Training is often overlooked when it comes to child rearing. In general, parents are more likely to use discipline and punishment in an attempt to shape and mold their children.
However, it is much more effective to train children in advance for proper behavior then it is to punish them after the fact.
Just imagine starting a retail job with no training. You are put on the register at a popular, busy department store. You have no clue how to run the computerized register, and the customers start flocking in. You attempt to ring up a purchase, and when you make a mistake, the manager stands behind you and yells, “That’s wrong! You should know better! That’s not how to do it!” But how was I supposed to know? you think to yourself. After every infraction, there is more yelling and more correction, with some punishment added in.
This is how most children are raised. I see it every day. Recently, I was in the Walmart parking lot, and I overheard a parent saying, “Don’t tell me you forgot your shoes again.” I expected to see a seven- or eight-year-old child get out of the van, shoeless and contrite. Instead, a toddler began a sorrowful wail as the parent launched into a cursing tirade about forgetting shoes. Really? How was he supposed to know? It doesn’t make sense to yell, punish, or discipline a child over a practice he hasn’t been properly trained for.
A poster with the poem “Children Learn What They Live”hangs on the wall at Pediatric Dentistry, where all my kids used to go:
If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.
If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.
If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.
If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.
If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.
If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.
If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.
If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.
If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.
If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.
If children live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal.
If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.
If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.
If children live with fairness, they learn justice.
If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.
If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.
If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.
“Children Learn What They Live” by Dorothy Law Nolte, Ph.D.
Why Train (or Practice Outside the Moment)
This poem always reminded me of the concept of training — or, as Dr. Purvis called it, practicing outside the moment. It made me think of all the times I criticized my children for doing something right when they really didn’t know what was right. It must have been confusing and confounding for them to be corrected for something they didn’t know was wrong.
One of the definitions of train in Webster’s 1828 dictionary includes these words: “To train or train up; to educate; to teach; to form by instruction or practice; to bring up.” That definition was followed by Proverbs 22:6:
“Train up a child in the way he should go [and in keeping with his individual gift or bent], and when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)
The same dictionary defines punishment this way: “Any pain or suffering inflicted on a person for a crime or offense, by the authority to which the offender is subject, either by the constitution of God or of civil society. The punishment of the faults and offenses of children by the parent, is by virtue of the right of government with which the parent is invested by God himself. This species of punishment is chastisement or correction.”
This definition seems archaic. Our culture tends to shy away from words like offenses, chastisement, and correction. The new way is compassion and understanding — until the child does something that is out of line with the parent’s inner expectations. Then all nicities are often thrown out the window. We have all seen it and have most likely done it ourselves. (Raising my hand here.) We yell, rant, rave, put the kids in time out, take things away, or threaten with gritted teeth. Remember the mama cussing out her toddler for not having shoes on? We call all of the above discipline.
“Too often we forget that discipline really means to teach, not to punish. A disciple is a student, not a recipient of behavioral consequences.” – The Whole-Brain Child
It’s only common sense to understand that a human cannot learn without being taught. It’s true that children mirror us, and some kids are a quick study. But think about kiddos who have come from disorganized parenting, where the rules and expectations shift every day. It makes sense that training might be a little harder for them.
My new Guires had not been taught that they should be obedient to persons of authority. Instead, circumstances had caused them to develop survival skills that included disobedience. That’s how they got by. Life trained them in the best ways to survive in that orphanage, and they stuck to what they knew.
More on Training/Practicing Outside the Moment tomorrow!
Twenty years ago today, four kiddos got off a plane with Grandude, and my hubby, Jerry, to come to their new home. They had flown from Warsaw, Poland to Chicago, and then to Pittsburgh.
In a hospital, thirty minutes away, my stepfather, Bud was slowly, silently, slipping away – going on to glory (as he would say). As Dickens so poetically pointed out:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
Today, twenty years later, I reflect, rejoice, celebrate, and grieve. Those early days after the adoption were the season of light and the season of darkness all rolled into one. Today I celebrate the addition of my four kiddos, as well as grieve the loss of Bud. It was during this season I learned through experience how joy and sorrow could co-exist.
Joy and Sorrow
I experienced the joy of my kiddos in their firsts:
Living in a house for the first time
Having enough to eat at EVERY meal
Sleeping in beds with relative safety (not being beat up or molested in the middle of the night)
If there was any night time activity it was night terror which we tried our best to comfort. We prayed long and hard because we were out of our depth. Or it was Gregory jumping on a sibling, just because he could.
