help4yourfamily

Create the family you want to have

Tips for Gift Giving and the Child With a History of Abuse

English: Danboard holding a Christmas gift.

English: Danboard holding a Christmas gift. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C

It is the time of year when many adults are on a mission to find just the right gifts for the special children in their lives. One issue that comes up in my practice around this time of year is that of giving gifts to children who have a history of abuse or neglect. While many adults would love to believe that this is the time of year when we can try to make things right, be it a child who may have missed out on many of the memories that make us misty eyed, or laugh out loud when we think about them. I have spoken with many a parent who wishes to restore the magical elements of the Christmas or Hannukah holiday season by showering children with gifts and creating special memories for children in hopes of replacing older more difficult memories.

To ease the way for adoptive and foster parents of children who have a history of abuse or neglect, I would like to give some food for thought as you decide what will work for your child this holiday.

1. Please be aware that for children who have been abused, gifts may carry a different meaning than they do for other children. Many times the cycle of physical abuse including domestic violence may include gifts from the perpetrator following the abuse as the abusers way of trying to apologize or bribe a child into staying silent. Additionally, a child who has been a victim of sexual abuse may have been offered gifts as part of the process of grooming the child for abuse, or again as a means to apologize or buy silence from the child. If you have a child in your home who has experienced this, or you are uncertain if a child has experienced the giving of gifts as part of a cycle of abuse, please be sure to check in with your child’s therapist to see what you might need to do to help re-write the script for you child when it comes to the giving and receiving of gifts. This process cannot be described in a post because it will need to be individualized for each child. If you are uncertain whether your child has this issue and they do not have a therapist, it is time to start looking for one.

2. When children have a history of abuse or neglect, they tend to miss the lessons we all learn (or don’t learn) as babies about emotional regulation. In other words, whereas the rest of us tend to learn over time that we all have highs and lows, sometimes even in the same day, and we learn to manage those highs and lows, children with an abuse or neglect history have not been taught this same emotional management systems so the highs can seem higher or more agitated and the lows can seem lower. Many parents describe to me that their adopted or foster child just can’t seem to stop when things are going well and find a way to get into trouble every time they have a good day. If you have a child like this, I would suggest that for the child’s benefit, you pare down your festivities to something that is more meaningful to them and which does not get them more over-excited than they already are. A few thoughtful gifts will be more meaningful and easier to manage than a tree that has many, many gifts underneath it.

3. Remember your child may not have learned about the same traditions you have around holidays and birthdays. I have had children tremble and shake in my office over the idea of “birthday spankings,” because they actually got painful birthday spankings in their birth family, or because a foster or adoptive parent mentioned them as a joke, but the child in question did not hear it as a joke but as a threat. Similarly, I have had children in my office who have had Christmas taken away as punishment for being bad, or had gifts given only to be repossessed by parents the next day. Some children have had traumas specific to a given day, for example, witnessing domestic violence at Thanksgiving or seeing a parent get hurt by another parent who did not agree with how much money was spent on a child’s gift. Children may have been given an internal message that all gifts bring pain of some sort with them, whether it is the pain of disappointment, physical or emotional pain, or the feeling of being unworthy of a gift. Again, if you are concerned that this is an issue for your child, the time is now to begin discussing it with your child’s therapist to see about recognizing and rewriting old belief patterns.

4. Consider whether your child may need you to walk them through the gift giving process in your family. Most of us do not think about it, but each family really does do things in a unique way. Letting your child know how this family does it, will be helpful to them so they know what is going to happen next.

5. Avoid labeling gifts as secrets, as in, “Don’t tell Mom we got this for her. It’s a secret.” Instead try something like, “We are going to surprise mom with this gift. It’s okay to keep this surprise until she gets it.” It may seem like a small distinction but for kids with the kind of history we are talking about I always try to teach the difference between surprises and secrets. Surprises= safe and good, secrets= unsafe and bad. As children grow and begin to feel safer in their day to day life, we can get less concrete about this issue.

6. Remember to receive any gift your child gives you with love and acceptance being extra sure that they do not hear critique of their gift as you receive it. Remember to that your child, for all of the above reasons and more, may have difficulty giving a gift to you as it may symbolize for them any number of difficult memories, or remind them of a relationship they have a major internal conflict about.

While I know this post may remind you of some issues you would rather forget during the season, one wonderful things I have seen over the years is how parents of adoptive and foster children work so hard to come up with the combination of experiences that best meet their child’s needs. If you are a foster or adoptive parent of a child adopted at an older age with a history of abuse or neglect, please feel free to chime in with any other tips you have. I would love to hear about things that went right and things you would have changed if you could go back in time.

