Right now we are living in a season when the simplest tasks can seem overwhelming. Going to the grocery stores isn’t the chore it used to be. Now it’s full of even more stress and tension. We don’t know if someone will bump into us, yell at us, or if we are crossing the aisle at the wrong time.
As much as we tell ourselves, I will not let this bother me (raising my hand here), it does. It’s a palatable feeling in the air. The anxiety settles down on all of us collectively. As much as we feel it, our kiddos do too.
Our kiddos mirror us. If we feel stressed, they feel stressed.
If we feel overwhelmed, they feel overwhelmed.
If we feel anxious, our anxiety adds to their stress shaped brain and squeezes.
This is true for any kiddo, even more so for kiddos from hard places and who has a capital letter syndrome.
My anxiety Story
When I was growing up, there was a lot of political unrest. Adults around me had an unwritten rule – Kids should understand how serious this is. I didn’t know what “this” was, and I wasn’t sure how to act. So, I did what any kiddo would do in the situation – I felt anxious. My anxiety grew over the years and became my constant companion in my adulthood. I felt as if I SHOULD FEEL ANXIOUS ABOUT EVERYTHING. So I did. I was like the character in The Great Divorce with the creature on his shoulder:
“What sat on his shoulder was a little red lizard, and it was twitching its tail like a whip and whispering things in his ear.”
My anxiety is like the lizard. It whispers things in my ear, and I act upon them. But this isn’t about me. It’s about the growth of anxiety in a child.
Tips for Stunting the growth of Anxiety
With my experience in mind (and science) I’m sharing a few tips to stunt the growth of anxiety in an already anxious kid.
Tell them what’s going on. Your kids need not know everything. On the flip side, they don’t need to know nothing. Not knowing breeds anxiety. Whatever the situation, let them know what is age appropriate for them. This applies to any life situation. If Great Grandma dies, a five-year-old needs to know the truth. Not, she is floating in the air. But don’t go as far as the embalming process.
Let your kiddo talk about it. Whatever it is. One of the healthiest things a kiddo can do after a tragedy is talk. For example, my two-year-old Granddaughter fell while playing and suffered a concussion. At the ER she had a CT scan. Later, via Facetime, she told me several times about the giant camera that took a picture of her (and her daddy’s) head. She retold her story of falling and her ER visit. We make progress in our healing journey by telling our stories to an empathetic listener. So do kiddos. When something happens to a kiddo, it tempts us to tell them they will be all right. It’s tempting to tell them to forget it and move on. The truth is the world is full of adults who never talked about “it” and who have never moved on.
Realize although your kiddo may have a stress shaped brain, anxiety can also become a habit. When I was a young mom, struggling with depression and anxiety, a friend recommended a book to me (that I can’t remember the name of!). The author had many of the same anxiety driven habits. She didn’t like closed-in places; she didn’t want to do anything in which she wasn’t in control. On a ski trip, she asked an exuberant friend – Aren’t you anxious about going down the hill. To which her friend replied, “Yes, isn’t it glorious!” I’m paraphrasing here. The point is one woman took the anxious feeling, and it caused her to miss out. Another took the feeling and let her body feel it and felt joyful about it. While I’m not saying you can teach your kiddo to feel joyful about everything they are afraid of, it’s good to look for the habit of anxiety. When you see it, talk it through, work it through. Do whatever you need to help your kiddo form a new habit. “I feel anxious” can turn into “I feel excited!”
Talk through an event before you go. Guess what. I still do this to quell my anxiety. One of my adult ways for handling this is looking at routes on the GPS. I ask someone who has traveled it how many tunnels there are. I plan my rest breaks when traveling alone. I count out my change for toll booths. These practices lessen my anxiety. Sure, I run into unknowns, traffic jams, a pit stop, my cooler sliding off the seat so I can’t reach my food (true story). I handle these unknowns better if I know the majority about the trip. Kids need to talk through events even more than adults do. It moves them to their upstairs brain. They can look at the event logically and stunt the growth of anxiety.
Remember, anxiety grows if fed. I fed mine for years. Now, I’m working on starving it out. I use these tips with my kiddos. They know them so well; they use them on me!
I hope these tips help you and your kiddos. Do you have your own tip? Share it here.
When I was in college, I struggled with food issues. I’m sure it began before then, but symptoms peaked during my college years. I began severely restricting my calories, allowing myself to eat a bowl of oatmeal as my one meal of the day. Once I ate, I worked out, walked with weights on my ankles for five miles at a time. I was slowly killing myself. I just didn’t know it. What I felt was light and powerful. Not eating was something I could control in a very out of control world.
