WHAT DOES A TRAUMA-INFORMED CHURCH LOOK LIKE? PART 3

*I started this series as a response to a question I got via email. If you missed the beginning, click here.

At the end of the first article, I said a few words about teens. I’d like to continue with more on the topic today.

Let’s not excuse behaviors, Let’s Understand Them

If you read through my first two articles, you may be thinking trauma-informed means excusing behaviors and doing everything to make the child happy. That is not what it means. We don’t excuse behaviors. We nip them in the bud. A trauma-informed church, school, or co-op, uses the IDEAL Approach. Instead of letting a behavior escalate, it is dealt with immediately. Directly. Efficiently. And leveled at the behavior, not the child.

For all interactions with your kiddos, use the IDEAL response as a guide. The IDEAL Approach is among the best tools for parenting, teaching, or supervising kids who have had trauma:

I: You respond immediately, within three seconds of misbehavior.

D: You respond directly to the child by making eye contact. Get down on their level (or look up for some teens).

E: The response is efficient and measured. Use as few words as possible.

A: The response is action-based. Lead the child through a re-do.

L: Your response should bed leveled at the behavior, not the child.

Applying the Ideal Approach to Teens

When Dr. Karyn Purvis and her team from the TCI Institute of Child Development, trained staffers from Methodist Children’s Home in usingTBRI (Trust Based Relational Intervention), the youth (aged 11-18) experienced remarkable changes. Several of the staffers remarked that Dr. Purvis didn’t let the kids get away with anything. This may be because when you start talking about focusing on relationships instead of behaviors, some people get the idea that you are going to excuse behaviors while you float on rainbow clouds and eat ice cream.

What Dr. Purvis did is respond immediately to behaviors with a redo or whatever fit the bill and went back to connection quickly. (For more information on how to respond, read our “Instead of” Tips.) One of the most important things that trauma-informed organizations do is make sure staff/volunteers are present. It’s a mistake to take a group of teens who have had trauma or a capital letter syndrome and let them hang out unsupervised. Adults need to be present and participating in order to be a co-regulator for the teens and stop a meltdown before it starts (no guarantee that the teen won’t meltdown anyway, better to have an adult present).

I asked three of my adult boys about this topic this morning. They agreed they shouldn’t have been unsupervised at youth type events. They also agreed hanging out with other teens with proper supervision was super healthy for them.

Social Camouflaging

Social Camouflage, is a way of learning social nuances, that help, to fit in, and function in this world.

The natural camouflage teens perform is to do the thing when the adult isn’t looking and then stop when the adult is. This is when you hear the “Yes, sir,” or “Yes, m’am” types of responses. These kids who were behaving badly suddenly act good. We adults know the pattern (most of us). What we must understand is teens who have had trauma or have a capital letter syndrome don’t camouflage. They don’t behave one way in front of adults and another in front of peers. They just are. And. This. Gets. Them. Into. Trouble.

Why does the inability to camouflage get teens into trouble? Usually because they watch a peer performing a dangerous feat or breaking the rules and they follow suit even after the adult appears. These teens who can’t camouflage don’t turn off the behavior. Some don’t have cause and effect thinking. Some don’t have a break pedal. They will keep performing the behavior until someone gets hurt (usually themselves). This is why kids who have had trauma or a capital letter syndrome need adults to be present and participating.

The Inability to Regulate happens at home too

It’s not just when these kids get with a group of people they endanger their lives. They do it alone. As I said, many lack cause and effect thinking. They dysregulate alone. There are stressors everywhere. It’s not the other kids. It’s their own inability to regulate. It’s their inability to process stimuli. These kiddos are impulsive. So, if the idea has crossed your mind that these teens are just misbehaving for you, it’s not true. When you replace behave with regulate, it makes more sense. These teens can’t regulate no matter where they are. If we are going to minister to them, we have to become co-regulators.

Want to read more about co-regulation? Click here.

