Monthly Archives: May 2012
When I was in high school, I went on a trip to the Bahamas with my youth group. The people there were lovely, seemingly lived a slow paced life and the beaches were calming. Some of the adults on the trip really struggled with the lack of “time awareness” – that thing that we Americans hold in such high esteem. Church started an hour late and went two hours long – there was no firm schedule.
Though I have not travelled to Beirut, I have stood on the border of Israel and Lebanon where there is a history of much conflict. Razor wire fences stand tall at the border, bombed out vehicles from a long ago war litter the sides of the streets. I did not meet any people who were a part of this war, but I can pick up a newspaper and read much of PTSD and its devastating effects on the brain for many soldiers. I imagine that at times it feels like living in the middle of the movie Black Hawk Down – an intensity and terror of the heart, mind and soul.
So what do Beirut and the Bahamas have to do with adoptive parenting? Recently I was listening to an interview with Dr. Marcy Axness, author of Parenting for Peace. She was talking about the scientific research on the brain chemistry of children who are adopted. Any situation in which a birthmother is considering placing her child for adoption is stressful. A baby floats in this biochemical stress pool for 9ish months. Dr. Axness said that research studies show that babies whose first days are residing in such a place are born with brain chemistry that is ready to survive in a war zone. This can be multiplied by time spent in institutions and/or various foster homes. Here is a quick list of just a few of the symptoms of PTSD – irritability, hypervigilance, anxiety, depression, flashbacks, nightmares, sleep issues, emotional detachment and numbing, and the list goes on. This can be multiplied by time spent in institutions and/or various foster homes. These babies come out ready to protect themselves from a dangerous world.
The Bahamas? Dr. Axness said that in order to healthily and effectively parent children with highly sensitive brain chemistry, the parent needs to experience the brain chemistry of someone who resides in a calm and peaceful place. A very tall order indeed – especially when living in the presence of someone who feels like they are in a war zone.
This analogy – Bahamas and Beirut – has been rolling around in my mind ever since I heard it. It is not a totally fair or accurate depiction of these two places, but what an incredibly powerful picture. The good and hope filled news is that brain chemistry can change – maybe not completely, but it can change. But what a daunting challenge it is for us as parents to dwell on a peaceful tropical island when our children sometimes are camped in a place that feels like it threatens their very life. I hope to write more about specific ways to get the help we need to increase our internal peace and calm in days to come. A quick and very incomplete list – good nutrition, adequate rest, exercise, professional help, slow paced life, relaxing activities, solitude – these are some of the things we may need.
And on days like yesterday when rather than staying in the Bahamas, I myself went to Beirut, I need to forgive myself, pick up where I left off and cling to the truth that God’s mercies are new every morning.
Anxiety has been a faithful companion to me for much of my life. I didn’t always recognize it as that, but that in fact is the proper name. I didn’t actively address this companion until several years back.
As I sought new and better ways to parent behaviors that were “out of my league”, there was a theme in the literature I read, voices I listened to and study I did. The parent has to change first. Ouch, that steps on my toes. And the first step in being calm enough to address difficult behaviors is to take deep breaths. Really???? This just seems way too simple.
At first, this practice seemed irrelevant and silly. Then I taught deep breathing to our girls, and it seemed to help sometimes. I started doing yoga. I went to a spiritual formation group where two wonderful mentors suggested that as we are in silence and meditating, to consider thinking “grace received” on the breath in and “grace released” on the breath out – I currently practice that many, many times a day and night.
I am not saying that breathing has totally rid me of anxiety and stress or made me “Zen mama”, but it is a great thing to practice. Practicing it in the calm times seems to help make it more helpful and available in the chaotic times.
Way back in Genesis, I read, “The LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life”. Deep, slow breaths truly are life giving.
For over 25 years – a quarter of a century, half of my life – I’ve been actively parenting children. Our first three children, all amazing boys, came to us through birth. Our next two, beautiful girls, came by adoption. Though there are definitely things I would have done differently and mistakes were made (!), for the most part, our parenting journey with the boys rolled along with the mostly typical bumps in the road. I somewhat brazenly and naively felt fairly prepared, adequate and up to the task.
I was comfortable with and familiar with a “traditional parenting” model that I heard much about in Christian circles. This paradigm mostly demanded respect and obedience with an emphasis on control and left little room for emotional expression – this was my comfort zone. I had confidence in the parenting toolbox in my possession – it seemed adequate to the task. Those who taught and espoused this method made sense to me, for the most part. I spent some years reading such authors until one day I read a book called “Grace Based Parenting” and there was something deep in my soul that resonated with that text. On completion of that particular book, I resolved to take a hiatus from reading about parenting. I needed to experience and impart more grace to myself and others.
This was the beginning of a crack in my parenting paradigm. But things were rolling along in reasonable fashion, so there was no impetus for real change. Enter our daughters. They came to us, via living in an orphanage, at the ages of 18 and 22 months. Though our adoption agency had responsibly educated us and challenged us to see that parenting children who have experienced early relational trauma requires different skills, we still weren’t so sure about that. Love is enough is a very common misconception for adoptive parents – well, that and the parenting skills I already possess.
Critical crossroads – I very clearly remember the moment. There had been a big rage and tantrum that had gone on for hours. I had pulled out all of the tools in my parenting toolbox, and things were escalating. It was as if God Himself whispered, or probably screamed, into my ear, “you can change yourself and your parenting or you can dig in, cling to your old ways and in the process destroy two children – this is your choice”. That was holy ground.
This blog will be an attempt to share the now 7 year, and still ongoing, journey of the pursuit of new, different and more life giving tools to fill up the toolbox. It is quite a ride.