It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I read this statement in a fitness book “food is fuel.” I had never thought about the concept before. I grew up in a home where we ate meals together at a table. It wasn’t just food, it was family time. It was healthy food as well as healthy connection time. I don’t know how and why I went astray. I don’t think anyone could have “talked me” out of my food issues by telling me they were “bad” or “wrong.” I also don’t know why I enjoyed the floaty feeling not eating gave me. I don’t enjoy it now.
But this isn’t about me. I say all that to say I understand food issues. I know they aren’t very understandable or clear to most people. It’s like those people who don’t understand depression who say, “Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get over it.” That doesn’t help at all.
Three Thoughts on Why Food Issues are Back
Maybe during this social distancing crazy time, your child who has made progress in food issues has suddenly regressed. Issues you thought were in the past are now in your present. Why?
I have a few thoughts on why.
When stressed we regress. Think about that for a moment. During this crazy season, what’s one habit you had left behind that you’ve picked up like a comfy cardigan. Maybe it’s smoking. Eating tons of sweets. Staying glued to your phone. Biting your nails. If you have a habit fresh in your mind, you will better understand your child’s regression. He is stressed even if he can’t verbalize it.
Food is something controllable. See my story above. Looking back, it was probably a bad idea for an introvert like me who had strong family ties to go to the big university. It stressed me in ways I couldn’t verbalize. Gone were the family dinners. The devotions with breakfast. So I turned against food. I controlled my environment by not eating. It couldn’t tell me what to do. Maybe food for your kiddo is comfort. Maybe stealing/hoarding makes him feel as if he has a voice. To explain this phenomenon, Dawn Davenport wrote an article titled “Hoarding, Overeating, & Food Obsessions in Adopted & Foster Kids” for Creating a Family. In it, she notes, “Many adopted and foster children with a history of food insecurity are very interested in food when they first arrive home, which presents as a collection of behaviors often referred to as ‘hoarding.’ Hoarding is a natural reaction to food insecurity and may present as eating quickly, stuffing large amounts of food in their mouths, stealing and sneaking food, and getting upset when food is limited.”
When in survival mode, we are impulsive beings. We don’t think about the consequences. I wasn’t thinking about the long term consequences to my physical body I was creating. Plus, no one really knew how much I was restricting my calories. I fooled them by keeping a cup of coffee in my hands at all family events (yikes, am I doing that now?)
So what do we do?
If someone would have been aware of my food issues, they could have helped me if done in the right way. “Food is fuel” totally changed my mindset about food. It sent me to my upstairs brain and I had to think about food in a new way.
Impulsiveness is a sign we are in our downstairs brain. The executive function is out to lunch (pun intended). How do we engage the upstairs brain?
During a time the kiddo is not in impulsivity mode, teach some science. With younger kids, teach them to recognize the feeling of a full stomach. Talk about food and how it makes you feel. Let them do the same. When I eat ____ I feel… Let them be honest even if it doesn’t make sense to you. Work on helping the kiddo recognize the feeling of satiety. Have him put his hand on his stomach and become aware of when it feels full. This is not a one-time practice or a quick fix. It takes years. Also, to develop a healthy relationship with food, it’s important to know which foods are healthy and why we eat them.
The point is to get the kiddos in their upstairs brain. This is where logic lives. For older kiddos -teach them as much science as they can handle. Find info like this for them to read on their own (instead of preaching it) –
“Eating sugar also affects how we act and feel each day. If you’ve ever tried to give up sugar, you know that during the first few days you are feeling cranky and miserable, almost like a drug addict without his or her drug of choice. Sugar consumption causes a hormonal roller coaster of alternating high levels of insulin and blood sugar. These hormonal shifts can dramatically affect your attitude and your ability to concentrate during the day. Sugar has been found to be a major contributor to diseases and symptoms like:
• Overgrowth of yeast, especially Candida albicans
• Tooth decay
• Violent tendencies”
Isabel Price, New Life Promise
Don’t make the issue about the child. Whatever you do, don’t make any eating struggles about the child. Avoid saying things like, “You’re going to get fat if you eat like that!” Remember, the point is to develop a healthy relationship with food, not to have a restrictive, punitive mentality. Teaching kids about healthy choices and how to recognize their own feeling of “full” is a better way to address eating struggles.
