The Differences in Sexual Development in Children With Complex Trauma

Discretion is a Learned Behavior

Sometimes I think organizations hire me just to talk about things like “masturbation”.  When is the last time a parent posted on Facebook about their kindergartner, “Noel just showed the neighbor her vulva and asked to see his penis!” Or how about, “I caught Miles looking at pornography for the third time!” Both of these things are about as common as driving over the speed limit, but are rarely discussed.  Parents are discreet about sex, and by the time most kids go through puberty,  kids understand this discretion.  However, this isn’t true of all kids.

Things parents put on their list to tell:

  • Tommy knows all of his letters, and he is only two. We always knew he was ahead of his peers.
  • Suzie makes the best cupcakes. Plus, they taste amazing, unlike the store-bought kinds.
  • Eleanor has never made a B in her life. We never have to tell her to study.

Things parents put on the list not to tell:

  • Tommy discovered his penis today and won’t stop touching it. Boys are so proud of their penises!
  • We have caught Suzie looking at pornography three times now. She sure is a curious girl!
  • Eleanor just sent a naked picture of herself to her little seventh grade boyfriend. I think she is very interested in photography!

Consider Emotional Age as well as Chronological Age

There are all sorts of lists online of what “normal sexual development” is at different ages.  The problem with those lists is that they aren’t designed to reflect children who have endured complex trauma.  I am not only referring to children who have been sexually abused, but also referring to children who have not been abused, but are in some ways emotionally and socially half their chronological age.  That means that a twelve-year old girl going through puberty is emotionally six.  How many six-year olds do you know that could handle the mess of having a period well?  I would say probably not a single one.

What about twelve-year old boys with complex trauma who are emotionally and socially six-years old?  I wonder what they do when they start having spontaneous erections during the school day.  What might a six-year old do if that happened?

Years ago, a little boy came over to our house for a sleepover and told us all sorts of things about his parents.  Apparently, his dad sleeps completely naked and owns no underwear, but sometimes borrows underwear from mom.  This sounded like oversharing to me, and I encouraged him not to talk about his parent’s underwear anymore while I muffled my own laughter.  Six-year olds aren’t known for their discretion.  So let’s go back to our twelve-year old with complex trauma.  He might just show someone his erection.  He might call someone’s attention to how big his penis just got.  Either way, he would not show the discretion that would be expected for a child his age and would end up alarming all sorts of children and adults.

Another specifically confusing thing about kids that are going through puberty is that there is socially acceptable potty talk with a group of same-gender friends, but don’t you dare say those things to someone of the opposite gender or to an adult.  Other kids seem to understand this.  Other adults come near them, and they immediately change the subject.  The kids I work with are often the only ones left talking loudly when the adult approaches and hears them.  Off to the principal’s office they go, when the reality is they weren’t the only ones engaging in inappropriate conversations; however, they were the only ones that didn’t show discretion in engaging in that conversation.


Don’t Over- React

Don’t over-react.  The discretion that other kids naturally have will need to be taught and spelled out instance by instance.  Most parents consider sex education as teaching about safe sex, how babies are made, and what is going on in the young person’s body.  This is just not enough information for these kids.  They need things spelled out like what do you do exactly when you get a spontaneous erection, where and when is it appropriate to masturbate, how close can you stand to a person before they get uncomfortable, etc.  The rules have changed and this group of kids does not have the same vicarious learning as neurotypical children.  They will not understand, unless you teach them, that kindergartners don’t need consent to hug but 9th graders do or it can be considered harassment.

Knowing More than You Wish You Knew

Normally developing teens develop discretion around their sexuality.  Parents give them a few sex talks, and then don’t worry about the kids until they start dating or getting into trouble.  Parents of children with complex trauma often know way more about their children’s developing sexuality than they wish they knew.  Be a bold teacher and understand that many times the normal developing teens and the teens with complex trauma are engaging in the same behaviors, but maybe it is only obvious in your “at risk” kids.

Consider the Child’s Developmental Age Before Giving Him/Her Privileges Reserved for “Teens”

It is not uncommon for parents to come to me when their kids have cell phones and say, “He was looking at pornography sitting right across from me at the kitchen table.”  It is horrifying to parents that the child would do this in such close proximity to them.  I read a statistic that the average teen boy watches 50 pornographic videos per week. This is disturbing to me on so many levels.  Other kids are looking up porn too, but it is this seemingly brazen behavior that really alarms parents.  I don’t think teens of any type should have a device that their parents cannot supervise.  You would certainly not give a six-year old a phone with the internet, so a better fit would be a flip phone without the internet.

Understand the Difference Between Predatory Behaviors and Non-Predatory Behaviors

I have worked with many children that have some sexual acting out behaviors, but only a very small percentage of those kids are predatory.  Predatory kids typically have many victims before puberty.  They manipulate, threaten, or convince children who are significantly younger or in some way much more vulnerable than them to engage in sexual behavior.  This article is not speaking to predatory behaviors.   It is speaking to inappropriate and immature behaviors that lack discretion. Predatory behaviors must always be reported to Child Protective Services.

A great resource for education that includes lots of pictures and social stories is below:

I recommend printing it out in color, including the appendices. Don’t try to go over too much in one sitting.  This will be a constant conversation.



Financial Peace 

Money disagreements are often blamed as one of the top reasons people get a divorce. I find that fascinating since money is never something my husband and I have argued about. Did you know that even a relatively common diagnosis in a child such as ADHD doubles the divorce rate in parents? For some more serious special needs, the divorce rate for parents is much greater than that.

I was a young bride, married two months after turning 19. I was a kid, yes, still very much a kid who wanted to do everything well. I would drag my husband to the marriage counselor at every hint of discord, wanting to stay ahead of problems to guarantee a long, happy marriage. Lucky for me, I was a college student and received free counseling through my school. So my desire to succeed in my marriage and my desire to be a good steward of our financial resources didn’t need to compete.