November 21, 2012 Posted by | attachment disorder, keeping children safe, mental health | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Problem with Social Services- from a Social Worker’s Perspective- part I

Length of stay in U.S. foster care

Length of stay in U.S. foster care (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C

I am writing this post in response to another post by Daniellesstory (I will repost so you can see it if you missed it) asking how it is that we might mobilize to make our children safer. Part of her concern was their safety when they have been entrusted to the care of social services.  I would highly recommend you read her post about her experiences with her adopted daughter and social services and her questions about how to enact meaningful legislation that would really help children rather than serve as “nice words” saying we support a safe and healthy childhood for every child.  I realize that her blog is not asking solely about Social Services but since most of the children that I see in my practice have had some interaction with social services, this is actually an issue that comes up a lot and I will focus on them for this post.  If you are interested in finding out more about my own work history that informs my thoughts here, you can read my longer professional biography on the website www.attachmentdisordermaryland.com- you will find me in the “about us” section.  While there are many aspects of Social Services we could talk about, in this post, I am going to stick with ways to change the ability of Social Services to protect children.

The issues, as I see them, are three-fold, implementation, support and funding.  I will speak to implementation first.  Right now, the individual states are in charge of the Departments of Social Services (they are not even all called that- but they all serve the same function) and within the states, sometimes Social Services are run by the counties and cities within the state.  Each area decides for example, the level of education required to call someone a social worker and that can very within a state.  In my state, Maryland, the county I live in has Child Protective Service (CPS) workers that are all Master’s level educated, while in Baltimore City, the Master’s level educated people are not in the field, they are supervising the workers in the field who may have an AA or undergraduate degree.  It’s easy to see how a CPS worker with an AA would have a different skill set for helping, coping with burnout etc. from a Master’s level worker.

Additionally, different states have different laws about the implementation of protective services.  In Maryland we have a law that states that Social Services must respond to an abuse report where a child may be in danger within 24 hours.  That law and a law requiring workers to see any child who is a ward of the state routinely was the result of a child death while the child was in care and a subsequent re-haul of the system (via the Maryland state legislature).  We also have a “mandatory reporter” law where people that routinely work with children, such as people in the school system, health care workers, social workers, etc.  are required to report any suspicion of abuse.  Other states have other laws governing (or not governing) social services.  Consequently, when we talk about protecting children, we really must look to the laws of the state.  In the daniellesstory post, the author suggested a lawsuit.  I would suggest laws are easier changed by speaking to politicians about actual measures they can take.  It is not my intent at all to minimize or excuse the awful things that happened to that author’s daughter or her daughter’s biological brother, only to better explain where the gaps and disservice comes from.

The question I think I get most often from people first bringing in their traumatized children to me has to do with why social workers do or do not remove children from a home.  Here’s the deal… when we have a legal system that presumes innocence until guilt is proven, we create a reactive rather than proactive society.  This means that social workers cannot just waltz into a home and remove children unless they have concerns that the child is in iminate harm of abuse.  Each state has different laws about what constitutes abuse or neglect.  In my state abuse means that a person left a physical mark on a child, used a child in a sexually exploitative manner, neglected to meet a child’s basic needs for health and welfare by not dressing them appropriately for the weather, neglecting to follow through on medical recommendations involving health issues, etc.  Also included in my state’s laws related to abuse is mental harm- wherein a child has been emotionally abused by a parent, however, I do not know of a single case where a child has been removed for this alone.  To break this down into the parts people seem most interested in, no, you cannot remove a child solely because they have drug addicted or alcoholic parent, or their house is messy all the time (unless the mess creates certain harm to the child), or because you think they are overly punative and mean.  Children can be removed if the parents are drug abusers who have taken the child in the car while they were driving drunk or high, the mess in the house constitutes danger to a child, or the punative, mean nature of the parent translates into actual physical harm to the child.  Because of the reactive nature of our system, children cannot be removed before harm is done.  Child Protective Service (CPS) workers are trained to work to keep children in the home since we do not have a large pool of willing foster parents who are excited to take children into their home.  Kinship care (where a child is placed with a relative) is the next step, and foster care is the last resort  a worker looks for.  Again, implementation of these decisions over whether a child stays or does not stay will have a lot to do with the training and support given to people in local departments and can vary widely.