Give your child choice and voice. One of the ways you can give your child choice and voice is a snack basket. I did this with my kiddos when they were struggling. It helped them feel secure knowing there was a snack available at all times.
Food hoarding and food aversion are not something your kids made up to annoy you or other people. Food issues are a behavior with a need behind them. Overcoming them takes time, research, patience, and a ton of self-sacrifice — but it is possible.
Yesterday, I shared ended my post with a “How To do a Training Session.” You can find that here.
Today lets move to types of training.
Training With Sweets
I put a handful of M&Ms on the dining room table in front of each child. I then gave them instructions about which color M&M to pick up. If they listened, they got to eat that piece of candy. Failure to listen meant they missed out on the sweet — but there usually wasn’t much of that, and there was always a chance to try again.
This training had several positive outcomes — the kids learned their colors in English without shame, and they got a sweet reward. There were many chances for redos, and the kids even coached each other by saying things like “That’s not brown!” and pointing to proper color. That last one is so important. The kids learned that families help each other.
I had training sessions with money, as well. I kept a gallon-sized bag full of coins: quarters, nickels, dimes, fifty-cent pieces, and pennies. I dumped the money on the floor and helped the kids work through identifying the coins. After a session, if a child could name a coin without my help, I gave him that coin or a handful of coins. The kids would spend their money on gum or a candy bar during our next grocery trip. This reward was delayed, but it reinforced the lesson.
Training relieves the child of unreasonable expectations and puts the responsibility on the parent, where it belongs. Training can be lighthearted and fun rather than dictatorial. Most of the infractions we punish for can be eliminated by practicing outside the moment.
After obedience training came events training. In this category is the library training I mentioned yesterday. Before I took the kids to the library for the first time, we played library at home, using our bookshelves to practice.
Obedience training must come first. Once children have caught on to listening and following simple commands, then you can add event training.
When I first attended church with all my newbies, they sat in the regular service with Jerry and me instead of attending children’s church or the nursery. They were not ready to assimilate into the church culture. Since they had never attended a church service, they did not know how to conduct themselves. I could not expect them to know what to do in a church service — to stand during worship, to be silent during prayer, to sit while the message was being delivered, and so on.
To practice, I set up a church in my living room, complete with two rows of chairs. I had the kids sit on the chairs while we practiced a short service. I sang a few lines of a song, “preached” a short sermon, and then let them take turns being “pastor.” Through this simple training game, they learned when to sit, when to stand, and what cues to listen for. The training also generally relieved their anxiety regarding what church services entail.
Knowing what to expect is extremely important for the child with a stress-shaped brain. When going into an unfamiliar situation, the child’s fear is heightened, and he may have an extreme reaction that seems out of proportion with the actual event. Even if you’re just preparing for a family picnic, a child will often attempt to control the situation when he feels out of control.
We also practiced going out to eat. I set the table with my colorful fiestaware, silverware, glasses — the works. Then we filed into the “restaurant” and took our seats. We practiced placing the napkins on our laps, pretending to eat while having quiet, polite conversation, asking for a menu, ordering, and thanking the waiter or waitress.
It amazes me to see parents assume that a four-year-old (or any child, for that matter) will pick up restaurant manners just because the family goes out to eat. I often hear comments like “You should know better!” or “I can’t believe you just did that!”
It reminds me of the Guire family’s first fast-food dining experience in Poland. Thanks to Pani Eugenia, we had taken a field trip and found a McDonald’s to eat lunch at. The new Guires had never been to a McDonald’s, and I wondered if they had ever been out to eat at all.
Jerry and I were watching carefully. We didn’t expect restaurant manners; we expected that the kids would run around or, worse, run out into the parking lot. We divided the group and each watched a contingent. Getting through the line and sitting down with the food was organized chaos, but once all the little ones had a happy meal bag in hand, they settled down to sitting or kneeling on their chairs. Everything was going better than we had hoped. They may have been too enthralled with the strange cuisine to act up.
Ania had gotten a milkshake, as many of the group had. She removed the lid and jammed a hot fry into the cold contents. She pulled the gooey, drippy fry out and took a bite. Milkshake covered her hands, chin and shirt. She laboriously continued the ritual, messily coating each fry with shake.
“Look what she is doing,” Audrey pointed out.
Several other youngsters had already followed suit and were also a gloppy, sticky mess. But nobody reprimanded Ania for her behavior. It wasn’t ideal, but she didn’t know any better. It was difficult to clean and all of her followers up, but I couldn’t fault them for shoving their whole fists into their milkshakes. Like her, they didn’t know any better.