Just a reminder teens CAN sometimes be toddlers in larger bodies. If you begin to picture them that way, co-regulation becomes a little easier to swallow. You have the opportunity to be their pre-frontal cortex until it has time to mature!

Want some free trauma-informed e-course for your church?

Are You Instilling Healthy or Unhealthy Fears in Your Child? (Capital Letter Syndrome/Foster/Adoption Edition)

No Fear

Is your child the opposite of fear?

Taking dangerous risks because he has no cause-and-effect thinking?

Does he think the laws of nature don’t apply to him?

When raising a child with a capital letter syndrome or one from hard places (a child who has experienced trauma), healthy fear is a little more muddled. While we want our kiddos to have healthy fears, some of them seem to be in a no-fear frame of mind when it comes to outdoor play and all fear when it comes to some other aspects of life. What’s going on here?

1. Lack of Cause-and-Effect Thinking

Kids who come home to us through foster care/adoption have had trauma. One of the five Bs affected by trauma is the brain. Kids who have had trauma have altered neurochemistry. The Hebbian principle states that what fires together, wires together.

Simply put, an infant’s brain is experience-expectant. Experiences wire the brain. This is where the attachment cycle comes in. The infant expresses a need and the parent meets that need, thousands and thousands of times, until eventually the loose “wires” in the brain are connected.

What does attachment have to do with healthy fears? Everything. When those “wires” connect, the child is “wired” for cause-and-effect thinking. If there are breaks in attachment (or the child has a capital letter syndrome), then cause-and-effect thinking is not in place. It’s as if the child has some lose “wires.” This isn’t to say that the child isn’t intelligent — in fact, it’s often the opposite. It’s just that he doesn’t expect B to happen if he does A.

Instilling Healthy Fears

What does this look like?

  • A child decides to catch bees in a jar but didn’t think they would sting him.
  • A child watches a video of a man leaping from limb to limb high in a tree and tries it. (Yes, this actually happened in my family, and yes, he fell.)
  • A child tries to ride his bike under the trampoline.
  • A child starts a forest fire playing with a lighter.
  • A child walks on the pool cover and their foot falls through.

These are all true stories, and I could tell many more, but the point is that in each of these cases, no cause-and-effect thinking was applied. You may say, “Well many kids are adventure seekers and do these sorts of things.” That’s true.

However, neurotypical kids have a learning curve after these types of adventures. Kids with capital letter syndromes and kids with trauma often don’t. They will continue to try to defy the physical laws of nature with intensity and regularity. They don’t think the physical laws of nature apply to them.

Here’s a good test: If you warn your child that the activity he is about to embark upon may cause harm and he says, “I’m not going to get hurt, I’m not that stupid!” then cause-and-effect thinking probably isn’t happening.

Unrealistic or faulty connections

On the other end of the spectrum, these kiddos may have one bad experience and instead of adjusting their approach and trying again, simply declare, “I’m never doing that again!” What does this look like?

  • The child refuses to put sunscreen on (because he won’t get burned), gets burnt, and won’t go to the beach ever again.
  • The child falls off a rock while climbing, scrapes his knee, and won’t climb again.
  • The child doesn’t think he can do something, so he says it’s stupid and refuses to try.

Trying to instill healthy fears in these kiddos can be confusing. They need to be watched more closely and encouraged more than neurotypical kids to keep them safe and get them trying new things.

2. Felt Safety

Another conundrum with kids with capital letter syndromes/foster/adopted kids is they often don’t feel safe when they are safe. To describe this, we use the term “felt safety.”

“Felt safety, as defined by Dr. Purvis, is “when you arrange the environment and adjust your behavior so your children can feel in a profound and basic way that they are truly safe in their home with you. Until your child experiences safety for himself or herself, trust can’t develop, and healing and learning won’t progress” (p.48, The Connected Child).

