Special Needs

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Today is World Adoption Day.  Most adoptive families are fans of the show This is Us because it does a beautiful job of giving voice to the many different sides of adoption.  But this week was the first time that special needs adoption was brought up.  When Randall tried to stick it to the social worker in jail and she stuck it right back to him about telling the deaf 4 year old that she still didn’t have a family for her in sign language, my throat got stuck in my throat.

May I take a moment to introduce my family to you?

Nine years ago, my husband and I wanted to adopt internationally.  We planned to adopt a baby girl from China.  On our initial application I believe we requested an infant girl, as young as possible, and checked the box “Non-Special Needs.”  Within the next few months we learned that those three criteria meant a very, very long wait.

Over time we opened up to the idea of special needs and accepted a referral for a two-year-old girl with albinism.  We learned from our case worker that having albinism meant that not only would she have blonde hair and fair skin, she would also be visually impaired.  We knew so little about albinism at the time that we literally just thought that would mean that she would wear glasses.

Once we got to China and met her, we realized just how poor her vision was and we were scared.  God gave us peace that she was our daughter, but we were still clueless and unsure of what her future would look like.  Fast forward a few years and we learned that not only was she legally blind, she was also hearing impaired and dyslexic.  I am ashamed to say that if we had seen these things listed in a file back then, I am fairly certain that we would have not accepted it.

I am not saying that God tricked us or that it is good that parents don’t know the whole picture when they adopt, but…. I do believe that He leads us step by step and can soften our hearts to certain children and give us courage in the most loving way.

I am not exaggerating when I say that our daughter, who is now 11, is probably the most amazing child that I have ever met.  Her grit, her personality, and her inner beauty inspire me every day.  She is a ray of sunshine, a passionate leader, and a force to be reckoned with.  What if we’d missed out on being her parents because we never checked that box for Special Needs?

I cannot tell you how many ways adopting our daughter has improved our lives.  She is truly a blessing to all who meet her.  She may have some special needs but she gift to us.  Having her in our family has changed the way we view the world, and even prompted us to adopt again, this time a child with more “severe” special needs.

If you are considering adoption, please don’t overlook the ones who are already waiting.

Anxiety

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I was listening to a podcast last week featuring a popular author talking about raising brave kids.  She gave several examples of when children have fears, i.e. strangers, the dark, speaking up for themselves, and how you can just push them through those fears until they conquer them.  Humph, I thought.  This lady doesn’t have a kid with anxiety.

We were at an amusement park last month, in line (for forever) for a roller coaster in front of a mom and her two kids, one of which was whimpering and even though I never could actually hear him, I gathered he was afraid because his mom kept saying, “Fine.  Don’t do it.  You won’t get your reward, but fine.  Your baby sister is going to do it but if you’re scared… fine.”  I hope this kid doesn’t have anxiety.

Until I had a child with anxiety, I actually was a lot like both of these moms; little sympathy and little patience for people that couldn’t just “push through their fears.”  I am a very even keeled person, not super emotional and I usually enjoy trying new things.  That’s normal, right?  If you’re not like that, well you could be if you just tried hard enough.  I really thought that; until I couldn’t deny any longer that there is no way someone would choose to have anxiety.

A couple of years ago I did a lot of research about living with a child with anxiety because we had just adopted a seven year old who was possibly the most stressed out human that I had ever encountered.  A lot of his energy was cute and funny, but most of it was chaotic and fearful.  I read a book called The Whole Brain Child by Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne and it revolutionized the way we interacted with him when he was feeling anxious.

First of all, learning that when stressed, the logical and sensible part of his brain shuts down and the primitive, reactive, emotional part is firing on all cylinders, changed our mind set and strategies completely.  Would yelling at him, telling him to pull it together, threatening punishment or depriving him of attention help him to not feel anxious in that moment?  Of course not!  But being there for him physically, using a calm voice, and letting him know that whatever has set him off is something that we can face together usually does.

A few weeks ago he was having an awful morning.  He was off in every way possible.  I couldn’t really pinpoint what had set him off, but he refused to get on the bus and began to destroy the playroom.  Finally, after close to an hour of him melting down, I remembered an event that was happening at school that day that would likely cause tremendous anxiety for a child like him.  I didn’t ask him what was wrong, I went downstairs and I said, “Buddy, I can see that you are very upset about what is happening at school today.  I am going to take you to school and we can talk to your teacher about how to help you.  We are a team and we can do this together.” 

