honeymoon, interrupted

In all of the adoption books we read in preparation for Kembe's homecoming, the experts described a honeymoon period, which would be followed by a period of limit-testing and acting out.

We had a wonderful first couple of weeks. Oh my word, it was lovely. Kembe was happy and exuberant most of the time. He and his siblings got along so well. He was sad on occasion, but he just cuddled into us, so it was cute and endearing. We were trying to minimize his transition trauma, so we were letting a lot of behaviors slide. It was pretty blissful, but I knew it wouldn't last.

After a few weeks of "choosing our battles", (and by "choosing our battles" I mean "letting him do whatever he wanted") we realized it was time to lay down the rules on a few things.

i.e.:
No, you cannot sleep with the plastic knife from dinner
No, you cannot play soccer/football in the living room
No, you cannot bite Jafta because you want his toy
No, you cannot take a tiny bite out of every apple in the apple bowl before deciding on a banana
No, you cannot write on the walls with crayons
No, you cannot carry your baby sister around the house like a football


In retrospect, it's hard to know if we should have tightened the reigns sooner. We wanted to be gentle with him at first. But I will tell you that after the first few weeks of honeymoon, Kembe was very, very disappointed to discover that he was not going to be in charge of this house. We had a serious battle of Who's The Boss going on for a couple weeks.

Kembe reacted very dramatically to our discipline once we started it, regardless of how minor the request. His response to not getting his way was consistent, and it was loud. We call it the frozen wail. (Not to be confused with the frozen whale). He stands very still, with a frozen expression, and wails at the top of his lungs. Loudly. For a very, very long time.

The first few times, I must admit, we gave in with whatever he wanted just to get him to quiet down. But then we started realizing that he saw this wailing as a currency: he who cries loudest, wins. We started to hold our ground, but we would try to sooth the crying by holding him, comforting him, talking to him softly, etc. After a while we noticed that he started looking almost a little bored with the crying. There would sometimes be a lull when he seemed to be reconsidering, before he would pick it up again. We noticed that if we gave him a funny look, he would even laugh in the middle of it and then start again. We noticed that if he got distracted by a sibling or an activity, the wailing immediately stopped. Still, it felt wrong to just totally ignore a crying kid. So we went through some very difficult weeks where Kembe was very volatile, and there were many long outbursts over not getting his way. It made it hard to leave the house, because we never knew when it would start. We were exhausted by it, the other kids were exhausted by it, and he seemed exhausted too. The charming, silly kid who came home seemed to have been replaced by an angry, unhappy little boy, who did not seem to like us very much.

We explained the whole situation to the therapist we saw, who helped us to see that giving affection and attention to the wailing might be perpetuating the behavior. She gave us permission to stop coddling him when he was upset over not getting his way. We still comfort him when he is sad or hurt or just wanting affection. But we stopped comforting him when he started wailing over a toy or a request to clean.

We also started ignoring the behavior. If he started the wailing, we just left the room. We acted like we didn't even hear it - even though sometimes it was really, really grating. And amazingly, within a few days, the wailing decreased. When he realized it didn't get him anything, he stopped. And oh, the peace that came with that.

We've gotten pretty good at recognizing when he's getting ready to do the wail. Sometimes we will preemptively leave the room when we see him take that frozen stance, and invariably if we peek back in, we can watch him decide to move on and do something else. We've gotten pretty good at wail-averting, and it's been a couple weeks since he's gone into a big, dramatic frozen wailfest.

A couple days ago, I had a friend over and Kembe was sad about having to take turns with a toy. I was out of his line of sight, and he started the wail in front of my friend, who was so caught off guard by his sad demeanor and loud cries that she started to let him bypass the other child's turn. But I walked up and shot him a look - a look that can best be described as a "what you talkin' bout, Willis?" look. And he smiled like he knew he'd been busted. . . and moved on. He's a smart one.

He is understanding more and more that while we love him, we are also in charge. And he is also understanding that no amount of crying is gonna change that. So we've inched just a little closer back to our honeymoon existence. We are watching him relax within our boundaries and the understanding of his place in our family, and we are seeing that silly, happy kid re-emerge. There are still tough days, but there are even more better days. And somehow, through the rough patches, we seem to have emerged with a stronger family bond. We've all been a little ugly to each other - and yet we're all still here. And really, isn't that what family is all about?

17 comments:

  1. Yeah, we've got a wailer, too. Although she's 7 and has been wailing in our family for almost 4 years now, so it's much less endearing. Her therapist actually suggested I handle it like her dog trainer- cross my arms over my chest and turn my back to her, but stay in the room. It works, which I think is hilarious. I also designated her a room. She can make that hideous sound all she likes-- in the laundry room with the door closed. Fun stuff. Fun stuff.

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  2. Sounds like ya'll are on your way. Thanks for sharing the journey with us.

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  3. Lisa Keck4:41 AM

    Parenting is tough, interesting and rewarding. There's no do-overs so you just press on. My oldest girl was so good I didn't know what my friends were talking about when they said terrible twos. Then my son came along and taught me and his sister what a tantrum was. She decided she liked them and had her first tantrum at age 5. Well I'm sure it will all work out--just keep pressing on.

