book review: Dandelion on my Pillow Butcher Knife beneath by Nancy Thomas

Hi everyone.

Now that I’ve written an overview of Reactive attachment disorder I will be reviewing this amazing book I read in just two days!

Dandelion on my Pillow, Butcher Knife Beneath. It is a collaborative effort between Nancy Thomas, and her two children one biological and one adopted, Terina and Beth Thomas.

It documents Nancy’s early life with a somewhat traumatic childhood filled with emotional unpredictability and mental illness of all children in the family as well as both her parents. How she grows up to quickly fall in love with a superficially charming but extremely abusive man. She is married and locked in a prison of physical, sexual and emotional abuse not allowed to even leave the house for large chunks of time. She has two children with this man R.B and Chucky. Both are born under the traumatic circumstances of her life with this man.

She eventually escapes with her children. She starts to build a new life for herself living alone, forced to work two jobs and therefore leaving particularly her youngest boy in daycare during his first year of life without consistent routines around his care.

Quickly her friend hooks her up with a loving man Jerry, who she calls “her cowboy.” He’s everything she needs/ wants in a partner. They’re soon married and move to a home in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Together they have a biological child Terina.

Once Nancy has settled into a peaceful stable environment with Jerry in the farmhouse she becomes very involved in the children’s school activities. While in a PTA meeting she meets Lori, a wise commited grounded woman who’s sole mission is to focus on rehabilitating the most emotionally disturbed children to a sense of connection with themselves and particularly caregivers. She explains attachment disorder to Nancy. To Nancy’s horror she realizes Chucky has some of the symptoms of this disorder due to the trauma he witnessed as an infant in her first abusive marriage and the constant moves and day care providers. She learns tips from Lori on ways to help her home run smoother using natural consequences rather than punishment, and a set routine for homework, meals chores ETC. She sets the expectations for behavior and gives the children lots of encouragement and boundaries around what is expected while at the same time providing a high amount of love/ affection regardless of what they choose to do.

She also comes to Lori’s house often to watch her interact with the children in her care. As time goes by she is asked at one point if she’d like to become a theraputic parent to help other children as Lori does. She and her family decide together they’re up to the task. She and Jerry take the full training in this unique approach to parenting and what to do with any situation that may come up.

They set up a RAD proof (well as much as possible) room for the child with an alarm on the door (for the child to feel safe that no one will enter their room at night, as well as for the couple to monitor their activities at night) Tile floor if the child has bathroom issues, ffew items in the room ETC.

Their first child is Alicia. Nancy learns about the “honeymoon stage” where a child seemingly behaves perfectly as if there are no problems. Once settled in and starting to be pushed to trust this new person the behaviors that have sent them from numerous placements start to escalate. With Nancy’s patience love, humor and unique style of parenting slowly she sees results.

One activity that she uses with all children is called “strong sitting.” This is similar to meditation/ a relaxation exercise. The child is to sit facing a wall with their back straight so they can breathe fully into their diaphragm. They are to be still and have their hands in their lap. This is not a punishment at all. It’s designed to help a child transition from activity to activity (meals, chores ETC). It allows them to have a chance to reflect on their day/ situations that come up, being able to have a chance to think about what they want to be like during the day, feelings they need to share ETC. It’s also used after a child has done a chore. They sit by where they’ve worked and do the sitting to be sure they’ve done it right. Then Nancy can check it. The strong sitting at it’s basic amount happens in the morning and at night also between meals. Usually for only five minutes at a time.

There is a set daily routine for each child. Each child in the house even at a young age is assigned one or more chores. Chores are done cheerfully as possible without hassle or nagging. Often a child with RAD will create a power struggle out of any simple situation. So will refuse to do their chore, throw a tantrum insist they don’t know how/ can’t do it. Nancy calmly will avoid the drama by saying it’s fine that they can sit there for however long it takes. (Alicia took 18 hours between two days obviously she wasn’t up all night, to sweep the stairs.) For some of the time she howled and screamed. Calling Lori very upset Nancy was wavering wondering if it was worth her getting so upset over something so small. Lori said that this was actually very important because Alicia was testing Nancy to see if she meant what she said and if she’d be strong in spite of her behavior. She’s used to manipulating people and not letting them take care of her by allowing them to guide her in what to do. Once she’s able to accept this guidance and care she’ll start to connect with them and start to heal. A glance outside the window from her son cconfirmed that Alicia in fact was not in a meltdown, she was making the appropriate noises of one while playing with her toys!

Whether or not a child completes their chores or how they’re behaving at any moment Nancy gives each child a ton of positive encouragement and especially hugs/ snuggling. These are very important as the child lacked this constant physical contact and showing of care. At first the child may resist but eventually takes it in and it’s like “medicine for their heart.”

