Imagine a bear trap closing on a human leg, bone crunching, blood spurting, immeasurable pain. Not to mention being stuck. Stuck in pain. Stuck in one place until someone comes and releases you from the trap.
What does a bear trap have to do with homeschooling? What doesn’t work for me is the comparison trap. It’s a lot like a bear trap. It’s buried, you don’t see it, but once you get caught in it, you are stuck and in immeasurable pain.
Four of my children are adopted and had traumatic beginnings. When they came home, their emotional ages and physical ages didn’t match up. Their development was delayed and each of them had some learning challenges, all of that topped with learning a new language. On a scholastic number line, they were in the negative.
Comparing a kid to a standard one size fits all is like walking around with a bear trap attached to your calf. It drains the lifeblood right out of you.
I Was a Late bloomer
One night at the dinner table, Rafal shared that a boy in his Royal Ranger troop isn’t athletic and the commander encourages him along.
“I wasn’t that athletic as a child,” I replied.
“You weren’t?” he asked incredulously.
He was surprised. I roller blade, ice skate, swim, climb around on rocks with my kids. I’m still not coordinated, but don’t tell him.
I was a late bloomer. While my sister was ready to train for the Olympics in gymnastics, I was doing what I did best at the time- stumbling and falling on my face a lot!
“What did you do back then?” he asked.
“Well, I was little and skinny. So I RAN. AWAY, mostly from other kids.” Laughter.
AGes and Stages
Kids are growing through ages and stages at different rates. Who they are or what they are doing now does not determine who they will become unless we compare and verbally point out what we see as delays. Get help for your special needs child if you need to. Talk to experienced moms, but don’t rehearse the delays in front of him. I have taken classes, attended workshops on speech therapy and various seminars to help me teach my children. I want my children to reach their potential. I am saying CELEBRATE their victories.
If Susie next door wins the regional spelling bee and your child through equal time and effort can spell ten words, then don’t compare. CELEBRATE!
If your child participates in the Social Studies Fair and speaks in front of the judges with tears streaming down her face because of social anxiety. She did it afraid. CELEBRATE!
If all the high schoolers at Co-op are taking A.P. courses and your child took two years to complete Algebra I, but he conquered it. CELEBRATE!
Don’t get stuck in the comparison trap. It’s a painful place to be, instead enjoy each age and stage your children are in!
Susie, a friend of mine (plus foster and adoptive Mom), shared a conundrum she had recently while teaching four-year-olds during Sunday school class. A new little one melted down and hid under the table. She had no special instructions for the little one and wasn’t sure how to handle it. You see, there is a big difference between disobedience and a reaction based on past trauma. Turns out the little one was a foster child who was placed in the home just the night before. Susie would have been better equipped to help him if she had only known. I could do a whole post on taking a fresh foster or adoptive placement to church, but I’ll save that for another day. I’d like to focus on trauma and its effect on self-regulation.
The Signature of Trauma
Trauma produces children from hard places. Children from had places have altered brain development. The main outwards sign of past trauma is what we often refer to as “bad behavior” or the inability to self regulate (if you want it to sound more science-y and less critical). The truth is, when it comes to behavior, we must remember that every behavior expresses a need.
When it comes to a child from hard places ability to self-regulate, it’s CAN’T not WON’T. In simple plain language that means, he cannot calm himself. He can’t help but be overwhelmed to the point that he is either hiding under the table (flight), not responding to what you are asking of him (freeze) or running away from the situation (flight). He CAN’T. Not physically able. Not emotionally able. In this scenario, the adult must take the reins and help the child by co-regulating. Co-regulation helps a child develop a new pattern for stress regulation.
“The early developing right brain, where attachments develop, is largely dominant during the first three years of life (Schore, 2003). It contains the initial and lasting template for stress regulation. Revisions to this template will require intentional efforts.”-Deborah Gray, Nurturing Adoption
What Does Co-regulation Look Like?
Think of a two year old being tired and falling on the floor having a meltdown because she doesn’t want to take a nap. Clearly, she needs one, so Mom takes control of the situation. Mom takes the little one to her room and reads her a story and rocks her to sleep. She takes a nap. Mom is co-regulating because unless you have a rare toddler, she is not going to recognize her need for a nap and put herself down for one.