Grieving and Growing
We were all grieving and growing. My kiddos were grieving their old life. Letting go of the past is difficult no matter what sort of past it is. I was grieving because I felt Bud slipping away. He had been my first link to unconditional love. He died a week after the kiddos came home.
Despite our grief, we were growing together, meals at the table, putting on puppet shows, playing with dolls, tea sets, Legos, and race car sets. Playing, reading, and shared family meal times knit us together even though frayed ends stretched and pulled, trying to unravel us. Hateful words. Meltdowns. Night terrors. Hoarding. Medical issues. Survival mode. Disorganized attachment. Before you think I’m only talking about the kiddos, don’t. It was me too. Totally raising my hand.
If you are reading this and thinking, I can’t adopt. It’s too hard. What if I enter a Job syndrome? May I ask you a question? Did you come into the family of God kicking and screaming? Were (or are) old beliefs still hanging on for dear life? Beliefs that tell you:
You don’t matter.
You are not chosen.
God doesn’t love YOU.
If so, you are worth fighting for. Aren’t you? If you’re not sure, the answer is YES! And so is every orphaned, abandoned, and neglected child. As Jesus said, let the children come to me, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 9:14 paraphrase). Just as you are worth it, so are those children who need a home. Jesus came to heal the brokenhearted, to set the captives (physical and spiritual) free, to open the eyes of the blind, to bind up wounds, and give gladness instead of mourning. We are anointed to do the same. Don’t let the thought of doing hard things stop you from pursuing adoption.
If I had a time machine and I could go back to pre-adoption me, would I still adopt? Yes. I’m so proud of my kiddos, who they have become and all the life lessons they have taught me along the way.
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?
Foster/adoptive parents take all the classes and hear all the reports about how the kiddos were neglected/abused, etc.
Then we willingly sign on the dotted line and say, “Yep, I’m in.”
Adoptive/foster parents are not saints or superheroes.
Adoptive/Foster parents are just regular people who want to part of the solution. We want to build safe/secure/family oriented environments for kiddos who have had trauma.
We are called special, saints, have patience, etc… when we bring the kiddos home. When they start exhibiting behaviors as a result of the trauma, suddenly we are bad parents. I’ve been there, along with the multitude of foster/adoptive parents who contact me.
I was on the phone with an adoptive/foster parent the other day. One of her seven kiddos exhibiting some violent and destructive behavior. It was evident that she was beating herself up, i.e. blaming herself. I asked her a question that I ask all parents in this scenario – How are your other kids doing? Have you successfully parented them? Every time the answer is slow to come, almost as if it’s something the parents haven’t thought about. “Yes,” she said haltingly. I knew the answer before I asked the question. It’s a question to change the focus. We adopted/foster parents are not responsible for the trauma kids experienced before they entered the home or the effects of it. We try to be. We want hope and healing for these kiddos more than anyone else.
Trauma doesn’t always exhibit after effects right away.
Here’s a key point. Trauma doesn’t always show the effects right away. There sometimes seems to be a delayed reaction.
When I was eight, I had a serious bicycle accident. I flew over the handlebars and landed on my head after sailing over a speed bump. I woke up on in the ER to a doctor pulling rocks out of my face with a tweezer-like tool. I got off the table and said, “This is a dream.” It was pretty horrific. I was placed in a room with another young girl. She was hooked up to wires and monitors. She was in a coma. I overheard the doctor and parents talking about the car accident she had been in a year earlier. Her body was exhibiting the after-effects of the trauma now. A year later, her body was shutting down. (This really freaked me out!)
This is a physical example of what the body may do. In the book, The Body Keeps Score, Van Der Kolk, M.D. says:
“There have in fact been hundreds of scientific publications spanning well over a century documenting how the memory of trauma can be repressed only to resurface years or decades later.”
The Honeymoon Phase
Adoptive/foster parents go through a honeymoon phase with kiddos similar to what young couples go through after the wedding. Everyone is polite, kind, trying to please and be accepted. Then it gets too exhausting. We wives wipe off the makeup and put on our yoga pants because now we feel comfortable enough to be our real selves. Yes, sometimes we take it too far (raising my hand here).
