The difficulty of getting the right diagnosis and juggling work and care giving, Just Ask Mom Episode 14

Lotus Flower Logo: Just Ask Mom Podcast Series Produced by Mothers on the Frontline. MothersOnTheFrontline.com

In this episode, we listen to Suzette Southfox, a Southern California parent of a 19 year-old son with depression, anxiety and Autism Spectrum Disorder. She tells us about her over ten-year journey with children’s mental health. She discusses the importance of honoring the strength of our children and others with depression who fight each day to get out of bed.

Transcription

Voice Over: Welcome to the Just Ask Mom podcast, where mother shared their experiences of raising children with mental illness. Just Ask Mom is a Mothers On The Frontline production. Today, we will listen to Suzette Southfox, a Southern California parent who lives with her 19-year-old son who has depression, anxiety, and autism spectrum disorder. She has been on the Children’s Mental Health journey for over ten years now. This interview took place at the 2017 National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health conference.

Tammy: Just tell us a bit about yourself.

Suzette : Sure. My name is Suzette. I am a tired mom. I work in the Behavioral Health Field in Southern California. I’m an artist and I’m a writer and a performer. I love to communicate and chat with folks and and create art when I can. Don’t get a lot of chance to do that these days but that’s really what brings me joy.

Tammy: Oh, that’s really great. That’s awesome. What kind of art you do?

Suzette: I do a lot of reflective art. I do a lot of spoken word poetry.

Tammy: Oh, wonderful. Yeah.

Suzette: I do spoken word but I don’t have a whole lot of time to do that. I recently did something for a friend of mine who was just ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister and I was, I was honored to be part of the ordination and I got to do this, it was fun.

Tammy: That’s exciting. That’s awesome. I want you to pretend that you’re talking to parents who are just beginning the journey. They just received the diagnosis for their child of a mental  health condition or maybe they even haven’t discovered a name for what is going on yet, they’re just trying to figure out how to help their child. What would you say to people with that experience based on what you go through?

Suzette: That’s a wonderful question and out of all the people that I would like to talk to  – and there are  many, many that I would like to speak with – the family that’s really finding themselves newly in the world of childhood mental health and behavioral health issues, I would love to talk to them and I would love to tell them that they’re not alone even though they feel like they’re alone. They’re in a very special club which is one that not a lot of people want to join, but they find themselves in.

Tammy: Right.

Suzette: One of the things that I did not get early on and my son was diagnosed around nine or ten years old with ruled out pediatric bipolar disorder and things were very difficult. It wasn’t until he was 16 when the psychiatrist said, “Was he ever tested for autism?” We said, “Are you kidding me?” So, people, weren’t asking the right questions, but once we found ourselves in the world of IEP’s and special ed programs and all of this, we never met another parent. None of the programs ever had, “Here’s information for your parent,” or you would think that the psychiatrist or the psychologist would say, “Here’s your brochure. Welcome to the world of pediatric mental illness. Here is your road map.” They don’t give you one.

Tammy: Absolutely not.

Suzette: No, they don’t and if you’re lucky enough to have someone with lived experience, you may get a road map but it’s so challenging. Finding those other parents and finding what is available is so difficult when you’re dealing with just the stress and the crisis. I was shocked to learn in my area that there was a whole guide for all of the programs and services but it was for other providers. It wasn’t for families and it took me to get into working in the field to actually discover this.

Tammy: Is that what motivated to get into the field?

Suzette: Well, that was one reason. I work with the Faith community for a really long time and what I discovered was the needs and the stress of navigating my son’s challenges. They were taking a toll on my working life. Before we got the diagnosis either I would call in sick, my wife would call in sick. We would be having to leave work. We knew that one of us would probably going to lose our job. She took an early retirement to stay at home because at that time, my son couldn’t get out of the car in the morning. He missed 125 days of school because of anxiety. As we’re going through all of this, we have support of the school but we just didn’t know other families. I think it’s so important to not only tell folks that they’re not alone but there are networks. You just have to be told where to find them.

Tammy: Absolutely.

Suzette: Yes, and that’s the biggest challenge, I think.

Tammy: I think that’s so important because I know my own experience in talking to other people sometimes the most helpful information I’ve got are from other parents, you know, that have been through it. They all checked out this program or this and without that network, without some way to start, you do feel lost so I think that’s really good advice.

Suzette: Yes. There’s a lot of despair also. At least there is and there has been with me and one of the things that I have learned is there’s a whole continuum of what you go through and it’s not linear. It’s not like, “Okay, I’ve gone through crisis and now I’m balancing and I’m moving into advocacy and when I get into advocacy, boom, I’m done.” No, it depends on the day really.

Tammy: Absolutely.

Suzette:  You can go through that continually. I think one of the things that I would want new parents and new families to know is the despair and the concern is visceral, it’s real. It’s probably not going to go away but if you learn to kind of make some space for that and make some space for dealing with it, it gets a little bit easier.

Tammy: Right.

Suzette: I think the biggest problem that I have, and this is really funny, we’re talking about self-care earlier, is when people say, “Take care of yourself.” I know that but it is so difficult to hear because it’s like, “What do you think I’m doing?”

Tammy: Right.

Suzette: I’m trying really hard.

Tammy: Exactly.

Suzette: Sometimes, just getting up in the morning is like, “Whoa, it’s a win.”

Tammy: Exactly.

Suzette: So that’s important and I know self-care is really, really the key, but I think that we need to be a little careful how we talk about that.

Tammy: Absolutely.

Suzette: Yes, it can turn people off.

Tammy: And we don’t know of access to do the same things to care for ourselves. I think that’s another part of it is what does that mean and the context you’re in at the moment, what can that mean for you, right? I think that’s really important.

Suzette: True.

Tammy: Absolutely. As you’re thinking about people who are navigating this early on and it is hard and is lonely and I like the message you have. I do think we can get to a point where we feel like it’s a new normal. We’ve accepted it. We’re functioning. We don’t feel torn apart all the time but then something new will happen and you go through it again. I think it’s good to know that. It’s good to know you will actually function at this level. You might not feel like it when you first hit with it, but I don’t think you’re even done and I think that’s important to hear too. That’s not a bad thing.

