Investment Parenting with Co-Regulation

Susie, a friend of mine (plus foster and adoptive Mom), shared a conundrum she had recently while teaching four-year-olds during Sunday school class. A new little one melted down and hid under the table. She had no special instructions for the little one and wasn’t sure how to handle it. You see, there is a big difference between disobedience and a reaction based on past trauma. Turns out the little one was a foster child who was placed in the home just the night before. Susie would have been better equipped to help him if she had only known. I could do a whole post on taking a fresh foster or adoptive placement to church, but I’ll save that for another day. I’d like to focus on trauma and its effect on self-regulation.

The Signature of Trauma

 Trauma produces children from hard places. Children from had places have altered brain development. The main outwards sign of past trauma is what we often refer to as “bad behavior” or the inability to self regulate (if you want it to sound more science-y and less critical).  The truth is, when it comes to behavior, we must remember that every behavior expresses a need.It's Can't

When it comes to a child from hard places ability to self-regulate, it’s CAN’T not WON’T. In simple plain language that means, he cannot calm himself. He can’t help but be overwhelmed to the point that he is either hiding under the table (flight), not responding to what you are asking of him (freeze) or running away from the situation (flight). He CAN’T. Not physically able. Not emotionally able. In this scenario, the adult must take the reins and help the child by co-regulating. Co-regulation helps a child develop a new pattern for stress regulation.

“The early developing right brain, where attachments develop, is largely dominant during the first three years of life (Schore, 2003). It contains the initial and lasting template for stress regulation. Revisions to this template will require intentional efforts.”-Deborah Gray, Nurturing Adoption

What Does Co-regulation Look Like?

Think of a two year old being tired and falling on the floor having a meltdown because she doesn’t want to take a nap. Clearly, she needs one, so Mom takes control of the situation. Mom takes the little one to her room and reads her a story and rocks her to sleep. She takes a nap. Mom is co-regulating because unless you have a rare toddler, she is not going to recognize her need for a nap and put herself down for one.

Filling in the Gaps of Missed Co-Regulation

With a child from a hard place, no matter what their age and size, we must co-regulate when they cannot. A twelve year old who cannot recognize his body’s signals to eat or drink, must be provided with a snack and water every two hours or he will enter the flight, fight or freeze zone. A nine year old who has sensory processing issues may lose the ability to voice his need to escape the noise and over stimulation of a loud birthday party. Mom and Dad must be watching for cues and either leave the party or take the child to a quieter place. It’s important to remember that a child from a hard place is emotionally at least half his physical age, sometimes more. His regulation skills may be that of a two year old while he is teen size.

The good news is, as we connect and co-regulate, we change the brain chemistry, wiring and development. Scientists tell us that relationships and experience shape the brain. Think of a developing brain like a multi-storied house under construction. At birth the downstairs brain is developed. This is the part that tells the child when to breath and keeps the functions of the body on track. This is also where survival mode resides, the fight, flight or freeze mechanisms. The upstairs brain is the higher functions of the brain. It is more sophisticated and houses reasoning, speech, regulation of emotions, the ability to be flexible and adaptable. Trauma skews the wiring of the brain. Trauma triggers the amygdala, the watchdog of the body. If the brain stays in this state too long, it rewires to stay stuck in fight, flight or freeze. Chronic stress takes a heavy toll on the prefrontal cortex. It is involved in impulses, aggression, anxiety, decisions, changing gears and self-regulation.

At this point, you may be thinking, I thought you said there was hope. There is! The Hebbian Principle says –what fires together, wires together. That is the more you experience something, the more your wires go that direction. So, how do we rewire a child’s brain that is stuck downstairs in the survival (fight, flight, freeze)? With co-regulation and fresh new experiences that show him he can trust us. We call this felt safety. When a child feels safe, his adrenals calm, he produces less cortisol and he is able to function in his upstairs brain.

I know, I feel like this is all over the place, so let me end with three reminders.

If you are parenting a child or teen from a hard place:

  1. Expect to co-regulate a lot more than your peers with bio children (who aren’t from hard places, because some are). Don’t base your expectation of whether you need to help them regulate on their physical age and size. “Many children who do not have early experiences of proper care also lack proper physiological and emotional regulation. This is because both of these regulation systems are developed through an attachment relationship.” (Nurturing Adoptions)
  2. Make sure your children feel safe. It’s not about really being safe. It’s about feeling safe. If they feel safer with a light on, not going to the noisy party, staying near you at a function, comply, don’t complain.
  3. Keep the positive, connecting experiences coming. “The brain is also “experience-expectant.” We come hard wired for connection. For eye contact, touch, playful interactions and co-regulation.These fill up the kid’s emotional tank and help their brains rewire. Blow bubbles. Ride bikes together. Make cookies and eat them. Read a favorite book fifty times. Swim with them, don’t just watch them swim. Hike with them. Take the time to invest positive experiences. This is investment parenting. Just a note -this practice applies to teens as well. If you are filling in the gaps of missed co-regulation, an older teen may still want you to watch them jump on the trampoline, ride bikes with him, play board games, or watch movies. Many teens from hard places may have no interest in what their peers are doing and want to hang out with Mom and Dad.