Fear is crippling. I know. Not only have I watched my own kiddos struggle with feeling safe and talked to countless moms whose kids struggle with it, but I have also experienced it myself. My fears were an oddly shaped gift that, when opened, gave me empathy.

Because of some trauma in my past, I feared riding in the back seat of a car, going through tunnels, riding elevators, and more. My fears helped me understand my kiddos’ fears. Your child’s fears may seem weird or unrealistic to you, but they are super overwhelming to them.

“From research, we know that fear left unaddressed can have pervasive and long-lasting effects on a child, including negative impacts on cognitive ability, sensory processing, brain chemistry, brain development, ability to focus and ability to trust. As a result, it distorts and dictates much of what our children are dealing with.” – empoweredtoconnect.org

Instilling healthy fears and avoiding unhealthy fears is hit-or-miss with these kiddos. We keep trying, keep asking, and keep being flexible. No one wants their kids to be overwhelmed with fear all the time. No one wants their kiddos to get injured because they don’t think the physical laws of nature apply to them, either. So, I’ll finish with some tips. Feel free to comment and add your own tips!

Tips for Instilling Healthy Fears and Disarming Unhealthy Fears in Kids From Hard Places or Kids With Capital Letter Syndromes:

  • Watch these kiddos more closely.
  • Talk them through their fear even if the solution seems obvious to you.
  • Help them try an activity away from the crowd.
  • Ask them what they need.
  • Remember that they don’t think the physical laws of nature apply to them.
  • These kids have enough fear; don’t instill more.
  • Clap for them if they accomplish an outdoor feat even if you think it is below their ability. Baby steps.

On the one hand, you are instilling healthy fears and calming ones that seem far fetched and unrealistic to you. On the other hand, when you provide fun, S.A.F.E. activities, you are relieving fears, which is healthy!

This week on the podcast, Amerey and Kathleen talked about healthy summer living/eating on a budget. They delved into the topic of healthy fears when discussing some outdoor activities. You can listen here. And don’t forget to check out Part 1 of this article, the Neurotypical Edition, here.

Healthy Summer Living With a Capital Letter Syndrome

This week on The Whole House podcast, Lori and Kathleen talked about Healthy Summer living with a capital letter syndrome. Whether you’re an adult with a capital letter syndrome or have a child with one, summer means change. To help prepare, we wanted to look at some healthy ways to cope with the changes summer brings:

  1. Keep a schedule.
  2. Harness the power of habit.
  3. Prioritize S.A.F.E. activities.

“The brain needs safety and involvement for positive learning experiences. If little children are not motivated to learn, check how safe they feel.” – James M. Healy, Ph.D., author, and educator

Remember that kids need to feel safe to enjoy learning and play. In the acronym above, “SAFE” stands for “Sensory-motor, Appropriate, Fun, and Easy.” Here’s what that means:

S: Sensory-motor

“Kids who are out of sync may have difficulty making the sensory-motor connection. Because their best attempts are often inadequate and unsatisfactory, these children may give up trying or simply lose interest. They may opt for sensory activities that require negligible motor response, such as watching television, listening to music, or reading. The gap between sensory input and motor output widens because the less they do, the less they may be able to do.” – The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun

It’s important not to fall into the trap of doing whatever the child wants to do simply because it’s easier or because he balks at going outdoors. The more sensory activity a child has, the better prepared he will be to function in real life.

When a child becomes conditioned to perfection or comfort in his environment air conditioning, a comfy chair, a screen to entertain him he will be less flexible and unable to adapt when circumstances aren’t just right. That’s a recipe for disaster.

People with capital letter syndromes are less flexible naturally, so why not take some time and work on flexibility when you have the opportunity to? We’ve all heard the complaints: It’s too hot. I’m bored. Can we go in yet? In response, you can alleviate a bit of the discomfort, set a time frame for how long you’ll stay outside, or provide a game (water games are great for hot days).