Suzette: Yes.

Tammy: But knowing it’s important because if you don’t, the first time it happens again, it feels devastating.

Suzette: Yes.

Tammy: But if you don’t know, you’re going to keep going and having good days and bad days and it’s okay.

Suzette: Right. It’s a learning and then when our loved ones are youngsters, you have the whole developmental issue going on so they’re constantly changing. One of the first, kind of, desperate requests that I made once we had a psychiatrist and medication and treatment plan and psychiatric nurse, God love her, I remember the first call that I made to her was, “I don’t know. I have one child. I was an older mom so I have one child. I don’t have experience. I can’t tell the different what’s developmentally appropriate and what is a mental health condition.” And she said, “Oh, if you could figure that out, you’d make a lot of money,” because I couldn’t. I just couldn’t figure that out. Now, knowing that there’s always that change. There’s always new things happening, suddenly and it’s not suddenly, but now I have a young adult and so we hear about transition, transitioning youth, how do you do that? I have a 19-year-old but I’m not prepared for what to do next because just getting through middle school, getting through high school took everything that I could do. I know they said it’s coming. You have to start when he’s 14. I didn’t get that until he was 17 and so it’s hard. It still gets hard but being able to back up a little bit and figure out, what are the new resources that I need? I have to find maybe a new set of parents. We’re the parents of really young kids. We had an affinity.

Tammy: Right.

Suzette: I would look at parents of teenagers, I was scared of that.

Tammy: Oh sometimes it’s terrifying, right? When your kids are little. You just want to focus on that one thing at a time, absolutely.

Suzette: Yes, and you look at parents of teenagers and young adults and it’s like, “Oh my God, how did you do that? I don’t want to go there ever,” and you’re going to get there.

Tammy: Right. Absolutely. As you’re thinking about your journey in helping your child, can you think of one particular thing that’s been really challenging, was really difficult, that just didn’t work and you wish could be different?

Suzette: This is going to sound really weird, but listening to him. What I mean by that is, sometimes, and this has been forever, he will tell me what he needs but I’m not hearing it and I’m not hearing it because, oh I don’t know, I’m focused on one thing or another. When I stopped and really listened to what he’s saying, we do better.

Tammy: Right.

Suzette: When he listens to what I’m saying, so it’s like communications piece there.

Tammy: Absolutely.

Suzette: Here’s the hardest part, I’m not very good at it. I communicate professionally but with my own family, I was like, “Wow.” I really have to take it down to basics and give myself permission to make mistakes. That’s the big one.

Tammy: That’s a good point. I think that’s true for any parent, right?

Suzette: Yes.

Tammy: Communicating especially with the teenage kids is hard. It’s challenging, I think, for all of us.

Suzette: Yes and you have to learn how to reset boundaries and you have conversations, and when and if they get a driver’s license, it’s a whole different world. It’s really exhausting.

Tammy: My stressor have just opened up when you said that because that’s what’s in the next couple of years for us, the whole driver’s licensing, yes.

Suzette: It has been an amazing journey and I’m just watching the young people that I know develop and grow, it’s just so exciting.

Tammy: In thinking about getting your child help, what’s worked well? What has been one thing that you’re just so glad things were aligned and worked out well?

Suzette: Well, we had an experience and it was a school related experience as a senior, a high school senior. His depression was so acute. He spent the last two or three months in bed and was not able to even shower or to mention anything and he failed. He wasn’t able to graduate and having that conversation with the school around that, I was empowered.  One of the vice principals basically said, “You know, you’re lazy.” I just took a breath and I said, “We need to talk,” because there’s something called lived experience and I have never used that word before but I heard it and  all of a sudden, “Oh my God, I have lived experience and I have a thing too,” so I’m coming and I have something. I was able to really put the context. We’re talking about behavioral health diagnosis. We’re talking about mental illness, brain chemistry. This is not being lazy. If you had any idea what he does to just survive, I don’t know that any of us could do that so it’s not lazy.

Tammy: Right.

Suzette: That was very, very helpful to me. Really clear in my own mind that we all need to be on the same page, so that was super helpful.

Tammy: Absolutely.

Suzette: Yes.

Tammy: So good for your son to hear that, “No, you’re not lazy and I know you’re not lazy,” I think it’s important. That’s great. We ask this of everyone because we recognize, as we were just saying, as you pointed out, this is different from moment to moment for all of us, but at this moment, are you swimming? Are you treading water? Are you drowning? Where do you feel at this moment?

Suzette: That’s really good question; all three of those, yeah, yeah.

Tammy: That’s a good answer.

Suzette: All three of those. All three at the same time and it’s so hard to manage that, but really I have kind of like a low grade. It’s not a panic but it’s a low grade like, “Help,” because it’s all really hard.

Tammy: Right.

Suzette: I feel like I have good resources and good support so I’m going along okay. I guess I’ve been doing this for so long that my new normal is not what anybody else’s normal is.

Tammy: Exactly and I think that’s what’s really important is you get to a point where this, I can function at this level, even though the average person would be falling apart and maybe we fell apart when that was first our experience. That’s why I love what you said about your child, because I think we often see someone who’s struggling to get out of bed or struggling to go to school and people will say things like they’re lazy or say that someone is anxious so they’re just scared all the time or what have you. The truth is with their condition, they are like super-power to do what they do every day. There are more courage than most people just to do what they’re doing or more strength on going, fortitude to go get something done. I think we just need to give people credit for what they’re doing and I’m in that for them. I love that you said that earlier too.

Suzette: I think it’s struggle that we constantly revisit. I don’t know if anybody else’s have this come out of their mouth, but I’ve done it on number of occasions; “What’s wrong with you?” I don’t mean to say it. Oh my God. I said it once and he turned to me, he says, “Do you really need to know? Would it be easier if I was on a wheelchair?” I thought, “Oh my God. I’ve even said this to other people and I myself am saying this now?”

Tammy: Right.

Suzette: So it’s constantly guarding and learning and checking and remembering.

Tammy: I think that’s a really good point because most of the people we’re interviewing here, they have a child with a life-long condition, right? If you have a child in a wheelchair with a life-long condition we don’t say, “Well, why is it we don’t get up today?” After ten years of being in a wheelchair, right? But we do that.