He sat incredibly still, sniffed, and said, “It’s going to take me forever to clean up this mess.”  Ha!  (It did take him a while to clean up.)  No punishment needed-- just support and proving that I am on his team.  Many people may criticize me and say that I gave in to him.  He got his way.  He got out of the thing he didn’t want to do.  But I assure you, in the state he was in, he never would have succeeded anyway.  The priority for me in that moment was not to prove that I was in charge and life is hard, but to show him that I am on his team and I can help him when he can’t deal.

We are still dealing with anxiety daily.  We are investigating medication and alternative therapies.  I do not have it all figured out, by any stretch, but what I do now know is that every child is different, and anxiety is real.  It can be awful.  It can ruin a perfect day.  It can come completely unexpectedly.  It is irrational and crippling.  And the last thing that a child or parent needs in the middle of it is to feel judged.

Parenting is hard enough already.  Raising a child who suffers from anxiety with patience and understanding is not for the faint of heart.  You don’t have to agree with every method that they are trying, but some grace and prayer (or a fist bump) could make their day.  Spoken from experience.

Choosing Hard Things

This is the first week of school and so far, it has exceeded my wildest expectations.  My son Charlie does not like change, suffers from anxiety, and had been saying several weeks prior that he did not want to go back to school.

However, in the meantime he attended an incredible week of therapy disguised as camp (thank you, Bethany Christian Services), where he learned a lot about dealing with his fears and anxiety.  He was also assigned a classroom at school where he already knew the teacher, in the same building that he is familiar with, and with two friends that he is crazy about. 

This classroom also happens to have a guinea pig named Hotdog, which has proven to be like therapy on its own.  Charlie tells me that Hotdog “feels nervous too, just like me!  So, together we can help each other feel calm in the mornings.” 

Someone tell me that God can’t use anything He chooses to minister to us.

So, I have been rejoicing this week, and thankful that the year is off to a great start.  I’ve also had some free time with two of my three kids already in school, and I’ve been cleaning out some of Charlie’s adoption paperwork.  (We adopted him from China two years ago, and I hadn’t opened the bin since.)

It has been a cathartic experience at an interesting time.

Charlie is in such a great place emotionally right now, probably the best he’s been in the two years he’s been home, and I am purging through these papers reminding me of his past.  Not only the difficult things he went through, but how long he went through them.  His paperwork was prepared for his adoption when he was two years old, and we didn’t come until he was seven.

I was also flooded with stress and emotions regarding the royal pain of the process of adoption, at least from China.  The paperwork is insane, the red tape is sometimes ludicrous, and the wait is so taxing.  It is an incredibly hard and emotional journey.   Then you finally get your child home and the difficulties have only just begun.  Parenting kids from hard places is just so painful, so draining. 

Would I do it again?  Yes.  But, in the middle of my contentment at where we are today, I had a tangible reminder of how hard it was.  I don't want to forget.  Remembering the trials helps me relate and understand others when they are in the middle of it.

I wish that adoption was easier.  There are so many children who need homes, and so few people who are able to provide them.  I wish I could show everyone Charlie today and say, “Please adopt an orphan.  Look at how amazing this kid is!  Don’t you want another one just like him?”  But that's not appropriate, or the full story.  

God moved mountains to get him to us, and then more to help him become as healthy as he is today.  It was not a picnic, and there were more storms than rainbows, at least for a while.

Many adopted kids will need therapy, some will need residential care, and others may never show you that they love you.  But, take heart!  If God has called you to this, He is using you.  It is not easy, but through your love and commitment to these children, you are changing the world, and certainly changing the future.

Not all of us are called to adopt or foster, but if you think you are, don’t doubt the call because it’s hard.

If you know you’re not called to adopt or foster, support those who are.  Be their friend, bring them a meal, pray for them, support their adoption financially.  It takes a village to not only bring the child home, but also to raise them.

Several years ago, I read a book called Radical by my college friend David Platt.  The premise is that the American Dream is a lie and not what Jesus has called us to. The hard stuff is what he has called us to.  This was such a counter-cultural book, but I believe it is biblical, and it really helped shape my world view.