As a young couple, we went through Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University and were determined to make wise financial decisions, pay off student loans quickly, build wealth, and create a good emergency fund. My husband took to the numbers, percentages, and plans naturally. Numbers, with their precision and predictability, make as much sense to him as people with their individual nuances make to me. He enjoyed laying out our goals, calculating and analyzing our spending, and planning for our future. Keep in mind at this point, his was our only income, and we lived on about $18,000 a year. On that pittance of an income, we saved for a down payment for our first home and moved into a 900 square foot, brick ranch home that I adored.

Surviving Children Financially

We chose to grow our family through adoption. We had calculated that two babies would cost about $400 per month to feed, diaper, and thrift-store clothe. I won’t be offended if you just laughed out loud at our naivety.

Within a week of bringing our children home, our daughter spent a week in the hospital. Despite having insurance, we went through all of our savings in that one week. She was so sick when we brought her home that our visits to the pediatrician averaged one to two a week until she was seven. Our co-pays for her to see her lung specialist were $60. Just remembering this is stressing me out, and I have lost all desire to calculate how much we spent in those years on doctors’ visits and medications. I honestly don’t know how we survived. There was a lady at our church that would often drop off huge boxes of diapers at our house. Her name was Julie, and that deposit into us as young parents has never been forgotten.

At this point, Dave Ramsey’s teachings only stressed me out. The voice that used to comfort me and make me feel like everything was going to be OK now just irritated me and made me feel inadequate. The first years were consumed by our daughter’s fragile medical state, and around the time that improved, our son was diagnosed with his own special need. Our journey began of seeking out specialists that would give him the best chance at life. My instinct to meet my children’s needs was so much stronger than my instinct to prepare for our financial future. I got a job and put all of my income, every cent, toward meeting his needs. We went around the country seeing specialists for him because no one in Middle Tennessee gave us any hope. We spent and spent and spent because his life depended on it. Actually, our lives depended on it. Who can sleep if their child is despairing? Who can find peace and joy when their child is in torment? My sweet husband exchanged his precise relationship with money for a risky relational investment.  He exchanged a tangible return of financial gain with an intangible return of peace and joy.  For the record, we still don’t argue about money. We did have a near marriage ending argument while we were filling a beanbag with new beads. This bean bag, I am pretty certain, was created by Satan himself to end marriages. I am kidding about the argument, not the beanbag from hell.

Building a Chance Instead of a College Fund

When a child is drowning and needs a life jacket, a parent doesn’t say, “Oh, wait, can we afford that life jacket?” or “Is that life jacket a wise financial decision?” Childhood and adolescence are full of critical brain windows and sensitive brain windows. A critical brain window is one in which certain needs must be met; otherwise, the child will NEVER be able to perform a certain skill. For example, if a child hears no language in the first three years of life, then he/she will never be able to speak more than a few basic words. A sensitive window is one where, if the child gets what is needed during that sensitive period of time, it takes less input to meet that need. For example, an organized crawl is essential for all sorts of brain development. If babies crawl in the sensitive window, then less is needed to organize the brain. If we miss that window, then a child might need to crawl for two years to make up for missing those six months.

When I envisioned my financial future, I never imagined that I could be making all the right decisions and still be in a place where we are only meeting today’s needs and not our retirement needs. I never imagined having a doctorate degree and still be living in the tiny home we bought nine years ago because meeting our child’s needs is more important than living in the right neighborhood. I imagined at the age of 37, I would be building wealth just like Dave Ramsey recommended. Instead, I am building a chance for my child. I am not even building a guarantee, just a chance. That seems very abstract and unwise for a person with as much education as I have.

So in a very non-Dave Ramsey way, I want to encourage you parents who are building a chance for your child instead of wealth. You are doing the right thing. Even if things do not turn out the way we all hope and pray that they will, you will never regret trying. You can invest in your children’s future even if you can’t start investing for their college. And let’s be honest here, college isn’t for everyone. And for those of you who could invest in your children easily, but choose not to, shame on you! If you don’t think your children are worth the effort, the time, and the money, then they don’t have a chance. Our kids are worth it. I am sure Dave Ramsey is a very nice man, and he does have a wealth of wisdom. I am guessing he also doesn’t have a special needs child whose financial needs always feel so much greater than one family can provide for. When doing the right thing always feels like doing the hard thing, certainty crumbles. I am much less certain of many things at 37 than I was at 19.

FIVE O’CLOCK MARKETPLACE KIDS; Raising “At Risk” Children in the Bible Belt




“You know how I was late to school today, Mom?  Well, when I got there, I could tell that my teacher was really disappointed that I was there.  I think she was looking forward to a whole day without me there.”

I didn’t know how to respond.  Children always know how adults feel about them, whether or not they can articulate it.  “Wow,” I said, “that must have been really hard to see.”

“It was,” he said.  “Sometimes I try to make her happy, but I think it would make her happier if I just wasn’t there. No one wants me at school, Mom.”

My child had high needs in the classroom.  He had a teacher aide part of the day but still struggled with attention, completing tasks, and not distracting his classmates.  He was never the child to get picked first for a group project or the child asked to take something to the office.  In all fairness, had he been sent to the office for a delivery, it is unlikely the teacher would have seen him again for some time.  The kids in his class groaned and even cried when they were assigned to do a group project with him.  He was difficult to get on board, had ideas that didn’t pertain to the assignment, and was always breaking things they were working on.  And yet he was always so eager in the good ways also – eager to share… eager to give hugs….eager to smile and interact… eager to get to the next class… eager to finish class.  His eagerness to please was without bounds, and he usually failed miserably at the thing he wanted the most.

