both represent what you love most in the world.  How do you decide which one to pick?

Now, imagine that this is your first Halloween in a new city.  In a new home.  You don’t know anyone else your age in the neighborhood, let alone what costumes they will be wearing.  You have no idea who will open the door when you press the doorbell and yell “Trick or Treat!”  And, you are not exactly sure they will be giving out the kind of candy you like.  How do you pick a costume?

Finally – stick with me- imagine that, not only are you in a new city, you are in a whole new family.  Everyone you have ever known is gone.  You are being asked to accept two total strangers as your new parents.  You have no sense of time and space and don’t know if you are coming or going.  You are desperately trying to grab onto anything that you can feel some semblance of control over.

You don’t exactly remember what happened last Halloween and you can’t possibly imagine where you will be next Halloween.  Now, how on earth do you choose a costume?

Researchers studying the impact of trauma on decision-making define decision-making as:

“a complex process that requires identifying alternatives, evaluating their probability and estimating their consequences”

Based on this definition, it is no wonder that both small and large decisions can allude most of us – especially us women and girls who struggle with perfectionism.  Decision-making puts us in the position of having to choose the “right answer” when one rarely exists.  When we are caught up in our own mess of wanting to appear flawless, please others, and avoid the challenging emotions associated with making mistakes, making a choice becomes an extremely difficult thing to do.  Take that perfectionism and add a dose of trauma and you can become completely paralyzed.  

It is no wonder that the Squirrel had to be a Disney Princess mash-up last year.  I remember a time about a year ago when the 3 of us were in a café and we asked her to pick out the sweet treat she wanted.  She couldn’t do it.  She literally worked herself into such a terrible fit over a scone vs. a muffin that we had to leave the café.

What surprises me is how much has changed over the last year.  Just the other day, we were all – once again – in a café.  When it was time for the Squirrel to decide what she wanted to eat, she promptly replied, “A yogurt and a cinnamon roll.  Oh, and one of these fruit snacks!”

“That’s too much.  Just choose 2 things.”

“Okay.  I’ll just have the yogurt and cinnamon roll then.”

On the surface, deciding to eat a cinnamon roll or be a spy kitty for Halloween may seem like no big deal.  But, let’s all remember how complex a process decision-making is.  It’s something all of our girls are practicing and struggling with.  “I’ll have the cinnamon roll” should be greeted with celebration and encouragement.  “Great!  Way to go! Good job making that decision.”

I jumped for joy when the Squirrel chose her Halloween costume this year – and not just because I was completely ecstatic over such a creative, original, non-Disney-licensed choice.  I was excited that she made a choice.  Making this choice shows me that she is much more at peace than she was a year ago.  Her brain has calmed down enough to identify alternatives, evaluate their probability and estimate their consequences.  Her life is stable enough that she is beginning to trust that each choice is not her last choice.  She is easing into the comfort of knowing who and where she is, that there is often no “right answer,” and that she has the power to explore, experiment, and try again.

Like I said, we bought the cat costume weeks ago.  Now, she is beginning to waver on the “spy” part.  “I think I just want to be a regular cat.”  Ugh.  My guess is that, as she is discovering what her friends’ costumes are, she is starting to feel embarrassed by her incredibly unique idea.  We’ll see what happens.  We still have a few days left.

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I’m sorry my kid beat the sh#t out of your kid

Foster/Adoption, Learning, Parenting - Allison Kenny - April 29, 2015

School is hard on lots of kids. I know it. For a long time, my work during the school year was to run friendship circles for girls, present Kidpower in classrooms, and provide social/emotional support during recess. I see what happens when kids get over or under stimulated, when they don’t have enough tools for emotional processing or simply when supervision is limited. School can be a place where emotions run high and hitting feels like the only way.

michelle rodriguez girl fightStill, when I go to pick up the Squirrel from school and she’s in the office…again…my heart sinks. The secretary and her teacher have that harried look like they’ve tried everything and are at their wits end.

The hitting started back in January. Every once in a while, the Squirrel would lash out at a kid who did something she didn’t like. Then, it escalated. Pushing kids out of their chairs, kicking them on the ground, pinching, kicking other girls in the crotch, beating kids with hard plastic jump ropes, hitting the same girl over and over…this has been happening every single day. For months.  Her school threatened suspension. I didn’t know that could even happen in kindergarten.

What is causing this level of acting out? What do we do about it? How out of control she must feel.  Is it the environment? Her past trauma? Frustration over a learning disability? Being away from home too long? All of the above?