A: Appropriate

Sensory seekers will go for daredevil experiences, while sensory avoiders will shun activity. It’s important to find appropriate activities for both. I raised one of each of these. The challenge is keeping the sensory seeker safe and the sensory avoider playing with the rest of the kiddos instead of standing on the sidelines.

“So when a sensory seeker clambers to the diving board although he can’t swim, we must rechannel his out of sync behavior.” – The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun

We must give the sensory-avoider a chance to practice new activities privately so she doesn’t just stand on the sidelines watching.

At our family camp, the kids were jumping rope and playing while my daughter stood with her eyes downcast and shoulders slumped. She was afraid to try after tripping on the rope one time. I took her to the other side of the house, and we practiced alone until she could manage jumping successfully. She joined the cousins with a smile on her face and jumped rope with them.

You’re doing your sensory-avoiding child a disservice if you don’t find ways to help them participate in sensory activities and feel successful.

F: Fun (Functional and Family Builders)

“When the child experiences challenges to which he can respond effectively, he has ‘fun’.” – The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun

While a child is having fun, he is experiencing sensory integration. This is functional activity that will provide skills for adulthood.

We all want our kids to play, cooperate, and get along — but are we modeling that for them? Are we showing instead of telling? It’s fun and simple to show. Have a squirt gun battle with your kids and be prepared to get wet. Play “Mother May I?” and don’t cry when you have to go back to the beginning. Play hide and seek. Have a crab-walk race, a sack race, or a human wheelbarrow race. These are all functional, family bonding activities!

E: Easy (Economical, Environmentally Friendly, and Emotionally Satisfying)

Fun doesn’t have to be expensive! You can create loads of fun for your family in your own backyard or in a creek, stream, or lake. Check your area for trails to hike or bike. Look around for access to a creek. Go creek walking. Skip stones. There is something so emotionally satisfying about skipping stones! I am not great at it, but my kids are!

Whatever you choose to do, make sure it is emotionally satisfying. I would put that at the top of the list.

“The activities should be easy enough for your child to taste success. When they are too challenging, your child may resist doing them. Think of how frustrating it is to be a child who wants to have fun, wants to please you — and can’t.” – The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun

Also, make sure you take the time to discern the child’s fear level. If it is high and you know he would really enjoy the activity and have success, gently push. By gently, I mean comfort and coax with a calm voice. Don’t yell, “You’re going to do this or else!” Say, “Let’s just try this for a couple of minutes. I’ll hold your hand. See, you’re doing it.” Some parents struggle with being sweet when they just want the kid to JUST DO IT!

Here’s a good self-check: ask yourself how you would want to be treated in this situation. Even if you are an adventure-seeker who is afraid of nothing, do you enjoy put-downs, yelling, or belittling?

Here’s a good example. My niece was visiting, and we took her creek walking. This was her first time. She was about 7 years old and was used to city living. Creek walking is a Guire tradition. It’s super simple and free. You just put on old tennis shoes or rubber boots and walk in the creek. You can catch craw-dads or just enjoy the walk.

This was all new to my niece. She was afraid — understandably so. You may be reading this, thinking, That’s just a weird thing to do. She thought so. I asked her to try for a few minutes and held her hand. After those few minutes, she let go of my hand and thoroughly enjoyed the day. After fifteen minutes, she took the lead!

I’m not saying every child will obtain this level of competence, but every child can have an emotionally rewarding experience. Some kids may need you to hold their hand the whole time. That’s okay. Meet the child at their level.

One final thought: Don’t take resistance as a “no.” There are many interpretations of resistance. It may mean, I’m afraid, I don’t think I can do this, or I have never done this before. Some of the activities my kids resisted as young children are their fondest memories as adults.

So what are you waiting for? Get outside!

For more help, check out this video: A Sensory World Preview.

 

* The S.A.F.E. Acronym is from The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun. This is a great resource book full of fun stuff to do with any child!