The adopted/foster kiddos version of this is – I feel secure enough to go back to who I was. I don’t have to perform anymore. Or, the opposite end of the spectrum, they’re going to harm me, just like everyone else did, so I’m going to control my environment. I’m not saying these kiddos are doing this consciously or planning it out in their journal. It’s just the survival mode response. We all have it to varying degrees. Parenting the Hurt Child explains it this way:
“The struggle, however, represents something completely different for parents than it does for children. While the parents are simply trying to get the child to accomplish a simple task — such as dressing for school, getting ready for dinner or picking up his toys — the child is involved in a struggle to survive. He resists the intrusion and direction by others and perceives it as a fight for his life. As a result, his behavior becomes stubborn, tenacious, and intense. Think about it — how hard would you struggle if you thought that giving up or giving in would mean certain death?”
Be kind to Foster/Adoptive Parents
On a final note, be kind to adoptive/foster parents. You really have no idea what they are going through (unless you are one). Even if you are an advocate or therapist, you’re still behind a veil. You may know more than others, but you haven’t truly experienced the after-effects of trauma.
We foster/adoptive parents are doing the best we can. We need cheerleaders and prayer warriors more than we need judgement for our kiddos’ behaviors.
In the month of November, we turn our attention to practicing gratitude. That’s a great focus. Today, I’d like to take that a step further and say, we need to practice the habit of celebration which in turn produces memories to be grateful for!
“Make sure that the good ground of your home includes an abundance of laughter, parties, celebrations, presents, candles, Christmas trees, gifts, surprises, rocky road ice cream, jokes, backyard picnics, vacations, mountain bikes, bike rides, swimming, fishing and games. At the various houses in which our family has lived, we have had things like a swing set, a tree house, a tent, sleeping bags, a basketball hoop, baseballs, gloves and bats.”
–Seven Habits of a Healthy Home
One summer Sunday, we had a family birthday celebration for Amerey and Damian. Their birthdays are three days apart, and we often celebrate them together. We had grilled chicken and veggies and had a build-your-own fajita buffet.
My brother Jess and his wife Tessa were able to come, along with their two children, Lexie and Alivia. My sister Natasha and her three children, Aaliyah, Aaron, and Israel, came too — plus my daughter Audrey and her husband Adam. We had a full house and lots of conversation and laughter.
The ironic thing about this celebration is that it had been preceded by a catastrophe. An hour before the party was to begin, Amerey and I were in the kitchen doing some prep work. She was making five gallons of lime water while I sliced green peppers. Her boyfriend had called us several times and warned us that a violent storm was headed our way, but it was still sunny, so I just kept chopping. Within minutes, though, the wind picked up, and black clouds rolled in. Amerey and I ran down to the pool patio and put the umbrellas down, closed the shed, and ran back inside with the wind knocking us around and sheets of rain pouring down on us.
Back inside, Amerey dried off with a towel and checked the garage. An inch of water had flooded in. We began moving drums and anything we could out of the water’s path. Then she ran upstairs, only to find water cascading from the foyer light.
My brother Jess and his family had pulled up in the middle of the storm and were waiting it out in the car. When the rain slowed, he called.
“Come in here — we need you!” I said.
He came inside, checked out the light with a flashlight, and found where the water was coming in. The rest of the family arrived home from church, and we worked on sweeping water toward the garage drain. Tessa took over my slicing job. Damian went down and fished the sticks, leaves, and other debris out of the pool. I cleaned out the light and cleaned up water around a leaky window.
I went back to the kitchen to make sure everything was out and ready. Amerey and Tessa were still slicing and dicing, and everything was on track. “I am so through with this house!” I complained to Tessa, and then we had gone on with the party.
The highlight of the celebration was our tradition of taking turns at the dinner table to speak blessings to the birthday person. It’s a celebration of memories. Each person starts with, “My favorite memory of you from the past year is . . .”
This particular year, Damian had turned eighteen, and the comments he received were all about his work ethic and how he had matured. My son-in-law Adam spoke of his tenacity in projects, such as taking something apart and building something new out of it.
The memories people shared with Amerey were about her being on her own, living in an apartment. Ania’s favorite memory was being able to go spend a weekend in the apartment and eating almost a whole pan of brownies together. Fun times!
I tell this story as a reminder: some of our best memories come at unlikely times. Like a fun-filled birthday party in the middle of a massive storm.
Choosing to Celebrate
Celebration is a choice. If our family had waited until all the circumstances were perfect before we celebrated life, that party never would have happened. When it comes to celebration, timing isn’t everything.
