An Interview with Therapeutic Mom Christine Moers

February 12th, 2011

Christine Moers is a therapeutic mom who is passionate about sharing her experiences to help other caregivers who are struggling to parent a child or children with attachment problems. Through her blog and vlog, Christine uses a delightful mix of candidness (no details spared!), humor, and practical tips that have stood the test of her own traumatized kids. House Calls Counseling is delighted to welcome her as the featured speaker at our upcoming conference, Parenting in SPACE.

Tell us a bit about you and your family.

We are a family of seven. My husband and I have been married 15 years, we have 5 children. And, we kind of did things out of order. We gave birth twice, to Mackenzie and Andrew, who are now 13 and 11. Then we adopted Precious who was a domestic adoption. We were going to adopt from foster care, and things changed, as they always do. We were presented with her because she was a domestic placement and the agency had no families for a child of color, so she had been waiting in a foster home for seven months. So, we switched gears and said, “that’s crazy!” They helped us financially and we were able to make the switch. She was 7 ½ months old when we adopted her, and we have a fully open adoption with her birth family. She was born in Waco, so we get to see them.

We were foster parents for 2 years after Precious. We were foster parents for babies in Precious’ situation with that agency, babies who were domestic placements. For whatever reason, they hadn’t identified a match or a home yet, and they needed foster care. Every baby we had was placed with an adoptive home through the domestic program. So we basically became the kind of foster parents that our daughter got to receive. So we had been through foster parent training.

Then, almost 3 years ago, we started the process again to adopt from foster care, at that time it was in Oklahoma. Some things slowed the process down; my in-laws were having issues with retirement and needed some extra help with their business. So we put a halt on that. We were about to start the home study and we said we would take a sibling group with some challenges and any race, so we were going to have kids quickly. So we asked them to slow down the process so that we could help out the family. We had looked at Haiti years before and we decided to look into international again; we weren’t sure. I contacted a couple of orphanages and ministries over there, and I only heard back from one. It was actually a woman in Alaska. She said the kids are usually older. I said we do want older and we want a sibling group, and maybe you don’t even do that… I said we’re open to children with some issues, but you know, obviously we need to talk about that. Anyway, this woman said, that’s unusual that you would say this. I have a family who is ready to disrupt their adoption. I’ve been talking with them for a year and just last week they said OK fine, we’ll let somebody else do this, because we refuse to.

We got pictures and we had to stop and say, OK wow, these are real children and what does this really look like? What would it really take? We’ve got some experience under our belt and some training… Could we do this? And they were also being abused in their adopted home. We knew there were some layers there and we didn’t know what was what. They had already been removed and been in foster care. The adopted parents got them back but they weren’t doing the things they needed to do, they were just suing CPS (Child Protective Services). That was the first time a caseworker said, have you ever considered attachment disorder with your daughter? And they were with an amazing attachment group in Pennsylvania, they were with some of the best. But the mom told me, she said, I’m not going to do it. I’m just not. So at that point, as much as I encourage moms to fight now, I was like, she isn’t. They’re going to end up in foster care again, they’re going to get separated. So we really, as a family, sat down and talked with everybody.

It’s always a long story, but that’s how we ended up both times going into it planning to adopt from foster care, and we ended up with a domestic placement and then a private placement. It’ll be 3 years in April that we’ve had Cedric and Mara, and they are now 11 and 14. And then Precious, our first child we brought home through adoption is now 7. So they go from 7 up to 14. Cedric and Mara obviously when they came to us were both developmentally and emotionally way behind their siblings who are close in age. But now they really have caught up. I’m glad that they are where they are. It’s been the hardest thing we’ve ever done in our lives, but it’s possible, it’s totally possible.

How did you get into therapeutic parenting?

I had no choice. It was that or kill myself! (Laughs) When I saw that Mara had a RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder) diagnosis, that was the thing we had said no to for so long. It requires therapeutic training, and so I was like, we can’t do that. But then I thought, well I’m going to read up on it. As I started to read about attachment issues, then I started to read things by people who were doing therapeutic parenting. And, I made a major change. When we became foster parents, that was the first time I was introduced to Love & Logic. And I was a screamer! My parents and I, we are proud yellers. We yell professionally, we slam doors… And, I yelled at my kids, it’s what I did, and I just repeated the cycle. When I was introduced to Love & Logic through foster care training, we changed. We stopped yelling. And it took me probably 2 years to really get good at that. So at that point, my husband and I both said, we did that, surely we can learn how to do this. And, are we willing to try? And we agreed that we were willing to give it a shot. So, we knew when we agreed to the placement with Cedric and Mara, we had to become therapeutic parents. There was no doubt, we had to. So we chose to. And we had no idea what that really meant at the time, we didn’t.

