Learning from Boone

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We were able to get a “failed” Guide Dog for our blind son through Southeastern Guide Dogs a few weeks ago.  He didn’t make it through the program because he didn’t like to ride in cars.  I haven’t had a dog since I became an adult (many years ago) and my husband said we’d never get one.  But alas, we became desperate enough with Charlie’s anxiety to believe that perhaps a dog could help; especially a well-trained one.

First let me say, Boone is a great dog.  He’s a Goldador (Golden Retriever/Labrador breed) and he’s very sweet and smart.  But he is large and incredibly strong and there were a few things we had to learn about each other.

Our first challenge was getting him into the car.  When we started our journey back from Florida after getting him, every stop we made it took 20+ minutes to get him back in the car.  We didn’t want to force him or pick him up, because we weren’t really sure the reason behind his fear and we didn’t want to make anything worse. 

Then when we got back to Georgia, we decided that taking him with us to church (and keeping him outside) might help with Charlie’s disdain for Sunday mornings.  He did well and loved all of the attention he got, but when it was time to get back in the car, he refused.  We tried for 30 minutes in 90 degree heat and finally my husband just agreed to walk him home. 

I watched multiple YouTube videos about how to get a dog in a car and all of them said something different.  So I emailed Southeastern Guide Dogs and here is what they said: “You do not let up on him.  You do not walk him around, you do not give up and walk him home.  You stand there with your feet firmly planted and lean the leash towards the car.  When he moves toward it the pressure will let up, when he moves away it will get tight.  You do not treat him until he is in the car.” 

WHAT?!  This is literally the opposite of EVERYTHING we had been doing!  WHOOPS!

So Charlie and I went down to the garage with Boone and opened the van door with the garage door closed and using those strategies he was in the car within five minutes.  Then we did it again.  And again.  And again.  Since that day he has gone on a car ride with me every single day and is absolutely loving it now— no coaxing needed, he just hops right in.  So even though he was scared, for reasons unknown, we showed him that he did not have a choice and that we were in charge.  Letting him stall or delay or refuse wasn’t helping anyone but him.  But not giving up until he was in, and not rewarding him until the task was complete, (though it felt tough and unnatural) was clearly the way to go.

We have had situations like this with parenting.  There have been many times when we felt like letting the kid not go somewhere they didn’t want to go with the family was not worth the fight or the tantrum or whatever.  But unless it is truly not good for them, if it is good for the family, it is worth putting our foot down and going through the fight or the tantrum because family time is on the other side, and usually it is worth it.  And some “treat” will probably be involved.  The more often this happens, the more likely the child will trust that it IS worth it, even if it feels so hard that they cannot even use their own two legs to get themself in the car.

And now, we can remind them of how hard it felt for Boone, but how happy he is to go anywhere now.

Another unexpected lesson was how patient we would have to be waiting on this dog to poop!  This is getting better now that he’s found his favorite spots in the yard, but no one ever told me it could take 15-20 minutes to find the most perfect spot ever to drop a load.  As if my children hadn’t taught me enough patience, now with this dog I am bound for saintly-level patience for sure!  God knew I needed some more, apparently…

Charlie has always loved dogs and they always seem to calm him.  We had assumed that Boone would bring immediate comfort and connection with Charlie, but that didn’t really happen.  At first, Charlie was jealous, saying that we all loved Boone more than him.  Then he had the sensory issues of getting used to a large dog in the house.  Boone LOVES to sit in the most inconvenient spots in the middle of the floor, especially inconvenient when you can’t see! He also sleeps in Charlie’s room and causes occasional noise, and wakes him up with kisses in the morning.  This has become something that Charlie enjoys now, but it took a minute.  Also, Boone is learning to sit on the rugs now so he doesn’t get stepped on as often.  Smart boy.

Now that he and Charlie are getting on better, he has become more obedient to him and they have a little training session every day after school.  Charlie is great at these and he loves the feeling he gets when Boone obeys him!  It is a great and rewarding way for him to spend his time.  It is building his confidence and perhaps teaching him a little discipline himself!

He also plays with him, but we can’t let him run free yet, so most of the play has to happen indoors, which is a little difficult when the dog is 60+ pounds.

We have two cats who are not big fans of our newest family member, but they are lightening up a bit.  If he’d quit trying to play with them, they wouldn’t feel so threatened, lol!  He tries to roll the ball to them and engage them in play and they are having none of it! I have told several people that I find both the cats’ boldness and the dog’s laid back attitude inspiring. We can learn so much from both!