“He who observes the wind [and waits for all conditions to be favorable] will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap.” (Ecclesiastes 11:4)
This scripture puts it plainly. If I wait for conditions to be favorable or for everything to be perfect, than I will never sow, nor will I reap. If I want to reap a harvest of memories with my children, then I must sow the habit of celebration over and over again.
As a parent, you never know which memories will stick. Every once in a while, my children will speak of a bad memory from their past, but more often than not, they share good family memories.
“Remember when we went hiking at Coopers Rock?”
“Remember when we made cards at my birthday party?”
“Remember when we rollerbladed up and down the boardwalk at the beach?”
Each one of these memories were probably preceded by unfavorable conditions. They definitely weren’t experiences that we planned down to the last detail and executed without any hiccups.
While speaking to the Mom to Mom group at our church, I was asked the question, “Well, what if I plan a fun activity like making cookies, and my kid says she doesn’t want to do it?” My answer? “Do it anyway!”
I have found that no matter what “fun” thing you have planned, there will be naysayers. The naysayers may drag their feet and complain, but years from now, it may be a fond memory. I am often surprised when my kids mention one of these events as a favorite memory — even though I remember clearly that, during the actual event, he or she didn’t want to participate.
Hurt children are often afraid to participate. If the situation is a new scenario for them, they may feel out of control. If the child has bad memories associated with a particular activity or event, he may think that it will end up the same way.
An example I’ve already mentioned from my own life is long car trips. In my childhood, these were scary times for me. My father would become tense and angry as soon as we got in the car. I began to associate long trips with anger. I didn’t want to get in the car and go to the mountains or the beach or anywhere. Even today, in my adult life, I must remind myself that long trips are not bad things.
*If you’d like to learn more, check out How to Have Peace When Your Kids are in Chaos – the book (this article is an excerpt ) and the course.
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!
“A scar is evidence of a wound, but also evidence that we can heal.” – Scott McClellan
“I didn’t think it would be this hard.”
“My child’s behaviors are out of control.”
“He got kicked off the school bus AGAIN.”
“He keeps punching kids in line.”
“The whole house is like a war zone.”
“I thought I could do this, but I don’t know if I can. It’s just too hard.”
I’ve heard these statements along with pleas for help from countless parents. I have offered to come into the home and do some observation, as well as get some parenting tools that work into the hands of the parents. It seems as if every time, the parent says, “Oh, I don’t know. He/she is so manipulative” — as if the child will pull the wool over my eyes (as he may do with some professionals or teachers), or as if their situation is so unique and so individual that I won’t be able to grasp it.
It is in this pit of “aloneness” that satan likes to keep us. No one else struggles like you. Nobody understands. We adoptive/foster parents may feel as if we have slipped an Alfred Hitchcock and are captives who will never escape. And the one who is to be banished to the pit at the end of age tries to keep us equally isolated.
Fortunately, that pit is not where we belong, nor do we need to stay there any longer. There is hope. Isaiah says that God’s people perish for lack of knowledge. To move forward with our kids, we must first have knowledge.
SEcond B affected by Trauma
Science says there are five Bs affected by trauma, and we cannot overlook them. In kids from hard places, behavioral disorders are a symptom of the effect trauma has had on their development. I covered the first B affected here. Today, I’d like to talk about the second B – Biology.
Biology — altered neurochemistry. Complex trauma can cause a variety of issues: sensorimotor development problems, hypersensitivity to physical contact, somatization, increased medical problems, and problems with coordination and balance.
Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers that help our bodies think, feel, and move. However, the levels of key neurotransmitters in many children from hard places are often high, too low and/or out of balance.
Neurotransmitters (NTs) are naturally occurring chemicals that transmit information between the cells (called neurons) throughout your body. Over 5o NTs are present in the nervous system, but only a handful are currently measurable and understood in relation to our health and functioning.
Neurotransmitters or NTs control the on and off switches in the nervous system. They help define our moods, behaviors, and health.
There are two primary types of neurotransmitters:
Excitatory NTs which increase the likelihood that a neuron’s signals are sent. Excitatory NTs are responsible for providing energy, motivation, mental cognition, and other activities that require brain and body activity. We refer to these as the GAS PEDAL. The gas pedal can get stuck.