If you see your children struggling with regulation, which parts of this article resonated with you? Are you willing to try to do a few things differently? If you do, please share your stories! I’d love to hear from you!

Journaling Your Child’s Triggers Part 2

Love is Enough

“Love is enough” is a common misconception among parents in general, but even more so with kids who have experienced trauma. Kids who have had trauma seem to have a built-in button-locating radar. They find our buttons and push them over and over. It’s natural that we parents may think they are pushing our buttons or misbehaving to make us mad.

In reality, their behavior stems from early trauma and its effect on them. Most children that come into foster care, orphanages, or other institutions are disorganized in their attachment and stuck in dis-integration. The people who were supposed to care for them hurt them. This sets off a constant warning bell in the brains of these children. We call the result a stress-shaped brain.

Early Life Experience

Early life experience has shaped their brains to expect the worst and be on high alert all the time. This response is known as hypervigilance. The hypervigilant child jerks at every sound.  They don’t recognize their body’s own signals of hunger, thirst, and rest.

Normally, parents seamlessly teach regulation. When the child is hungry, the mother feeds him. If he is cold, she wraps him in a blanket. If he is tired, she rocks him to sleep. This pattern continues, with the mother regulating for the child until he begins to regulate for himself. He asks for a drink when he is thirsty. He puts on his sweater when he is cold, or grabs his blankie when he’s ready for bed. 

Kids who haven’t had this early regulation don’t know how to regulate. This doesn’t just apply to hunger and thirst, though those are the biggies. It also applies to behavior. Behavior is what we see externally, but it’s not the whole picture. We need to learn to watch the external behaviors as a clue to whether the child can regulate internally or not.

“Tantrums, meltdowns, aggression, and most other challenging experiences of parenting – and life- are a result of a loss of integration, also known as dis-integration.”

The Whole-Brain Child

Neurons that fire together wire together. In plain English, the more a behavior is acted out or a trigger is acted upon, the more it becomes a pattern in the brain. It is as if the road is dug out, graveled, and paved by repeated experiences. The paved road then becomes the primary travel route.  

Adoption is messy. Children who are adopted from hard places have trouble verbalizing their feelings. They struggle with self-regulation and want to control everything and everyone around them. Trouble is, if we parents aren’t careful, we end up focusing on the behavior instead of digging deeper into the root of the problem. It’s quick and easy to think the child is misbehaving to get on our last nerve. We tend to think the child wants to make us angry.

The poor choices in behavior speak what the child is unable to state verbally.

Put Yourself in Your Child’s Shoes

Have you ever been in a situation when you felt anxious or afraid for no apparent or logical reason? Instead of considering a situation your child was in, think of a situation that you have been in. Think of a time when you should have felt safe but instead you felt anxious.  Go back to that feeling for a minute, and as terrible as it is, let it wash over you. Imagine feeling like that all the time. That may be how your child is feeling. 

Five Bs Affected by Trauma

Science says there are five Bs affected by trauma, and we cannot overlook them. In kids from hard places, behavioral disorders are a symptom of the effect trauma has had on their development. 

Negative behaviors will be taken care of once a child is securely attached. To achieve that, we must start with the five Bs and work our way out from there. Take a few minutes and read about the Five Bs – start here. Listen to the podcast series on each B. There is a lot of information to read/listen to. Take your time. It will still be available long after this series is over. Maybe start with one B. Armed with this information, write down some of your child’s triggers with this information as your foundation.

*This is an excerpt from the course How to Have Peace When Your Kids are in Chaos.

Interested in the course? Read more about it and try a free module!

Journaling Your Triggers

Change Begins With Us

The change we desire for our children must begin with us.

“If we’re willing to piece together our stories and see the relationship between what happened then and what’s happening now, we get to make choices about what happens next.”

Tell Me a Story

It’s difficult to make choices in the heat of the moment. This is why it is important to take some time and revisit our past, make sense of it, and begin healing. 

While we are healing, we can put some proactive responses into place. In other words, you can decide how you are going to respond ahead of time. If you know that when your child steals candy out of the secret stash, it triggers a memory in you of your Aunt Verna whipping you with a switch until your behind was raw, develop a pre-planned, go-to response. 

Separate yourself from the situation. Avoid saying things like, “If I had done that, my mother would have…” Instead, tend to the situation at hand logically. The child took the candy; therefore, he can’t have any after dinner — or whatever you decide is a natural consequence. 