What's more, I think my inherent personality has always drawn me to hard things.  As a child I always loved sad movies, I grew up to be a cancer nurse, I still tend to pick the sad books.  I think that seeing the world from tough situations helps me learn so much about humanity. 

I am lucky enough (or blessed) to know that hard doesn't equal bad. God’s plan for us is that we would get our hands dirty and bring hope to this dying world. Sometimes God uses us to change another person’s story, but He always changes our story in the process.

Yes, now I can show you Charlie’s progress and successes, but even if I couldn’t, I could certainly show you how I have grown and changed through it all.  Not all adoptions have happy endings, but I believe there is good that is brought out of nearly all of them.

God uses these stories for His Kingdom and we are all better for it.

It is not “normal” to want to bring a blind seven year old boy who doesn’t speak English into your family.  It is insane.

I have friends who live among and minister to the poor and they get their house broken into on the regular.  That is infuriating.

I have co-workers who face death daily among cancer patients.  That is exhausting.

It is not very appealing to choose the difficult path, but we all have opportunities to do so.  To take care of the dying, to befriend the mourning widow, to take the hurting and draining child into our home as our son or daughter, to stand up for the marginalized, to feed and clothe the hungry and poor, to speak up about racism to our friends and family who don’t understand why we care so much...

 We can’t each do all of these things well, but we can all do our part.

Choosing the hard is not appealing, but it is sacred.  It is difficult, but it is beautiful.  It is refining, and it is molding us to be exactly who God created us to be.

Doing the hard thing is not easy, ever.  But it is worth it, always.

 

Now if someone could convince me the same about exercise, that would be great.

 

How Are Those Expectations Working Out?

We all have our kryptonite.  Things that melt us, slay us, make us do crazy things.  For me, it is the older child waiting to be adopted-- the movies, the videos, even the thought of children waiting, watching younger kids get adopted, just kills me.

I know many people thought we were crazy, or saints, or short sighted to adopt a blind, 7 year old boy from China two years ago.  Several people told us so.  And we kind of knew it, in a giddy way.

“I know!  Isn’t it so crazy?!  Isn’t it great?!”

 And even though we did tons of reading, and knew it would be hard, we still had a certain number of expectations.  We know that expectations set us up for disappointment, but when we dream and think of the future, it is hard not to have some expectations.

Two years ago, I would have told you that within two years after adoption, with the right amount of love and the proper parenting style, Charlie would more than likely be a normal, visually impaired nine year old.  I mean two years is a long time in the life of a child, right?  (I also thought he would’ve lost his accent by now, but I love it.)

Even though it seems like we have had him in our lives for a long time, two years out of nine is not long at all.  And even though we have loved him well and given him tons of nurture and attention for two whole years, for over seven he had a very hard life.  Those years will affect him forever.

A few things that have gone differently than I expected or planned…

For one, he is on medication for ADHD.  We didn’t know much about medicating kids, and had certainly seen and heard some of the negative sides of doing so.  But they have greatly helped Charlie and it is clear to him and everyone around him that they are a tool to help him function and succeed.

There are definitely plenty of behaviors that we let slide that I never would have seen coming.  We have become more laid back than I ever would have imagined about certain things, and more intentional about others.

He still sleeps in our floor most nights.  When he had been home about a month, I thought it was time to nip that in the bud as soon as possible.  But now I have bigger things to worry about.  There is so much fear and anxiety going on in his body at bedtime, that getting him to sleep and helping him sleep through the night is the goal, not where he does so. 

When we first got Charlie he was 7 years old and acted about 3.  Now he is 9.5 and acts about 5 or 6.  So yes, he is maturing and growing, but slowly, and still far from a “typical” 9 year old.

Charlie is an enigma in many ways, as are most kids from hard places.  He is very responsible and hard working; he loves to help and knows how to better than most kids his age.  But emotionally he is a semi-active volcano, and physically he is still so tiny.  Two years in and at 9.5 years old he still loves to be carried and babied and needs lots of praise. 

He has blown us away with his love.  He is very affectionate and gives hugs and kisses very easily.  He is wicked smart and asks questions that we can’t keep up with.  He is very independent and many people don’t even realize he is visually impaired until they see his cane or catch him examining something close up.