Inhibitory NTs decrease the likelihood that a neuron’s signals are sent. Activation of inhibitory NTS causes a chemical change within the neuron that oppose the effects of excitatory signals. Inhibitory NTs are responsible for calming the mind and body, inducing sleep, and filtering out unnecessary excitatory signals. We refer to these as the BRAKE PEDAL. The brake pedal can get stuck as well.
A balance between the levels of inhibitory and excitatory NTs is necessary for optimal health, yet many children from hard places show significant, sometimes profound, imbalances in their neurochemistry. This can result from a number of primary causes, such as chronic stress, poor diet, exposure to neurological toxins (e.g. heavy metals, chemicals) and genetics.
A growing body of research has documented significant alterations in hormones and NTs in children with histories of abuse, maternal deprivation and neglect.- Dr. Karyn Purvis
Want to know a bit more on how biology is affected by trauma? Listen to the edition of Positive Adoption below!
“Too often, parents and experts look at behavioral disorders as they existed separate from sensory impairments; separate from attention difficulties; separate from early childhood deprivation, neurological damage, attachment disorders, post traumatic stress and so on.”
The Connected Child
By taking the time to examine what issues are driving a behavioral disorder, we gain a foundation of understanding. When we learn the science — the “why” behind a child’s behavior — our reactions will be tempered.
When a child is behaving poorly, we often try to treat the symptoms rather than getting to the root of the issue. I know I’ve been guilty of that on several occasions. Of course, this approach doesn’t work; it never does. Just as removing a bottle of whiskey from the liquor cabinet won’t cure your father’s alcoholism, focusing on a child’s behavior won’t cure their attachment issues. There is a deeper problem we have to address.
“Chronic trauma is a lifestyle that is marked with traumatic events. “
– Nurturing Adoptions
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.
Brain — altered brain development and an overactive amygdala.
Children from hard places have altered brain development and an overactive amygdala. It’s as if the child is being chased by a bear all the time. As Deborah D. Gray explains in Nurturing Adoptions,
“Neurobiologically, trauma shapes the developing brain. Early high stress is especially damaging because brain development is at an early stage.” In Emotional Development, Alan Sroufe makes a similar point when he describes the brain as experience-expectant and experience-dependent. Neglect deprives the experience-dependent brain of the experiences needed to develop the brain structures that support and stretch positive mood states. Neglected babies do not build the structures in the brain that allow for self-soothing or smooth processing through highly arousing experiences.
Think of a brain like a house with an upstairs and a downstairs. At birth the downstairs brain is developed. It houses things like breathing and survival mode.
Life in the Downstairs Brain
“It’s time to get up and eat breakfast.”
“Could you please pick up your socks?”
“No, the math equation isn’t solved correctly. Try again.”
You ask or correct, and in response, the child retorts, “Why are you yelling at me? You always yell at me!”
Have your children ever said this to you? How about when you are talking in a normal tone and they are yelling? Confusing, huh?
These kids seem to be hearing things differently than the rest of us — and they are. They are operating in their downstairs brain, which means they are seeing things through the lens of hypervigilance. They are in survival mode. Noises sound louder. The amygdala, which resides in the downstairs brain, is hard at work looking for danger. Its switch gets stuck in the “on” position, leaving the child in a constant, adrenaline-fueled state of fight or flight.
“Chronic fear is like a schoolyard bully that scares children into behaving poorly.”
– The Connected Child
Even if they aren’t in any actual danger, the child does not feel safe — and in some ways, felt safety is more important than genuine safety. When a child feels safe, the primitive downstairs brain lets its guard down and allows other portions of the brain to operate. Higher learning can occur when a child feels safe. He can understand reason, logic, and choices.
When children come from traumatic beginnings, their primitive brain remains the driver until the child feels safe. These kids are perpetually on guard. They don’t remember fun events or joyful times because they weren’t fully present. Their brains instructed them to survive these experiences in whatever shape or form they could. In survival mode, they didn’t have the capacity to really enjoy themselves.
The upstairs brain, on the other hand, is completely different. As The Whole-Brained Child explains, the upstairs brain is “made up of the cerebral cortex and its various parts-particularly the ones directly behind your forehead. Unlike your more basic downstairs brain, the upstairs is more evolved and can give you a fuller perspective on your world.” It’s sophisticated as opposed to primitive. This is where the creative process lives — imagining, thinking, planning. Logic lives here, too.