As Andy Stanley writes in Deep & Wide, “the past is only the past for a time. It has a way of clawing its way into our future. And if you don’t recognize it for what it is, the results can be devastating.” If we don’t recognize our past and its overwhelming power to invade our “now,” we will remain stuck. If we come to terms with our past and work through it, we can gain a new outlook on it.

Your Past Can Be a Gift

I honestly never thought I would view the trauma in my past as a gift. I had years of anger, bitterness, and a reoccuring theme of “Why me?” 

I don’t feel that way anymore. I realized a long time ago that empathy is a superpower that is only earned by going through trauma. Sympathy can only reaches the boundaries of understanding someone else’s pain. Empathy feels that pain. 

I’m not saying you should be grateful that someone molested you or did horrible things to you. But you can be grateful for the gift of empathy.

“We are assured and know that [God being a partner in their labor] all things work together and are [fitting into a plan] for good to and for those who love God and are called according to [His] design and purpose.”

(Romans 8:28)

God takes our pain, our past, and our experiences and fits them into a plan to help others. I’ve spoken with a multitude of adoptive/foster parents over the years. They all seem to have a common denominator: at least one half of the couple experienced early trauma. 

I’ve talked to foster parents who spent years in and out of group homes, were raised in a foster home, were raised by alcoholics or drug addicts, or had moms who worked as prostitutes. I’m not mentioning these things to shame their past or their parents, but to let you know that if you experienced early trauma, you are not alone.

Maybe you identify. Maybe you didn’t have the greatest childhood. Maybe this whole module has been excruciatingly painful for you. I get it. So let’s not end on the trauma — let’s end on the gift it has given to you.

Here’s something you can do right now: Take a deep breath and go do something fun with your kid. While you are having fun, respond to them the way you wish someone had responded to you at that age. Smile. Laugh. Praise them. Don’t make it complicated. Find joy in the small things. 

Journal Your triggers

Today, take a little time and journal one of your triggers. One of mine is riding in the back of a car. It’s linked to times my father came to pick us kiddos up for a visit (after my parent’s divorce). He lived in a different state every year.We often drove for days without anyone telling me where we were going. As soon as we got in the car, my anxiety took over. Today, as you write up a trigger, also write a new predetermined response. Mine is – God is with me wherever I go, He will never leave me no forsake me. It’s my go-to when traveling. Also, as much as possible, I find the route to where I am going. What can you do to conquer your trigger?

*This is an excerpt from the course How to Have Peace When Your Kids are in Chaos.

Want to know more about the E-course and Sample a module? Click Below!

Journaling Your Triggers and Your Child’s Triggers

*Trigger Warning*

If you haven’t faced your past, this week’s assignments may produce overwhelming feelings! 

Sometimes it takes actually feeling your feelings before you can move towards healing or helping your kiddos move in that direction. Be sure to find a Christian therapist or counselor to help you work through your past!

Why are memories so triggering?

Have you ever smelled something like cinnamon rolls baking, or coffee brewing, and it suddenly evokes a feeling from a past event? Maybe it’s Christmas morning because your Mom made cinnamon rolls and coffee every year. Or maybe the scent of a  perfume sends you to a dark place because you were at Aunt Mary’s house the time you were molested and she wore that scent liberally. Why does this happen? Why doesn’t the past just stay in the past? Tommy Newberry explains:

“Your subconscious mind is incapable of distinguishing between an actual event and one that is only imagined.” 

When we have these flashbacks, our mind acts if they are actually happening again. Our subconscious doesn’t distinguish past,  present, or future. 

Why do we need to process our past?

If we don’t make sense of and peace with our past, we will continue to be triggered. We will live in fearful, reactionary ways. If we want to live positive lives, fully present with our kids, we must take the time to work on making peace with our past.

“Our mind is designed to control the body, of which the brain is a part, not the other way around. Matter does not control us; we control matter through our thinking and choosing. We cannot control the events and circumstances of life but we can control our reactions. In fact, we can control our reactions to anything, and in doing so, we change our brains. It’s not easy; it is hard work, but it can be done through our thoughts and choices.”

Caroline Leaf, Switch On Your Brain: The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health

If you are thinking “Bad things happened to me and I can’t control that.” This is true. You can’t erase the fact bad things happened, neither can your kiddos. What you can do is change your mind about how you react to your triggers. You don’t have to be ruled by them. You can do the hard work of changing your brain! Are you ready?

For today, let’s start with a positive memory. Think of a time when you a child and were immensely happy. Was it a camping trip? A birthday party?  Playing with your cousins? Write it all down in the most vivid detail you can! Have fun with it. Use the five senses. What do you see? Hear? Smell? Feel? Hear? 