Do you or have you ever worked with a therapist/ attachment specialist?

When we agreed to the placement with Cedric and Mara, we knew we needed a therapist to help. We didn’t have a therapist the first 9 months. It took us a while to get in, and get insurance cleared. So we read, and watched videos, and read… We started with Karyn Purvis, Nancy Thomas. I read blogs religiously. I sought out people who were having success with their children, even though they still struggled. I only read people who were going to encourage me to move forward. I made some very intense online friendships. I had women that I talked to every week to encourage me. So we just trained ourselves. By the time we got to therapy, our therapist loved us because she was able to cut out 2 months of things she normally has to help parents do, and could just hit the ground running. We just immersed ourselves in all the different experts that are out there, all the resources, and have just continued to fine tune it, over almost 3 years now. I still change, I still do something to refresh myself every month, and to stay in it, because my kids keep changing.

Our therapist was actually in Oklahoma. Our son basically graduated therapy while we were there. He was on the attachment spectrum. He definitely had some transition and attachment issues, but his biggest issue was Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and so she did work with him, but he was able to graduate from therapy probably after about 5 months. We kind of focused on him in the beginning because he was older, he was nearing puberty, and we really needed to give him some help in moving forward before that point. As for our daughter, we were with our therapist 9 months and then found out we were moving, so we were concerned. But our therapist said Mara was only a few months away from graduating attachment therapy. She said to the kids, her job was to get them attaching, to get them healing, and if the parents were trained and ready to move forward, then she’s on call if needed, but we weren’t going to have to continue to go every week. So basically, she just stayed available to us on the phone and things like that, but we had already gotten to a point where she was really just springboarding us every week, just encouraging us, tweaking us, and kicking us back up. Because really, with attachment, the biggest part of the work happens at home. Her job was to train us to do the work at home.

We came down here and we did have a couple of possibilities in our back pocket in case the move really brought some severe regression, and we did have a lot of regression. We had some major behaviors, but we just handled them like we always had, and we were able to move forward again. So at this point, we’re able to do so much at home and continue it. I can’t even explain the kind of progress! When our daughter came to us, she couldn’t have friendships. She couldn’t function around other children… And she has a best friend now. She can play unsupervised… It’s crazy when I think about it! She’s not the same kid. We were able to brainstorm on our own, and we felt confident. If we had at all felt like it was getting out of hand again, we would have run to someone and sat on their doorstep until they let us in! There is nothing like that support. You have to have it. There are so many women, they can’t afford therapy, for whatever reason, their husbands won’t allow it because they hate therapists, I’ve heard it all, it’s heart-breaking. But, it’s so valuable if you can have it. To have someone just tell you it’s OK and lovingly encourage you and not make you feel bad, and give you pep talks, and keep you going, and look at you in front of your kid and say, your mom’s great! Because nobody has told you that all week. Nobody has said you are great. Your kids are telling you you’re awful and they hate you, and they want to live somewhere else. And to have this third party stand there and say your mom’s amazing, she loves you, I see it… You just want to make out with them! (Laughs) You’re so desperate to have somebody lift you up, because you’re giving everything and being beat up. It’s tough!

What has been the most rewarding thing for you about parenting kids with attachment problems?