The Parable of the Vineyard

In Mathew 20:1-16, Jesus tells a parable about a group of vineyard workers waiting to be hired for labor.  The owner of the vineyard went out early and collected his first wave of workers, promising to pay them one denarius for the day.  Then again around 9:00 in the morning, he saw another group of workers in the marketplace with nothing to do and invited them to work for him.  This time he said, “I will pay you whatever is right.”  He did the same thing at noon, 3:00, and 5:00 in the afternoon.  To the last group he said, “Why have you been standing here all day doing nothing?”  They responded, “Because no one has hired us.”

Growing up in a farming community, I am not unfamiliar with the ways of day laborers.   The marketplace must have been the place where landowners went to find workmen.  The workers hired first are always the strongest, the most skilled, and the ones with the best reputation for working hard and completing their jobs.  Landowners know they must arrive early to get the best labor because everyone wants that quality of workers.  The unique thing about this landowner is that he got the best labor force and then continued to go back until the very end of the day.  The 5:00 o’clock crowd were clearly not desirable hires.  Maybe they had some sort of disability, maybe they looked weak, maybe they had a reputation for ignoring directions, maybe they carried contention with them wherever they went, and maybe they were just lazy.  They were the 5:00 o’clock crowd for a reason.

What does the 5 O’clock crowd look like?

  • The small fifth grader who is always picked last for soccer because he is one foot smaller than everyone else.
  • The awkward office mate who never gets invited for office lunches because conversations with him are never enjoyable.
  • The highschooler with ADHD whose impulse control issues mean he is constantly in BIG trouble. Plus this kid can’t even remember to take out the garbage every day. Trusting him with anything else would be ridiculous. 
  • The twelve-year old girl who creates conflict in every situation she participates in. Trouble follows this little one.
  • The child with a developmental delay that isn’t capable of understanding or following directions.
  • The convicted felon who struggles daily finding work because of his record.
  • Children with histories of complex trauma.
  • People with mental illness.

This 5:00 o’clock crowd was not a crowd of stellar citizens.  It was a crowd of marginalized persons.  They were the reject crowd.  They were passed by over and over and over again, and yet still they stood at that marketplace waiting for someone to hire them because their NEED was great.

Here is the beautiful thing about this parable.  The landowner calls the misfit crowd to pay them first.  They had only been working for one hour, and he gives them a FULL day wage.  He then goes on and gives everyone the same full day payment.  It makes the ones hired early-on angry.  They weren’t angry because they were being cheated.  They were angry because the master was being generous.

I promise I am getting to the parenting application although it has taken me longer than usual this time.  Jesus gives us what we NEED, not what we DESERVE.   Is it possible for us to treat our children with that same gentleness and kindness?  Can we give them what they NEED and not what they DESERVE?  Can we give a 5:00 o’clock marketplace child so much grace that we are giving him/her the tenderness, affection, pride, and inheritance equal to that of the child that gets up before dawn to work? Can we do this even if they never earn it, but always NEED it?

Parents with the Jonah Spirit

I have met some parents that have what I call a Jonah spirit.  After Jonah went to Nineveh and the Ninevites turned to God, Jonah became very depressed.  He wanted the Ninevites to die at God’s hand.  His response was, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”  Jonah was so angry at God for not giving the Ninevites what they deserved that he wanted to die.  Parents with a Jonah spirit want to punish their children more than they want to help their children.  They want to make their children suffer the way they have suffered.  These parents are score keepers and their children are always behind.

Here is the thing that 5:00 o’clock marketplace kids suffer all day.   They endure rejection after rejection.  They have huge insecurities.  They irritate their teachers, forget assignments, get in fights, steal food, get suspended, antagonize, never sit still, etc.  They compare themselves constantly to other kids who have favor with adults.  I work with parents that feel like they MUST constantly punish these 5:00 o’clock marketplace kids.  They feel as though they can punish these misbehaviors away.  They feel as though they MUST give these children what they deserve.  They often quote verses in the Bible about judgment, obedience and the “rod”.

The message of the Bible is undeserved mercy for all of us.  You probably read the parable thinking you would have been picked early-on in the day.  Maybe in this world you are everyone’s first pick; maybe you are an overachieving, hyper-responsible person.  In God’s eyes, we are all the 5 o’clock crowd getting mercy none of us can earn, getting salvation none of us can pay for, inheriting the kingdom without being born into royalty.  I will end with this quote by Dr. Karyn Purvis.  “Don’t expect children to act like Jesus; instead, just treat them like Jesus would.”  Can you treat really hard kids with kindness they don’t deserve so that they can experience a connection they have never had?

When Meeting Kids’ Needs Is No Longer Fun

“You have never had to do anything this hard in your life,” our teen son said to us after being given the job of raking and moving an enormous pile of leaves to the front yard.  We burst into laughter.  He felt so persecuted, when in reality he could move those leaves a thousand times, and it wouldn’t come close to the amount of time, energy, agony, stress, effort, and money that we have put into raising him.  Kids are naturally self-centered.  Even the most responsible, hard- working, compassionate kids are naturally self-serving.

Children have a hard time seeing adults as having needs, much less seeing those adult needs as being above their own needs in that moment.  “That is not fair,” they say when parents have to work instead of taking them to the movies.

I was trying to determine when I became less self-serving, and I would have to say it was after adopting my children.  At the time, I thought I was a very thoughtful adult; now I look back and see how selfish I was.  Honestly, at the beginning I met their needs to keep them alive and to keep me from losing my mind with their crying.  I can actually remember having meltdowns that first year, realizing that I always had to take care of them.  I had to feed them twelve times a day even if I was throwing up, had three doctors’ appointments, had no food in the fridge, and had a migraine.  Their needs never ended and weren’t based on my needs at all.  They were just so incredibly immature about it all. Didn’t they understand at four months and fifteen months that I had important needs also?   At least my spouse understood the limits of my human capacities on a bad day, but not the kids.  They kept asking to be fed and comforted all day long, no matter what was going on.  They also never got on the same sleep schedule so someone was always awake!