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  4. thank you so much for writing about that! i needed to hear it. unfortunately i've tried the walking away while the child is screaming thing, but they just follow me wherever i go. little annoying, but what can you do? eventually they learn and hopefully they'll quit, but the laughter always makes you forget! : )

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  5. really good points...all of them. do you have any adoption books you would recommend? i have one, but wanted some recommendations that you thought helped.

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  6. We call my daughter the fire engine due to the wailing that she can produce. It was frequent when she first came home, subsided and then came roaring back when her brothers came home. Two years later she can still crank it up on occasion. We send her to her room, close the door and tell her she can come out when she's done. The lack of attention works well.

    My older son does a wounded animal wail that could seriously wake the dead. We tell him that if he does that, he'll have to wear a diaper since only babies cry like that. It has helped immensely.

    They learn very fast in the orphanage that the loudest screamer gets the attention.

    Sounds like you are doing all the right things, glad to hear you're getting some relief from the screaming. The first year home is an adjustment for everyone but then it gets sooo much better. I promise you that :) Makes you want to do it all over again...

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  7. Wow. I really needed to read this today. Our five year old foster son went home last week and we had many similar battles for control with him while he was with us. However, he could speak and use words well and we could reason with him a bit. Two days after he left, we were placed with a newborn and his 22 month old sister. She has introduced us to the "wailing" that you are describing. We want her to be comfortable and feel safe at our house but we also want to established boundaries, routine and a clear understanding of who is in charge. It is nice to know we are not alone and that we are not evil for letting her "cry it out" sometimes. Thanks!

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  8. Just wanted you to know I've been following your adoption process and I'm praying for you guys. Thanks for being so vulnerable to share - I can't imagine how many people this will encourage and be helpful to. We hope to adopt in the future and I'll be rereading these sections then!

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  9. Funny thing, the last few weeks I've been thinking about that whole honeymoon period and I've realized that it works both ways. At first, we think we've got a really easy-going child and the child thinks they've got a really easy-going parent. At some point the coddling/permissiveness has to stop and the parenting has to start. The
    honeymoon ends on both sides. The difference is that we, as parents, have been prepared for the end of the honeymoon while the child probably wasn't.

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  10. Have never commented here before, but I just have to say that I *love* love love this post!!!!!
    :)
    Heather

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  11. First, that picture made me laugh out loud. I am still laughing.

    I have worked with adopted kids for 10 years. So, so many issues that present. YOu are doing a great job.

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  12. Lots of wonderful insights in this post--- will take a lot of it to heart when it comes to my own children's whine-fests. Thanks!

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  13. Oh I've so been there, but mostly with my daughter who came to us at age 11. She had learned that if you pitch a big enough fit that you get what you want, or don't have to do whatever it is that you don't want to do.

    At first we didn't know what her capabilities truely were so we let some things slide - mostly by lowering our expectations. We often let her have her fit (and held her, comforted her, talked to her logically - OK the last one didn't work so well), and then came back later to try again... or we forgot (oh the embarassment of admitting that). We held our ground on other things... and she compensated by escalating. She knew throwing a fit worked. It always had.

    So she threw bigger fits! (If whining or being pitiful didn't work; try crying and/or arguing - with a heavy dose of distraction to see if you can get them off the subject; then screaming and accusatons ("It's not faaiirrr!" "You love ________ more than me."); anger and aggressiveness (throw things, break things, bite and claw people...);... still not working? Try threats! (threaten to hurt yourself, suicide, homicide, calling the police to report for child abuse...).

    I'm still hanging in there, and I think after 3 years she's finally learning it's easier to just comply. We mostly see meltdowns when she's scared, and she's slowly learning to trust us to be consistant and still there no matter how hard she pushes us away.

    Good job nipping this in the bud in a loving way that works for your child! You are a great mom and I'm so glad that your little guy is learning to trust you and wanting to please you.

    Mary in TX

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  14. How do you think the Tongginator earned her nickname? Which, by the way, is a shortened form of The Terminator From Tonggu County. Her wailing stage? Lasted a long, long time. Glad to see Kembe is coming out of it!

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  15. Wow! I remember those days. My third son had the most amazing lung power, and he had staying power, too!

    Consistency is the key. That's what I told myself about a million times when #3 was Kembe's age.

    And, you're right, really it's about the journey together as a family and coming out the other side stronger and more connected and more cohesive.

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  16. Anonymous8:27 PM

    Maybe it's just me, but I have 4 bio children and it was like this after we brought the 3rd and 4th home from the hospital (the 1st 2 are 16 months apart so it was no biggie). We revisit this regularly. It's a cycle. The kids behave, we slack off, then we start to notice that they aren't behaving as well as they should be and we crack down again.

    Sounds like you are providing a great life for Kembe. You are doing great! You are a fabulous mother and doing a wonderful job of keeping your sense of humor through this time of uncertainty.

    Honeymoons are always great, but it's also great to be home again.

    Peace. Jill

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  17. Anonymous9:25 PM

    which therapist did you see locally?

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talk to me.

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