Suzette: Yes.

Tammy: We do that all the time and I know I’ve done it and actually, when my child’s teachers or family members have to say, “Why is he doing this now?” I’m like, “You know this has been a condition all this time.”

Suzette: Yes.

Tammy: I think that when we’re asking that, what we have to do is sit back and go, “What is it about this moment that I can’t handle?” Because this is our normal, this is our situation.

Suzette: Yes.

Tammy: I’ve imagined that if you do have a  child in a wheelchair for ten years, there might be some days you can’t take it, but you would recognize, “My child’s circumstance hasn’t changed. I’m just having hard time handling it today.” We need to be able to do with mental health and say, “My child’s has the same condition but today it’s really hard for me to deal with.” Did that make sense?

Suzette: Absolutely.

Tammy: I love the comparison that you make there. I think it’s important.

Suzette: Absolutely, it is. You’re absolutely right. Then to give our kids the language to know that, and when he checked me on that as he often does with words that have come out of my mouth, he responds and like and I’m learning constantly from him especially when it’s difficult. He has a sleeping disorder and he goes nocturnal. He also has separation anxiety so when I’m away from him as I am now, he gets very tense.

Tammy: Right.

Suzette: He called me at 7 o’clock this morning which was four and I just checked him 15 minutes before we started and he hasn’t slept yet. I’m very concerned about that and what the household is like and what the stress is like, but you know, it’s just a day.

Tammy: It’s just a day.

Suzette: It’s just a day.

Tammy: Yes, absolutely. What is your self-care routine or as we say with more appropriate, survival technique, because sometime that’s what it comes down to too, right? How do you take care of you when you’re in the middle of all of this because as we’re saying, it’s not always possible to do what we’d like to do so what do you do?

Suzette: You know what? My go-to place is the bathroom.

Tammy: Yes.

Suzette: Sometimes it’s not real safe if there’s pounding or screaming on the other side of the door but if I can get to a place where I can just be isolated and I usually turn the lights off and I just breathe. Just for a minute.

Tammy: Right.

Suzette: Just for a minute and then go back out and I can do that at work. I can do that at church. I can do that at lunch[?], so you can do it anywhere. That’s one thing if it’s a crisis and I just need to step back. I swim and when I’m lucky, I swim in the ocean. I do that regularly.

Tammy: Oh, I’m jealous.

Suzette: I swim with mom.

Tammy: That’s sounds wonderful.

Suzette: She’s a good swimmer. She’s been swimming for years. When I have a chance I get in the water and it’s really wonderful.

Tammy: That is wonderful. That is great. Another question I’d like to ask, because any parents has some of this, right? Kids keep us laughing. What’s your most laughable moment? What makes you laugh or smile when you think back to your experience with your child?

Suzette: Oh my gosh. My son is a professional magician and when I watch him engaged with other people, I mean it’s amazing when you see grown adults going, “What happened? How did that happen? Oh, my God.” It’s just makes me chuckle because he has such a gift to be able to do that, but he does it because he likes to bring joy to people, right?

Tammy: That’s wonderful.

Suzette: So he’s a champion. He’s a knight in shining armor and he loves to bring joy to people and that makes me smile.

Tammy: That has to be fun. You get to enjoy the magic but you also get to be proud of this amazing kid.

Suzette: Yes.

Tammy: Or adult now but always a kid, right?

Suzette: Yes, always a kid. Yes, definitely.

Tammy: That’s awesome. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

Suzette: You’re welcome. Thank you for asking.

Voice Over: You have been listening to Just Ask Mom. Copyrighted in 2018 by Mothers On The Frontline. Today’s podcast host is Tammy Nyden. The music is Old English, written, performed, and recorded by Flame Emoji. For more podcast in this and other series relating to children’s mental health, go to mothersonthefrontline.com or subscribe to Mothers On The Frontline on iTunes, Android, Google Play or Stitcher.

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Asperger’s, Bullying, and Unsolicited Advice, Just Ask Mom Podcast Series, episode 9

In this episode, a mother shares her experience of the recent diagnosis of her son with Asperger’s Syndrome. She discusses the journey to the diagnosis and how well-meaning, but often misguided advice from family and friends can make this already difficult journey all the more painful. She discusses her son’s experiences being bullied in school and the pain of watching your child grow up without friends.

Transcription

Voice: Welcome to the Just Ask Mom podcast where mothers share their experiences of raising children with mental illness.  Just Ask Mom is a Mothers on the Frontline production. Today we will speak with a mother whose son was recently diagnosed with Aspergers.

Tammy: Tell us something about yourself.

Mother: That makes it really tough.

Tammy: I know.

Mother: Right? You think it’s all easy and then you are like…. I’m a middle age woman that is a mother of a single child. We’re on the path for a diagnosis of Asperger’s. This was a recent diagnosis, or process of a diagnosis, for us. It was a bit of a shocker. Prior to having my son, I nannied for 17 years, so I was around kids, help raise kids, manage kids. My son came along. Everything seemed fine, until now, when we really started to notice some differences and the fact that he is very routine-oriented. And just some of the changes that we’ve seen compared to the other kids. But this is tough.

Tammy: It’s tough.

Mother: Man.

Tammy: It is.

Mother: My favorite thing to do – technology. It is always something with a cell phone or the computer – a gadget of some sort. So, that is what I spend a lot of time doing, that and taking pictures.

Tammy: So that’s what you enjoy doing.

Mother: My son lives in front of the camera. Poor kid. I love him to death but.. he’s like, “Hey, you got that on my face again?”.

Tammy: It’s nice to share a passion, right?

Mother: It is.

Tammy: So that part is really good. So, you are going through this with your son. I want to know what you would like other family members to know. Who you know, because we have a lot of people out there who are going through this and they probably feel the same way. What, you are the one in the middle of it, what do you want family members who they mean very well but don’t- aren’t in the middle of it. What do you want them to know? What would you want to say to them?

Mother: So, let’s go back probably about seven months ago, when we hit a rough spot with our son, who had a day where he was so overwhelmed that he couldn’t function at all. And at that point I knew we needed to do something. We needed to figure out what was causing all the behavior and triggering this because he literally was just a body. His eyes were glassed over. He just would sit and cry. He couldn’t get dressed. The thought of going to school made him physically sick. This is a kid who up until this point loved school.