We expected for him to need more physical help.  We thought that his vision would be a life-altering issue.  We were surprised to learn that his emotional health and needs would far outweigh his physical "handicap."

Some of our expectations came from our reading and some came from our previous adoption of our daughter.   But alas, each child is different, as are their experiences. And even when we think that we know what we are getting into, we don’t.

The last two years have been harder than I expected in many ways, but we have all grown and changed so much, that I honestly don’t know if I would change them if I could.

I can relate to people in a whole new way now.  Especially people who are struggling with their children and feel hopeless in this journey.

Nothing about adoption is predictable, especially with an older child.  I am thankful that God placed this particular kryptonite in my heart though.  Because of it, I am a changed person who has learned to love on a whole new level.

 

 

 

 

My Thoughts On Summer

There are many stay-at-home moms that love summer-- freedom from obligations, staying up later, sleeping in, vacations, etc.  Then there are those of us with kids who thrive on rhythms and routines and are monsters without them.

Whether there are special needs involved, or just a traumatic past, structure and predictability create a lifeline for many kids.

My youngest son spent 7 years in an orphanage; all he knew was structure and routine.  He also has ADHD and has a hard time making decisions and enjoying unstructured play.

He is obsessed with his iPad because there aren’t many decisions to be made, and he is always in control.  He does like the pool, but on rainy days he is at a loss for what to do. 

When he would ask me what to do, I would make a suggestion and he would say “No, not that.”  He couldn’t make a decision, but he also didn’t want me to tell him what to do.  What a predicament for both of us!

So now we have an Activity Jar.  It is just a small jar with popsicle sticks in it.  Each stick has an activity on it; puzzle, Legos, Playdough, coloring, etc. 

When he needs an idea of something to do, I hand him the jar and he picks an activity.  It gives him autonomy, and he feels like it’s his decision since he made the popsicle sticks in the first place.  Win, Win.

Even though I know that structure is important for my house to run smoothly, it is so, so hard during Summer.  Sometimes I just want to watch movies at night (every night!).  I just want to stay at the pool through dinner.  I just want to sleep in and let them fix their own breakfast.

I have 1-2 kids that this works fine for, and then I have Charlie.  He refuses to go to bed if the older kids are still up and yet he gets up between 5:00 and 6:00am every day.  He can get his own breakfast, but yesterday that was a sleeve of Fudge Striped Cookies.

When he is off schedule and off structure, he is Off.  It started the last couple of weeks of school, because we were all a little lax-- no homework, watching movies at school, class parties, etc., and it went right into the summer.

The first couple of weeks were so hard.  We were eating dinner later, because why not?  Something so simple should not ruin our whole evening… but it did.  He was bonkers. 

For the first week or so I thought, ‘It is not fair that this 49.5lb kid is running this house.  My husband doesn’t get home from work until we are already eating dinner during the school year, during the summer we can wait.  Eating later so that he can join us seems reasonable.  And my other two kids will be fine if they stay up a little later—the NBA Finals are on!'

Yes, for 4 out of 5 of us, these things weren’t a big deal, but for Charlie the shift created instability and sometimes panic.  We had to decide what our priorities were and most of us can agree, when Charlie feels safe and secure, we are all happier.

It is not "fair" to many of us, but it is a worthy sacrifice.  Our whole night is different when it is predictable.  And our summer will be different if we keep up rhythms and routines.

When we don’t stick with what is familiar, Charlie's brain is wired to fear: something is off, this doesn’t feel right, I don’t feel safe.

 Many people, including some little people in our home, say that we shouldn’t bend to him so much; he will just have to learn to be flexible and to understand that he doesn’t always get his way.

And he will, eventually, but I believe that right now we need to prioritize him feeling safe and secure.  The rest will come. 

My other kids sometimes ask when Charlie will act “normal.”  I have to remind them that his brain is not wired like a normal kid.  It is wired for fear and self-protection because of all of the things he has gone through.  And it is shaped by his past experiences.

We have to continually remind ourselves of that, and I believe our priorities and parenting goals should always have that in mind.  It shapes the way we parent, the compassion we have, and the grace we give.