The kids just kept demanding, asking, and needing, year after year, year after year.  Somewhere along the way, I became the “need meeter”.  Somewhere along the way, I developed an enormous satisfaction in meeting their needs.  Kids train you well like this.  You give them your full, undivided attention, and they give you a dimpled smile.  You give them every ounce of your energy, and they choose you above everyone else.  They wrap their little arms around you, and all is right in the world.   I would drive for an hour to a kids’ museum and spend the day watching them play and laugh, enjoying every minute of their delight. I would sit and rock a sick child for hours or all night to comfort him/her if needed, and the satisfaction I received from soothing my uncomfortable child is incomparable to just about anything I can imagine experiencing.  And the discomfort I felt at my chid’s discomfort was to be avoided at all cost.  It was torment for me to see my child in distress.

Something shifted in the pre-teens.  I was still the “need meeter”, but only on their terms.  Sometimes they needed me desperately and for hours, and other times they didn’t need me at all.  Meeting needs became less satisfying and more sacrificing.  Making them their favorite snack when they grumbled and rolled their eyes at me just didn’t do it for me anymore.  Teenagers prepare you for the world of separation from your child.  I couldn’t have imagined when they were one-year old leaving them with anyone unfamiliar even for a minute.  Now I imagine and look forward to a day they will be independent, having their own adventures.  There are so many things I love about having teens, but doing things for them has lost its luster.

I just announced to them they would each be shopping for and cooking one meal per week.  My child who is a planner is making hot dogs.  My impulsive child who should be making the hot dogs is apparently making pork roast with sides.  If you knew my children, you would be looking forward to the hot dogs and dreading the pork roast at this point.  I am finding a new enjoyment now.  I am enjoying watching my children become independent.  They are really as cute as when they were toddlers navigating this big adult world for the first time.  I have started giving them their own forms to fill out at the doctor’s office, and my son misread “marital” and asked me what his martial status was.  He said, “That is asking about the military, right?”   I laughed hard and loud with him because he can laugh well at his own expense.  He also asked me if PMS stood for psychic metal skills.   Apparently for a couple of years now when I say, “I am PMSing,” that has been quite confusing to him because as far as he knows, he has never seen me move metal with my mind.

The shift between enjoying meeting needs and not enjoying it anymore has been gradual and a necessary part of them feeling more independent.  When this shift doesn’t happen, parents end up resentful, and children lack the skills for independence.  I have worked with parents of adult children who still wake up their children in the morning, remind them of doctor’s appointments, and do their laundry.  When the shift from need meeting to supporting independence doesn’t happen, it leads to very unhappy parents and entitled, angry, and insecure kids.  In talking to adult children in these situations, it becomes clear that they feel incompetent.

Tweens and teens want to be competent.  They want to start doing things alone.  Don’t miss the window of time when they begin to flirt with independence.  If you do, they will decide independence isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, and it is awful nice to let mom and dad still do everything for you.  Here is a list of suggestions for kids that age:

Let Them Fill Out Their Own Forms

  • Let them fill out their own forms at the doctor’s office and write their own checks for school activities. In writing out their own checks, they, of course, would need to balance the checkbook. They will need your help for a while, but not forever.

Let Them Fail

  • Tweens in the kitchen is a lot like having toddlers in the kitchen. They create a huge disaster and often make things that are inedible.  Still, let them explore.  Give them the job of cooking one night a week which would include making a grocery list of supplies.  Don’t do the thinking for them. If you know something is missing from the list, don’t rescue.  Kids learn better from natural consequences than from conversations.  They may forget to add the hot dog buns once, but they won’t forget twice.  In case you are wondering how the pot roast turned out, my son burned a $14 roast to the consistency of a brick.  The next time he planned a meal, it was a manageable meal for him (frozen pizza with our favorite toppings added, a garden salad, and strawberry smoothies) and turned out perfect.

Don’t Let the Eye Rolls and Whining Discourage You

  • Kids this age are just amazing at staying in this seemingly constant state of complaining about everything they have to do. Most people don’t like to fold laundry or clean a bathtub, but that is just part of real life.  Parents often avoid the discomfort of the battle and do things themselves.

Concrete Learning

  • Encourage your kids to make their own money. Kids this age often have business ideas. Let them run with these ideas.  My daughter who is thirteen has a pet-sitting business.  We encouraged this business with a few rules of our own.  She has to create her own schedule, clean before the initial pet visit, and clean up after the pets leave.  Just last night she went to meet a neighbor to discuss a potential job coming up.  I don’t make those arrangements for her.  It is her business. She has developed so many skills around this business of hers and makes a good bit of money that she promptly deposits in the bank.   Kids this age can’t see what they don’t have to do.  If you are calling everyone, writing everyone thank you notes, etc., they will not consider those things as a necessary part of having a business.

Free Time is Very important

  • Some kids don’t have any responsibilities at home because they go straight from school to soccer, and from soccer to piano. By the time they get home, they are rushing through homework to get to bed at a decent hour.  Activities are great, but they often come at the cost of children not learning to be competent individuals.  They don’t have time to load a dishwasher, do their own laundry, or prep a grocery list.
  • Creativity is born out of boredom. Creativity, like every other child venture, is messy.  Deal with it.  Let your child take apart the toaster or dig through the trash for craft supplies.  Let him spend an hour inventing cookies you know aren’t going to turn out because no one added eggs.  Let them take the hammer and nails and make themselves a fort or shelves for their room (that will promptly topple over). Let them write a play script, write a letter, get into the sewing supplies, and many other things that are so much more wholesome than screen time.