This is exactly the kind of behavior I often see parents reprimanding small children for, even though the children have probably never attended a seminar on proper restaurant etiquette.
For several years, my family ran a catering business with another family. Before an event, we would have a meeting with our “staff” (their kids and ours with a few other teens sprinkled in). During the meeting, we handed out job assignments and went over protocol for those jobs.
For example, when refilling a coffee cup, you should take the cup off the table with your right hand. Turn from the table and refill it, then carefully place it back on the table. If you’re serving punch, hold the cup over the top of the punch bowl while filling it to avoid dripping on the white table cloth.
I could go on, but the point is this: Don’t expect good behavior if training is neglected. In the catering scenario, if I had sent a sixteen-year-old to serve a fresh pot of coffee without any training, disastrous things could have happened. He could have asked the guest to hold the cup while he poured and risked burning the guest with the scalding liquid.
I know I am going on and on about the same point, but for good reason. Training is such an overlooked tool, and exploring it in several contexts will make it easier to understand, remember, and implement.
Adoptive and foster parents face many behavioral challenges, and you may struggle with what to do in the moment. Where and when is a child supposed to learn these unwritten age-appropriate rules?
It is necessary to have a correcting and connecting response immediately following a behavior. However, you shouldn’t stop there. If a particular behavior continues to happen, the proactive approach is to practice the proper behavior outside the moment. The ETC Parent Training manual encourages parents to “turn to other tools that can help them (kiddos) learn and grow outside of the moment — when you and they are calm and they are better able to learn.”
*This article is a an excerpt from How to Have Peace When Your Kids Are In Chaos- Grab your copy here.
Children who have been traumatized in infancy and early childhood cannot be expected to behave or respond to stimuli in the same way as children who have not.
Key to remember– As Dr. Purvis reminds us, our children were harmed in and through relationships, and they will find healing in and through nurturing relationships.
Trauma is much more far-reaching than we assumed in the past. We have always been told that children are resilient and they are, but there are effects that trauma leaves behind. It affects every area of life for a child.
Trauma harms the brain. Its footprint can be seen in these areas: Social, learning, behavior problems (regulation), physical development
Dr. Purvis calls children who have had trauma in their lives “children from hard places.”
“The passage of time for these little ones does not in itself reduce trauma’s impact to a bearable level. The trauma contaminates the meaning of life and is part of early personality formation. Neurobiologically, trauma shapes the developing brain.”
-Deborah Gray, Nurturing Adoptions
Did your child have early trauma? If you aren’t sure, read the “Six Risk Factors” and listen to the podcast on the subject (linked in the article). Also, you can find a handy printable resource here.
Today, take some time to think about your child’s history. This will help you begin to recognize the triggers. Write down the risk factors she encountered before coming home to you. Take some time to pray and process how these things can be affecting her behavior.
We’ll cover more on this topic tomorrow. Feel free to comment, share, or ask a question!
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.”
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?
“We parents often believe that our past — that is, the way we were raised — is just a book on a shelf of memories. It’s not. Triggers are where past and present intersect. We can’t assume our past isn’t affecting our present parenting.”
If we don’t make sense of and peace with our past, we will be in constant conflict with our children.
You’re probably taking this course because you are in constant conflict with your kiddos. I get it. I’ve lived there. When I finally understood where their behaviors were coming from, I made a tiny bit of progress. I had some brain science and psychology under my belt, but my house still often felt like a war zone. Let me emphasize the word FELT. I was feeling all sorts of things. By that I mean, my kid’s behaviors were triggering things that happened in my past and I was feeling it all over again. I was taking their behaviors personally because I was personally affected by them. I had a past that needed to be examined. I was the last person to think the problem was actually ME. But I was the part of the problem that I was responsible for. I didn’t want to face the truth. I wanted to stay stuck in my cycle of blaming my kid’s behavior for the chaos in my home. When I finally got ahold of the truth that my past was parenting my children. That I needed to face it and make sense of it and peace with it that I was able to move forward.
Often our daily tussles are not about our kids at all — they are about us. That’s not to say that our kids from hard places don’t have a past. It just means our past is running interference on the play. Take a few minutes and journal the last interaction that you think triggered you to react to your past instead of the present.
Adverse Childhood Experiences
An ACE score is a tally of different types of abuse, neglect, and other hallmarks of a rough childhood.