The cutest thing Boone does is his carry his stuffed animals around in his mouth.  Every time it’s time to go outside, he’ll go to his basket and get a friend to take along for the journey.  It is so funny.  

The adjustment to a dog wasn’t as seamless and romantic as I had anticipated, but it is getting to be more fun.  I am getting more exercise and fresh air taking him outside and he is bringing a lot of joy to the kids. Since he is still new to us and too strong for them to take him out alone (he’s gotten away from more than one kid on the leash) and they are not nearly patient enough to wait on his perfect placement at this point, it’s mostly he and I going out to bano. I think once he trusts us completely and the kids can prove they’re in charge, I’ll be happy to let them do more of it, but I don’t mind it much.

He is a blessing to us and we are so thankful for all that he is teaching us and all the ways he is helping us around here!  My daughter Kate says that he is like Nana from Peter Pan, always checking in on everyone to make sure we’re alright. We will be, Boone.

Happy Birthday?

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Birthdays are supposed to be celebrations.  For children, they often signify growing up to be the little person that they hope to be.  For others, they are an excuse to have a party.  For some, they are another reminder of how far we have to go.  

We celebrated Charlie’s birthday all weekend and I am pooped. He gets very anxious around his birthday and around Christmas.  Many people would say that he is thinking of his birth family or bad memories surrounding these holidays, but at the surface it seems that he is so obsessed with getting new things that his excitement morphs into anxiety because his brain has such a hard time processing emotions.  He has been with us for over 3 years and still has a very hard time articulating his feelings and emotions.  

Also, the anticipation of getting presents (especially ones that are hidden somewhere in his house) is almost more than he can bear.  He can’t even sleep.  He tells me that he would feel better if they weren’t even in the house so that he can relax.  He says he doesn’t trust himself to not find them and open them.

He even has a hard time acting grateful once he gets the gifts. He is excited when he opens them up and then an hour or so later, asks when he can look on Amazon to see what he can ask for for Christmas.  Is he a spoiled brat?  Are we ruining him?  Or is he depressed and looking for happiness in toys and then panics when it’s not found?

I have been told that kids with ADHD get a dopamine fix with new things and so they always want/crave new stuff.  This is a decent explanation, but it doesn’t make it less annoying.

For a kid that doesn’t act anywhere close to his chronological age, when someone asks how old he is turning, every birthday I find that I am reluctant to say.  Today, I ate lunch with his 3rd Grade Class at school and the cafeteria worker told Charlie “Happy Birthday” and asked how old he is turning.  When he said, “Eleven,” several of his classmates gasped: “ELEVEN?!  I’m only Eight!”  (He is the size of an 7 or 8 year old and acts like a 5 or 6 year old.)  

I am exhausted from all of the  anxiety leading up to his birthday, but we did have fun at his parties this weekend.  It was really fun to see his sweet friends from school and how much they love him despite his weirdness and quirks.  

All of this to say, I am very glad that he was born and very glad that he is mine, but I am kinda glad this birthday is almost over.  I share all of these personal thoughts so that someone else who might be feeling the same way won’t feel so alone, or guilty about it.  Charlie is a blessing, but he can be exhausting.  I can love him and have no regrets about adopting him, and still find him hard to live with.  Adoptive and/or Special Needs parents, you are not alone if you feel the same.  And hopefully one day, birthdays will feel more like celebrations.

Public Service Announcement

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For well-intentioned people who want to heal my son.

The other day at Costco, my daughter and I went into the restroom and left my son to wait for us at the door.  He is an adorable 10 year old, he is Chinese, and he is blind.  He waited patiently for us, we came out, and as we were headed on our way to shop, a young woman approached us and introduced herself.  She asked our names and asked if my son was adopted. 

I am always happy to talk to people about how adoption has blessed our lives, but that is not what she wanted to talk about.  

After telling me what an ‘incredible person’ I am for adopting a blind child, she asked if she could pray for him “real quick.” (If you think someone is a saint for adopting, please don’t say so in front of the child-- it really makes them question their worth.)  I said that our son is a blessing to us, but thank you.  She said, “I’m just going to pray that Jesus would heal him from his blindness. Right now.” 

I said, “God actually made him, loves him and we love him and want him exactly the way he is.”  She said, “Oh, sure, but I’d just like to pray for him.” My son said, “Can she, Mom?” Fine. Then she prayed and prayed and kept saying, “Right now, Lord. Heal him right here and now.”

Finally, I said, “Yeah, we gotta go.”

