Saturday, November 5, 2011

Tales from the Trenches

I have always prided myself on being a really good mom. It's the reason I felt justified giving other people advice, and the reason I felt I was up to the task of adoption. I figured my two kids are so fantastic, I must be great, ergo I should be entrusted with another. Well, recently I've ben a crummy mom. I want to share what's been going on because I think maybe it could help someone else.
We bear the dubious honor of being a "blended" family. For those not hip to the lingo, that means a remarriage involving kids. I brought a beautiful, wonderful son to our new family when Nick and I married two years ago. Our boy is blessed to have a biological father who remains involved with him, and a stepfather who loves him dearly, but I know that it is hard for him. The hardest part is visitation. As much as he loves his dad and stepmom and brother, it's always a tough adjustment before and after a visit. The two households are, naturally, quite different and it's hard leaving your home and friends behind for the trip. We have noticed that he tends to get a bit "scattered" in the week or two before he travels, and for a week or two after he returns. Behavioral problems spike. He's not himself.
My recent failure as a mom involves not being sensitive to my kids' emotional state and needs. With all the run-up for our adoption, I've been a bit distracted. So when Baby Girl started getting clingy and having trouble sleeping, I wrote it off as her teething. And when Big Brother started acting up a bit, being rude and disobedient at home, I thought he was just testing us. He sometimes does that. His behavior at school was a bit off, his ability to focus was nil, and I had this vague feeling of not being in control of the situation. I imposed new rules, I set up a reward system for good behavior at school, I enforced homework more strictly. Still, he was crabby and ill-tempered.
Then, yesterday, it peaked. I got a call from Big Brother's school saying that he had gotten into trouble for trying to cut a preschooler on the face with a pair of scissors. I honestly had no idea how to respond. The principal said that no one had been hurt, that he had spoken with my son about safe hands, and that my boy was under strict observation for the rest of the day but was not suspended. Suspended. In kindergarten. Could he actually be suspended in kindergarten??? The fact that he seemed to have gotten very close to it made me scared.
It's a good thing this call came mid-day. I had a lot of time to think about it, to ponder it, before having to pick my son up from school. My first thought was "how do I punish this?" Then I began to think deeper. I began to wonder where this was coming from. What would make my normally sweet boy want to hurt another child, totally unprovoked? And why was he acting like a raging lunatic at least 50% of the time?
After a lot of prayer and consideration, I realized that he's been needing our help for a while now and we've been too busy/selfish to notice.
When kids are struggling, they "act out." What that means is that they take what they are feeling on the inside and bring it out as an action. My boy was acting out some serious internal struggle right there.
First of all, there's the impending adoption and his struggle to find his place in that all. We're gearing up for a trip, and it is bringing out some of the same emotions that he experiences before a visitation. He may not be traveling, but it does affect. Second, his Christmas visitation with his father was cancelled. He's going to his paternal grandparents' house instead, so I figured he would be fine, but I failed to realize that he really wants to see his father. It's hard for him to lose that planned visit. It hurts him. Third, Baby Girl has been teething and it's made her super clingy. He's been getting short shrift lately, and he's missing our attention.
Bottom line, we've been enforcing rules without fostering relationship at a time when he needs our love desperately. For the record, that does NOT work.
We decided that the response to this outburst at school would be two-fold. First of all, he did get punishment. His actions have consequences, and this was a serious offense, so he got some serious consequences. But the other part of it is to step up the loving attention. We need to reaffirm him. We need to foster his relationship to us.
At the time that we are expanding our family, we somehow forgot to be a family.
If you are a parent in a "blended" family, take heed. Divorce and remarriage issues will affect your child for their whole life. It's been three years since me and his dad split, and two years since Nick and I married, and Big Brother still struggles. Regularly. Deeply. Be sensitive to your child and their emotional state. They need you.
If you are a parent who is adopting a second, third, whatever child, take heed. Your kid may be perfectly accepting of their new sibling but still feel a certain upheaval in response to all the changes. It's not a rejection of the new child (Big Bro is super stoked about his new sister) but it is hard for kids to process change and they need a lot of love while adjusting. Also, refer to the "blended" family advice. Adoption and divorce are both disruptions of the natural family arrangement. There will be emotional struggles for the rest of your child's life, and they will need your love and care during those struggles.
Today we have spent a lot of time together as a family. Part of his punishment was to miss his soccer game, and to not go to a friend's party. But this day of hanging around the house has been great, and he already seems more like himself again after just a day of getting our attention.
I just wish I hadn't waited so long to see what my kid needed.

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