Let’s end this day with some nurturing. If you have never taken the time until today to process some of your childhood, you may be overwhelmed right now. I’ve been there. Lots of people have. I was conducting a workshop for some social workers and nurses once and during this the topic of the how your past affects your now – a nurse yelled out, “I’m not going to parent my kids like my mom did, I’m going to hug them.” We can and should have those sorts of reactions to facing our past, not to throw our parents under the bus, but to decide to where to go from here. What is nurturing to you?
I’ve provided some questions for you to work through just that.
What is a deep source of comfort and emotional nurturing for you?
How do you recognize nurturing?
Are you comfortable giving emotional support?
Does your own childhood weigh heavily on your heart and mind? If so, how?
Do you comfort others in order to comfort yourself? What does this look like?
Are you able to recognize your own emotions as well as others? If not, what steps can you take to start recognizing emotions in yourself?
Years ago when I was a young parent with only three children (pre-adoption), I joined a friend, Kelley, for a talk she was giving. The talk was held at a low-income housing development full of Moms who were desperately trying to keep their families together. They had endured all sorts of difficult life circumstances and needed some friendly encouragement. I’m glad my friend was there to give it. I was just tagging along.
Kelley began her talk with, “Some times I don’t like my kids.” There were audible gasps in the room. That’s just generally a statement Moms are not allowed to say. As she continued her talk, she explained the difference between loving her kids unconditionally and liking them (or not sometimes). I’m sure every woman in that room breathed an inward and a much-needed sigh of relief (including me).
If you really think about this, it’s true of all relationships even our relationship with God. Sometimes we don’t feel “liked” by God. It’s just a feeling but we try to get back in His good graces. We like being liked. So when I began to have children, I assumed I should like them and love them all the time. As my image of God changed, so did my understanding. God loves us unconditionally but He doesn’t like it when we sin because sin separates us from Him.
The burden of Mom guilt.
If you’re a Mom, you know that you can love your child unconditionally and still not like some of their behaviors just like God. As Moms, we carry an extra load of Mom-guilt. I’m not sure where we got it. Maybe we all picked it up at Target by mistake. It seems to be a universal item we carry on our shoulders. We feel bad when we’re mad. (I rhymed). Right?
Do you know who has an extra load of guilt? Foster parents. Adoptive parents. I’m not sure why. Maybe when we were signing all of those papers, we accidentally signed one for an extra bag of guilt with some fine print that said, I will always like this child no matter what he does. That’s just not realistic. In one day, I witnessed two foster Moms feeling guilty because they didn’t like their child that day.
Guess what? I love my husband but sometimes I don’t like him. I don’t like him when we leave the house to run two errands and he turns it into ten and I don’t get Starbucks. We don’t like our children when they don’t do the right thing, have a fit, steal, lie, or fill in the blank. It’s a given. It’s what we do with the dislike that matters.
What to do with the dislike.
I’ve watched Moms in the grocery store telling little tiny kiddos, “You’re getting on my nerves! Stop it!” I don’t think that’s the way to handle dislike. There are no clear directives for the kiddo to make amends or change the behavior. Does a three-year-old even know what a nerve is?
The best practice is if a child needs to change the behavior, give him clear short concise instruction. Much shorter than that sentence. If the dislike is super strong and lasts for a long period of time -get some space. Be still before the Lord. Examine yourself. What’s causing your frustration? Is it your unrealistic expectation? Is it the child’s past trauma causing mayhem? Is it your lack of planning? Lack of consequences? Lack of sleep? Or it a more serious issue that you need extra help overcoming.
Ask God for wisdom and be honest with yourself about how you are feeling.
If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.
–James 1: 5
Have you experienced a season of dislike for one of your kiddos? How did you handle it? Feel free to share! Want to here more on this topic? Check out Podcast Episode 120 here.
This is the last in the series on “The Five Bs Affected by Trauma”, you if you missed the rest, start here. Also, hop on over to the printable resource page for a copy of “How Trauma Affects Kids.”
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.
Behavior — an altered ability to self-regulate in response to stressors. This can manifest as impulsiveness, self-destructive behavior, aggressive behavior, excessive compliance, sleep disturbances, eating disorders, substance abuse, a re-enactment of their traumatic past, or pathological self-soothing behaviors.
This is the one we seem to put the most emphasis on. Why can’t this kid just behave?
Children from hard places have an altered ability to self-regulate in response to stressors. Kids are impulsive!
