On the Home Front

On the Home Front: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back- How to Handle Setbacks

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Sometimes there are days in life when you feel like packing up camp and heading for the hills. Yesterday was one of those days. Just when I think my foster daughter has made so much progress-boom! she does something to remind me we still have some ways to go.

When she first came to us she had a lot of growing up to do, both intellectually and emotionally. One of the hardest things with both her and her sister is that they had no awareness of boundaries, and very little self-control. So if they felt like doing something, they did it. Whether it was a pack of chocolate bars in the store, or a sibling's favorite toy, if they wanted it, they took it.

Of course we vacillated between brief explanations of why they couldn't have that particular object, and convincing said sibling to share the favorite toy, but it was quite a battle. They wanted that toy, and they wanted it now-with a passion. Once, her 3 year old sister had such a hissy fit every single passerby stopped to watch. The other children have long since learned that kind of behavior will get them nowhere, but of course they had yet to learn.

Over time they learned to share, and to accept comfort from others. They realized that food came three times a day, with snacks, and so they didn't have to ask for thirds and fourths if they really weren't hungry. They even learned that sometimes it's more fun to give than take, and that some things are better if you wait for them.

All this progress must have given me a false sense of security, so I was astounded on Wednesday-referred from here on as Red Letter Day-to see the same sorts of behaviors I thought had pretty much been eliminated. Okay, not eliminated, but at least greatly reduced.

Suddenly C. was begging food from a sibling. Her sister was grabbing all the packets of tissue she could find and distributing it freely around the house; when I confiscated the tissue packets, I found her with several rolls of toilet paper instead. Then I turned around to see that her sister had ripped up the special holiday worksheets from kindergarten. To make it worse, no one was exhibiting any signs of remorse.

It's days like this that keep you humble. Had I thought I was Superwoman because C. knew all her colors, could count to 10, and was learning her letters? HAH! Did I think I was someone special because I toilet-trained two toddlers in one week? DOUBLE HAH!I felt like somewhere in some alternate dimension an evil little leprechaun was rolling around hysterically on the floor in a fit of laughter.

In between time-outs and other clever diversions, I took a call from a client. I stood in my room, one hand on the phone and the other on the door, trying to hold back the sounds of revolt on the other side. My client, who has a 7 -year old son who is learning disabled,was feeling kind of worn out from all the work having such a child entails. She was feeling discouraged, since all the progress made the previous year seemed to have dissipated over the summer.

I slipped easily into professional speak, explaining to her how often this occurs, even with typically developing children. I even managed to convince her how this period of disintegration was actually necessary in order for more growth to occur. I gave her some real-life examples from her son's history, and we ended the conversation on a positive note.

As I leaned against the door, preparing myself mentally for the onslaught to come. Suddenly I realized that everything I had said so easily applied to me as well. I too needed to remember that real progress is slow, and, as the saying goes, is two steps forward and one step back. I was so focused on the future that I had forgotten the past refuses to be forgotten so easily.

I needed to remember that setbacks are not a sign of failure, or of incompetency: they are simply quaint signposts on the road to the future, that remind us how far we've come. I took a deep breath, and opened the door, ready to set out on the road again.

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