I would say… It was the most the difficult, but the most rewarding: I have had to become a completely new person. Completely. And I can say now that that’s my favorite thing. I hated the process, I absolutely despised it, and I still despise it because I still have to face things. Your kids that are traumatized will put a spotlight on all your mess. All of it. Anything. From grade school, marriage problems, it doesn’t matter… And, my husband and I honestly have had to choose to work together so much that we have to keep our marriage strong, or it would crush us. And so, we have a really strong marriage now. We have the ability communicate. All of my children are problem-solvers. They have steps they use if somebody gets out of hand and they don’t like what they did. They have steps, there’s no tattleing, they know how to do it, and they’re going to be able to use that for the rest of their lives. My children do not yell. We don’t yell, we don’t hurt each other by yelling, and it’s because we’ve practiced it every day. And when we blow it, you have to make up, you have to put love back into that person. And so, you stop and think, you learn how to make restitution for when you do hurt people. I’ve had to become a different person, I’ve had to change. And, I’m a better person. I’m a better mom, I’m a better wife, I’m a better friend, and I can say it now. In the middle of it, I hated it! I still do when something gets pointed out and I know I have to work on it, or use my words. I hate it! But I would rather be that kind of person. That’s what I want to be. And, I realize I can’t ask my children to change everything about the way they function if I’m not willing to change everything about the way I function. How dare I tell them they have to do everything, and act like it’s easy? There are times now I tell the kids, “I’m not saying my part was easier, but let’s just honor the fact that I kinda did some butt-kickin’ too! Just for 5 minutes, let’s pat mom on the back. I’m gonna be selfish for just 5 minutes! You climbed the mountain, but I climbed the hill, I really did!” (laughs) They laugh at me and pat me on the head.

What has been the most challenging thing for you about parenting kids with attachment problems?

Just one? I have to pick one thing? It’s all hard! (laughs) I guess it would be that it’s just so constant. It’s so constant! The big discussion right now in the news is the “hot sauce lady” that put the hot sauce on her son’s tongue. She was on Dr. Phil, it’s going around the internet, YouTube… Her son had to take a cold shower and have hot sauce on his tongue, and “Shame on her! Shame on her!” And all the moms of trauma are saying hey, let’s stop for a second. We have ALL gotten to that point. Every single one of us. All you see is this kid with the three bad cards from school that he received. That’s it! And he’s just standing there, crying, not being honest about it. But what you haven’t seen is, seriously, the 47 times a day that he does the nonsense chatter, the ridiculous questions, the manipulative stuff, the put-the-bowl-in-the-spoon-drawer, the leave-the-peed-on-underwear-under-the-sofa… They’re all individually little things, but to survive all of them every day! Everybody says, “Try to take them as one little thing at a time.” It’s one thing to say that. I read the books, and I thought, OK I’m bringing a child into my home who is going to do a lot of these behaviors. I did not know the amount of consistency my child would have. I had no idea. And then, to have other people not see it at all, and doubt you and question you. I lived in fear that people would start to believe her and not me. I was terrified that they would think I was one of those moms who adopted a kid and I loved my other kids more and only abused her. I read the stories, I’ve seen Dateline! And here I was, looking at my child constantly with no love, and no attachment, and resenting her- even though I was doing the work! I still didn’t like her. And people see me look at her that way, and yet they spend an hour with her in Sunday school and say, “Oh, she’s so lovely! We love her! She’s our favorite!” And you react by getting scared and really pissed off. You’re constantly bombarded and yet you feel completely alone because nobody else really truly sees it. And you can’t help other people see it. You don’t want them to, either, you want to protect your child. But it’s always there. You don’t get a break, especially in the early days. I do now, it’s completely different now. There are days I feel guilty that I complain about any behaviors now because it doesn’t even touch where we were. That first year, or two, when you first address the trauma, and it starts to really come out because they’re fighting the attachment, it is exhausting, and you feel completely alone in it. That’s when it starts to hurt your marriage, your other children, your social connections, everything.

How have you dealt with the challenges of parenting kids with attachment problems?

I had to trust therapeutic parenting. Because you don’t trust it, because you want to punish. When somebody’s mean to you, you want to hurt them back. You just do! And so, I had to trust that therapeutic parenting is touted for a reason, because it actually is effective. It doesn’t mean it changes the behavior. I always tell people, it just helps you survive the behavior. It proves to them that you can hold it together, that’s the whole goal. If you ever think it’s going to change their behavior, you’re going to give up immediately. It’s not, it just helps you survive the behaviors and keep moving forward. The therapeutic parenting takes you out of the battle, and I’ve had to just practice it. I have to do it. I hate it, because that’s what you do, you want to punish, and therapeutic parenting goes against your every desire and fiber in the moment.