When a baby is born, the mother regulates for him. She feeds him when he is hungry. Wraps him in a blanket when he is cold. She rocks him to sleep when he is tired. When he gets a bit older, he begins to co-regulate, this is the two-year-old who gets the juice out of the fridge and pours himself a glass and gets it all over the counter. He begins to recognize his needs and try to meet them. Self-regulated is the final destination of this journey. This is when a teen or young adult can regulate himself. He drinks water and doesn’t become dehydrated. He eats food. He sleeps when he is tired. He starts handling his bank account on his own.
Children from hard places often have this cycle of regulation broken. Their needs are not met consistently. They miss the season of co-regulation. As a child, they don’t recognize their own body’s signals for food and water. Their sleeping patterns are messed up. They walk around slightly dehydrated. They don’t eat enough or do the opposite. Gorge.
What we see on our end is dysregulation. A child who can’t sit still. A child who fidgets. Speaks out of turn. Who doesn’t listen.
Key to Remember – “Good/excited stress loads in a child from a hard place in much the same way as bad/traumatic stress. Generally, a child cannot tell the difference.” – ETC
As a result, children from hard places often experience heightened and persistent levels of stress and fear, driving them to develop an array of survival tactics and inappropriate behavioral responses. However, as Dr. Purvis reminds us: Every behavior has a purpose and a function. Behind every behavior and misbehavior is a need, and we must come to view our children’s needs not as something negative but as something very positive. Needs are one of the primary ways that God uses to bring people into a relationship with others and with Himself. So, we need to learn to follow the needs of our children.
Behavior is a need however inappropriately expressed.
“It’s can’t, not won’t.”
Many children from hard places deal with heightened levels of stress and fear. In order to help our children heal and move forward, it is critical that parents understand how pervasive fear can be and what it looks like in our children’s behaviors and responses.
Fear is much more than a feeling. Fear is a state of being, and for many children from hard places, it has become a way of life.
There are three ways that children from hard places typically respond to fear and stress:
Fight- frustration, explosive or aggressive, resistive, acting out, saying “I won’t, You can’t make me!”
Flight- Goofy, Physically or emotionally distracting behavior, running, escaping behaviors, distractible, clowning, redirecting, easily bored, effectively saying, “I’m out of here.”
Freeze- Body is often not receiving signals from the brain- whiny, tearful, clingy, fearful, reluctant to separate or to try new things, withdrawing, hiding, saying “I can’t!”
THERE IS A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FEELING SAFE AND BEING SAFE!
Instead of asking, What are you afraid of, ask, what do you need?
In order to truly address the issue of fear, we will need to create a sense of felt-safety for the child.
Key to remember-You provide felt-safety when you arrange the environment and adjust your behavior so that the child can feel safe. Felt safety is just as important and real as actual safety, even for adults. Think of a time that you were perfectly safe and yet you had anxiety. Everyone has something that raises their anxiety level. It could be heights, snakes, spiders, elevators, flying, or crowds.
Now think about how you react to those around you when confronted with those fears, and you’ll understand your children’s behavior better.
Want to hear more about behavior?
In this episode of Positive Adoption, Kathleen continues the series on the Five Bs affected by trauma with “Behavior.” Behavior — an altered ability to self-regulate in response to stressors. This can manifest as impulsiveness, self destructive behavior, aggressive behavior, excessive compliance, sleep disturbances, eating disorders, substance abuse, re-enactment of their traumatic past, or pathological self soothing behaviors. Grab a cup of coffee and join Kathleen as she finishes this series!
Children who struggle with attachment issues need time to attach to one or two parents. Otherwise, they will remain unattached yet be superficially engaging to strangers. They may look like happy-go-lucky, well-adjusted children in public, but in the privacy of the home, they demand control. They are miniature terrorists (or large ones, depending on their age), ruling the household with anger, violence, and battles choreographed over insignificant things in order to control their environment.
It is a sort of self-soothing. These children had to meet their own needs early on. No one was there for them. They need to know their needs will be met, and they believe they must meet them themselves — so they do. However, the way they accomplish this goal is painful in a family.
In an orphanage, stealing food may be acceptable as a means of survival. In a family, stealing is definitely frowned upon. In an orphanage, lying may be the norm. In a home, it is not. Beating up other children to get things from them may be just another Tuesday afternoon. In a home, beating a sibling to get a toy or any other item is absolutely unacceptable. Sneaking into the staff kitchen to eat their sugar may occur on a regular basis in the orphanage, but in a home, sneaking into Mom’s room and taking her possessions is not.
