Monday, May 14, 2012

At Home

I got A Dreaded Call the other day. We all know what those are for our particular family spectra, if sometimes only subconsciously. This was not The Dreaded Call but it was one I have been anticipating with trepidation since Z started kindergarten.

“Z has been taking food from the other children,” her teacher told me. “I have spoken with her and it hasn’t done any good. One time she said she was hungry and the other times she wouldn’t even answer me.”

“Taking.” What a nice word choice compared with “stealing.”

Filled with irrational shame, I mentally enumerated her lunchbox for the day (hard boiled egg, yoghurt, cheese stick, whole grain crackers, baby carrots, applesauce, clementine, small treat – all organic!). I then explained that Z (45 lbs.) gets the same lunch as her brother (95 lbs.) -- and that the hunger is emotional, not physical. I assured her teacher that I would look into solutions.

The next afternoon, Mrs. ___ happily told me that Z had a “good day.” I had given Z extra sweets in her lunchbox as a short-term solution to the “taking” of other kids’ food.  Mrs. ___ admitted that Z had tried to eat the sweets first thing in the morning, but had stopped when told to do so; then she “needed extra time at snack time because she wanted to first arrange the treats in an artistic pattern and then show everyone and then enjoy them very slowly…”

No, that was not a good day.

“Z needs to abide by the same rules as the rest of the class,” I explained. “When you give her special privileges she will feel that she is the one in control and will push – further and further.” This pushing promptly ensued.

In fact, Z’s behavior at school subsequently seemed to explode. I received calls or emails from the school nearly every day. Around the same time that a little girl was handcuffed in Florida  (,0,765665.story) I had to pick Z up in the classroom because she was very upset. I counted myself lucky to have been available. At another pick up, I found her hunched over her Hello Kitty backpack shoveling stolen candy into her mouth with one hand, a handful of crumpled wrappers in the other.  She kicked her best friend and when she finally calmed down announced the whole thing was best friend’s fault for “making me upset” and “making me do it.” She pushed other students, continued to take food, ignored her teacher, lied flagrantly, and so on; she continues to do so.

Another teacher, who has fostered children with attachment disorders, suggested that Z’s behaviors are escalating because she has come to feel comfortable in the classroom. This made sense: at home, she feels most attached to me and therefore needs to constantly test me. Her kindergarten teacher, however, had never dealt with a child with an attachment disorder and was – quite understandably -- bewildered and overwhelmed. I tried to explain some of the underlying factors, but we were and are struggling with how to actually reach Z and create positive change.

Grandmother* (a gerontologist) and Grandfather (an educator, currently teaching fourth grade in a public school in CT) recommended that we consider the possibility that she might need a paraprofessional.

“Ma! Two kids in one tiny elementary school with paras???” I sputtered. “That’s like 12% of the school’s budget! No!”

I imagined myself in a meeting at school wherein this two-for-two issue might arise: assuming the voice of a Borscht Belt comedian from the ‘50s, I’d say, “You think this is bad? You should see us at home!” Ba dum bum!

The truth is, though, that our current educational paradigm holds that public education is for all.  Mainstreaming students with most educational and/or emotional and/or physical special needs is our goal. Ergo: IEPs (Individualized Education Programs; which is what G has) and 504 plans (accommodations, not necessarily special education services; which is what Z may need).  Please see also:

Also true: things are not necessarily harder at home. In G’s case, his schools came to me with concerns over his development and social interactions. Had life consisted of just G and me (or G and me and Timson Hill) I never would have noticed a thing (please see aspergers, genetic links with biological parents…or if there are any websites about people who just want to read all the time with cats on their laps and a nice bowl of pudding).  In Z’s case, struggles at home had always far outweighed those at school.

I envisioned a spectrum in which some people were equally comfortable at home and at school, some were more at ease at school, and some at home. I had come to think of Z as more “at home” at school whereas G seemed more “at home” at home.

Z’s first preschool, which she attended just a few mornings a week, was a sweet, in-home joint, run by a mild, affable woman. Z was – gently but firmly -- asked to leave that preschool for monopolizing all of her teacher’s time and energy.