Tammy: Really?

Mother: That’s when I intervened and said, “Okay, you know, we got to do something”. After talking with family members– they were giving great suggestions, you know, trying to help —but we knew we weren’t on the right path. So we intervened with a therapist who has worked really hard with our son. With a suggestion of a friend I looked at what we felt potentially was Asperger’s and looking at our son knew that he had a lot of the same characteristics. A lot of the same things – looking back of course as a parent you feel really guilty. Because you didn’t see these things sooner but getting that groundwork work with that therapist helped me immensely sit down with my parents, with my in-laws, with my husband, with my siblings, and talk to them about what we’ve seen, what we see going forward, how we are going to try to approach things for him. Because it’s not easy. It’s very stressful. His stress is also my stress. And when he is worked up, then I can’t relax and it just throws the whole family dynamic off. Of course we got the “it’s because he is an only child? It’s because you are too hard on him. maybe if you did more with him. If you took him out and have him do more things he would be more social. That’s part of it. You are not exposing him to enough, you know? Are you sure that he’s on schedule that tight? Have you, you know, really sat back and watched?” Most definitely. The kid gets up in the morning. He has his specific clothes in mind before he gets out of bed. We lay there and talk for five minutes. He gets up. He gets dressed in a specific order. I have tried to change that up. It turns the world upside down. I’m just thinking, “Ok, so much as putting your socks on before your pants can’t be done”. But if in your mind that’s what you need, I’m fine with that. I’m okay. But until I tested that a couple of times, did I find out, right? I just thought, “Oh, it’s just him being particular about one thing”. But we have a certain routine with getting dressed. A certain way to put deodorant on. A certain way to put cologne on. We have to hit the bathroom at a certain time. We don’t do our hair, we make our hair.

Tammy: Really?

Mother: Yes, he makes his hair every morning. So, whatever style he has in his head, he makes it.

Tammy: I see.

Mother: I don’t understand where that comes from, but that’s ok. It’s not worth an argument over come at the end of the day. He eats the same food for breakfast every day until he is tired of it. He eats the same for lunch every day until he is tired of it. So, it’s very, very specific. We have to live this with him every day.

Tammy: Does he get very anxious if anything goes off his schedule?

Mother: Yes. It causes major issues. And he’ll start to fidget. Mostly he’ll either pick at his fingers or hands to try to calm himself. Compression shirts have made a huge difference for him.

Tammy: Wonderful.

Mother: Convincing him to wear them on the other hand was not easy. It took a lot of work but we’re there. It’s a safety blanket now so we don’t leave home without them.

Tammy:

Mother: I’ve invested in. I don’t know how many shirts we have in every color because for him his shirt has to match his pants. And his shirt and his socks have to match or we have an awful day. You cannot use black or blue as universal color. It is specific. It has too match. So it’s very, very tough. I never thought about this. We can do a whole series on shopping with an autistic child – it has to be a certain fabric, a certain color…

Mother: They have to fit a certain way.

Tammy: If you do it then that it’s going to help the child be well throughout the day.

Mother: Yes. It makes a huge difference. And for someone who doesn’t see this, for someone that’s not behind those closed doors on a daily basis, they can throw all kinds of great ideas out there to help you, but until they are in your shoes, they are not going to get the full picture. I would like to have more family members there to see how our days go. To give them more insight because until your hands on, you don’t get it. You see him as this spoiled child who’s throwing that temper tantrum because something, you know, to us seems so small that didn’t go right. But to them it’s significant. It’s hard for them to process it. And the lengthy talks that we have incorporated into everything that doesn’t go right to turn it into a lesson, and explain why things are going the way they are and try to help, navigate through so that they get it. It’s not easy finding the correct language to use so that you don’t frustrate them that much more. It causes a lot of stress on mom.

Tammy: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Mother: Because it’s a lot of trial and error, and with family you get stuck in the middle of that because you’re trying to do what’s best for your child. But yet, you are trying to get them to understand and you don’t want to offend anyone by not doing what they have suggested. But if you go back at them with any sort of evidence then they are upset. Even though they’re meaning well and trying to help, they are mad because you didn’t try it. And it’s just- you feel like you’re stuck in the middle of a cyclone. Because everything around you it’s just spinning so fast.

Tammy: But everyone else gets to conveniently leave the cyclone except for you and your son, right?

Mother: For sure. You’re exactly right. And it’s so crazy because when it comes down to it the more schedule oriented we are, the most smoothly things go, and the better days that he has. But if we are off task, it’s hard to get back on. I didn’t realize how hard that could be until I started reading and understanding what we are dealing with. And now it’s like a light bulb moment and to me it’s becoming second nature. When we took a trip over the weekend, to not come home is significant for him. He has his bed, a certain routine. We don’t mess with that very often. But when we do, we know it’s going to be bad. And so we talk about it for days. I have family that would say, “You’re treating him like a two-year old”. “You are talking about this way too much”. And I’ll say, “But we need to talk about it so that our trip goes better”. If I don’t, his behavior is going to be horrible. And I get the push back. “He’s 11, he knows better”. Theoretically, yes. But with what we are working on, it doesn’t click. It’s ok. We talk about it, we’ve got it all figured out. Just don’t mess with his routine and it will be ok. Once we get there, it’s fine. And he’ll have fun. But we have to work through that on a daily basis. We talk about his school schedule on the way to school every day because he has a couple of classes that change. It’s ok. If we don’t, he gets confused.

Tammy: So it’s very important for him to know what to expect. But if that’s expectation is disrupted, it’s very anxiety participating for him.

Mother: Oh, for sure, it’s definite. And it can through the entire day into depression. And come evening, after we do supper, and we shower, and we take our night time pills, and it’s time to brush the teeth and head to bed, don’t take mom out of the equation. If mom is not there to tuck him in, he will stay up until who knows when. It is horrible. I want to be home because I know if I’m not then he is not going to bed until I get there. I can even text. I can call and tell him goodnight, and he is still staying awake.