Most children decide between the ages of 11-13 what they are good at and want to invest their time in.  More often than not, this becomes the career that they will also pursue as adults. Think back to yourself at that age.  If you are an engineer today, you were probably driving your mother crazy taking things apart.  If you are a nurse today, you can look back and see that you have always been a caretaker. This age is full of promise, potential, and fun.  So stop meeting every need and start supporting their need for independence.

When Parents Lose Their Minds over “Flip Sequin” Shirts

There is a new fad called “brush changing sequins”.  You can find these appealing, brushing sequins on everything from key chains to bedspreads.  I had a little girl come into my office with a flip sequin t-shirt on the other day.   It was dark blue with a large, glittery silver heart on the front.  I am thirty-seven, almost thirty-eight years old, and let me tell you that I had to restrain myself from reaching out and brushing the sequins up and down on her shirt.  Instead, I went to Ross and bought a “brush changing sequin” pillow that everyone in my family was always snatching out of each other’s hands. My children are teenagers, and this pillow was making them act like toddlers.  Since it was causing so many family problems, I took it to my office.  Now I only have to snatch it out of the kids’ hands that I work with, and since I am quite a bit bigger, I can flip those sequins whenever I want.  I am only making part of this up.  The moral of this story is that the “brush changing sequin” items are very, very alluring.

I got a call from a parent to come into a school meeting for her child accused of sexually assaulting another child.  Now the parent was understandably in a panic, and initially I was shocked.  As it happens, a little girl named Holly was wearing an irresistible “brush changing sequin” t-shirt to first grade.  Jony had never seen anything like it.  It had a fantastic unicorn on it that was bright purple and pink on one side, and then when flipped it turned shiny gold and silver.  Holly spent much of the day rubbing her hands on her chest, flipping the sequins.  Jony also spent much of the day using his hands to flip the sequins on Holly’s unicorn.  Jony remarked over and over again how much he loved Holly’s shirt.  Holly was inviting other children to flip the sequins on her shirt but was getting annoyed that Jony, who sat next to her, continued to flip them without permission.

Here is the kicker… Holly’s parents came bursting into the school the next day claiming seven year old Holly had been sexually harassed by seven year old Jony.  Legally, any unwanted touch can be considered harassment (check the law if you doubt me).

A word of advice… I know that your child is dying for one of these new items of clothing.  I am guessing the fad will end as quickly as fidget spinners and silly bands. And once again, it leaves me wishing I could have invented such a useless, brilliant thing that would make me millions overnight.   But while this is the fad, please don’t let your child wear these to school and expect that children will keep their hands off them.  They will NOT.  Children are “action oriented”.  They won’t say, “Show me how that shirt works.”  They will just try it themselves.  This does NOT make them sexual fiends.  This makes them normal.  So if you are going to let your child wear one of these shirts to school, please have patience on these poor children who are facing a major distraction made up of completely alluring shiny things that feel so satisfying to brush up and down, up and down.  If you don’t understand the allurement, then try it.  Trust me, it is addictive.   If this is too big of a problem, then act like an adult, skip the clothing, and buy your child a pillow instead.  Then you and your child can fight over who gets to hold the pillow and flip the sequins while you are watching TV.

By the way, the child I work with was very impressed that I bought a pillow just like the shirt she had on last week.  I responded, “You know, you were having so much fun flipping those sequins, I wanted to try.”  Her response, “Oh, Dr. Melody, you should have just asked me.  I promise I would have said, ‘Yes’.  You did not have to go buy a pillow for yourself.”  Sometimes children are the most reasonable humans.




When No One Brings You a Casserole

A casserole is the ultimate comfort food for me.  It doesn’t matter what the ingredients are.   They are almost always creamy warm comfort, oozing with cheese.  My husband who is from Mexico does not understand casseroles and is always very suspicious of the ingredients.  He asks, “What is this, anyway?”  I say, “Cheese.”  He looks at me as though that is not a very convincing answer, and I wonder how I could have married a man who is so mistrustful of cheese.  When we brought our children home, our friends all signed up to bring us dinner for a month.  More often than not, friends showed up at our door with warm casseroles – cream and broccoli, chicken and rice, and always, always, with cheese on top.

Casseroles are often brought to people enduring some type of loss or hardship.  They are a warm expression of comfort given to remind people that they are not forgotten, given to acknowledge grief; however, not all hardships are shared.  Parents are more likely to share, “My child has leukemia,” than “I just had to call 911 and have my teenager admitted to the mental hospital.” Both situations are tragic, but in the first, help is called for on social media and at church podiums.  People flock with promises of prayers and start a dinner train.  Updates are posted and shared on social media.  Money is sometimes raised, and generosity is experienced even from strangers.  In the latter example, however, parents often keep quiet. Rumors spread, people whisper, but grief is not shared.  People don’t know what to say or how to ask.

I heard parents say once that they were collecting stories to tell at their child’s wedding.  The immediate thought I had was, “That must be nice.”   It struck me that so many of the parents I work with do the opposite.  They collect stories they will not tell.  They stay alone.  There are hurts parents can’t share –  shame so deep, wounds so raw, regrets they can’t speak, pain that never ends, and the heartache of broken children they can’t repair.  These parents suffer alone, retreating like an armadillo rolling quickly into an armored shell.  No one can be let in.  They don’t get casseroles and promises of prayers.  They don’t get invitations or sympathetic glances.

There are things inside of this rolled-up shell that no one really wants to see.   When they ask “How is everything?”, they really don’t want to know, and if they do want to know, your radar goes up.  You must protect your family.  There are things inside of this shell that are so holy, so broken, so precious, that you must retreat.  Retreat – a word that sounds like surrender, but to these families it feels like a war.  There is no time for socializing.  There is no time for small talk.  There is no time for texting.  There is no world outside of the shell.

This is the place no one visits.  People talk about these places in whispers, but no one wants to go there. The suffering is too raw.  These are the prayer requests never asked for.  These families rarely ask for help.


