The Concept of Special Needs is Broad
We adopted from the state foster care system a few years ago. She was just under four years of age. Several months later, our therapist informed us that she has special needs. The concept of special needs is broad. And for most of us, we need professional help to really understand these kids. Children who have experienced disruptions to their home environment will likely have emotional and behavioral problems. Some will present with temporary difficulties, others with long-standing. A number of children in foster care have significant psychiatric conditions. I highly recommend finding a therapist who specializes in foster and adoptive families.
I have visited several blogs by parents who write about having kids with special needs. My heart goes out to them. I truly appreciate these amazing people who have taken on children with severe problems. The bloggers identify the medical conditions and/or psychiatric disorders that they have, that they live with all day long. Their days are long. The spectrum is vast and long. I am not sure exactly where my daughter falls on the scale. Some days her placement is higher, other days low. I wonder if it is fair to other families to even consider my kid as having special needs. I don’t want to be in any way disrespectful. Is it ok for me to gripe about my difficult days? Is there a catch phrase that I can use for my life with a kid who has maladaptive behaviors, but is smart and who does not require a teacher’s aide? What group are we in…?
In any case, parenting a child with developmental issues off the usual course is challenging. Adopting a kid that was raised by others for a period of time is challenging. Adding a child to a home which has biological children of the parents can be challenging. My intention is not to compare difficulties or challenges, but rather to reach out to anyone who struggles with parenting. I never know what kind of day we’re going to have, ever. I just know that I am not alone. I remind myself each day, or at least I try to, of how far we’ve come and I give myself a lot of credit. Somebody has to.
Understanding Her Previous Life, Understanding Her
I embraced my new position of soon-to-be adoptive parent. I was educated on her early trauma by professional mental health workers. My kid was removed from her biological parents as an infant. She was placed with a few different relatives, all of whom could not be long-term resources. She was transferred early on in her first year of life to a foster home, where she lived for over three years. We welcomed her into our home when she was 3 years 8 months. I anticipated several months of adjusting to our home. Three years later the storm has still not calmed down.
Understandably, she has emotional issues because of being removed from her biological parents. She may not remember her first year and what that entailed. But I am sure that somewhere in her psyche is this primitive response to not getting her meals on time and not being soothed when in distress. She is still aching for that satisfaction. She is like a bottomless well with us. It does not matter if we just spent two hours interacting — playing, cuddling, singing, reading, eating– she will turn to me and ask frantically what are we going to do now? and often with tears, she will ask: will you play with me now? While leaving the children’s museum, she whined when are we going to the zoo? we haven’t gone! I let her pick out a decoration for an upcoming holiday, her response was why can’t I have three? The give me, give me, gimme syndrome. If you ask her thirty minutes after a huge feast if she is hungry, she will nod emphatically and say yes. It is never enough, she does not feel satisfaction or a state of content.
I remember the behaviors of kids in foster care when I worked as a caseworker in NYC. There were typical behaviors– hoarding, stealing, lying, impulsivity, frequent displays of distress and agitation. During case conferences, we reviewed the presence of these common behaviors. My daughter still engages in these behaviors. She has her own room, her own toys, clothing and places for just her things. We have a set of rules that mostly involve safety– don’t open the front door, touch the dog only on his back, let the adults get the sharp knives from the block, the typical list. She is fed plenty from structured snack and meal times. Noone’s needs are left unattended. And yet she continues to sneak, to lie, and to burst into tears over little things. I cannot leave her alone and run upstairs to bring food dishes to the cats. How long does that take, maybe 30 seconds. I cannot transfer clothes from the washer to the dryer. Why? because she will get into something. She will open the front door to a stranger, she’ll write on furniture, she’ll take food and go into the bathroom, she will hide someone’s glasses, she’ll annoy the dog who then pounces on her. These events have happened. Often. Too often. A tantrum when the answer was we will go to the zoo another time. A tantrum after she enjoyed her hot cocoa and then saw her brother have a snack. The tantrums every day over minutia.
Foster and adoptive children present with emotional and behavioral difficulties, resulting in a diagnosis from their physician or therapist. I know as a former social worker how difficult this is for parents– the labeling. But there are benefits to a diagnosis. When your child meets criteria for a diagnosis, such as PTSD or RAD or an Anxiety Disorder you know what you have. It’s really similar to medical conditions. When a doctor tells you after a verbal interview and a physical exam that you have eczema, you have an explanation. Your physician informs you this is what the condition is called, you’re told of the triggers or stressors, your physician goes over possible treatments. I know that for many parents there is a mixed bag of emotions, one is usually relief. For me, it was just knowing I was not imagining things. When I described situations, my child’s responses, and my reactions I often wondered if I was overreacting or having unrealistic expectations. It was a relief to hear that my kid has special needs and requires a different than the norm set of parenting techniques.
We saw two different therapists. We were in treatment for 18 months. Near the end of that period, our therapist started wrapping things up. We no longer met medical necessity. Another similarity to medical conditions. When a client can function without the professional service, that person does not have medical necessity. Years ago, I worked in the insurance business managing mental health care services. We used that phrase a lot, as in “Sorry, your therapist or hospital or chemical dependency facility does not think you need to stay in their treatment anymore. There is no medical necessity.” Our therapist reminded us of parental strategies (I should have taken better notes), of my child’s history and her triggers to stress (there were many), the progress we had made (remind me of that?), and how the door was always open (why shut it now?). Eight months later I called her up: could we please return, I am falling apart here. She met with me alone. And again, we reviewed strategies, triggers and responses to stress, and how the door was always open. I left feeling like I had gotten a nice, long hug. That feeling lasted a few minutes.
I think so many of us, parents of kids with special needs, need that. A feeling of validation and support. I wish my therapist could live with us. And just be there for me. I would do so much better as a parent and human, knowing we’re on track and that no one is failing. My son had eczema as a young child. I slathered on the Aquaphor during the winter months. I massaged the hydrocortisone cream when he had break-outs. But then he grew out of it. Sure we still see patches a few times a year and we have tubes of hydrocortisone in the house. For the most part his skin has moved on, has matured, is not susceptible to the harsh environmental elements. What about her? when will she mature and outgrow all these maladaptive behaviors?