Deciding When to Accept Outside Help For Your Kiddos

Deciding When to Accept Outside Help

As I mentioned yesterday

As Adopting the Hurt Child says, many health professionals blame the adoptive parents for the child’s current problems. This statement summed up how I was feeling: “It is an unfortunate fact that many of those who attempt to provide treatment to adoptive parents with disturbed children know very little about issues related to adoption.” Rafal’s issues were a result of me not caring, nor were my present strategies ineffective. 

As a parent, it is my job to protect my child. That’s true for any parent, but medical issues can be especially scary and complicated when a child has been through traumatic circumstances — especially if those experiences include past medical issues. It is important for parents to know as much of the child’s medical history as possible. This is not necessarily just a bunch of papers that record history; there needs to be an understanding of how a child has received medical care.

It is difficult to make decisions about medical help for children who have had trauma

It is difficult to make decisions about medical help for children who have had trauma. Myriad services are available to adoptive families: counseling, speech therapy, play therapy, camps, feeding clinics, and much more. Jerry and I both settled into the conservative camp on this issue. We decided we didn’t want our home to be a revolving door of services. Our children had spent enough time in institutions, including orphanages and hospitals. What they needed now was to see what a secure home looked like. 

I felt confident that I could do the research and help my children with speech, physical therapy, feeding, and whatever other challenges came our way. I am not saying that every family must do this. I think parents should make informed decisions and do what is best for each child. 

Shortly after Rafal’s hospital visit, I attended a workshop for parents who wanted to handle the speech therapy at home. I went to work with Ania and Hunter right away, and later with Rafal. 

Ania and Hunter are nine months apart in age. Hunter helped Ania learn English quickly. He also gave her his slight speech impediment. They developed the same speech pattern — a New Yorker accent, I called it. Woild for world, goil for girl. They were extremely funny to listen to and oblivious to the fact that they had developed their own accent. 

Yes, I did receive flack for my decision to not receive a great deal of outside help, but as a homeschooler, I’m used to that. It is scary to step outside of the realm of the professionals — and to clarify, I did not lose my faith in the medical establishment as a whole. I understand that professionals are human beings who have diverse backgrounds and subjective opinions based on their own presuppositions. I guess that is just a fancy way of saying I don’t trust people based on titles. I trust my mother’s intuition more. 

Parents should not be afraid to question professionals who work with their children.

Parents should not be afraid to question professionals who work with their children. Has this professional treated children who have had traumatic hospital experiences, RAD, or FAS? Do they even know what any of these terms mean?  Will they support your morals/values and back up your work at home?

Parenting the Hurt Child recommends: “Parents should be seen as a part of the treatment team. After all, they are the only ones who can actually help the hurt child.”

Our society is built on professionals, but that hasn’t always been the case. Parents and extended family used to be the only thing that a child needed. Outside help was only sought in extreme circumstances. Nowadays, parents are offered prenatal help, lactation consultants, Birth to Three services, mommy and me classes to ensure the child is moving and talking properly, and preschool to socialize and learn basic concepts. It’s enough to make mothers feel as if they are incompetent. 

Since young mothers are told they need help, they assume they do. It is an unfortunate turn of events. These services are offered to help, not to tear down the confidence of parents. Traditionally, grandparents and extended family helped mom and dad when they were perplexed. Should Johnny be walking by now? Should he speak at nine months old?  These used to be questions you would ask family. Now pediatricians have handy checklists for each age and stage. 

As nice as they are, these lists shouldn’t be taken as gospel truth for each child. My older brother is a genius by IQ test standards. Sometimes I have a hard time with understanding the explanations that come from his complex brain — I’m just not that smart. Yet, according to my mother, he did not speak to adults until he was three. When he did begin speaking, it was in paragraphs. My mother was not extremely panicked about it because she once overheard him practicing speech in his bedroom. She figured he would share conversation when he was ready. If he had been three today, my mother would have been advised to accept in-home help for a genius who was busy privately perfecting his speech.

Parents are the Experts

My point is this: Parents are the experts. The decision of whether extra help is needed should not be left up to someone outside the home (such as Social Worker 1). Parents should not be pressured into receiving the all of the resources available. I have seen articles in newsletters and online where new adoptive parents are plopping children in speech therapy, school therapy, and more. 

My concern for these families is this: Are they building a family, or are they just a continuation of a government institution? Again, my point is not that outside help is never beneficial or necessary — just that it shouldn’t be the default. Each family should ask themselves these questions before embarking on the professional help route:

• How will this help affect the child?  

• What happens if help is refused?

• What are the long-term results if no help is received?

• What is necessary?

Once you have the answers to these questions, proceed with what you think is in the best interest of the child.

This is an excerpt from the chapter “Medical Issues” in How to Have Peace When Your Kids are in Chaos.