Here are some of the families rolled up in a shell:

Mental illness in the family

Mental illness hospitalizations

Incarceration of family member

Addictions within the family

Children with disabilities that don’t improve year after year

Adoption disruption in a family

Sexual abuse within the family

Families of those in fulltime ministry


How You Can Help a Family that is Quietly Suffering

Give a practical gift that can’t be refused

You can send a card in the mail with a restaurant gift certificate.  You can order pizza for them and tell them when it will be delivered.  You can hire someone to clean their house or pick up loads of laundry. Unless you have been in a forgotten place, you can’t imagine what these small gestures mean to a family.

Invite them over

These families generally feel isolated and are often excluded from social events because there is an assumption that their lives are just too complicated for fun.  Include them anyway.  Their lives will often continue to be hard, and a fun night out is often the exact thing that is needed.

Say Something

Don’t fill the space with false reassurances or spiritual words that minimize suffering and normalize their pain.  It is Ok to say, “I don’t know what to say, but I really wanted to reach out to you,” or “I just wanted you guys to know that I am thinking about you.”  If you have a history of similar suffering, and you are comfortable sharing that, this can be an incredible comfort.

Don’t Give Advice

If things were as simple as an outsider looking in and offering a formula for fixing the problem, don’t you think the problem would be fixed by now?  These things are complicated. These families are often living day by day, just trying to make the next right decision.



How Motherhood Turned Me Inside Out

I can remember the first time someone criticized one of my children.  My son was about a year old, sitting on the floor in a white onesie.  A neighbor was having tea with me while he played on the floor.  She looked over at him smiling and said, “Have you noticed there is something wrong with his toes?”

I had noticed. In fact, my now teen son jokes about his toes often. “Mom, God put all the good looking on my face and forgot about my feet,” he actually said this morning.  “They are some funky feet.” We laughed together when he said this.  However, when “that woman” who no longer deserves to be called “my neighbor” said that, I felt something I had never felt before.  I had been flipped inside out, vulnerable, and completely exposed.  The tears took me by surprise. There were so many, and although I was willing them – no, begging them to stop – they kept coming.  I scooped up my son, went to my room, and sobbed.  I had never felt this vulnerable before.  “I am stronger than this,” I told myself as the tears kept flowing. Later that day, I bought him a board book about baby toes and how much moms love them.  We read it over and over again, and I still can’t get rid of it because it comforted my heart to be doing something about the “foot” situation.  I read it thinking, “By golly, he might have ugly feet, but he will never know that”.  My plan failed miserably and beautifully.  He knows his feet are ugly, and he could care less about it.

I am not a person that is easy to pick on.  I grew up with four brothers.  Our house was full of boys who celebrated my toughness and dissimilarity to other girls.  I was good at taking care of myself and others. This comment would be the first of hundreds that have undone me as a mother.

As a professional, I sit in countless IEP meetings advocating for the kids I work with.  I am bold, determined, and composed.  As a parent, I sit in IEP meetings begging my tears not to betray the strong presence I need to have.  They do not listen.  They betray me every single time.  I am such a blubbering mess in those that I determined not to attend any more IEP meetings without my own IEP advocate and my mom.   Yes, I am 37 years old, and I try not to attend any IEP meetings without my mom.

Why do we feel so incredibly vulnerable as moms?  I believe it is because, frankly, there isn’t a d*** thing we care about more than our kids.  We care so much that we stay turned inside out much of the time.  We both find a Hercules strength we didn’t know we were capable of, and cry so many rivers of tears we never imagined were part of this journey.  Motherhood kicks a**.  Motherhood makes you feel like creating a new drink that mixes caffeine and alcohol…energy and calm…snatch your child out of the street and restrain yourself from strangling them!  “What! That isn’t a new drink?” you ask. Then it was certainly created by an exhausted mother.  If you are wondering why I am using asterisks instead of cuss words, it is because my children read my blog, and I would never live down cussing around them.

I thought this would get easier as my kids got older, but it doesn’t.  It just gets harder.  I am no longer the most important voice in my children’s lives.  Peers voices get louder and louder, and they are never as gentle as my voice.  Kids develop insecurities and hurts you can’t fix.  And you, poor Momma, are never more happy than your most unhappy child!  It is both the curse and the connection in motherhood.  You can’t stay connected if you don’t stay tender.  So stay tender, cry a river, put on your armor and cuss very quietly.

Unseen Kids; The Silent Drowning of Siblings of Special Needs Kids

They say that drowning is a silent death which is what makes it so dangerous.  Muffled voices underwater, limbs flailing where no one can see them, and then under they go.  I have worked with many siblings of special needs kids.  They tell the same story.

“I feel invisible.”

“I don’t even feel like a real kid.”

“My brother/sister always comes first.”

“It is my job to get everything right because my sibling isn’t capable of getting things right.”

“No one sees how I hurt, or how scared I am.”

“My mom/dad has no time for me.”

As a parent of a special needs child, I get it.  It is like your family is in a boat, and it tips over. Your first thought is to rescue your kids. Only one of them can’t swim. You hear his screams, and you swim toward him.  You know your other child is fine because she is a strong swimmer.  Time passes, and you still haven’t managed to get your child to safety. Your strong swimmer starts to weaken.  A person can only tread water for so long. Still, you don’t hear her cry out, and your hands are full with your special needs child.  Everyone in the water is doing the best they can, really.  Still, the unseen child has to be rescued, guided, or accompanied to the shore before she drowns.

Here are some helpful tips that we have learned:

  1. Alternate sleep and wake times.

My higher needs child goes to bed first, and I wake him up later.  In this way, I have time every day to connect with my daughter. Sometimes we play games, lay in bed and talk, or watch her favorite show together.  If you were to quantify the time I spend attending to each child, it would still be far from fair, but she has uninterrupted time almost every day with one of us.