Because I don’t yell, I sing opera. I sing 80’s love songs operatically instead of yelling. When somebody starts to go at me, I start singing “You Give Love A Bad Name” in opera voice– I’ll save it for the conference and I’ll do it for you! Opera has been my best friend because it’s supposed to be really loud, and you can say words while you’re singing and it feels good to be loud. I know why our kids rage, it does feel good, it’s a release! It’s also controlling, but in that way I can do therapeutic phrases in opera. Or if I have a kid who goes for the fight, and goes for the fight, and will not stop talking, and is just in my face, I’ll just pick a note and hold it out and see how long I can go before I breathe. And they eventually just stop off, which is fine… Better than the battle. Or, my kids all know my favorite love songs from high school because I just sing them.

My daughter on our one year anniversary, my husband came home, he walked in, I had her in a restraint, she had started to hit me. It was our one year anniversary, a bad, bad day. And we had also just been in attachment therapy for 2 or 3 months, so everything was being triggered. So he walked in from work, we’re laying on her mattress, I’m behind her, just holding onto her. And he’s like, “Well hey! How are y’all!” I was like, “Well, kinda having a rough day, you know, how are you?” That was the first day she started cussing at us. And I had read somewhere, my big thing is, just dance with it, dance with the behavior, and then it’s not fun anymore. And I said, “Well apparently, I’m a fucking bitch, and she’s having to live with a ho, and her life is just a big pile of shit.” And my husband, without skipping a beat, sat down and went, “Oh, fuck!” He NEVER cusses. He was a pastor at the time! And he was like, “Oh, that is just… Oh, damn!” And, in our conversation, we tried to come up with the biggest, worst cuss words we had ever heard in our lives, to get them all out on the table. And he was like, “Let me take over that hold you’re doing, and why don’t you do something to relax?” And I got my laptop and I turned on “Baby Got Back” and I started dancing while my husband was restraining her, and I started shaking it, and we finally got her to a smile. She was not going to smile, she was going to hate us. And she finally sat up and smiled. And let me say, she never cussed at us again, ever. Because she knew, “Oh my God, they’re going to embarrass me, they’re going to start cussing!” We cursed, but we were talking like Mr. Rogers. I was like, “You were so hot! I can’t believe you went with that!” He was like, “That was fun! I never get to curse like that!”

One day, I had made positive affirmation signs in her bedroom and she ripped them to shreds. And so, I grabbed the spray paint can, I walked in and spray painted loving phrases all over her room. I looked at her and said, “My love for you is more important than paint on a wall. I don’t care.” We didn’t own the house, it belonged to the church, I knew people were going to freak out. I was like, “I can paint over it one day. But I’m not painting over it until you’re OK… Until your heart’s OK.” It was pretty funny. The look on her face that day was so great!

There were times that I just had to not engage. I would sometimes just go for a walk around the house. “I’m not going to get in this fight, I’m just going to go for a walk! Anyone want to go with me?” And I would just walk circles around the house. I had to disengage.

And I had to let people help me. When my husband would come home, at least once a week, I would meet him at the door with my car keys and say “I’ll see ya after bedtime.” And I would go to get ice cream, or a hamburger, and I would sit in my car and read a book in a parking lot. I didn’t have money to go to the movies or go shopping, but I would sit alone and read a book that was fun and creative, or I took my laptop and got online to read stuff I wanted to read, and laugh, at least once a week. And if people offered to help, I had to say yes, that would be great. You would like to bring me dinner? OK. I feel really guilty letting you do that, but I’m going to say yes. You have to take care of yourself.

I never took a lot of baths before then… I never drank before then! But now, I get a hot bath and a big fat glass of wine. I take 2 hour baths and I get in at 7pm, because that pushes me past bedtime, and my husband gets the kids down. I will open up the Netflix on my laptop at the foot of the bathtub and watch a movie, and pretend that I’m single, and I live in the Bahamas! Whatever it takes to enjoy being relaxed. And I’ve learned a lot… Things that I’ve taught my kids on how to calm themselves, I use on myself. I had a friend introduce me to tapping, you tap all your pressure points and you talk through whatever is stressing you. I do all the deep breathing, I learned to do math problems in my head to switch from the stress part of my brain to the logical part of my brain. So every little thing I’ve learned to help my kids calm and my son with PTSD, I do it. Sometimes I have to put up notecards to remind me to do it.

