Adoptive/Foster Parents- You are NOT Responsible for the Trauma Your Child Endured Before He Came To You

When dad came to pick us kids up for summer visitation, the departure was swift.  We packed our bags in the trunk of his current car and rushed down the lane, leaving a trail of dust behind us, Mom growing smaller in the distance.  This is the moment the fear gripped me. The familiar faded and the unknown lay before me. The tense anxiety choked me while my stomach churned. Down the highway we sped to another unknown destination; Dad rarely bothered to sit down and explain where we were going and what it would be like this time. The landscape changed from the hills of West Virginia to the bluegrass of Kentucky or the plains of Iowa, where once we raced beside a tornado as it ate up the fields beside us.

Every year, it was a new home in a new state. And every year, it was the same unstable summer, with our travel and activities dictated by someone else’s moodiness or alcoholism. New places did not fill me with hope. They were foreign landscapes with no known retreats or safe hideaways from the too-familiar emotional climate.

The unrest filtered down to me and cemented my fear and presupposition: There is nothing good in the world.

My past gave me a faulty picture of the world. Even today, I struggle with sitting in the backseat of a car. I need to know where we are going on a trip. I don’t just want the directions, I want to see the map. My early life sometimes still dictates my now. I know that. I have strategies to deal with it. My friends know this. They let me sit in the front or drive. It took me years to figure out why I didn’t like to sit in the back seat or why panic rose up in me. Knowing the why helps me deal with it.

Our adopted children don’t know the why or the how. They see through the lens of their past and it is like this old camera. The view is scratched and distorted and they may blame us, the adoptive parents. Can you imagine if I went on a road trip with my friends and blamed them for my fear of riding in the back seat?

Children have a difficult time separating their past from their now, therefore:

You are not responsible for the trauma that happened to me before I came into your family, but I will act like it. If you let guilt rule the home, we will both be miserable and neither of us will experience any healing.

Separating our children’s past from their now is a difficult aspect of adoption. We parents must be the mature ones and not let their reactions to past events determine our reactions. If we do react negatively, then we will live in a constant civil war and more wounds will be inflicted. No healing will take place and the child will be orphaned (rejected) twice. I don’t have my reactions mastered, I wish I did. I am writing this because my daughter Audrey says I should share things that I wish someone would have told me. I wish someone would have told me this: Many of us who have the heart for adoption, the desire to adopt a large sibling group of children, have had a troubled past ourselves. The desire directs us to adopt. It doesn’t equip us. We must equip and educate ourselves.

No one told me that my past and my adopted children’s pasts would engage in a tug of war to the death.

We both had a faulty lens on our camera. Guess who had to change hers first? Me. Guess who had to die? Me. My flesh. Guess who messed up, often? Me. We assume that wrestling with the child means a physical fight and if we are not careful, that is what it becomes. Daily. There is no healing that way.

For we are not wrestling with flesh and blood [contending only with physical opponents], but against the despotisms, against the powers, against [the master spirits who are] the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spirit forces of wickedness in the heavenly (supernatural) sphere.- Ephesians 6:12

I have always loved this verse, it sounds so mystical, mysterious. We aren’t supposed to engage in a fight with physical opponents, so how do we fight these master spirits who are the rulers of this present darkness? Ephesians 6:11 commands us to put on our armor that you may be able to stand up against the strategies and deceits of the devil. This is war!

Adoption is war. We are not fighting with a physical sword, our sword is the Word. Our belt is truth. Our feet must be shod with the preparation of the Gospel of peace. We raise our shield to protect us from the fiery darts of the wicked one. We put on our helmet of salvation (deliverance) and breastplate of righteousness.

What does this look like in reality? Sometimes it means, we just stand. We don’t react when our child melts down and blames us for his hurt, his feeling rejected. We speak the truth in love, “Man, that stinks, how does that make you feel?” And we redirect, “What do you think we could do about that?”