It is not that these children want to be hoodlums. They aren’t even trying to be difficult. They just have some faulty presuppositions leading the way. In their early life, someone failed to meet their needs. They did not attach to anyone. Because of that, early on, they learned to meet their own needs. It started with them losing the ability to communicate — they stopped crying. Crying is a baby’s only form of communication, but babies will eventually stop crying if no one ever responds.
“An infant born into neglect learns slightly different lessons. For him, the bonding cycle is short circuited. Instead of experiencing need, high arousal, gratification, and trust in others, he experiences need, high arousal to the point of exhaustion, self-gratification, and trust in self/self-reliance. Eventually this child develops less need, less arousal, more immediate self-gratification, and no involvement with others. He is likely to develop habits to gratify himself that may include rocking, head banging, sucking on his hands, hair pulling, etc.. He may grow up detached from others, appearing vacant and empty. He has few emotions and desires no interaction from others, even acting if no others are present in a room.
He has effectively learned that he can — and needs — to trust himself.” – Adopting the Hurt Child
Humanism tells us that everything is done by the power of a man. It teaches that man is able to sustain himself without God, without the Spirit. Studies on attachment beg to differ. Man is not sufficient on his own. He can not sustain body, soul, and spirit alone. The spirit of the child vacates when there is no attachment. He is like Cain, roaming the earth with no meaningful connection. Cain tried to meet his own needs rather than accepting the mercy and love of His heavenly Father. He was unattached and demanded his way. In the last chapter, we discussed the end result of that.
“Infants deprived of their mothers during the first year of life for more than five months deteriorate progressively. They become lethargic, their motility retarded, their weight and growth arrested. Their face becomes vacuous; their activity is restricted to atypical, bizarre finger movements. they are unable to sit, stand, walk or talk.” -Rene Spitz M.D.
Children who have been traumatized in infancy and early childhood cannot be expected to behave or respond to stimuli in the same way as children who have not. As an example, consider two cases that were presented in my adopt/foster class.
There are two babies: Baby A and Baby B.
Baby A has been celebrated since the positive on the pregnancy test. She has listened to symphonies, classic children’s books, and poetry in the womb, as well as mommy and daddy’s reassuring, loving voices. When she was born, the video camera captured her debut. Mom, Dad and Grandparents cried joyful tears. She rode home in a padded car seat, wrapped in fuzzy lamb’s wool.
At home, Mom and Dad talked and cooed to her every waking hour and told stories of her latest feat to anyone who would listen. Baby A took her first steps into daddy’s outstretched arms, waiting to receive her. Baby A had it all — a clean, loving, secure environment with loving parents to cheer her on.
Baby B, on the other hand, was called a mistake from plus sign showed on the pregnancy test. In utero, he heard only negative words about the rotten luck of being pregnant. Sometimes, he got knocked around or felt a little weird and woozy after mom drank. He was born premature, too small, and with numerous health problems due to Mom’s hazardous life habits.
Baby B spent months in the hospital due to his health issues. Mom didn’t come back, and Baby B became a ward of the state, to be placed in an orphanage after his release from the hospital. He spent three months in the hospital being poked, prodded, examined. The nurses loved him, but they didn’t have the time to hold him the way a mother should.
At first, he cried, hoping someone would comfort him, but eventually he gave up crying and understood that logical consequences don’t exist. He must fend for himself. When he is picked up, he experiences pain — a new IV, a new test, surgery, etc. He begins to associate touch with pain. When he is released to the orphanage, the conditions improve, but he has too many responses to relearn. The staff tries to comfort him and feed him, but he is lethargic and unwilling to attach. He does not thrive, remaining underweight and behind physically and emotionally.
This is when the adoptive parents step onto the stage and enter the play.
From the beginning, these two babies have had two different worldviews. Baby A thinks she is the best-loved baby in the world. Everyone loves her. She is secure, and she knows that if she has a true need, it will be taken care of. Baby B feels lost and alone. He feels it is up to him to meet his own needs.
Child A has attached to her parents, while Baby B remains in a detached state. This diagram demonstrates the cycle of attachment:
When this cycle is broken in infancy, the baby is not able to attach to a parent/caregiver and may develop some form of RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder), depending on the severity of the neglect and the extent to which the parent did not respond to the baby’s needs.
“By mere definition of neglect, it is undeniable that children placed in orphanages at birth or at a young age are, in fact, victims of neglect. This is not because the orphanage staff doesn’t care for and love the children. Instead, it is because a child’s individual needs cannot be met in a group situation.