  1. Make the time you do have count.

If your “unseen” child has a doctor or dentist appointment, keep her/him out of school, or at least take her to lunch.  If you are taking a work trip, take that child with you.  Even if you are just running an errand, include her and stop for a milkshake.

  1. Check- In frequently.

Think about how difficult your special needs child is for you, the pressure you feel, your inability to rest, the fears you have for his/her future.  Your “unseen” child feels all of this, but he/she is so much more vulnerable than you are.  She needs to be able to talk about her own very real grief and fears concerning her sibling.  She needs to voice the injustice, her anger, her sadness, and her jealousy of other people’s families who are not like hers.  The grief is hers also.  I have found that if you join a child well in his/her distress about a special needs sibling, she begins to be able to express compassion and grace toward her sibling.  If you can’t join her well in her distress and don’t check in with her frequently, anger and resentment grow.

  1. Don’t obsess about fairness.

I heard the phrase “treating unequal’s equally is not fair”.  This is very true.  If you have one bag of M& M’s in your purse, and you know one of your kids ate a huge breakfast and the other hasn’t eaten all day, is it fair to split the M&Ms in half?  Life isn’t fair.  One child may get more of your time, but the other child probably has more privileges.


We have to reach for these kids and hear them before their heads go under the water.  We have to hear their muffled voices before their faces go under water.  We have to see the strain in their muscles before they fatigue and go under. Their lives depend on it.  A child can only tread  water so long alone.  They need our presence.  They need our attunement.  They need to know that even though their needs will never be as big, they are equally important.  They need to know that even though time is not allocated fully, we see the hours stolen from them.  They need to have a voice and a parent willing to sit with the discomfort that we can’t fix everything for our kids.

Surviving Middle School When it Sucks

Let’s face it. Middle school sucks. There is this food chain in middle school, and everyone is in survival mode trying to stay off the bottom of the food chain at any cost. Kids do things in middle school that they wouldn’t do at any other age. They are all pretty terrified of social rejection, and regardless of their popularity status, they all feel rejected at times.
I spent my 7th and 8th grade years in a Russian middle school. I spent the first 13 years of my life in Mexico, so to say it was a shocking change was an understatement. I went from the top of the food chain to the bottom so quickly that I had no idea what had happened or why I was there. I had never been at the bottom of the food chain before. It was a lonely place, and “no one” wanted to be seen with me there. I mean there were a few kids that would cast compassionate looks my way, but they were only a few notches up from me and didn’t dare to stick up for me.
Nothing about me fit in. I had this green Land’s End jacket, while all the other girls had wool jackets with fur-trimmed collars. I had gore-tex hiking boots, while the other girls had sleek, tall leather boots that they changed out of as they arrived at school into high heels. I never owned a pair of high heels until I was in my late teens. They wore short skirts, makeup, and looked like college girls going to a frat party. I looked like a cross between a pioneer and a mountaineer. One thing I do credit my middle school years with is learning Russian pretty well. I learned quickly that Americanka suka means American bitch. I have always had a knack for languages like that.
Just a few months into a truly nightmarish school experience, I decided I was going to start escaping. There was an area where everyone hung their jackets and changed out of their boots that looked like a clothing area from a department store. All 300 kids that attended the school had layers of winter gear that they peeled off at the beginning of the day. There was a custodian who had kind eyes and looked older than Methuselah whose sole job it was to lock the coatroom and mop up the entrance from the constant snow that got trekked in. The entry way was right in front of the cafeteria where my lunch was stolen daily. She was a witness to it all. I asked her to let me hide in the locked coatroom area. She opened it for me every day, any time I needed her to. She was always at the front entrance, right next to the coatroom with the keys hanging around her neck. I ran to the back of the area where no one would see me and waited until the coast was clear. I would hear the keys jingle and the coatroom unlocked, and she would tell me I could leave. I would run. Every day, I would stay at school as long as I could endure, and then I would hide in the coatroom. Some days I never even made it to school because it just felt too unbearable to go. I always left our apartment at the same hour though, so my dad wouldn’t suspect anything. My dad thought I could handle anything which in some areas made me feel undefeatable. He didn’t understand that no child can handle that type of bullying well.
Here is the thing. I was not a kid who avoided school. I loved school, and I loved people, but middle school showed me what children will do when they are at the bottom of the food chain. They will do just about anything to escape. For some kids, that looks very different than what I did. Some kids escape by checking out, some by acting out, and others by pushing every boundary possible. I was fortunate to have a mom who was happy to see me no matter what time I got home and never uttered a whisper of my prison break escapades to my dad. She never lectured me on how I would never make it into a good college if I kept skipping out on school. She knew that I loved school. She saw past my behavior, understood that I was doing what I needed to do, and didn’t give up on my future because of it.
Be patient with your middle schoolers. This is such a hard stage in life. Protect your middle schoolers. If that means taking their phones away, then do it. Imagine a child who is at the bottom of the food chain and who never gets a break from the harassment because he/she has constant access to a phone. I believe this is why the suicide rate for young teens has increased. Pull them out of school if you need to. The damage done can be so much worse than a few years of being inconvenienced by homeschool or trying to figure out how to pay for another school. Individualized Education Plans will not protect your child from other children.

Here are a few rules of thumb I tell parents to consider:

When you notice your child’s behavior changing, do not ignore it.

If your child is withdrawing more, or ending up in trouble all the time, don’t wait to address it. If your child is sulking off to his/her room more, avoiding social activities, or zoning into electronics without moderation, address it. You still have so much control at this age. I have parents say things like, “I really regret giving her a phone in the fourth grade. Now she is on it all the time, and any limits I set lead to huge meltdowns and attitude.” The assumed powerlessness in this statement is very telling. You still have so much control at this age. They aren’t paying their own phone bills or driving themselves around town. Add the structure or nurture that they need, and middle schoolers need lots of each.