Episode 73

 

 

When Teens Who Have Had Trauma Are Judged More Harshly for Their Behavior

This week on the podcast, the topic was “Kids With Capital Letter Syndromes Are People Too.” Lori and I talked a bit about how teens who have had trauma or a capital letter syndrome don’t know how to act differently in front of adults. By that I mean, they don’t put up false fronts while adults are in the room and then go back to misbehaving when they leave.

Judging Teens Who Have Had Trauma

Teens who have had trauma are judged differently for their behavior than kids from traditional two-parent families. When we’re talking about teens from traditional two-parent homes, we tend to say things like “they’re just sowing their wild oats” or “teens will be teens.” We naturally assume they’re exploring, finding their own way, etc. When we’re talking about adopted kids, foster kids, or kids who have had trauma, however, we tend to take a different perspective and jump to the conclusion that they are just bad kids.

If a kid in a two-parent home wrecks a car because he’s buzzed or drunk, it’s kept on the down-low. But if a kid from a traumatic background flips a car because they panic at being near an abuser’s home, then they’re just “crazy” and “wild.” The incident becomes a story TOLD about them as if they’re just messed up and horrible and careless and ungrateful. 

If a kid in a stable, two-parent home is confronted with something they did wrong, they might get a little angry, but they also know the language of remorse (genuine or not). They know how to say sorry and how to stop. Kids from hard places often don’t.

The Social Age Factor

Also, because of the social age difference, trauma kids end up being labeled “bad” for things they do out of immaturity. They are perceived to be willfully acting immaturely because we assume they possess a certain level of maturity based on their physical age and appearance. However, physical maturity does not always correspond to emotional or social maturity.

Kids with trauma issues have a harder time hiding behavior or putting on the brakes. They’re caught more often, and they tend to lean into the destructive behavior when they’re caught and told to stop, whereas non-trauma kids might be better at genuinely stopping, hiding their behavior, or faking obedience.

The Effects of Neglect and Abuse

“Neglect and abuse delay cause-and-effect processing and, specifically, seeing accurately how our actions impact the world. When the infant cried in need (cause), there was no comfort response from the caregiver (effect). Over time, a child learns there is no connection between what they do and how others respond.” – Executive function #6 in Wounded Children, Healing Homes

Kids who have endured trauma end up giving themselves permission to behave badly because they THINK of themselves as trash.
Kids who have endured trauma end up giving themselves permission to behave badly because they THINK of themselves as trash.

Two-parent kids with a stable home life have this underlying perception of themselves as baseline GOOD, no matter WHAT their behavior is. Bad behavior is just something they’re DOING and can stop at any time. It’s not who they are.

Traumatized kids think that even neutral behavior is probably awful because it’s just who they are. They overhear discussions about themselves as the “bad” kid. Traumatized kids tend to blow up more spectacularly, and with only one parent, with foster parents, or with an entire community watching them, it’s not as hush-hush.

“Bad kids” are “bad kids” because when they’re caught, they act angry and “selfish.” They don’t apologize, they internalize self-hatred, they shift the blame, and they sometimes blow up more in retaliation.

An Inability to Self-Check

“Monitoring refers to the ability to self-check work as you go. …It is tempting to jump to the conclusion that the child is willfully unmotivated to self-monitor, and for some kids, that may be true. … for children whose brain development is affected by exposure to complex trauma, the capacity to monitor may be outside of the realm of will power.” – Executive function #3 in Wounded Children, Healing Homes

When a child can’t monitor or self-check, more behaviors are evident as he tries to negotiate needs. His response to transitions or stimuli is over the top. When that child becomes a teen, his body size makes his reactions appear more violent (because they are). When a 16-year-old hits a wall, his fist goes through it, whereas a 4-year-old would just hurt his fist. Remember that the social age factor is in play here.

What Do We Do With This Information?