Her second preschool ( -- may they live long and prosper) was one of the top-rated in the state and a most wonderful and accepting place. G had gone to Timson Hill in his final preschool year, and it was the one place where they never suggested he be evaluated (he had been evaluated by Essential Early Education [“Triple E”] services at his previous preschool, before we moved, and was subsequently evaluated in kindergarten).  G was relatively at ease in that utopian environment – and unconditionally loved. Likewise, the teachers at Timson Hill accepted his sister Z wholeheartedly and – I might add – effectively, as her behaviors improved in that context.

Sure, there were the several times I had to go get Z when she was “possibly catatonic” or “might be having a seizure of some sort” because she wouldn’t respond or speak to her teachers but once we were in the car she’d revive. Using her own words for what she was doing, I would ask, ”Were you just tricking your teachers?”  [Giggles…] “Yes.”

But they never minded! They were just glad to know she was okay! And, day-to-day, they celebrated her for Expressing Herself and Exploring her Power, just as they had celebrated G’s various quirks and peccadilloes as originality, pensiveness, brilliance…

Ah, would that the whole world were made of Timson Hill.

On the first day of kindergarten, Z -- alongside her big brother -- proudly walked into the school she’d been anticipating attending for years. Her pink Hello Kitty backpack was almost bigger than she was.  It was an exciting and happy event.

                                               Figure I – Backpack to Child Ratio: 4:5

 There were other idyllic moments, like when Pardner and I both elected to serve as “Mystery Readers” in the classroom. I bawled uncontrollably (though [I hope] subtly) throughout those simple and unspoiled occasions.  I had so much hope that Z would be able to self-regulate in positive ways at school.

Still, fairly early on, Z’s teacher had to move her cubby to a more visible place because of some sneaking behaviors. And she was having some dominance and conflict-resolution challenges too. Then again, Z could certainly be relied upon to “run circle time” if Mrs. ___ had a small group activity to attend to.  Overall, kindergarten seemed to be going relatively well.

One morning in November, after some small incident, we stopped to greet the principal at the front door. “Z is planning to be very well-behaved today,” I announced. Z’s face got flat and stormy. “Hey,” I told her as we walked into school, noticing her expression, “You need to behave – and we are all here to help you.”

On the way back out, I stopped again and said to the principal, “I hope that was okay…I just want to help Z do her best and her knowing that everybody is in on that seems like a good idea to me.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry too much,” he assured me. “She’s only been down in to see me a couple of times.”

Um. A couple of times? It was November. And she’s in KINDERGARTEN??? G has been to the principal’s office once in five years; I’d been once: in fifth grade, for kicking Jamie Chickaverry in the braces. (I’d been aiming lower.)

After a weekend from h-e-double-toothpicks, and the above-mentioned calls and concerns from Z’s teacher, I scheduled an emergency phone appointment with the attachment disorder therapist. While I was on the phone, Pardner ran into the woman who had referred us to that therapist in the first place in town. She has a son about Z’s age who was also adopted and has similar issues with anger, among other things. “How’s it going?” she asked Pard. He told her a little about recent events.

She got it. Wasn’t any kind of, “Oh that’s ‘normal’’’ – she got the whole threatening-to-kill-Mama (and everyone else), house-destroying aspect of the situation. Apparently, her son calls her a “F-ing B___” On the regular. Sigh. My people.

Pardner said she then uttered the words, “support group.”

“I don’t really think FSM is the type for that…” Pardner ventured.

“Yeah,” she said, “I wasn’t either. It’s just that you get nuggets of information. AND you meet people who get it.”

This is why sometimes I cannot talk to people: I mentioned a bit about some current behaviors to someone. “Mavbe Z was having a rough day at school,” this innocent person suggested.

No, innocent person, Z was not “having a rough day at school.” Z was possessed. By the exorcist? Or – I mean – she was possessed by whatever the girl in that movie is possessed by – that’s my daughter when she’s mad? Which is a lot of the time? The clinical term is “shame rages”?

So…About that support group?

Our therapist differentiated for us between shame and guilt. Guilt is a pro-social emotion, which makes learning and progress possible. When children feel guilt, they naturally want to do better. In time more pro-social behavior becomes ingrained. Shame is a dead end, and children with that feeling see themselves as helpless and hopeless. They have, therefore, nothing to lose. Shame is an anti-social emotion.