Tammy: That’s a lot of pressure because I think as a mom you expect that the first few years of life, right?

Mother: Yes. Yeah, you’re exactly right. You know, being a nanny. Not that I was there a lot for those kids –  I was on call 24 x 7, 365 because the family that I worked for had commitments that would pull them out at all hours of the day and night. I would go in early in the morning. I would be there late at night. I could put those kids to bed, right? Wasn’t a big deal. Or you can be like, “Ok, it’s 8:30 it’s time to go to bed”, and they go. Not with him. Oh no, you will be there, you will tuck me in. We talk about our day and then I’m going to sleep. Until then, it’s off the table. He will find any excuse possible to be up. And it’s so hard because then you’re confined to being home all the time or being with him all the time, in which case you never get a break.

Tammy: Right. And that backs up on us as moms?

Mother: Yeah.

Tammy: That affects our mental well being.

Mother: For sure.

Tammy: Because we need a break, right?

Mother: You need that break. You need that time away. Yeah you go to work in most cases.  Mom takes the kids to school and then she goes and that’s her eight hours or whatever of work. But you come home and there they are and they want to see you, and you want to see them. And so, that cycle continues. You don’t get that downtime, the time to process that you really need to so that you can stay healthy. Because it’s tough. The stress level. And of course, you start to adapt to it. But once you do, there’s a new challenge that comes your way. And then you are like, “Ok, how am I going to face this? How do we approach this?” You learn who you can lean on.

Tammy: Yeah, that’s true. You do know who your friends are, don’t you?

Mother: Yes, and you find out really quickly. Because you’ve got those friends that regardless of what you just find out, call you and say “Hey, how’s your day?”. You’ve got some family that do but really they are prying for information. They really don’t care – because they just want to know what the latest scoop is and what you find out, right?

Tammy: I see.

Mother: But I’ve got a really great friend who no matter what willl call and say “Hey, you know. I know you guys have supper schedule in 30 minutes, can we go for a quick walk?

Tammy: That’s wonderful. So you have a support system.

Mother: I do, but I’m learning that sometimes what’s convenient for her, it’s not convenient for me. And so, having to work on that because if I say, “Oh well, yes, supper is not for other 30 minutes”, “I’m leaving”. I’m sunk because now he’s home – which he’s fine being unattended for a day. I check in on him all the time. But I’ve walked in, I’ve talked to him. We’ve discussed few things. Maybe worked on homework. And now, I’m leaving. It does not go well. If I come home and I say, “Hey, I’m leaving in 30 minutes. Let’s get this, this and this done”. And then I’m going to go for a walk and I’ll be back. It’s ok.

Tammy: Because it’s all part of the plan.

Mother: Yes.

Tammy: So, spontaneity it’s sort of off the table.

Mother: Completely off the table. Whether it’s at any giving point, whether it’s changing– the beginning of the school year is always awful because the unknown in the schedule. The school year changing buildings was horrible. It took over a month to get squared away. And that was before the diagnosis, so we were clueless. And of course, I was extremely frustrated because I’m like, “Oh my goodness, man. It’s not that hard”. And now I’m like, “Oh, yeah it was”.

Tammy: It was that hard, yeah.

Mother: Because he’d smile, he’d go to school, he wouldn’t complain and now I’m thinking, “What was in his head? How is he getting through all this?” Because if that were me, I’d have been blown away. I would have been crawled up in a corner somewhere thinking, “I can’t do this”. And at his age, he went through it- I mean, yes, his behavior was a little rough. But all things considered, I was shocked.

Tammy: I think that’s something we don’t talk about enough is how incredible strong our kids are. They are managing and coping with so many things that other people can’t even see, including us, that are invisible to us.

Mother: Yes.

Tammy: And they are getting through it, and they are not getting kudos for that, right?

Mother: And that’s what I talked to a teacher about. You know, when we’ve talked about things- and kids in general-  when they are doing well, they need to know they are doing well. It’s not just that bad behavior. It can’t just be that because when they start to predict that they are that bad kid. And that their bad behavior  – no one wants to be around them. And nobody wants that.

Tammy: No, no.

Mother: You know, we’ve talked to our son about it– he has no friends.

Tammy: That’s one of the hardest parts, isn’t it? Just saying that, yeah, that’s very hard.

Mother: So in the meetings with the teachers, in the meeting with the family, I’m like, “Can you guys name who he hangs out with?”  They are usually like, “No, I guess we never paid attention.”  My family is like, “Well, I guess we’ve not really noticed that.”  Come birthday parties —  he doesn’t get invited. You know, come time for his birthday party, nobody shows up. Which…

Tammy: …it’s heartbreaking.

Mother: It is. And when it comes down to it, he doesn’t have that buddy that he wants have over on the weekend or someone who will hang out with and play video games or any of that. To see that and to talk to him about that is tough because he doesn’t see that other kids have this going on. In his mind, he’ll tell you he is friends with everyone because he’ll speak to everyone and everyone speaks to him. The response he gets may not be a friendly response, but in his mind, “Hey, they talk to me”.

Tammy: Does that worry you in terms of him being teased or bullied?

Mother: Yes, because it’s happened already.

Tammy: So, he thinks someone is being his friend but they are actually not treating him well?

Mother: Yes. Perfect example of that it would have been late fall. He was riding the bus. And he could tell the name of this other student that he walked to a corner with and the student went one way and he went another to come home. And it was just like casual talk about this person who were there. But then at one point I tried- I texted him, to see what was taking him so long to get home because I’ve got the alerts that it go off when he gets within so many feet of the house so that I know he’s home. So for my peace of mind I can rest a bit. You know? And he wasn’t getting home on time. And so, I texted his phone and I said, “Hey, can you tell me why you are running late?” And I got a really weird response back. Not a normal response from my child. So, I picked up the phone and I called. And someone answered it but there was no hello really quickly on the other end of the phone. And once he got on the phone I said, “What is going on?” And he’s like, Oh, well, so-and-so had my phone. And I said, “We’ll discuss this when you get home, but I’m going to keep talking to you until you walk the other way, and I know that you are home. And when I get home, we’ll talk”. When I got home that night, we talked about it. He said “when I got my phone out of my bag pack like I always do every day and I unlocked it and she reached over and took it from me.” And he is like, “Mom, I don’t understand why you are mad. She was just joking”. [I said] “No, that’s not a joking behavior”. I said, “What were you told at school?”. “Oh, yeah, we’re not supposed to touch other people’s property”. And I said, “Is your phone your property?”. “Yeah”. I said, “See? That is not acceptable behavior. What else has she done to you?” Feel free to tell me. I need to know these things so that we can take care of you. Of course she was shoving and picking on him. I said, “Can you explain to me how or why you think that she is your friend? He said, “But we talk”. “No buddy, that doesn’t make anyone your friend. A friend is going to stick up for you. A friend is going to be there when you are having a bad day to cheer you up. Shoving someone around, calling you names, taking your phone, that is not acceptable behavior”. But we are also talking about a child who got kicked in the groin in the kindergarten and has permanent damage from it.