This was awkward. I believe Jesus can heal people but I don’t see Charlie’s vision as something that needs to be healed. His heart, yes. His brain, perhaps. But this encounter got him confused, and me irritated.  Here's why.

We (his parents) and all of his blind mentors, do not see a need for him to be healed from his blindness.  It is one of his gifts.  He has vision for things that we do not.  He connects with people and animals in a way that we cannot.  We don't want him to wish that he could see with his eyes.

The second reason is that his eyes are completely malformed.  They never developed properly when he was in utero.  Nothing in them is as it should be.  And honestly, I don't think that was a mistake.  I believe it was God's plan for him.  I do not pity him because of his blindness. 

For her to pray—without knowing anything about him or us, other than he was blind— that God would heal him 'right then and there' made me feel like I was in a magic show that was bound to fail.  It felt very awkward, and embarrassing.   

Thirdly, we were approached in a way that felt invasive and self promoting, not glorifying to God.

If she had said, "I see you have an adopted son.  What a beautiful family you have!  Can I pray for you?  Is there anything specific that you need prayer for?"  If she had done that, I would have thanked her. 

"YES!  You can pray for his fear.  You can pray for his anxiety.  You can pray that he would eat.  That his nightmares would go away.  You can pray that our family would have patience with him when he acts like a 5 year old.  You can pray that this school year would be better than the last.  You can pray that people would be more accepting of him and not only see his blindness.  YES!  Thank you so much for asking!"  

And at that point, I'm sure I'd be hugging her and crying because of her generous thought and simple act.

However, that is not what she said.  My daughter and I felt very uncomfortable because we felt like she was stalking us and looking for something she could "do" to tell others about.  She was waiting for us as soon as we came out of the bathroom. 

Later, I asked my daughter what she thought about it and she said it made her feel really weird.  And she said that she felt bad for her brother because it made him feel like something (else) is wrong with him.  And then she said, "What if we weren't Christians?  That whole situation would have been even worse."  And much more insulting.

This girl was young (mid-twenties), and I probably should have taken more time to explain all of this to her,  I was just a bit shaken and unprepared.  But since then, I've realized I have a lot to say, and I need to say it!

We have many friends with physical disabilities and/or children with disabilities.  Most of them want to be seen and accepted the way they are, even more than they want to be fixed or healed.  When someone approaches them with the intent to change them, it is a reminder that that is what they see when they look at them-- either what they are missing or what they think they need. 

If a person was born without an arm, would you approach them and pray that the arm would grow out of their shoulder?  I doubt it.

The blind community is very misunderstood.  People with vision feel like blind people are missing out, and they pity them.  But most blind adults that I know would not want their vision restored.  They are content and happy with themselves and they "see" the world in a different way than we do.  Sometimes better.

Here is a wonderful message by a friend of ours:  Greg's Sermon on Blindness.  Greg was my daughter’s Braille teacher.  He is a wonderful human who happens to be blind.  He knows that his blindness is used by God every day and he is thankful for it.  If not for him and his influence on our lives, I don't know that we would have been open to adopting a blind child!

As parents, we pray that God would be glorified in our son’s life because of his blindness.  He will reach people that we won't.  He inspires people everyday.  God is using him daily in spite of his blindness, and we are thankful for that.  That is why it is was so surprising and jarring when a complete stranger wanted to pray that away.

We all have heart issues.  We all have ugly sin inside, but people can't see that.  However, when physical deformities or flaws are seen in people, someone often wants to offer to pray that they would be corrected.  I think that is very risky and often insulting.   Let's be more concerned with people's hearts than their bodies.

My advice to you, if you feel led to pray for a stranger in public, is to approach them with humility.   Let them know you would like to pray for them, and ask if there something they need prayer for.  If this young woman had done that, I assure you the last thing on my list would've been my son's blindness.

Secret Sauce

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As adoptive parents know, most of their children carry their shame around like a ball and chain.  Thoughts of insecurity follow them everywhere— they’re bad, unloved, unwanted.  These thoughts shape many of their relationships, especially those where they worry the person will leave if they’re disappointed in them.

Because of this fear, their brains are wired for self-protection.  If they think they’re in trouble, their brain either panics or shuts down.  For my son, it goes wild.  He jumps on that crazy train and wreaks all kinds of havoc.  It used to take hours to get him off of it.

We learned long ago to remain calm when he is in this state.  Do not threaten punishment or yell, as that will only heighten his fear and increase his behavior.  We have tried humor, bribery, distraction and/or just giving him time.  All of these have worked at one point or another, but none of them work every time. 