Out of necessity, children living in orphanages are forced into a routine, without the freedom to respond to physical and emotional cues relating to hunger, discomfort, bathrooming, pain, thirst, or a desire to be nurtured. The result is a pseudo-independence that mirrors the self-parenting label attached to neglected children in America.” – Parenting the Hurt Child
Three of my children came from a loving and secure environment, and four of them came from the environment described above. As I parented all seven together, I received different responses based on their past experiences.
As I mentioned before, Baby A and Baby B respond differently to stimuli because of their vastly different introductions to life. It only makes sense that an adopted child may respond differently than a biological child. His response today is based on his past rather than his present experiences. This does not mean that the child is bad or that the situation is irreparable; it just means that the child needs retrained.
The Work of Helping Kids Attach
I’m running out of time. I need to hurry. That is the language of our culture. It is not the language of the hurt, unattached child. It was not the language of my daughter Ania. Like the women in The Music Man, her way was pick a little, talk a little — or, actually, talk a lot.
The incessant chatter of an unattached child can be unsettling, frustrating or wearing if you are hurrying. It was for me. The clock ticked loudly in my head, but Ania didn’t hear it. As we headed out the door and I helped Ania put on her coat, boots, and gloves, she talked, offering me little assistance. As I cooked, she talked. As I cleaned, she talked. When I folded laundry, she talked. When I bathed her, she talked.
When I was schooling her and required her to answer a question or repeat something, she shut down. Tears streamed down her chubby cheeks, and her glasses fogged over. Why? I required it of her. It wasn’t on her terms. It was on mine. She was not in control. I was.
Children with attachment issues do not like things to be required of them. To them, that feels like giving up their power and the control they have over their environment. That control is important because it’s how they ensure that no one hurts them again and no one starves them again — no one. Giving in to a phonics lesson is painful. Bombarding Mom with incessant chatter is power.
I took Ania’s chatter as an invitation into her world. As she chartered while I loaded the dishwasher, I gave her dishes to put in. When I set the table, I gave her silverware to set. While I did laundry, I let her stuff the washer. It wasn’t long before she was working and talking about the work. “Now, I am setting the forks on the table, momma — you see that? I put the forks on the table.”
She slowly moved from meaningless chatter to chronicling her day. From there, she developed the ability to have a conversation. Much more slowly, she started answering questions during schooling — albeit with tears running down her cheeks.
Attachment is so much more than physical needs being met. It is an emotional connection. In the 1940s and 50s, doctors were discovering through research (that I do not condone) that a baby needed his mother and longed for his mother not just as a food source but as an emotional connection.
Love. Spirit. A person is not made whole by their physical needs alone being met. We each have three parts: spirit, soul, and body. A baby recognizes his mother by her smell, the sound of her heartbeat, and her voice, and he can be calmed by these factors alone. Yes, he wants to be fed — but his emotional state is just as important. Rene Spitz’s research confirmed this definitively.
Babies need that connection to their mama for physical, emotional, and spiritual growth. When separated from their mothers, children’s physical development halted and regressed. We call those development delays. The “vacuous” face mentioned in the quote above signifies a loss of spirit. No emotion is visible. David describes his loss of spirit over and over again in the Psalms. It is a dangerous place to be. It is a pit. It is dark.
“He drew me up out of a horrible pit [a pit of tumult and of destruction], out of the miry clay (froth and slime), and set my feet upon a rock, steadying my steps and establishing my goings.
And He has put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many shall see and fear (revere and worship) and put their trust and confident reliance in the Lord.” (Ps. 40:2-3)
The difference between David and these unattached children is that He had a relationship with the Lord. When all was said and done, he cast his cares upon God.
It is my job as a parent to help my child out of the horrible pit of unattachment. Ania developed new habits and patterns as she did these “beside me” jobs. Incessant chatter turned into real conversations. Although she was learning great life skills, those were a secondary benefit. The attachment was the real prize. Today, she feels confident in sharing real thoughts and feelings with me, and she respects my input, even when she doesn’t agree with it.
The attachment cycle is as simple as it is profound. The infant expresses a need, the parent meets the need. This happens thousands of times and the child becomes attached, secure in the expectation he will be cared for. Kids who come to us through adoption/foster care often have had breaks in attachment. Join Kathleen as she shares what this looks like in this episode of Positive Adoption. Grab a cup of coffee and be sure to share this episode!