When we were in the process to become licensed foster parents, we listened intently to all the training classes we were required to attend. It seemed like a lot of worst-case scenarios to us, and we decided to remain hopeful. I read a handful of books on foster care and adoption, and talked with friends who were in the process, or had adopted already.
Plus, we already had three kids, one who struggled with ADHD, Anxiety, Sensory Processing Disorder, learning disabilities, and Tourette’s. I knew what it was like to parent a kid with extra challenges, so I thought we’d be fine. There were many things I was ready for, but nothing prepared me for parenting to feel so bad.
We had gotten past the stage of our adoption being new, dramatic, and interesting to people. Faith’s medical condition was stable, and we had celebrated their adoption finalization with seventy friends at my sister-in-law’s house. Now we were supposed to live happily ever after.
People would say a friendly “hi, how are you?” and I would either breakdown in a socially inappropriate sob story or give them a fake smile and lie about how I was. It seemed there was no middle ground. I felt like I was walking around in a war zone while the world went on as usual.
Sharon was a special-needs mom I met at church, her teenage son Brandon was in a wheelchair and couldn’t speak. Faith and Brandon bonded with shy smiles over their matching feeding tubes.
Sharon had big sunny blonde hair, a leopard print cardigan, and radiant smile that matched her son’s. She had a joy about her that permeated everything she did, even realities that seemed devastating to me, and I was fascinated by it.
I asked her over for coffee during my kid’s nap time one day, intent on knowing her better and understanding the secret behind her joy. We chatted for an hour and a half, and she said, “I don’t think I have anything profound to tell you.”
But simply being around her and knowing that joy in the toughest parenting circumstances was possible, was enough for me.
Emotions are a funny thing, they drive nearly every action we take, or avoid taking, usually without our knowing. My grieving emotions drove me into full time fix it mode. That’s how I planned on having Sharon’s joy, I would just fix all our kids, and then I would have her joy. It sounds absurd now, writing it out, but that belief drove my actions for the better part of six years.
I also tried a lot of avoidance to help me feel better. I picked up different part time jobs over the years, and they provided the perfect distraction to the meltdowns and pain dominating our home. Busyness was another useful diversion. When I was overdrawn all I could think about was getting to, or recovering from the next activity, and I had little energy to process the pain.
Trying to control the world so I could feel better was exhausting, because there are truly few things we can control. Especially our kids. If emotions drive everything we do, and we can’t change our circumstances, then how on earth can we feel better, and have Sharon-level-joy?
Proverbs 4:23 tells us “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” What the Bible refers to as our heart can be interpreted to our thought and emotional lives. Guard your thoughts, because they determine how you feel and everything you do.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, one of the most effective and well researched forms of therapy, uses the same principle. Our thoughts create our feelings, and our feelings drive our actions. Events > thoughts > feelings > actions. It’s an extremely simple concept, but it was earth shaking for me when I learned it in sessions with my counselor.
For the first time I understood what was making me feel bad, and what gave Sharon her joy, both of us with very difficult parenting circumstances. Sharon hadn’t changed the events in her life, but what she had changed was her thoughts about them, and it changed everything for her.
As humans we try and make sense of the world. When something happens, we make up a story in our minds to explain it. The problem is the stories we tell ourselves, our thoughts, are predominately negative. It’s simply how we’re wired this side of heaven. Researchers tells us nearly 70% of our thoughts are negative.
When our children from trauma backgrounds repeatedly have meltdowns and act out, we can quickly make it mean we’re not good enough as parents. Then we feel incompetent, and we can react in anger to their behaviors because to us, it’s only reinforcing our thought that we’re not good enough. It looks like this:
Child’s meltdown > “I’m not good enough” > Incompetent > Respond with anger
What if you assumed the meltdown was a result of your spouse or a teacher not correctly handling your child? You would likely feel a different emotion:
Child’s meltdown > “Only I can handle her” > Isolated > Do it all yourself
Or what if you blamed your child for the meltdown, your emotions would feel very different:
Child’s meltdown > “He’ll never change” > Powerless > Withdraw from son
If you blame your child’s biological parent for the behavior and live in an ongoing state of fear that your son or daughter will grow up to make the same choices, that will put a different spin on the event. Because of this fear, you may feel like whatever you do to help won’t work, so you will avoid seeking resources.
Child’s meltdown > “She’s just like her birth mom” > Fear > Avoid getting help
The biggest challenge with our thoughts is that we have so many of them, and usually this cognitive process happens without our knowing. We naturally think that the event is to blame for our negative feelings, when in reality it was our thoughts about the event that caused us to feel bad.
Because this process happens automatically and without our consent, it’s important to practice paying attention to our thought lives. Once we’ve become aware, we get all the power back and can think, and therefor feel, and parent on purpose.
“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
I love the word picture 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 gives on how to relate to our thoughts. Demolishing, and taking captive are very strong, almost violent depictions of how God wants us to relate to our thoughts. It shows how powerful they are in our lives, and the importance of paying attention to them.
To learn more about the process of overcoming toxic thinking and cultivating patience, you can read my book, Faith Forward Adoption, available on Amazon.