In addition to Nancy’s parenting approach the children receive in depth individual therapy. The therapists featured in the book are C.J, Dr. Cline and Dr. Ken. All three use a similar approach. The children are told to sit in the therapist’s lap facing the therapist held like you’d hold a baby with Nancy holding one hand. While in this position the therapist prompts the child in a nurturing but firm manner to explore their feelings about the family they had to leave, life currently, and most importantly past abuse. In this way they’re not allowed to change the subject/ manipulate/ charm as they would in talk therapy or run away/ physically hide from the therapist. They’re in a position where the therapist can physically guide them to maintain eye contact/ physical contact in a very gentle way. The child then is able to open up and express feelings of deep rage sadness, and eventually in some cases shame and regret for past cruel acts. It’s a safe place to release these feelings and come out the other side. At the end of each session, which is about forty five minutes long the child is moved from the therapist’s arms to Nancy or the adoptive/ foster mom’s. They’re in a state where they’re able to be vulnerable without the usual defenses of the disorder. The child is calmly rocked, sung to, given a bottle ETC. It’s a very healing time for the child after they’ve done the hard work of the session. Even if they spend the session in a control battle and don’t make a lot of progress any small efforts are highly praised.

The goal of the theraputic parenting program is to get the child to a state where they’re disorder behaviors are all gone a or can be kept in check through the techniques that are taught in the book. Visits to the adoptive or foster parents that the child were living with before the intensive theraputic program are slowly begun and monitored. If things seem to be going well the child is transferred with great care back to their original family. The family comes to Nancy’s house for two weeks and spends the days with the child watching and learning the techniques taught by Nancy as Nancy slowly gives the theraputic parenting to the mother. In many cases this works out very well.

Though there are moments of small and large progress there are downsides even for this knowledgable and passionate family. A professional/ caregiver can only do so much. Even young children have to verbally contract in therapy/ with Nancy that they will work on their life which includes: being respectful, responsible and fun to be around. (I think that’s a weird one, I can’t think of anyone who’s fun to be around all the time LOL) Anyway this disorder has such deep roots and changes it’s charastics as healing goes on to the point that some children truly seem to be doing well when in reality they haven’t connected and merely are being compliant. This had disasterous results with a couple of the children in Nancy’s care.

Most heartwarming is the story of Beth. It’s related in alternate points of view between Beth growing up, and Nancy. When Beth writes about her childhood/ thoughts/ feelings it gives you a unique perspective into the mind of a child with RAD. How truly afraid she is of having another person “be in control.” Due to feeling powerless during the abuse of such a young age. It goes through her impressions of Nancy and the family, therapy sessions ETC. Surprisingly quickly the more Beth releases past emotions and benefits from the theraputic structure and nurturing the healthier she gets. She goes from a very manipulative, unempathetic child who abused other children and hurt/ killed animals, to one who has a deep love for animals especially horses. Has a passion for singing and a warm and loving spiret. After many trials Nancy is able to adopt Beth. Beth is a testimony to the power of this type of work and what healing can occur with the right combination of the child being willing to do the hard work, and the healing environment. As a side note Beth’s story was made into a documentary called Child of Rage. People filmed her initially before going to be with Nancy and after. The changes were breathtaking. Similarly there was a made for TV movie Child of Rage, that Beth felt was not at all true to her experiences due to it being staged and over dramatic.

Towards the end of the story heartbreaking events involving one of her children causing serious harm to the family force her to realize she is burnt out doing the work as she currently has been. In the process she gets closer to Jerry through doing similar therapy to the children involving holding/ releasing emotions but with Jerry doing the holding. This helps her release past trauma and abuse and to feel a stronger connection to Jerry. It also allows her to have tru empathy for what the children experience in therapy. The family decide to change their program by having familys come to Nancy and having the families learn the program and bond with the children under her supervision the whole time rather than the child first bonding to Nancy’s family and then moving back to their own family.

I was highly highly impressed with Nancy and her program. I think her creativity, patience, love, and wicked sense of humor are an amazing combination of traits that ggo so far with these kids. I also likewise admire Dr. Cline, Ken, and especially CJ for her gentle yet firm approach to therapy and dedication to this work. I see the benefits of all aspects of the program from the physical/ concrete rewards of working on a farm, to the daily routine of chores, to the natural consequences used, the strong sitting, emotional release therapy ETC. I am very hopeful that this has been replicated in other states/ programs have been developed under the guidance of the original people involved. I realize one size doesn’t fit all, and that different families need different support. Which is why I will continue to read up on different approaches/ techniques and success stories.

Please comment on your reactions to this book. Or better yet if you’ve personally worked with Nancy, CJ, Dr. Cline or others in a similar program as a family or former child with RAD or professional. I welcome all your thoughts.

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