Don’t always believe what the school administrators or teachers say. Listen to your child’s behavior and your intuition.

I don’t know if teachers have a training class on what they should all say when a child is failing socially, but since I attend many school meetings for clients, I can say that one thing I hear often is – “This is such a kind class. We haven’t had such a kind class in a while. This child has plenty of friends. We see them having a great time with other kids.” Kids who grow up to be very kind adults can still be exceedingly cruel in middle school. Believe your child. Once I was visiting a classroom where two girls were constantly and cruelly picking on this child I was working with. I was talking to the teacher about it as she assured me how kind these two girls were. Then right in front of us as the child I was working with entered the classroom, these two girls made a beeline for her and said, “You stink today.” The teacher’s jaw dropped. I don’t believe she was lying. She just wasn’t paying attention.

Supervise their electronics appropriately.

Yes, your child might be receiving 100 texts a day, but if you don’t have time to make sure these texts are safe and free of harassment, then your child should not have an iPhone. There are ways to only allow certain numbers to text your child or call your child, and I recommend using these safeguards. I have seen texts that are sexually harassing starting as early as 5th grade. I have seen group texts telling a middle schooler he/she should just kill him/herself already. No child can handle this.

Believe in your child.

Look past middle school and the craziness of puberty, and have hope. They will settle down. They will stop seeing rejection around every corner. Can you remember doing things in middle school that shock you a bit today? You probably can. Have patience. This is such a hard age. They will find themselves.

If I Could Be Your Memory Keeper





What I hope you remember…

Please remember how you nestled into my arms, and we read Llama, Llama Red Pajama over and over again…..

Remember how I made sure to let you know we were skipping the scary picture where baby llama was alone in bed, eyes wide, terrified of a noise.

Remember how your freshly conditioned curls left spots on my t-shirts, and how I didn’t care at all.  I breathed you in, held one of you under each arm while you took turns turning the pages for me.  My arms were always full with both of you.

Please forget the strain in my voice when I told you to stop squirming because I couldn’t read the wobbly words.  Please forget my tired sigh when you turned three pages instead of one, and we went back and forth looking for the right page.

Please remember how I encouraged you to play.  I let you climb tall trees, play on the roof, use tools, and get dirty.  I let you build ziplines, launch businesses, and always jump in creeks.  Remember how I packed extra clothes in the car, just in case you got wet, even though we weren’t planning on getting wet.  Remember how I didn’t care about the “stay on the trail” signs or the “no outside food sign”.  Remember what a rule-breaker I was. We only followed the ten percent of the rules that kept us alive; the other ninety were up for grabs.  Not drinking bleach is a good rule.  Staying on the trail is a dumb rule unless you are on the edge of the Grand Canyon, and then it falls in the 10% of rules we follow.

Please forget how tired I was at the end of our adventures.  How my laughter would turn to agitation as I was trying to get everyone back in the car.   Please forget when I didn’t have the energy to read a story at night, and I told you to “get back in bed” even though you were just coming for a quick hug.  Night-time was so hard for me.  I was always so tired, and you never stopped wanting me.  Please forget me pleading for you to get in bed and stay there.  Please forget the words I should have swallowed but instead spit out at you… unkind words that I immediately regretted.

Please remember how I fought for you whenever things got rough.  Remember how when that big boy hit you on the playground, I was possessed with an unnatural anger that even frightened me.  Remember how I always defended you, even when you were in trouble and it was your fault, especially when it was your fault. Remember how I defended who you are and not what you did.  I spoke of the character I saw in you.  I spoke the truth about you. Remember how I cried for sadness when you told me you had to miss yet another party at school.  Please remember how my heart always broke with yours.

Please forget my tears when the school phone calls came.  Please forget my impatience with you when I know you were doing the best you could.  Please, please for the love of everything holy forget any words that added to the discouragement you were already feeling, any actions of mine that confirmed what others believed about you.  Forgive me for sometimes letting fear get the best of me, for letting fear take control.

Please remember how we woke up hours before the sun broke across the horizon to do physical therapy.  Remember how I gave you an M&M after every lap you crawled.  Remember how we laughed until we cried when we had to do that horrible exercise where I had to crawl behind you and pull on your legs.  We would end up in a heap on the floor, never able to complete the activity, laughing so hard.  Remember how we pretended we were ninjas or soldiers in training.

Please forget my impatience when your body resisted the pattern.  Please forget how I rushed you out of bed in the morning, when your little arms were still wrapped around my neck, heavy with sleep.  Please forget how many mornings you and I would both end in tears of frustration and exhaustion, lying on the mats on the floor.  And to my little one that didn’t need it – please forgive the hours and years of attention that you missed out on.  I wish I had more to give, needed less sleep, had more energy, and could juggle everyone’s needs without dropping the balls.  I wish I hadn’t dropped so many balls.

Parenting is the hardest job.  It is a job that requires a paradox of abilities.  You must stay very strong and very tender at the same time.  You have to both care a whole lot and not care at all.  You have to learn to pay careful attention and learn to actively ignore.  You have to be strong enough to fight the longest battles and tender enough to comfort the deepest wounds.  You have to have a high standard and yet always choose the relationship above that standard. You have to have super- sonic hearing and also be half deaf. You have to forget offenses toward you and pursue repair even if it isn’t your fault.  You have to set realistic expectations but always believe in fairy tales.   Parenting is hard. I don’t always do it well, but I hope you remembered how hard I tried.  I tried so hard.  I made so many mistakes.

I wish I could pick your memories.  There are so many sighs I would like to breathe away.  There are so many words I wish I could take back.  Please remember how I sought to repair my offenses toward you.  Please remember that I always reached for you, and how we started the day over on a clean slate.  Remember that you can bring anything to me, anything at all, and I will always want to be in relationship with you.  If you remember anything, please remember this. If only I could be your memory keeper…