Tammy: Oh, poor guy.

Mother: When that happened, we weren’t told.

Tammy: Really?

Mother: Not at all. We brought him home. I brought him from home school that day. Nothing was said. There was nothing in the bag pack. No phone call, no email. I went to put him in the tub that night and his whole groin area was black and blue.

Tammy: Oh, the poor guy.

Mother: So, of course, that result in mom being, “what happened to you?” And by the way, dad needs to come check you out because that’s totally awkward for mom to do it.

Tammy: Was he able to explain what happened?

Mother: He told me that another child was holding the door open when they were walking in from recess and the other child decided to kick him.

Tammy: But he didn’t think to tell anyone?

Mother: He told the teacher who said, “You’ll be ok”, and told the other student to settle down. He wasn’t sent to the office and I said, “I understand you all can’t check his groin. I get that. But a phone call so that I could have come to check him out.

Tammy: Make sure he is ok.

Mother: Or the offer of an ice pack would have been nice, but instead we find it at 8 o’clock at night when we are putting him to bed.

Mother: He went to the doctor the next day. He has a testicle that’s lodged up inside from this.

Tammy: How old was he at the time?

Mother: Six.

Tammy: Oh goodness.

Mother: To make matters worse, for three months twice a day I had to try to manually move that.

Tammy: Oh, poor kid.

Mother: How awkward for him and I both, right?

Tammy: Oh, absolutely.

Mother: When the other child- they called that child’s parents. It was, “Well, I know that sounds bad but, he’s like, what did he do to deserve it?”. That’s what was said back to us. So he’d had issues and again. He thought that kid was his friend. I was just thinking, “Buddy, you deserve so much better than this”. You’re such a good kid.

Tammy: That’s hard. So, we ask everybody at this moment, right now, do you feel like you’re swimming, draining water, drowning, what do you feel like you are at?

Mother: Treading water. We’re- we’re getting there. Two weeks ago I would say we were sinking immensely. Um, we’ve come a little bit- we’re getting a little ground. So I can ease up a bit but as summer’s coming, I’ll be drowning here soon.

Tammy: Yeah. Summer is tough.

Mother: It is. And trying to figure it all out for them.

Tammy: What do you do then? Like, what’s your self-care routine or if more relevant, what do you to survive those tough times?

Mother: I turn a lot to my camera. Whether it’s loading up my son and we go to a sporting event and I know it’s something that he will want to watch, and I’ll take pictures. And then I can go home and be on the computer and edit those. Just kind of not really completely shut everything out but be in that bubble. And just focus on the task at hand and not have to worry quite as much. It helps immensely.

Tammy: That sounds great. So, through all of this, what do you think has been your most laughable moment?

Mother: I know this sounds really bad, but watching my son talk to his therapist and get a full idea on his diagnosis, because he himself grasps it now. And he laughs at what we see and so we can laugh with him over it. Because it was so stressful to even get him to go to the therapist. And now he’s comfortable there. He knows that what we are working on it’s not a life-threatening thing. And he can joke with us about things like that now which eases family tensions so much. I know that’s a tough thing to really have us a laughable moment. But come the end of the day it’s made things so much easier for all of us that he’s taking us with this with a grain of salt. He laughs, he jokes, and he understands what’s going on. Taking him to the doctor was another good one. The poor kid had four shots.I laugh as I’m holding him.

Tammy: Right. Every mom, every dad can relate to this. No one likes their shots.

Mother: No. And we’re- we’re strategizing right? Like, “Okay, don’t look. Look at mom. Mom is across the table. Don’t watch the nurse”. You know? And he’s screaming at the top of his lungs. We’re thinking, “Come on, it’s okay. You’ve got four of them, it won’t take long”. And he watched the first shot and he’s like, “Wow, what’s the big deal here?”. He’s like, “That didn’t hurt”. We could let go. And he laid there.

Tammy: And it was nothing.

Mother: No, it was nothing. He is like, “No big deal”.

Tammy: That’s great, that’s great.

Mother: So, he provides a lot of laughable moments for us.

Tammy: Yeah. Well, that’s awesome. Well, thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

Mother: Well, thank you.

Voice: You have been listening to “Just Ask Mom”, recorded and copyrighted in 2017 by Mothers on the Frontline. Today’s podcast host was Tammy Nyden. The music is “Olde English” written, performed, and recorded by FlameEmoji. For more podcasts in this and other series relating to children’s mental health, go to MothersOnTheFronline.com.

 

The importance of not taking your child’s behavior personally. Just Ask Mom Podcast Series, Episode 4

In this episode we speak to Paula, the adoptive mother of two boys from foster care. One son has PTSD, Trauma, and Autism. The other son has ADHD, Tourette Syndrome, and Anxiety. Paula talks about the importance of not taking your child’s behavior personally, the gift of adoption,  and the importance of laughter.

For a transcript of the podcast, go to https://mothersonthefrontline.com/podcast-transcripts/

Resources Mentioned in this Podcast

99 ways to To Drive Your Kids Sane by Brita St. Clair. – This little book is full of wild ideas and hysterical humor to bring the laughter back into a home with an emotionally disturbed child. Need a good laugh? This book will do it! It includes lots of “one liners” and silly, fun ways to help parents avoid anger around tough topics. Written by a very experienced and loving Therapeutic Mom with years of success helping tough kids heal.