Filling in the Gaps of Missed Co-Regulation
With a child from a hard place, no matter what their age and size, we must co-regulate when they cannot. A twelve year old who cannot recognize his body’s signals to eat or drink, must be provided with a snack and water every two hours or he will enter the flight, fight or freeze zone. A nine year old who has sensory processing issues may lose the ability to voice his need to escape the noise and over stimulation of a loud birthday party. Mom and Dad must be watching for cues and either leave the party or take the child to a quieter place. It’s important to remember that a child from a hard place is emotionally at least half his physical age, sometimes more. His regulation skills may be that of a two year old while he is teen size.
The good news is, as we connect and co-regulate, we change the brain chemistry, wiring and development. Scientists tell us that relationships and experience shape the brain. Think of a developing brain like a multi-storied house under construction. At birth the downstairs brain is developed. This is the part that tells the child when to breath and keeps the functions of the body on track. This is also where survival mode resides, the fight, flight or freeze mechanisms. The upstairs brain is the higher functions of the brain. It is more sophisticated and houses reasoning, speech, regulation of emotions, the ability to be flexible and adaptable. Trauma skews the wiring of the brain. Trauma triggers the amygdala, the watchdog of the body. If the brain stays in this state too long, it rewires to stay stuck in fight, flight or freeze. Chronic stress takes a heavy toll on the prefrontal cortex. It is involved in impulses, aggression, anxiety, decisions, changing gears and self-regulation.
At this point, you may be thinking, I thought you said there was hope. There is! The Hebbian Principle says –what fires together, wires together. That is the more you experience something, the more your wires go that direction. So, how do we rewire a child’s brain that is stuck downstairs in the survival (fight, flight, freeze)? With co-regulation and fresh new experiences that show him he can trust us. We call this felt safety. When a child feels safe, his adrenals calm, he produces less cortisol and he is able to function in his upstairs brain.
I know, I feel like this is all over the place, so let me end with three reminders.
If you are parenting a child or teen from a hard place:
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)
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.
Keep the positive, connecting experiences coming. “The brain is also “experience-expectant.” We come hard wired for connection. For eye contact, touch, playful interactions and co-regulation.These fill up the kid’s emotional tank and help their brains rewire. Blow bubbles. Ride bikes together. Make cookies and eat them. Read a favorite book fifty times. Swim with them, don’t just watch them swim. Hike with them. Take the time to invest positive experiences. This is investment parenting. Just a note -this practice applies to teens as well. If you are filling in the gaps of missed co-regulation, an older teen may still want you to watch them jump on the trampoline, ride bikes with him, play board games, or watch movies. Many teens from hard places may have no interest in what their peers are doing and want to hang out with Mom and Dad.
If you see your children struggling with regulation, which parts of this article resonated with you? Are you willing to try to do a few things differently? If you do, please share your stories! I’d love to hear from you!
In my last post I talked about -When we are acquaintances with Jesus –
We pray before mealtimes
Say please and thank you
Put the empty grocery cart away
Replace the empty toilet paper roll
These are all good foundational practices. We just can’t stay there. Staying in the acquaintance stage is like choosing to remain a five-year-old your whole life. Then you stay stuck when it comes to obedience because you can’t hear His voice. You only do what you know which has come through rote memorization.
My Sheep Hear My Voice
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. – John 10:27
The first time I heard the voice of the Lord, I was a teen who needed a miracle. My family had returned from a weekend trip to find our yard covered in snowdrifts. I was half asleep when I stumbled from the VW van to the backdoor mudroom. I took my coat and boots off and went straight to bed. The next morning, I couldn’t find my glasses. I can’t see two feet in front of my face without them. Mom helped me look. They weren’t in the van, my bedroom, the bathroom, or anywhere. I stayed home from school. I sat in a rocking chair and read The Secret Garden for the thousandth time. I had a severe headache all day. I prayed for the Lord to show me where my glasses were.
Suddenly, in my mind’s eye, I saw them at the bottom of a snowdrift behind a snow shovel. I got up, walked outside, picked up the shovel, stuck my hand into the snowdrift, and pulled out my glasses.