Children who live in the downstairs brain or survival mode are bossed about by their will — minus the intellect or common sense that reside in the upstairs brain. They are impulsive. As our pediatrician said of our eldest when she became extremely mobile at five and a half months — “maximum mobility, minimum common sense.” Thankfully, with proper brain development, the intellect catches up, and the child develops impulse control.
Some call this “will.” Charlotte Mason, for instance, speaks of children having a strong will when they are able to govern their will. In other words, the more the child (or adult for that matter) can control his will and boss it around, the more he is living in his upstairs brain.
Some Practical Suggestions
So, how do we help a child integrate the upstairs brain when he demands to stay downstairs?
First, remember that your child’s brain is a work in progress. The upstairs brain is still developing. It won’t happen overnight. To start, you can help him climb the stairs once and check it out. The more often he does that, the more he will use it. The more he uses it, the more it will grow.
Here’s another suggestion: Give him assignments that require him to use the upstairs brain. He needs problems to solve, and he will encounter plenty in his everyday life. Give him the space to work them out on his own instead of doing it for him. This is where planning, creativity, and logic come into play.
And I do mean play. LEGO building. Block towers. Drawing. Writing stories. Planning out a plot.
My son who loves to write (he just wouldn’t admit it publicly, so keep that to yourself, ok?) loves story prompts. We did a semester of them, usually a few times a week. I wrote the prompt on the whiteboard, and he wrote the rest of the story. When he got stuck in a rut and everyone died at the end of each story, I put my foot down and asked him to think of some new endings. No one lived happily ever after, but they lived.
Kids today have so little time to be creative. Soccer practice is good, but it doesn’t replace the need for creative play.
In the upstairs brain, YELLING can become conversation:
• “How did you build that? Tell me about it.”
• “How do you think you can solve that problem?”
• “What could you do differently?”
• “What could you do to make your day easier tomorrow?”
Just remember, these questions cannot be asked in the middle of a meltdown. You must make opportunities when things are calm and happy. It is tempting to enjoy the calm and slip away to do something else (like the dishes), but take advantage of the quiet to connect with your child and watch him work his upstairs brain!
Fear is a powerful dictator. It rules the child without love, logic, or reason. It’s easy to look at the behavior as willful disobedience. I know I have. But for us adoptive/foster parents to help our children rewire their brains, we must rewire ours. If we see these behaviors as brain issues instead of behavior issues, we can begin to help our child — even if what the child believes may sound ridiculous to us.
Fear has no logic. It has no boundaries of common sense. It doesn’t obey commands. It can only be diminished through felt safety — not by orders, sermons, or discussions. Once we understand this, we can help our children feel secure and begin the process of moving upstairs.
A few months ago, I wrote an article titled “What If We Treated Foster/Adoptive Parents as Missionaries?” I got lots of flack from non-Christians (which is understandable, to an extent), but I was shocked to also get some negative comments from Christians. So I started asking adoptive/foster parents what they thought about the subject. Then I took it a step further and created a survey that asked all the questions I was curious about. I shared it with my adoption/foster care support group, and several friends did the same. I’ll be sharing the results throughout this article along with some of the feedback via quotes.
Your Home as a Mission Field
Before I began the season of homeschooling in my life, I hadn’t thought of my home as my mission field or considered the far-reaching implications of family to the third and fourth generation. I pretty much thought about whatever seemed to be going on at the moment or what the church was putting on the calendar that I needed to attend to.
When Jerry and I were married, we were just getting our sea legs when it came to Christianity. We were both sorting through the theology and doctrines handed to us by our parents. (You can read the whole scoop in A Positive Adoption Story.) I had a general sort of doctrine — don’t get divorced, don’t commit adultery, go to church regularly. My beliefs about family were muddled somewhere in the middle of all that, but I had taken my cues mostly from the culture around me. These are just a few of the assumptions I picked up:
Having children is a choice and sometimes (even in the church) viewed as an impediment to true ministry.
Ministry happens at the church, out in the community, or in some third-world country.
If you have children, you can’t (or shouldn’t) bring them along to things that are holy or have the word “ministry” attached to them. You farm them out or wait until they are grown before you do anything of real value.
I followed the church culture like it was the Pied Piper of Hamelin. I filled my schedule with church ministry activities and shooed my kids out of the way. I needed to do holy work, and they were obstacles to that — until Denny Kenaston planted a seed in that set of tapes, A Godly Home. That seed grew into the vague, unsettling idea that I was growing the wrong sort of ministry. In response, I began researching other authors, listening to other teachers, reading the Bible, and questioning everything I knew about family.