Of course, we had an SST with the principal, her teacher and our social worker. We all agreed that, as the Squirrel deepened her attachment to Lynn and I, being away from us for a whole school day, was just too much. She needed to be able to picture where we were and what we were doing. She needed to know we still existed. Like a toddler who circles back around to her mother’s lap 1000 times a day.

So I volunteered in the classroom more, presenting Kidpower skills every week to all the kindergartners. We set up a daily phone call for the Squirrel to hear our voices each morning and picture where we were. We gave stickers and special time with us for each day she kept her hands and feet to herself. We practiced great ways to deal with big feelings in therapy. We repeated how much we loved her and were there to help. Nothing, however, seemed to actually help. The daily beatdowns continued. And she was crying every morning and faking sick to get out of going to school at all.

Finally, our therapist suggested I stay at school with her for a few weeks, like a behavioral aid, and find out more about her triggers. Frustrated and exhausted, I agreed. I saw that the Squirrel behaves very much like a two year old in her classroom. She wants things her way and when they don’t match up, she freezes, fights or flees. It is heartbreaking. Our kid is nowhere near ready for school. There is not enough containment or support in a traditional classroom. And there is not enough mommy. She wanted to be in my lap all day. Being her aide wasn’t sustainable, of course. I lasted less than a week. But I learned a lot. And I switched to picking her at noon every day instead.

Investigating new schooling possibilities has been at the forefront these days. Public school? Private school? Charter school? Homeschooling is not allowed until we formally adopt her. We are not in charge of when that happens. Most folks who have been parents for 6 months don’t have to deal with school at all. I miss that opportunity to get to know my kid at home with the curtains drawn. No sad and sorry looks from teachers with the best intentions. No pressure for the kid to make friends before she actually knows how.

One morning after Spring Break, the Squirrel announced that she had decided not to hit anyone at school. Great choice! She’d never said anything like that. I admit, my hopes were up. Could it be this simple? Did all our interventions finally sink in? Sure enough, the hitting stopped. 4 days of no hitting. 5 days…I started picking her up 30 minutes later each day.

Yesterday, we got to pick up another little girl in class for carpool and the Squirrel was so happy she could barely stand it. They ran down to class together holding hands while I watched. This had never happened! Maybe we’ll make it through the next few weeks to summer and she’ll feel even the littlest bit connected and successful.

But the Squirrel was in the office when I came to pick her up later that day. She had pinched and hit and kicked the very same girl we picked up for carpool. I’m back to picking her up at noon. And I’m up at 4:30 in the morning writing this blog post.  I’m noticing how triggered I am about her hitting. I’m noticing how much I want her to “be a good girl” in school. Mostly, I’m just tired and out of answers. But I’ll help her write her apology card this morning and give it to her friend. I’ll help facilitate the repair and try to trust that at some point she will grow through this. However, I am so frustrated… I could hit someone.


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Becoming the parent she needs me to be

Love Wins - Allison Kenny - March 3, 2015

in the dreamhouseI remember hearing this phrase in our early fost/adopt training.  Let go of the parent you imagined you’d be and become the parent your child needs you to be.

Yikes.  I think I froze then and I’m freezing now.

You mean Christmas might not be pure magic? Hikes in nature might be so triggering that they end in disaster? Vacations might be confusing downward spirals of trauma? Making friends at school may prove a far-off dream? Yup. It turns out parenting an older foster-child requires a new brand of parenting. My dear friend, Doug calls it “extreme parenting” as in jumping out of a plane or bungee jumping over a bridge. Weeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

I thought I was prepared.

All those years facilitating play with children on the Autism spectrum, helping parents integrate play into their daily lives, writing a mindfulness curriculum for kids, leading 1000 Go Girls! through camp… I’ve spent 10 years preparing to be a therapeutic parent. But until I had a screaming, kicking, singing, roaring, grinning, collapsing, endearing, outrageous “squirrel” in my house… I had no idea what that meant.

Turns out it means gifting a massage to her teacher for Valentine’s Day. It means creating such a boring weekly routine that I want nothing more than to rebel and smoke cigarettes on my back porch. It means sending carefully worded, fierce and loving e-mails to her principal, to her therapist, to her social worker, to our social worker, to the school founder, to family members…to anyone on “Team Squirrel.” It means calling school twice daily so she can hear my voice. It means breathing when I want to yell. Talking when I want to hide. Reaching out when I want to go to bed.

Parents of kids with special needs, how do you become the parent your kids need you to be? How do you evolve past selfishness, past embarrassment, past perfectionism? How do you learn the promised lessons of compassion, flexibility and a new perspective on what matters?

For me, I take it an hour at a time. I laugh as much as I can. I remember to kiss my wife. And yes…every once in a while…I smoke a cigarette on my back porch.

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