In 1997, Congress enacted a law making a timeline where social services are required to work toward reunification of the child with their parent, except for some extreme cases, for 15 months.  After those months are completed, they are to switch to permanency planning where they work toward the termination of parental rights so a child is free to be adopted.  This law is in effect to avoid having children lingering in care for years and years while the system waits for a child’s parent to get it together.  The belief behind the law is that children are best served by being in a family.  Because this is a federal law- it is the same in every state.

As I mentioned before, not all states have the same laws and you definitely want to look up the laws in your individual state.  The laws directly impact the way services are implemented so if you are looking for a different implementation of services, I would suggest you look at the wording of the laws about what constitutes abuse, who is a mandatory reporter and what they would be required to report, and look at the timeline for services for a child outside of the federal timeline like how quickly a child needs to be seen etc.  I would not try to change the law to be pro-active (removing children before harm is done), not only is it asking to change a fundamental principle of our legal system, it is a slippery slope.   Take, for example, when people say you should need a license to be a parent.  Who would implement that law?  Who would decide who gets to be a parent?  What would the requirements be? When you look at it that way, you can see this is not a road we want to go down.  We can’t even agree if a grown woman should be allowed to have birth control covered by her insurance for goodness sake- how in the world would anyone begin to decide who would get the parenting license, etc?  I would also point out that I have met many parents who are “licensed”- they are foster parents and while they are required to take classes and pass basic requirements, they continue to have the same spectrum of parenting ability as the general population- anywhere from abhorrent to fantastic.  To conclude this portion, I would say that the laws generally protect parents to raise children in the ways we see fit with limits set for the minimum standard of care and the maximum amount of physical force and exploitation.  Within those parameters, we are all free to “mess up” our children as much as we would like and the system does not get to take them.

Tomorrow, I am going to post about two other issues, support for Social Workers and others who aid in protecting children and barriers to prevention.

What do you think would be a good law to implement to protect children?

April 17, 2012 Posted by | social services | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Trash Your Behavior Charts!

Kids (film)

Kids (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have a pet peeve as both a parent and as a clinician about behavior charts.  You know, those charts where kids get stickers for doing things they are supposed to be doing anyway, and then they get a treat or prize for doing it enough times?  I am aware this opinion may be upsetting to some clinicians and especially school professionals where behavior charts are relied upon so heavily.  As a parent, I just think they are annoying and hard to follow for me.  As a clinician, I believe they set up a tit for tat system in a family where everyone starts measuring who did what when.  For my parents with children with attachment disorder they are especially frustrating because by the time a child has earned the prize, you might feel as though you are so angry about all the work it took for you to get them to do the chore/ desired behavior that you don’t really feel like giving them anything.  Sometimes kids make you sorry you gave the prize after the fact by deciding now that they earned the prize they don’t need to do anything for a while.  What a pain.

I have a much better alternative to traditional behavior charts.  It’s the only one that works and it requires little effort from you!  This will take all of two minutes of your life.  Here’s how it works:

  1.  Take a piece of paper and write down one or two (I would only do a couple at a time because it’s easier to keep track of) things your child does that bug the heck out of you i.e. lying, “forgetting” to do their chores, sassing back.  Pick something that is realistic for their developmental level.
  2. Think of a few prizes you might like to earn that involve self-care: a massage, getting a cup of tea with a friend, take a long bath, etc.
  3. Let your child know that you are now giving yourself a behavior chart.  When you are able to successfully handle this behavior from your child in a manner you feel is appropriate (without you yelling, whining, engaging in a back and forth battle), you get a point!  Decide how many points you need to earn to get a prize.   Tell your child that when they engage in that behavior from now on you (not they) will earn a point.
  4. When they do engage in the behavior, calmly remark on what an opportunity this is for you to earn points so you can take care of yourself.  It’s important for parents to take care of themselves when kids are giving them a hard time.  You can wonder aloud how long it’s going to take to get your prize.
  5. This is the most important step.  Follow through!  When you earn your points, do the thing you said you would do to take care of yourself, even if you don’t feel like it.  Remember you picked things you like to do so perhaps they can help you now.

I have successfully used this “behavior chart” with many parents now and I have used it myself.  It works like a charm.  I used it with my own daughters who kept coming in at night to have me take them back to bed when they had their normal cycle of lighter sleep.  I modified it so that if one kid came in, she earned her sister a point!  Guess who sleeps without interruption for weeks at a time?  This lady, right here does! J  It’s really a win-win either way since even if you don’t get the desired behavior right away (and you will because kids get annoyed at the idea of earning you a prize) you at least get some self-care.

April 5, 2012 Posted by | attachment, discipline, help for parents | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

   

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