Transcription

Female Speaker over music: Welcome to the Just Ask Mom podcast where mothers share their experiences of raising children with mental illness.  Just Ask Mom is a Mothers on the Frontline production. Today we will speak with Paula, a mother of two adopted boys. One who has PTSD, Trauma, and is on the Autism Spectrum. The other son has ADHD, Tourette Syndrome, and Anxiety

Tammy: Well tell us a little bit about yourself.

Paula: Well, I’m a mom here in Iowa. We live in a semi little town but it’s in a metropolitan area so we have lots of great things around us. I have been married twenty-eight years.

Tammy: Congratulations. That’s wonderful.

Paula: Which is a long time. [Laughs]

Tammy: Yes it is. [Laughs]

Paula: Especially  – I mean I am not quite fifty but still, we got married when we were twenty. I mean so we were late to the family thing. We wanted to wait, we didn’t want to jump in. And for a variety of reasons being foster parents and adoption was the way that we decided to go. So we have two boys, they are now fifteen and twelve. The first one we adopted when he was three and a half and the other one was seven. So we are no longer foster parents. I did foster care training and stuff but we are no longer foster parents. Because of the level of needs that they both have, they need our full attention. So I am now a stay at home mom, but professionally I am rehab counselor and mental health therapist.

Tammy: Wonderful. So before we get started I always like to ask people about themselves before they were mothers or outside of mothering. So you told us a bit career-wise so just tell us a little bit about your passions and who you are before we get ….

Paula: Well I love lots of things – my husband and I joke that we are renaissance people so we like lots of little things. Before we had kids we were married a long time, which I highly recommend. I mean we got married young, we were twenty. But we didn’t bring kids into our universe until year thirteen or something. Before we had kids though life was moving along beautifully, you know just the way it does, but it wasn’t easy, actually my husband is a stage four colon cancer survivor.

Tammy: Oh wow.

Paula: So when we were thirty three, he was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer and at that time in 2001,  less than five percent survived stage four colon cancer. So um we were one of that five percent and so that definitely informs the way that we view the universe. We’re in year what?  that’s 2001-  so somebody else do the math  –  fifteen years that he is still you know alive, healthy, we had no recurrence. We went through everything you know all the chemo, liver resection, all the worse things humanly possible. So for us every day is a gift even after fifteen years. We often joke that I should have been widowed  –  had I been widowed what would I have done? That is what we worked on. You know in therapy — how do you deal with your life and literally I would have had a farm house with a bunch of foster adopted kids.

Tammy: That’s your passion.

Paula: So that’s probably what I would have done. I grew up in foster care and my mom had serious mental illness. She was bipolar rapid cycling and so this was something that was always on our radars to be foster parents and given the biology of our bodies, adoption was the way we decide to have a family.

Tammy: Wonderful. Thank you for that. So what would you like people to know?  You have so many rich, great experiences. What would you like people to know?

Paula: When I do trainings on trauma development and the way our brains work, my favorite thing to remind parents –  and it is so hard as moms, oh my goodness,  it is so hard – is to not take it personal. One of the stories that I share in my trainings is about when my son was five. He was very big for his age, he wore size eight, nine or real close. He is a big boy. I mean he is tall now too. But he was a big boy. He would rage and when you have a child that has trauma you can’t allow them to rage alone because it’s not that they need to calm down. You need to be their container. Mentally you need to be a container – a safe place for them and so, one of my favorite ways to remind parents not to take it personal is, he was in the middle of a rage and he just, his caveman brain was just in charge he couldn’t handle what was going on and we were sitting on his bed and I had my arms around him. He was sitting, on my lap and you know he was just in that fully fledged bucking mode and he bucked back and he hit my nose so that it hit the bridge and I got a hairline fracture.

Tammy: Oh.

Paula: If you have ever had one of those, you would rather have your nose broken. The hairline fractures are unbelievably painful but where I teach people not to take things personal is in that moment when he raged and hit me, cause I wear glasses. He hit me and I felt the pain, I knew instantly – this was just the thing that was going into my head: “If I say something now this could undo all the work we have been doing to help him bond and heal. “So I just held him for a moment and I said,  “honey I love you, I need to step out” and I stepped out and went to our bedroom, put my face in the pillow and screamed [Laughs] Some very colorful words.

Tammy: I bet [Laughs]

Paula: Took off my glasses and I went back in and finished helping him calm down. And then we went and figured out what was wrong. That’s a prime example of not taking it personal. Yes, he physically assaulted me. He broke my nose. That hairline fracture  –  I wore a little lightweight plastic glasses –  I couldn’t even put those  on –  but it wasn’t personal. It had nothing to do with me. What was happening was not to me, it was to him.

And so always remembering that, so that’s my extreme moment of even now as a teenager when he does things I have to remember, he is not saying this to hurt me, it’s his coping skill. And even when he does now he will say, he will, you know, use the “B” word and so he never uses it anymore because we turned it into a joke and I am like, “you know what buddy I really am and I am really good at it so thank you for noticing.”

Tammy: [Laughs]

Paula: And he stopped. [Laughs]

Tammy: You took the fun out of it! [Laughs]

Paula: Yes, I took the fun out of it. But also I deescalated it and didn’t take it personal. And so that’s one of my biggest wishes for moms is to not take it personal because it is so hard to not do that.

Tammy: Right. And as is the case with so many of these interviews so far, you are telling us something that is especially true when you have a child with mental illness, but this is true for all parents.

Paula: You know I’m glad you said that because our best friend, I love her – she says when she talks about us to other people or she even complains about her children, one of her children is the same age as mine, fifteen years old and they have been in school several times together and she will complain about her daughter doing something and then she just looks at me and smiles and she goes, yes I know Paula, it’s that, plus. So everything that happens in quote ‘regular lives’ is what happens to all of us.

Tammy: Absolutely.

Paula: Which is stressful.

Tammy: Oh yeah.

Paula: Being a mom of a teen is stressful.

Tammy: Yeah.