Although I’m the type of person who likes systems, facts, and formulas, I have learned the hard way that without a foundation, these things aren’t effective. I was that way with family. I thought if someone could just give me the general formula — stay married, don’t commit adultery, feed the kids, etc. — then everything would be alright. But the how alone doesn’t work. There has to be a why. The Bible puts it this way: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6). Families are destroyed because we don’t fully understand their importance.
The Stay-at-Home Missionary
I sat on a comfy couch in the Chi Alpha room at Trinity. The smell of rich, brewed coffee permeated the air as the Keurig hissed for the tenth time. Women filed over and filled couches, chairs, and the floor. Soon, coffees were abandoned on end tables in favor of pillows to hug. Women cried as they poured out their woes, insecurities, and failings. This wasn’t a group therapy session. It was a Mom’s Tea I led every Friday at our homeschool co-op, THESIS. These women were my friends.
The overarching theme was “I’m just a mom.” Some of these women had left nursing, accounting, teaching (in a public school), and other careers outside the home. The message culture was hissing at them was toxic: “The job you are doing is not important.”
And we were not alone in that belief. As I mentioned earlier, only 56.9% of people I surveyed said they think of family as a mission or ministry. Meanwhile, 25.9% said family is not a ministry or mission, and 17.2% said maybe. I shouldn’t be surprised at the results, but I was!
But this idea of family not being a ministry couldn’t be further from the truth. The acts of raising, teaching, praying for, and attaching to our children are among the most important things we will ever do. Moms are stay-at-home missionaries. One survey-taker noted: “I believe God created our family to be together to minister to other families and our community — both with our own gifts and with our experiences. Plus, as a mom, raising my kids to know God is my greatest ministry.”
I agree. That’s why I love the movie Marley and Me. Jen, who has decided to leave her career as a journalist and stay home to raise her kiddos, says something like, “No one told me it would be this hard.” Her husband John agrees and gives her an out, saying she can go back to work, but she won’t bite. She wants to raise her own children.
Jen alluded to the fact that her career outside the home was easier than raising kids. I cry every time I watch that scene because it resonates with me so much. It’s as if the culture tells us women that we bring no value to the world if we “just stay home.” The world wants us to raise children who are well-rounded, emotionally stable, educated, and contributing members of society — but often looks down on those who leave a career outside the home to focus on that responsibility.
Our society is full of therapies, counselors, and facilities designed to help people heal from childhood trauma and its long-term effects. We have an army of women willing to stay at home and raise kiddos so they don’t have trauma or help them heal from past trauma, and the voice they hear is, “You aren’t worth. You aren’t doing anything of value.” In Parenting is Your Highest Calling and 8 Other Myths that Keep us Trapped in Guilt and Worry, Leslie Leyland Fields shares:
“The intense spotlight on the home comes to us at this point in our history for good reason. All of us know, the traditional family is under serious attack. Family units now include same sex couples and three parent families in which children’s needs are sometimes less important than the rights and whims of adults. Child abuse is rising so fast that it is described as an epidemic by the Child Welfare League of America. As families fracture and states scramble to fill the gap, more and more children are entering foster care. Against the backdrop of such moral fragmentation, surely we can assert that our highest call is our families!”
Leslie goes on to say our highest calling is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27). While I wholeheartedly agree with her, we cannot overstate how important raising your family is. This mission is a big part of our highest calling. I point this out because the feminist pendulum has swung so far to the left that it can actually damage and divide women. It often leaves the impression that being a stay-at-home mom is an second-class, almost subhuman role.
Foster Care as a Ministry or Mission
Out of the families surveyed:
70.7% said that yes, foster care/adoption is a ministry.
17.2% said no.
12.1% said maybe.
If your family is a mission, isn’t it a natural progression that foster/care and adoption is? If we categorize being a mom as a mission, why wouldn’t we include foster care and adoption?
Let’s be clear: We don’t adopt or foster to create a ministry. We don’t have children to create a ministry, either. God puts us in ministry. Often, we’re not even aware of it until we look back and see His handiwork. Our job isn’t to create a ministry; our job is to be obedient. Ministry exists in every area of our lives when we are obedient to Christ.