Obedience Bumper Cars
I wish I could tell you from that point forward I walked in complete obedience and relationship with the Lord. I haven’t. It’s been more like a bumper car ride. I have an inkling of what He is saying and I reason myself out of obedience. Then I bump into consequences.
Just last night, I was feeling super exhausted. I knew I was heading into a CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) crash zone. I asked the Lord why I couldn’t stay in the zone – feeling good physically- instead of piece of pummeled meat. With CFS, I have to keep some pretty wide margins to feel the way most people do on a daily basis. Normalish – not as though they are walking through quicksand.
A Smaller Yard
It’s as if I have a smaller yard than everyone else. If I stay in the fence, I’m fine. If I leave the yard, I’m not. If you read my article the other day, you know I’ve been overdoing it a lot and bumping into some consequences.
I do hear the still small whisper telling me to slow down, stop, and rest. Then I just want to paint one more wall, watch one more lecture, clean one more room, and guess what happens? I don’t hear the voice as much. I’m too busy praying for God to heal my body and relieve me of the circumstance.
This lesson is one I’m still desperately trying to learn. It’s completely different and even more critical than big obedience. The big obedience will flop if the little ones don’t happen. By that I mean, my relationship with God will stalemate. I’ll be too physically ill to do what I’ve been called to do and that’s so sad – all because I wanted to paint one more wall.
During this time of social distancing, I’ve been doing some deep thinking. I’m a thinker, to begin with, so it’s not a huge leap that with more time, I’d think more. The idea of planting seeds, adjusting to a new normal, and stepping back from trying to do it all, I’ve been thinking about obedience in a new light.
Obedience is an interesting concept. In the Christian faith, it is often equated with “being good.” It can mean being kind and not taking the last piece of pie or chocolate. Out in public, it may be letting someone go in front of me in line. You know- walking in the fruit of the spirit – walking in love toward one another – putting the needs of others before yourself. It’s kindergarten Sunday school level obedience. I can imagine myself sitting at a circular table with other kiddos and the teacher leading us in simple recitation – We love because God loves us. I learned important foundational concepts there and acquaintance obedience.
The sort of obedience I’m referring to is acquaintance obedience. It’s the kind of niceness we extend towards strangers or someone we just met. I think of it in terms of adoption (I think of everything in these terms). Adoptive families have what we term a “honeymoon” phase when we put our best foot forward and we Moms wear our makeup. Funny story -when we were in Poland living in the orphanage, the morning after we had “moved in,” there was an knock at our door. It was a caregiver with Gregory, who wanted to see his new Mama. I didn’t want Gregory to see me without my hair brushed and my makeup on. What craziness. Times have changed in our relationship, for sure.
We can get stuck in acquaintance obedience with Christ. It’s like being nice and eating your veggies without complaining. It’s low-level obedience. Children are required to do that. Higher-level obedience means staying after class and asking the teacher (Jesus) exactly what He wants you to do with your gifts and talents. Then doing it, no matter how crazy it sounds.
Jennifer Lee says it like this in It’s All Under Control:
“Nothing else on our to-do lists matters as much as knowing we were completely obedient to His.”
I spoke of to-do lists the other day on the blog. They are my jam. I like to get it done. Sometimes, I find myself doing things, being nice, and then asking God to bless the things.
Ask God what to do first
It’s not the best way to navigate my life. Obedience is asking God what to do first and then expecting Him to show up and guide me. When we are in a close relationship with Jesus, we are in conversation with Him. I think of the day when I die and meet Jesus face to face. I’ll literally be in the middle of a conversation. I won’t need an introduction because we weren’t just acquaintances when I was on earth. Someone won’t have to introduce me like this:
Here’s that freckle face girl who cried a lot and told everyone to adopt kids.
It will be more like:
Picking up a conversation where we left off.
My conversations with Jesus these days
My conversations now are along these lines –
Yep, Jesus, it was super scary when you told me to step out and buy that house in the mountains and then the world kind of went to pieces. You were there with me. We had fun listening to Jennifer Allwood and Joanna Penn podcasts, painting, hanging up pictures, moving furniture, and getting the house ready to be a respite. We did it together.
And when you asked me to spend money on a course in the middle of our “What if” scenario of financial scariness? Yikes. I did it. Learning a lot. Bundles of scary stuff to do. You’re right here with me, helping me face new challenges creatively.