Paula: But I like the way that she articulated it. She is like, you know what, you guys have all the normal stress plus. And so it’s not that these techniques that we use with our family aren’t good techniques for everyone, it’s just that we have to be more cognizant of it and more mindful of doing it and the reason we are doing it. Its not accidental, that we use certain language or that we talk about topics more in depth than your average parent. Its purposeful and so I like that because she will do the same topic with her daughter and then she is like yeah, but you guys have to do the plus. So that’s kind of how I view our life work. Like everyone else, plus.

Tammy: Plus, exactly, yeah. Well that’s, I think a really helpful lesson. Is there anything else that you would like people to know in general. I mean you have done, by the way thank you, I always think we need to say thank you when people adopt children from foster care because you are doing not only something wonderful for those children but you are doing something for our whole community.

Paula: As a mom we feel guilt a lot and we feel the weight of the universe on us. And so again our friend that says the plus, I have stopped working for the past four years, almost five now. I got my Masters Degree and then I stopped working. So we were like, oh well that was interesting and so sometimes that guilt kills me. So I like the way that she rephrased it for me and that was, because we have this special needs adoption and we had to really fight for it. Which was really interesting given they were going to put him in an institution. But that’s okay, so we fought hard to get the highest level of special needs adoption but that wasn’t until he was like ten. So, you know we had five years of the first level. The reason that I could not work was because we had two boys that get the special needs adoption and so my friend reminds that, that is my job.

Tammy: Absolutely.

Paula: So it’s not that I am not bringing income into our family. It’s not that I’m not contributing financially. If I didn’t stay at home, and do all of the things that –  school calls and “hey you know this child is not doing xyz can you come and calm him down?” -, you can’t do that with a job or you get fired. So letting go of that guilt that you have to make certain sacrifices and that’s okay.

So you know that’s one thing and then the other thing is that I always I have a hard time saying thank you when somebody says you are great for adopting, because I grew up in foster care. I know that it is good that we adopted them, you know hopefully somebody would have eventually. But from my perspective, I was an infertile woman in my late thirties who cried every time she saw all her friends having babies. So in a way, it’s kind of selfish. I mean it works out both ways I mean I wanted children, couldn’t have children, I had a special skill set that could work with kids with trauma. So it’s like I want to say thank you for saying that but a part of me is always like I needed it too. So its sort of a fifty-fifty, yes we saved them but they saved us. So it works that way, it’s not “yay we are adopted foster parents whoo –hoo”. Its not that simple.

Tammy: I think most of the time when we reach out to anyone else, it’s helping us as much as helping them.

Paula: Yeah, exactly.

Tammy: That’s always the case. That’s right.

Paula: They have definitely enriched our lives in ways that we could never have imagined and they drive us absolutely insane.

Tammy: [Laughs]

Paula: In the same breath [Laughs]  –  but that’s what most parents say.

Tammy: Absolutely, absolutely.

Paula: But ours is “plus”.[Laughs]

Tammy: That’s right! So we ask this question of everybody: right at this moment, do you feel like you are swimming, drowning, treading water ? Where do you find yourself?

Paula: I’m swimming.

Tammy: Wonderful.

Paula: I mean I have really great support. Our school is amazing. It breaks my heart when I hear of families that struggle to get basic accommodations. Shout to the Iowa City School District. They have done amazing work with our kids.

Tammy: That’s great.

Paula: They have always listened to us. They value our opinion, we value theirs. I feel that we have a good support system. I mean I feel isolated sometimes just as a mom because there are no mom groups for kids like mine. Yet sometimes I just want to be hermit so it’s a give and take  – but I am swimming. I’m blessed –  I have an amazing husband who  – we are truly a partnership. I parent a fifteen-year-old easy peasy. Twelve-year-old, not so much. He parents the twelve-year-old easy peasy, the fifteen-year-old not so much.

Tammy: That works out nicely.

Paula:  So it has worked out really well. [Laughs].

Tammy: Yes, that works really well. [Laughs] When you and I were talking earlier you said –  and this seems to be universal among all of us moms  – “ if we don’t laugh, we would be crying all the time”, so we like to ask, what’s your most laughable moment ?

Paula: So we laugh about that because I ask my family, “Like gosh what’s the most laughable moment?” and they are like “we can’t parse this out because we are goof balls.”

Tammy: [Laughs]

Paula: When we adopted the boys and when we brought them into our family, the biggest joke was, you can’t join our family unless you want to be silly and so one of the books that I always take with me when I do trainings is, the book, How To Drive Your Kids Sane. It has all these little great tips of how to just do silly stuff like singing silly in the car with a fifteen year old. Because you do that with little kids but when you do it with older kids they crack up at you being so silly but then they are silly and they lose that inhibition and so we try to be silly. Our family is full of puns, we are constantly trying to out pun each other or alliterations and so laughable moments in our life are always around the dinner table. We always eat dinner together. So I ask my husband what’s a laughable moment for me and he is like, you know after all these years the one that always pops into his head is, I was extremely exhausted, I was working the third shift at Dunkin Donuts and, you know we were what? Twenty two, twenty three years old and, the phone would ring but I’m on the different body clock than everybody else in the house and he says that I would always try to pick up the phone but I couldn’t find it cause I’m asleep. So I would always pick up the alarm clock. And so this is one those plugged in alarm clocks from you know back in the eighties and he is like you would pick up this alarm clock and you like shove it to your face and realize it’s too big and that it’s not a phone and you just saw this look and like, why isn’t anybody answering this phone but I am asleep.

Tammy:[Laughs]

Paula: And so he says that’s always the image that he has of laughable moments about me. But I think we just try to laugh a lot like you were talking about self care –  so being funny and laughing is part of our self-care, of my self care. I am an avid knitter, and that has its own laughable moments whenever I make mistakes and have to undo stuff or you know I make silly things for the kids, yeah, so I can’t come up with one cause there is like ten from just going over to Hurtz donuts this morning.

Tammy: That’s awesome. Well thank you so much for talking with us and sharing your story.

Paula: No thank you for doing this.

Female Voice over Music: You have been listening to “Just Ask Mom”, recorded and copyrighted in 2017 by Mothers on the Frontline. Today’s podcast host was Tammy Nyden. The music is “Olde English” written, performed, and recorded by FlameEmoji. For more podcasts in this and other series relating to children’s mental health, go to MothersOnTheFronline.com.