Stepping out of the hurricane

We don’t shy away from topics of mental health or practices that promote well-being. We view the the mental and emotional aspects of personhood to be just as important, or maybe even more so, than the physical aspects. As foster parents we are often thrown into the deep end of the pool – providing supports and interventions to combat the product of generational illness – that product being of course a child. As parents to our biological kids we find ourselves mostly focused on supporting developmental progress in each of them. Even a normal developmental course has crisis moments when intervention is required.

When confronted with persistent behavior or developmental problems in our kids we look first at our parenting. Each of our kiddos have unique needs. They each have very different brains, communication styles and love languages.

Which is why, after a long and persistently rough road with our six years old Emmett Kaety and I paid a visit to our therapist. We hit the chair and said, “We aren’t giving him what he needs – we get it wrong all the time and everyone, especially him, is miserable”

We launched into describing the current state of life with Emmett – serial tantrums, mounting fears, regression around sleep and basic self care and a terror of going to school.

The place we were standing wasn’t a new place but it had become a place that was now bigger than all of us and we’d watched it grow over the last 4 years all the while trying everything to make it smaller.

At two Emmett had serious hearing problems – we were told that his over-the-top tantrums were a by-product of not being able to communicate. We fixed the hearing problem and worked with a speech therapist to bring him up to age level.

Concurrent to the hearing issues we all got to try and implement an unrealistic parenting plan which had the kids switching households way too frequently – each house having very different parenting styles and boundaries. Emmett’s behavior and emotional resilience was not getting better – he seemed to have no ability to sit with feelings, which ramped the tantrums and insecurity to extreme levels.

img_8663We tried everything we had in the toolbox to support him. When he was ‘in himself’ and had a sense of well-being he was a remarkable, enjoyable, smart, funny and articulate little boy. When he was tipped ‘out of himself’ he was swept into a hurricane of whining, screaming misery. We tried all sorts of intervention – calming strategies, narrative strategies, intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, therapy, schedules, boundary tightening, boundary loosening – we even tried the witchery of aroma therapy.

We’ve shared a lot about our lives on Facebook and we’ve noted that each of our children have Facebookers who find a piece of their own life’s history reflected in that child’s journey. We heard from a lot of you who are on ‘team Emmett’ – you gave us invaluable insights that changed the way we parented him. Bob Pasche recognized the extreme E in Emmett (engineering) and gave us the insight that engineering type brains are super sensitive to changes in systems. E brains want to know what the rules are and what conditions change the rules. Minda gave us a lot of insight about childhood fear, and the altered state it can bring to the forebrain. Chuck gave me a reality-check on possible maximum wind speeds during an emotional hurricane. An Emmett centered conversation with Carey Tisdal yielded a lovely quote that I’ve never forgotten, “Some of us were born with more nerve endings and it take us longer to figure out how to live inside our bodies”. We applied all the insights you gave us to better understand our boy.

We got a ‘break in the case’ when Emmett’s bio dad moved out of the area to go back to school. No household switching meant we had a stable environment to really see what we were dealing with.

Working on the Thanksgiving dinner outfit – and as all good hosts has worked out a gift of pencils.

During that time nothing got better – in fact everything continued to get worse. We couldn’t easily take him out away from the house because of his screaming melt-downs in public. We started dragging our feet getting home from work. It was very evident to us that he was vying for control of every situation, but we didn’t know why or how to intervene.

During a trip to Mexico Kaety and I had enough time away to see the problem from a different perspective. I was reading by the pool when Kaety came up beside me in the water, “I’ve been thinking about Emmett, I think we are seeing what extreme anxiety looks like in a six year old”.

It took us about 35 minutes to give this whole story to our therapist. She looked at us, put her pen down and said, “You nailed it. It’s not a result of your parenting, it’s him”, and then proceeded to give us a profile of the type of person Emmett was and how anxiety plays a huge and restrictive role in his landscape. In general terms she described a process we were all to familiar with; A sensitive kid who gets overwhelmed by his ‘sensorium’ and feelings – triggering extreme anxiety which puts him into such crisis that he can’t use any complex tools to get him out. The only process he has is a bio-chemical roller coaster that simply spends itself into exhaustion.

“He needs medication to buffer the stress reaction so that he can learn and use all the tools he has.”

This advice, while welcome, bumped us up against a hidden value problem. Both of us believed that medicating a child was serious – and we both knew that the current state of his emotional landscape was also serious – yet both of us discovered a place in ourselves that paused to readily adopt the idea of a pharmaceutical intervention. Now when I say pause I mean we were 90% on board and 10% reluctant. But the 10% was interesting to both of us. Purportedly we placed a high value on mental health, yet found ourselves falling for the very common party line that reliance on psychiatric medications was a ‘prop’ and a sign of ‘weakness’. It was nice to find this party line alive and well within our mental landscape because we rounded it up, trapped it in a cage and shot it several times until it was dead. Once we had the carcass buried we promptly went to get the medication our child so desperately needed.

He was prescribed Prozac, a common SSRI that helps balance both anxiety and depression in people of all ages. It even comes in a liquid form.

On a Smurf catching journey
Smurf catching takes a special outfit

We are in week 4 with the meds in place and can’t be more thrilled with the outcome. He still has the normal patience and frustration levels of a six year old but doesn’t spin past a normal level of upset and disappointment. In the last week he’s been able to sleep with his door closed and the ever present fear dialog is essentially gone. His adaptation to the medication has been an interesting process to observe – he lived with the habits and patterns of extreme emotional escalation for so long that we can see him seeking those pathways as he gets upset, but the biochemistry that used to be there to sweep him away isn’t there in the same way. His emotional energy dissipates in a more regular arc as it would for the rest of us.

In partnership with a child psychologist, we’ve begun the task of working with him to understand the continuum between upset (or excitement) and emotional stability – a journey that he’s had very little experience with.


Functionally we’ve been able to take him more places, which we’ve all enjoyed. We spend less time with him managing tantrums and upset and can spend more time with him sharing positive stuff together. Just like living in a week long storm, you get used to the sound of the wind and rain blowing the house – the quiet that has settled since the hurricane has passed has been shocking and remarkable.

Spending less time in anxiety has really allowed him to come forward and spend more time exploring himself – which is a delight!

3 thoughts on “Stepping out of the hurricane

  1. Congratulations to all of you! It has been interesting to watch your struggles and how you work to parent so well. Life is about quality, it sounds like you all are experiencing some new quality of life. ❤️

  2. Wow, thanks for sharing, Mark and Katy. A reminder to judge less and appreciate that there’s families out there who are dealing with a lot more than I could understand.

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