How did you get connected with House Calls Counseling?

Billy actually wrote me a message on YouTube and said, I watched your videos, I’d like to talk to you about possibly speaking at a parenting conference, and I don’t even know if you would be interested. He mentioned his name and the name of the practice, so I spent the whole day stalking who the heck this person was, was he even legit? I get some weirdos on YouTube. I had to shut off all my comments. Everybody who’s traumatized and didn’t get therapy and now they’re adults… They find me. And so, I’m very cautious. I actually found news stories on House Calls Counseling, I found newspaper articles, and papers, and all sorts of things. I was like, “Holy Crap! This is amazing!” I got really excited. He said, let me know if I can call you. After that point I felt like I could give him my phone number. After that point, I was like, OK, he’s a real person.

What can participants expect when they see you speak at the upcoming Parenting in SPACE conference?

Tattoos, body piercings, dredlocks, laughter! I guess they just get to meet a real person. Some people say, well I’m just not Christine, I’m really struggling with this. I’m sorry if I give anybody that impression. Even today, over 2 ½ years in, I struggled with feeling loving feelings for my child. And I do love her. I read somewhere, I think it was Denise Best, who said that on average every parent in her practice says they have to be actively doing therapeutic parenting for 6 months before they really feel like they’re even remotely in a groove, because it’s not any of our default. None of us were parented like this! That’s the thing I want people to realize, I’m not this, “Oh I want to be like Christine!” I mean, Christine has just practiced therapeutic parenting over and over and over again. I’m not this person who’s gifted in it. I’m not! It was the opposite of the way I was raised. I love my parents. They did not do this with me! Not even close. Like I said, we were yellers and screamers. My husband’s family, they’re avoiders. They don’t talk about anything… at all! They accept. You just don’t talk about it, and it magically disappears, and never happened! For both of us, it was the opposite of everything we knew. I just want people to know that it’s not this magical thing that you either can do it or you can’t. Everybody can do it, you just have to figure out why you’re having a hard time doing it, and address that, and then you can do it. That’s the part that sucks, that was question #5 earlier! I’m a normal person. I get really ticked at my kids, and I get frustrated over stupid stuff. I can be really therapeutic when big behavior happens, and then the teeniest little thing will happen and I’m a big mess, and I’m angry, and I want to hurt my kids back. I’m normal! I’m normal– outside of the way I look– that’s just me, that’s who I am, but that is not reflective of the fact that I’m different from anybody else. I was raised probably like 99.9% of every other person, and that’s my default. It still is!

What is the best advice anyone has ever given you about therapeutic parenting?

Probably… When you’re being triggered, to do the exact opposite of what you want to do in the moment, and you’ll always nail it. Whatever you really, really, really want to do, just do the opposite, and it will save your butt almost every time. So if you want to scream, you talk quietly. If you want to hit, you hug. If you want to body slam, you walk away. If you can train yourself to see that it’s time to do the opposite, then it becomes more of a habit. And I still do that. That was genius! I ignored it for a looong time. I was like, “This is good advice… For everybody else!” (laughs) If you want to talk it to death, don’t say anything. When you feel the blood pressure rising, whatever you want and crave, do the opposite. I can’t remember who told me that! I wish I knew! It could be Nancy Thomas, it could be some random mom, but I’ve never forgotten.

What is the best advice you have ever given someone else?

Well actually, it’s kind of my new mantra right now. This is how I got to where I am. People always say, I can’t do this. Parents say, I can’t do it. I can’t! And, I finally put it into words recently. What I started to do was, instead of saying, “I can’t do it!” I started to say, “Why can’t I do this?” And if I would answer that question, I could change myself, to then change the situation. I never could figure out how to put it into words how I got better at it. Finally, instead of saying a cop-out (“I can’t”)… Why can’t I? Why can’t I stay calm when my child is freaking out? Oh, crap, I have to address myself. You’re triggering me because here’s what my dad did, here’s how I feel about myself, here’s how I feel about other parents looking at me, here’s how I want to punish because that’s how I was punished, here’s my authoritarian upbringing brought to light. If I can just say why can’t I do this? Why am I saying I can’t? What’s really behind that? And if I can answer that, I can fix myself.