When we disengage our right to react, we become powerful.

And more important than any of the above, we pray. A prayer for healing. Place your child’s name in the blanks:

(Name) __________is not harassed by physical symptoms or feelings or their supposed connections to past events. The curse of rejection and abandonment is broken, _____________ is a new creature with a heavenly Father who loves _________, the Stronghold is broken, the sticky web of the past is dissolved. ___________has forgiven and _________ is forgiven.______________is washed clean and ____________ reactions are based on the Word and the new creature that _____________is, not the old fearful, anxious child that _______________was. NO! ____________ is a strong, assertive child of the King, ______is a co-inheritor with Christ, ________________ have all the benefits that He has bestowed upon me. ______________is more than a conqueror through Christ Jesus.

Mothering When There Are Obstacles

Do you feel as if you can’t get around or over the obstacles in motherhood?

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Do you  feel as if your God-sized dream of Motherhood is similar to running a gauntlet? You’re not alone. There are obstacles in pursuing any God-sized dream. Obstacles don’t mean you are on the wrong path, it often means you are on the right path. The devil doesn’t mind if you start something, as long as you don’t finish it. Often, our attitudes are the obstacles. OUCH. Yep. A huge door of opportunity is open for us and with it mushrooming opposition (I Cor. 16: 9). We don’t have it all together. The Whole House CANNOT give you a five step program of how to clear the opposition. What we at The Whole House can do is say “me too”. We are down in trenches together. Join us on The Whole House Podcast and be encouraged and listen to Kathleen tell about five plates of spaghetti hitting the floor in one dinner.

The Whole House Podcast Episode 6- Mothering When There Are Obstacles.

iTunes link here.

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Parenting Against the Grain

This week on The Whole House Podcast, we talked about Parenting Against the Grain or parenting counter-culturally. Here are some notes and the podcast itself:

Attachment parenting (AP) is a parenting philosophy that proposes methods which aim to promote the attachment of mother and infant not only by maximal maternal empathy and responsiveness but also by continuous bodily closeness and touch.

Image27 attachment cycle

Breaks in attachment cause all sorts of issues, developmental delays, learning delays, fears and lack of cause and effect thinking. A child who has had significant breaks in attachment has problems with self-regulation.

“Austrian psychoanalyst and physician Rene Spitz proposed an alternate theory. He thought that infants in institutions suffered from lack of love–that they were missing important parental relationships, which in turn was hurting or even killing them.

To test his theory, he compared a group of infants raised in isolated hospital cribs with those raised in a prison by their own incarcerated mothers. If the germs from being locked up with lots of people were the problem, both groups of infants should have done equally poorly. In fact, the hospitalized kids should have done better, given the attempts made at imposing sterile conditions. If love mattered, however, the prisoners’ kids should prevail.

Love won: 37% of the infants kept in the bleak hospital ward died, but there were no deaths at all amongst the infants raised in the prison. The incarcerated babies grew more quickly, were larger and did better in every way Spitz could measure. The orphans who managed to survive the hospital, in contrast, were more likely to contract all types of illnesses. They were scrawny and showed obvious psychological, cognitive and behavioral problems.

Spitz’s study suggested severe mortality risk–more than one in three died–for institutionalized infants. It showed that serious mental health and behavioral problems could result from not having at least one loving parent devoted to a particular child. For decades, however, this research was either ignored or dismissed by behaviorists and others who couldn’t believe that something as vague and seemingly immeasurable as parental love could matter that much.”-Forbes

Dr. Karyn Purvis- Investment Parenting takes time.

Or find us on iTunes- here.

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When Nurturing Your Children Doesn’t Come Naturally

Friend Patty was sporty, fit and planned to become an astronaut. Instead, she became a wife and mother. Patty didn’t feel as if she had a mothering instinct. Lovey-dovey stuff didn’t come easy to her. She worked hard to curb her military manner. Because she worked so hard, she became an excellent parent. One of the best I have had the privilege of knowing. She lived in the moment and believed her children are precious. Her children are grown now and thriving.