When Z clams up and refuses to respond to teachers and family it is with shame. Her “shame rages” are the tantrums of someone who believes all is already lost, which is the main reason they are so extreme.

Our therapist said one of the most important gifts one can give a child with an attachment disorder is to create the chance to “do a repair.” A repair can make a child feel more safe, more at home, wherever he or she is. It is not too much of a stretch to hope that a child who feels at home (whether in a place or a relationship) would lose the need to attempt to destroy their surroundings or companions.

When one has been dealing with relentless testing and pushing and tantrums all day where does that energy – the energy to not only come up with an idea for a repair but to then carry through -- come from?  What if the one who might be able to “do a repair” is a teacher with twenty other students to worry about?

Better go get some chocolate. It’s for the sake of my child.

Full Spectrum Mama

* I should note this is the same Grandmother who – despite being Liberal and by and large Left-leaning -- is convinced that Z must be descended from royalty due to her great beauty, intelligence and imperiousness.


  1. Great post! So valuable! You are justifiably stressed out, but it's wonderful assistance for those of us on the path behind you.

    A repair can be as simple as an apology and a hug, cleaning up the mess, being involved with the replacement. I had a lot of trouble as a child apologizing if I didn't mean it, but I'm okay with it now. It's relationships we're repairing, not the fabric of the universe. I take Ari Gold's Hug It Out as my mantra for this - see it here - sometimes hugging is mixed with aggression, and that's okay.

    Your postscript is fascinating. It's exactly the kind of picture that fits a homeopathic remedy, even if I can't remember the specific remedy at this moment.

  2. Yes! Thanks for the tips on possible repairs -- and simplicity thereof. Also, great insight about hugs and how they are not always "perfect" and totally aggression-free. That was a huge one for me as I was afraid to hug my tantrum-ing child if I wasn't feeling all lovey-dovey. Like I do about you ;)

  3. I have so much empathy with Z. I know how hard it was for me to grasp the flowing, continuous, strength of relationships; that people were not angelic OR evil; that abandonment was not the only response to difficulties - AND I didn't suffer anything near what she did. I think to some degree, even in the best of families, this is normal childish thinking, and a parent's (endless) work is to teach the untruth of it, over and over and over and over again. "This relationship stands, survives, deepens, grows - even when we make mistakes and hurt each other." It took me years (6?) of a good, healthy, loving relationship to learn this, and that was with adult cognitive abilities and the assistance of a number of therapists!

  4. Absolutely! I am still working on this one too. Maybe this is why we "get" each other and can get Z. To clarify: I understand and empathize with the terrors of a lack of trust and my heart is sooooo with her on these feelings...but the behaviors (in school and at home) are what I am struggling with....I guess my tendency then and now was more to take things out on myself. Is a mother with similar issues the one to teach Z how to trust??? Let's hope so! Love

    1. And brava! to you for working this out, Mama!

    2. Of course, the behaviors have to shift, and they will. Either as she learns to control herself, or as the need to do them eases.

      Actually, I've thought about this issue a lot, and I think the best companion on a healing journey is someone who has similar issues but has resolved them somewhat more than the other person. Because then the healer has compassion for the journeyer, but also knows the way out. Someone who has never experienced trauma won't have the reactivity, but also won't have the empathetic connection. Someone who hasn't healed their own trauma will have so much empathy as to be constantly triggered, unable to be helpful.

  5. If you had two children with autism, or one with down syndrome and one with autism, you would not hesitate to ask (no demand) for the help you are entitled to by law. The school's budget is not your problem and I know you will help in any way you can from a non monetary standpoint. All of our children deserve the resources that educators and researchers know they need, whether or not our states have cut budgets. You would say the same for someone else. You do not need to feel ashamed of anything.

    1. Huzzah to sis!

      It's best for the other kids, teachers, administrators, and parents, as well as future professors, employers and partners of Z, for her to get the support she needs now. It's a societal investment in the future. She has So Much to give the world, and it's better for her to learn now how to cope.


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