Within months of adopting my first three sons with special needs – each under the age of five, reality hit. The road to healthy attachment was going to be long. Very long.
I never envisioned being mentally exhausted an hour after waking. Yet it continued – day after day.
I was also caught off guard. Not everyone would be allies. Most wouldn’t understand the ongoing challenges of early childhood trauma, PTSD, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and Reactive Attachment Disorder. Some would even openly shame my children – insisting spankings would instill a respect for authority.
In their narrow minds, I had to make them behave – or be blamed.
But I had done my research and knew better. Forcing my traumatized children into compliance might work once or twice, but it wouldn’t make them feel safe. It wouldn’t provide ongoing encouragement. It wouldn’t create self-worth.
It would do just the opposite.
Forget perfection. Progress was possible with reasonable expectations. Step by step to maximize human potential. At the same time, I had to be steadfast in my parenting. I had to remain mindful in my approach. And most importantly, I had to love my children unconditionally – which would prove to be the hardest of all.
On many a day, none of my six children were easy to love – because they lived in the moment. Delaying gratification was difficult. Expressing feelings more difficult yet. Furthermore, they sabotaged their own success – refusing to acquiesce, lying about the obvious, controlling the parent that other adults chose.
Each behavior grounded in fear – which most don’t see and others refuse to acknowledge.
No doubt, I needed a lifeline – at least I thought. How about a weekend of respite or two or three? Ironically, I had the power within me.
I eventually realized the need to change my perspective, rather than putting excessive energy into changing my children’s thinking. After all, the wiring in their brains wasn’t going to mend itself overnight – perhaps not at all.
The change would start with me.
For starters, too much judging on my part made my kids question – even resent – my love. While fixating on the bad, I sometimes missed the good that I desperately need to see. Nitpicking has a way of doing that.
Although I hadn’t dug a hole, I found myself in a parental rut. My less-than-positive reactions had become as predictable as my children’s rages. One misplaced rant on my part could undo a week – even a month – of trust building.
And without their trust, I was doomed to fail as a parent. My children would never learn to love or respect – much less behave.
Throughout my life I witnessed individuals who did exactly what I was hoping to accomplish. My grandmother, my father and a handful of teachers who rarely had behavior problems in their classrooms. They somehow uncovered the best in everyone – with their selfless actions appearing effortless.
I had to expect more of myself. But I also needed to acknowledge my vulnerability.
Fortunately, our pastor Frank Sablan was cut from the same cloth and didn’t shy from acknowledging human suffering. In his words, “We are all recovering from something.”
Whether religious or not, he welcomed every person – and valued each one. He believed wholeheartedly in individual, quiet reflection during the worship service – whether inconspicuously from a pew or with his assistance in front of the congregation.
Being a private person like my grandfather and mother, I watched others go forth. Finally one Sunday morning, I stepped out of my comfort zone and sought guidance with one of my children. This would become my “ah-ha” moment.
We knelt and waited for Reverend Frank to kneel too – soon holding us both in his arms. Amazingly, my son went with the flow and didn’t pull back. We then released tension in our bodies until it disappeared.
With only a brief description from me, Reverend Frank knew exactly what to say and how to say it. Ensuring safety. Validating pain. Addressing emotions. Emphasizing family. Stressing forgiveness. Reinforcing connection. Building worth. Delivering hope. Affirming love.
Love without any judgment. Unconditionally.
Week after week I would take one of my children – with the greatest need – to the rail. And each week Reverend Frank would work his magic. Never once did any of my kids hesitate or show reluctance.
In fact, we remained in our embrace – long after he moved onto another person. In years of home-based therapy, nothing came close to matching this intense bonding experience that I could have never facilitated on my own.
Not surprisingly, my three oldest children felt safer than they had in years. They didn’t fight me at every turn.
Several years later when the Reverend Frank announced plans to relocate, I braced for the transition. Thankfully, he filled a void for my children and for me. We had learned to love without condition.
With his unexpected passing last week, we honor his huge heart and his amazing gift for healing. May we all learn from his example.
Less judgment = more parental love. DCP
Craig Peterson publishes EACH Child every Tuesday. To subscribe, open this link and “Like” the page. EACH Child is Special: Working Smarter Not Harder to Raise Every ONE
To learn more about Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love, Craig’s soon-to-published memoir about raising six children with special needs, click here: Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love
To follow my son Andrew’s inspiring story, “Like” his special Facebook page Andrew Peterson Goes for the Gold