Patty was my first honest Mom friend. She told me the truth about how she felt about Mothering. She felt as if she had to overcome many personality obstacles to be nurturing. By the grace of God, she did. I’m thankful for her honesty. She inspired me to work against the grain of my flesh and be a purposeful parent.

Honestly, being loving and nurturing toward our children is hard work. Why? Because it requires true Biblical love and that is the hardest kind of love on the planet. It’s the kind of love that doesn’t fail, hardly notices when it has been wrong and this kind of love believes the best of everyone.

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end. (I Corinthians 13: 7b, The Message)

“Our culture depicts a “good mother” as an angel in the house who is naturally sweet, self-denying, and eternally loving. The media creation expectations that mother-love, like our culturally formed vision of romantic love, is something you fall into, a delightful sinkhole that leaves you so sated that you don’t want to climb out.”- Leslie Fields via Parenting is Your Highest Calling and 8 Other Myths That Trap Us in Worry and Guilt

While there may be sunny days when everything goes just right for five minutes and we have coffee, most days aren’t picture perfect. Although we love our children, some days we just don’t like them. They behave badly and we’re exhausted.  We dangle at the end of our rope. It’s in these moments, behind closed doors,that Biblical nurturing love is hardest to walk out. It’s in these moments that we woman can not do anything in our own strength. It’s in these moments that Christ’s suffering is close. He meets us there on the battlefield. He understands. It’s in those moments when our flesh is fierce.

My counsel is this: Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness. For there is a root of sinful self-interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness. These two ways of life are antithetical, so that you cannot live at times one way and at times another way according to how you feel on any given day. Why don’t you choose to be led by the Spirit and so escape the erratic compulsions of a law-dominated existence?- Galatians 5:17

We are naturally selfish beings. Our regenerated spirit wars with the flesh. What does that mean? We want our own way. We joylessly grab for whatever we think will make us happy at the moment, five more minutes sleep, one more chapter, a perfectly clean home, a late night movie. We develop a brutal temper when we don’t get what we want. When we do get what we want as a result of yelling or manipulation, we feel lonely, empty, depleted and a deep sense of shame. I know. Lived there in the pit myself. It’s muddy and stinky. There is no peace in the ‘me first’ land of motherhood.

So, what’s the answer? How do we nurture our children when we just want to be left alone? How do we become the nurturing, loving Mother we want to become. How do we fight our selfish nature? One moment at a time. One prayer at a time. One renewing our mind and our bodies at a time. One desperate prayer at a time. When we submit to God’s way, it doesn’t mean we will feel joyful at the time. We constantly have our own Garden of Gethsemane moments.

In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.- Hebrews 12:4

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Motherhood may be the hardest work you”ll ever do. If you are having one of those days when you hit your nurture groove, enjoy it! If you are having a day when behaviors are straining every nerve, I hear you. I know. It’s hard. Keep praying. Keep asking. Don’t give up. Endeavors requiring the most selfless effort yield the most fruit. Obstacles don’t mean you have failed. They mean you are running the right course.

But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.- Galatians 5: 22-23

Nurturing occurs on a battlefield for hearts and minds. It is on the home front we are winning souls and making disciples. “Discipleship is the work of a lifetime, and it comes… sometimes slowly… in fits and starts….two steps forward, one step back…When we develop a long-range vision believe God’s promise that our work will not go unrewarded. Grace is the heart attitude that grants others the freedom to listen and learn so that they grow, they master the skill of cultivating long-term relationships.” (Sally Clarkson) The goal of nurturing is attachment. The goal of attachment is long term relationships. Relationships with our children transfer to relationships with God the Father.

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 it’s effect on self-regulation.

As I talked about in my last post, 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.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.

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! Remember the Hebbian Principle, 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 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.

If you see your children struggling with regulation, what 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!