Two weeks ago, we attended The Empowered to Connect Conference, and I had a new revelation.  When his brain is in panic mode, what he needs more than anything is to know that I think he is a good kid.  Even when he is acting like an animal, a toddler, a lunatic, I need to acknowledge to myself that this is not the real boy: it is the self-protective way that he is coping with his fear.

For the past two weeks, every time his lid is flipped (which has been about once a day on average) I have said, “HEY!  You are a GOOD kid.  I like you.  I am glad you’re mine.  You are a good boy.”  I kid you not, it has worked every.single.time.  Within 2-3 minutes, he is talking like a normal person again.

We all want to know that we are liked, loved, good and kind.  But a kid with shame and self-doubt needs to know it all of the time.  

It is not the natural response, so it does not come easily.  Usually I am feeling very frustrated internally while saying these words out loud.  I have even told my other children, "Just pretend like you're an actor in a movie.  'Read the script' with conviction, and you will believe what you are saying once he has gotten back to himself."

Many people may see his behavior and “good kid” is likely not the first thing that comes to mind.  Isn't it sad that the "trouble-makers" can seem unlikable and the cycle continues?

But if we make the effort to look underneath, to see beneath the hyper, nervous (sometimes obnoxious) kid… more often than not, there is a real sweetie under there.

Often, when my son will tell me about an adult at school that he likes, he’ll say, “She thinks I’m a good kid,”  because that is the most important thing in the world to him.  Those adults that he feels "like" him, he likes back.  Which means that he will more often cooperate with them because he can relax and be himself.

If finding the good in your child feels too hard for you, just watch them while they sleep.  Every child on the planet is precious when they're sleeping!  Pray over them and ask God to soften your heart toward your hurting child.

He put you in this role to help them heal.  Convince them that you like them and they will want to please you.  Connection and acceptance is the desire of every heart, especially the broken ones.

 

Sensory Needs

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In Third Grade at my kids’ school, they host a Wax Museum.  The students pick a famous person that they’re fond of and learn all about them, then dress up like them to teach everyone else about this amazing person.  My son Charlie is Chinese and blind, so at dinner we were all trying to think of a famous Chinese person he could be, or a blind person… but he didn’t like any of our suggestions. 

Then the next day in the car he said, “I decided I’m going to be Abraham Lincoln.”  I said, “Oh, that will be cute!  He was a great person.  We can get you a tall hat and a beard!”  He was quiet for a few minutes and then asked, “Are there any famous people that didn’t wear clothes?  Or hats, or beards?”

Funny?  Yes.  But also a little sad.  Charlie has sensory issues: if it was up to him he would be in his underwear with a blanket wrapped around him 24/7.

A few years ago I learned for the first time that kids with difficult beginnings have brains with neurotransmitters that aren’t connected like those in a typical brain.  Because of this, they very often have sensory issues.  When I did a little research I was led to believe that kids with Sensory Processing Disorder were either Sensory Seekers or Sensory Avoiders, but I have since learned from lots of personal experience, that you can definitely be both.

When Charlie feels safe, there are loud and chaotic environments that he doesn’t mind-- arcades, school cafeteria-- but when he is feeling nervous, they will send him over the edge.  He will either shut down or become extremely obnoxious.  He is already an anxious boy and my job is to help him feel safe no matter what, so I have to be in tune to his mood as well as the environment.  I need to be aware if he is a little off, and figure out what may have set him off.

He also has ADHD and requires a ton of sensory input to help his brain focus and calm down.  If he starts chewing on his shirt, I know he needs gum.  When he starts to spin, I offer him the Bilibo.  If he is rocking, I ask if he’d like to swing (we have a swing in our kitchen doorway).  If he is driving everyone crazy, I tell him to go jump on the trampoline for ten minutes and set a timer.

Also, with his limited vision, his other senses are heightened; so he is hyper-aware of smells, sounds, temperature, etc.  It can seem like he is super sensitive and/or difficult with his requests and complaints, but once he is regulated and his sensory needs are balanced and met, he is (usually) calm and cooperative.

Sometimes if he gets home from school out of sorts, I have him search for pennies in a bin of rice.  At dinner, he can choose to sit on a wiggle seat or put a five pound bag of beans in his lap.  Often when given choices, he knows what he needs.  At bedtime, he loves a super hot bath and a hot water bottle to snuggle up with.  We wrap it in a blanket and call it his “hot water baby.”

Are we weird?  Absolutely!  But with these tools, we look a whole lot less weird and feel a whole lot more safe and regulated.  Figure out what your kiddo needs, and you do you!