What do we see first when observing teens? The way they act. I get it. As my mom said when I was a teen, “You only have one chance to make a good first impression.” When ministering to teens from hard places, throw that out the window. Don’t discount the first impression, but learn to look beyond the behavior. Just because the teen isn’t polite or sweet doesn’t mean we should pull out the judgment card.

Look Beyond the Behavior and Love the Person

“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” – Gal. 6:2

A teen who has had trauma in their life has some heavy burdens. Lighten the load by giving them some grace. Don’t be so quick to judge. Look beyond the behavior to the need. What does that teen need? Does he need a listening ear? Does he need you to help him figure out some coping skills? Maybe he just needs an adult to say, “I’ve been through some junk, too. I hear you. You aren’t alone.”

Remember the Social Age of the Teen

Teens and kiddos alike hear this all the time: “Act your age!” Guess what? Kids and teens from hard places are acting their age.

Typically, a child who had trauma is, emotionally, half his physical age (many times, the gap is even greater). You know what’s great about that? You can appeal to their inner child. You can play with them. Teens love to play. They love games with Nerf guns, squirt guns or  _______ (fill in the blank).

Meet the teens where they are at emotionally, not physically. Don’t let their size fool you! They need to play! This disarms a child’s fear, and the result of that is more regulation.

Remember, don’t judge a teen by his behavior. If he has had trauma, he may not be skilled in the area of hiding behavior or putting on the brakes. Look beyond the behavior to the need. What does that teen need? Look through your trauma-informed lens and see the teen. 

 

A Capital Letter Syndrome Doesn’t Make a Child Less Than

Marching to the beat of his own drum.

I knew.  I knew from early on that my son marched to the beat of his own drum.  I tried to to make him march with the other kids.  I didn’t want him to think something was wrong with him.  I tried all the parenting advice and discipline techniques.  Nothing seemed to matter.  I was trying to force a square peg into a round hole.

A Capital Letter Syndrome Doesn't Make a Child Less Than

The school nightmare

School was a nightmare.  He’d burn up all his energy on trying to “be good” only to fail and fall short of the teacher’s expectations.  He never brought home that coveted green smiley on his behavioral chart that said it was a good day.  I could see it in his eyes, he felt less than.  Less than the other kids his age, less than good, less than what people want.  It broke my heart.  I hated that stinking behavioral chart.  I hated that people refused to try and understand my sweet boy.

Soon we realized that traditional public school made things worse.  When he was in third grade, my husband and I made the choice to homeschool all our children.  I will never forget the day early in our journey that he leaned against my shoulder and said “Thank you for homeschooling me, Mommy.  I felt so stupid in school”  I cried that day and still remember it so vividly.  I replay that memory when we’re having a rough day.

Being your Child’s Advocate

I knew that I was going to have to be my son’s biggest advocate.  From the time we got his SPD diagnosis in first grade until just recently, I’ve had to explain everything it means and what it doesn’t.  I’ve had to undo society’s idea of what perfect children should look like.  My son was perfect.  Exactly the way God made him.  Just because he doesn’t do everything like the masses doesn’t make him somehow less than.  I am actually proud that he doesn’t.  And now, even at 14 years old, I will still fight anyone that tries to force that square peg into that round hole….or lovingly point out how mistaken they are.  It’s a toss-up, really.  😉

Want to hear more of what Lori has to say on the subject? Listen to this week’s podcast episode:

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Lori Shaffer

Special Needs (Capital Letter Syndromes) and Homeschooling Director

Lori Shaffer is married to her childhood best friend, Jacob.  She is a stay at home missionary and homeschool mom to their three children.  She is passionate about advocating for teen moms and women and children that have been abused and giving them hope and encouragement.  Most days she can be found drinking coffee, working out with Kathleen, or hanging out with her family.

Follow Lori on Social Media:

Facebook- Lori Shaffer

Instagram –@browneyedmomof3

Instagram joint fitness account (Kathleen and Lori)-

@2girlsnotrunning