Autumn had come so far, but there were still areas of concern. For one, no one had been able to help Autumn with some of the emotional/behavior struggles she was facing. The things we were dealing with included problems with Autumn being anxious, needing to be in control, crying when she wanted something instead of asking for it, throwing tantrums, and avoiding affection. For those of you who know us, you may not have noticed any of these things. Generally, any time she left the house, she withdrew and hardly spoke a word. She had problems at preschool because the teacher – even at the end of the year – could rarely get her to talk. It was noticeable enough that the neurologist mentioned we might want to look into selective mutism.
I have a Bachelor’s and Master’s in Elementary Education, so I’ve had many courses on as well as experience with behavior management. We’ve also participated in parenting classes to keep up our certification as foster parents. The behavior problems were not due to our lack of trying. No matter how cute the chart or desirable the reward, they would not be effective long-term. Spankings were not effective with her, and neither were time outs. I couldn’t get her to stay there. When she was younger, I could put her in a baby bed or play pin for time out. Eventually, she was old enough and smart enough to find her way out of anything I tried.
With Autumn approaching Kindergarten, we felt the urgency to again search for help. It was during this search that I learned that Pathways Professional Counseling (a ministry of ABCH) was offering a new type of counseling service called TheraPlay. As I looked into it, I really liked its unique approach and thought it might be helpful. (Click here to see the issues that can be addressed with TheraPlay- including autism spectrum disorders/PDD and ADD/ADHD.)
I was encouraged from our first meeting. Most people who knew Autumn could not see what was going on, but the counselor immediately confirmed things I was seeing and feeling. TheraPlay focuses on four areas: structure, engagement, nurture, and challenge. She could see from the initial evaluation Autumn’s need to be in control and her problems with attachment and affection. She told us that children who have been neglected generally go to one of two extremes. Either they give up or becoming very controlling. Autumn’s a fighter. As a baby, she’d most likely learned to cry and scream until someone finally came to her aid. Though she couldn’t remember those months, they were still affecting her. Besides this, any affection was only on her terms. Whenever I would try to sit with her, she was stiff as a board and struggled to get away.
One of the things the counselor encouraged us to do was talk openly about how Autumn might be feeling to help her make sense of all the things she was experiencing. We had terrible problems with Autumn laying on the floor and crying every time she wanted to eat (which was often because she was terribly obsessed with food). I wouldn’t give her something until she stood up, stopped crying, and used words to ask for something. You’d think that after a while it would click, but it didn’t. The counselor had me start saying things like, “Mommy is here to take care of you, and I will not let you go hungry.” As therapy progressed, we addressed even deeper issues. I would tell her, “There was a time when you didn’t have anyone to take care of you. I’m here now, and you don’t have to worry about that any more.”
One of my favorite things that we learned was a new way to do time out. Instead of putting Autumn in a time out “spot,” we would sit her in our lap. I know, you’re already skeptical, but it really works. I sit Indian style on the floor and she sits facing the same direction. I said it works well, but don’t assume that she likes it. The timer doesn’t start until she is sitting still and quiet. When we first started, it would take her 30 minutes to calm down. Now she can usually calm herself within 5-10 minutes. It has been a great tool to help her gain more self-control. While it’s not always as effective with Silas (since he loves to sit with us), it is a great help with him too at times. I will be getting to his story soon, but when he’s not feeling well, he is very easily frustrated and gets upset often. We use these types of time-outs to help him learn to take control of his emotions and calm himself back down.
If any of you ever need counseling services for one of your kids, I would suggest you look into Pathways Counseling (they work with adults too). It is done from a Christian perspective, and they offer other services in addition to the TheraPlay. For any of you who have adopted kids with control or attachment problems, I strongly urge you to try TheraPlay. Lisa also had us read a book that I highly recommend – Building the Bonds of Attachment: Awakening Love in Deeply Troubled Children by Daniel Hughes. While Autumn will still have issues that she needs to work through because of her history, TheraPlay has helped her tremendously. Autumn is doing so much better about communicating with others at school this year. More often than not, she asks for the things she needs instead of crying first. I can talk her into snuggling with me on the couch some now, and when I’m really lucky, she’ll crawl into my lap without me even asking. That just didn’t happen before.
There are several things about TheraPlay that reminded me of our relationship with God. One is that He wants us to relax and trust Him to take care of us and meet our needs. Psalms 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” I hope you will take the time to rest in His arms today.