More on obedience tomorrow!
In what ways are you moving from acquaintance obedience to close relationship obedience?
We’re living in a strange time. There seems to be an emptiness layered with anxiety, it’s a cake we would never order.
Looking for “Normal”
Yesterday when hubby and I got back from the Blackwater River, we did some yard and deck work, arranging furniture, raking the yard, picking up sticks, and it felt so normal. We like the “normal” feeling so we came inside afterward and hung up some of my book wreaths. We were tempted to keep working after a late dinner. It was nearing 8pm ( my wind-down til bedtime). I think our reason was double fold. We both like to work and we want to get projects finished. Secondly, we like the “normal” feeling. I liked feeling as if all was right with the world as we picked up sticks in our new yard. I like the feeling of finishing a project. The problem? Only working is a mistaken goal. Time is a gift of this season. I’m tempted to squander it on projects instead of people. Squandering time is never satisfying.
I’ve been doing a short series on Facebook and Instagram from How to Have Peace When Your Kids are in Chaos on mistaken goals. It’s easy for kiddos and adults alike to slip into a mistaken goal for this or any season. Since I don’t have anything in our lifetime to compare this COVID 19 season to, I’m feeling my way through the tunnel. I bump into some walls along the way. I’ve bumped into a few physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
A few days ago, I shared the mistaken goal – total control.
“When a child has had no control over his life and no guarantee that he will be cared for, he will try to exercise control in any war he can. Even as an adult, I often fall into the trap of trying to control my circumstances, so it’s not surprising that kiddos from hard places do the same.
What can you do to realign this goal? Give choices.”
In the past few days, I gave myself some choices. Are you giving yourself some? Or are you also (raising my hand) working to feel “normal” until you are exhausted and then feeling empty and unsatisfied. Don’t get me wrong. Work is good. Obedience is better. Obedience is gazillion times more satisfying than plain old work.
I think of a vision of a mama saying, “I sacrificed all my energy and every second of my day so you can have a good meal and a clean home ( worthy of a magazine).”
Then I hear the scripture echoing in my head:
“Has the Lord as great a delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
As in obedience to the voice of the Lord?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
And to heed [is better] than the fat of rams.”
I Samuel 15: 22
OUCH. Yep. Why is obedience better than sacrifice? Obedience is about relationship with God and unbroken companionship. Relationship with God without obedience is like saying, “I love you, I’m just not going to do what you ask me to.” Imagine our kiddos saying that to us.
The other day, I was talking to Marcy Holder*, and I shared with her how I keep working way too hard. It’s as if I can’t turn it off. I think I invented my own mistaken goal – I’m not valuable unless I’m working. I’m like a cartoon character who keeps running into a brick wall. Then I stop and say, okay, I’m feeling broken and exhausted. Then I get up and do it again the next day.
A few weeks ago, I wrote down a to-do list in my Sunday coffee meeting with God. Then I proceeded to work straight through my list until, you guessed it, I hit the wall. I prayed and asked God to show me what was wrong, “God you told me to do all of this? What’s wrong?”
I could hear the whisper of the Holy Spirit say, “Not all in one day.”
There are no quarantine metals
It’s tempting during this time to think we have to do all the things and do them perfectly. It’s tempting anytime, but more so now. Moms, there’s this invisible pressure to be the most grateful you have ever been, work harder on your home, make the best meals, play all the games, all with the heavy burden of trying to carry it all. We know in our hearts, God is in control. Let’s just be real here. Feelings and truth don’t always agree. It’s as if I think I’m going to get some sort of prize or medal if I do everything perfectly during the quarantine. Will there be some sort of celebratory ceremony when this all ends? Will I get a medal for most walls painted? Books written? Online workout classes taken? (Asking for myself).
I’ve said this several times in the past few weeks, I feel as if this is seed planting time. With that said, we must decide what sorts of seeds we are planting. Obedience? Mistaken goals which will produce mistaken fruit. Pursuing “normal” feelings instead of resting and trusting God is in control? Which seeds are you planting? Apparently, I’m planting a variety pack.
*Marcy is spiritually-focused personal coach, you can find her here plus she’s a guest on The Whole House Podcast releasing Monday, April 6th.