Ministry draws us closer to God. When we walk in obedience, our relationship with Jesus is fuller, more dependent, and more intertwined. Our relationships are affected and enhanced. That is true ministry. It’s not a plaque on the wall or a saying on a tee shirt — it’s relationship. Through our relationship with Christ, we become new creatures. Our old habits and ways have passed away, and we live with His light shining through us. That is the ministry we engage in and that the world longs to see. This sort of ministry isn’t planned in your Google calendar or written into a mission statement. It’s found in your everyday life with Christ, led by the Holy Spirit.
As foster or adoptive parents, our home is a long-term (forever) mission base. We bring these kids who have been discarded by the culture, hurt by their parents, and harmed by trauma into our homes. There is rarely a respite.
I talked to Elizabeth King, a full-time missionary with twenty-two years under her belt. When she and her husband were presented with the opportunity to adopt two girls, they said, “More ministry? Yes!” They were up for it. Hadn’t they been practicing this for years? She says:
“But we were not really ready for the total onslaught of doing ministry right from the very core of who we were. Always before we had ministered outside of our home or had temporary visitors in our home. Our residence was a place of refuge from the rigors of ministry. But now, by accepting these broken girls into our lives – there was nowhere left to retreat to. Nowhere to relax. No escape from the desperate needs and destructive behaviors of the two hurting souls. We found that all our weaknesses, which we could hide pretty well in the course of normal ministry, were now staring us in the face every day.”
Rachel Judd, another adoptive parent, said this:
“I didn’t have that mentality when we started adopting, but when we brought home two from Ethiopia from traumatic backgrounds, my views shifted. I could no longer be involved in certain things as I needed to keep my focus on these children and the rest of our family. I knew our family was different from most and people didn’t understand. I didn’t even have the energy to help with VBS most years or simple volunteer work at church. I was burned out. I had to shift my thinking and see that we were parents and caretakers to some very traumatized children and that one day our season would be different.”
“I believe anytime that you walk with the Lord in your calling, it is a ministry. Google defines ministry as ‘the spiritual work or service of any Christian.’ Foster care and adoption is a beautiful display of bringing one into the home and trusting the Lord with the process.”
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t include some of the opposition:
“No, it is not for us, and it irks me when I hear it referred to as such by other foster parents. With all the faith-based agencies I see that for the majority of foster parents it is a ministry. I feel like calling it a ministry or mission makes it less about the children and more about the foster parents’ religious commitment. Calling it a mission sounds like it’s an obligation and the foster parents are checking off a box to ‘get into heaven.’”
I kind of get her point. I might agree if I were only fostering/adopting to have a mission. Like I said earlier, it was in hindsight that I saw it as a mission. I didn’t set out to adopt so I could have a mission. I became a Christian, and then everything became a mission, because as the Word says, “Whatever you do [whatever your task may be], work from the soul [that is, put in your very best effort], as [something done] for the Lord and not for men” (Colossians 3:23).
I love what Rich Mullins said in an interview with 20 The Countdown Magazine: “A spiritual thing is folding your clothes at the end of the day. A spiritual thing is making your bed. A spiritual thing is taking cookies to your neighbor that is shut in or raking their front lawn because they are too old to do it. That is spirituality.”
Whatever we do for God and others is ministry, whether it is making peanut butter sandwiches, reading a Magic School Bus book to a child, singing a nursery rhyme with a toddler, cleaning up the kitchen, or adopting an orphan. It’s all ministry.
To address the last point of the survey-taker, I would add that Christians don’t earn their way into heaven. The only way to heaven is through Jesus — it’s by grace alone that we are saved. No ministry work we do will secure a place in heaven.
And as far as it not being about the child, raising a child is about the child. It has to be, because anything else is unsustainable. Fostering or adopting can’t be about some lofty ideal, checking something off your to-do list, or making yourself feel good or important. None of those motivations will survive the everyday realities of parenting kids from hard places. I can’t imagine telling my kiddos — as I serve up the third batch of chocolate chip pancakes on a Saturday morning before spending the rest of the day at swim meets, birthday parties, or whatever else they have on the agenda — that it isn’t about them. Raising children is about children. There’s no other way around it unless you are the worst-case scenario in the system: an abuser, neglecter, child molester, or pedophile.
One survey respondent summed it up well: “The Bible says religion that is pure is caring for the orphans. Children in foster care are modern day orphans [with] parents that are absent in their lives. Providing a safe and loving home for these kids to enjoy their childhood with their basic needs (and beyond) met is fulfilling Scripture!”
Want to hear more about the Spiritual and missional Aspects of Adoption?