Maybe his fear response is stuck on the on position. If so, you’ll want to listen to this week’s episode.
Last week we covered a bit about the fear response and how the brain works. This week, I touch on how the brain wires itself into a fear response. Kids who have experienced trauma have triggers. With patience and persistence we can help our kiddos figure out what theirs are and work on rewiring them into more healthy patterns. Grab a cup of coffee and join me for some productive talk on fear!
“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.
For the month of March, we have been focusing on Back to Basics. This week on the podcast, Kristin Peters joins me (Kathleen) for a discussion about brain development as it applies to adoption. You can find the podcast here.
1. Kids that come home to us through adoption/foster care have altered brain chemistry caused by stress.
“We are all shaped by our genetic birthright and by the environment in which we live. To a developing fetus, the mother’s womb is an entire universe. If the mother has a healthful lifestyle, her uterus will share that with the growing child. But if the mom suffers from chronic stress, consumes such toxins such as alcohol and drugs, or doesn’t eat properly, the fetus is exposed to those dangers right along with the mother. An infant’s neurochemistry reflects his or her very first home-the uterus.”- The Connected Child
Neurons that fire together wire together. In plain English, the more a behavior is acted out or a trigger acted on, the more it becomes a pattern in the brain. It is as if the road is dug out, gravelled and paved by repeated experiences. The paved road then becomes the primary travel route.
Adoption is messy. Children who are adopted from hard places have trouble verbalizing their feelings. They struggle with self-regulation and want to control everything and everyone around them. Trouble is, if we parents aren’t careful, we end up focusing on the behavior instead of digging deeper to the root of the problem. It’s quick and easy to think the child is misbehaving to get on our last nerve. We tend to think the child wants to make us angry.
The poor choices in behavior speaks what child is unable to state verbally.
Hurt children have a knack for making us adults feel out of control. They do know how to push our buttons. They seem to own a special button locating radar. Once they find the button, they push it mercilessly. And we adults, like puppets on a string flail around, flopping from hot to cold at their will. Rarely, if ever do these kids apologize. If they do, it is we parents have been steam rolled all day.
2.The attachment cycle has been broken.
Breaks in attachment cause a fear response. We need to work on felt safety.
“Chronic fear is like a schoolyard bully that scares children into behaving poorly.”- Dr. Karyn Purvis
We parents tend to expect our newly adopted children to enter the home and quickly develop a secure attachment style. We assume that they know the depth and width of time and work it took to secure their adoption.
“However, in the at-risk population, as much as 80% of children are classified as disorganized.”(Steele & Steele, Gray)
Once we come to terms with what sort of attachment our kiddos have and their level of fear, we can start moving in the right direction. It’s not enough for your child to be in a safe environment. He must feel safe. If he doesn’t feel safe, he will be in survival mode -flight, fight or freeze. Felt safety and secure attachment go hand in hand. When a child is securely attached to you, he will feel safe.
For instance, the other day at Joe and Throw (a local coffee place) I was holding my granddaughter Glenna on my lap. She was “watching” the Toy Story characters on my Apple watch. At the same time, she was slipping off my lap. She did nothing to secure herself or hang on. Because she felt safe, she trusted me to catch her and heave her back up which I did multiple times.
3.Your past affects your present parenting.
“We have also begun to understand how overwhelming experiences affect our innermost sensations and our relationship to our physical reality –the core of who we are. We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on the mind, brain and boy. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive the present.”- The Body Keeps Score
When I first got married, I naively thought that my past was wiped away as we similarly think that our adopted children’s past is wiped away. It’s not. We both carry our trauma into the relationship. The more aware we parents are of our triggers to our past trauma, the better we can navigate. It’s not easy. But, it is easier if your recognize them.
The more we do the work of healing for ourselves, the more we can help our kiddos. There seem to be a great many parents entering the foster/adoption world because they have had trauma – a troubled childhood, alcoholic parents, or fill in the blank. Our past can become their greatest gift and worst enemy -all in a minute. One moment the parenting is full of empathy, the next triggers send us into our past. Our past takes over and we are ashamed of our words and our actions.
The Road to Healing
To properly travel any route, we need a map. Even in this day and age of GPS via my phone, I like to see the trip before I travel. I’m one of those old school people who still print out a map. It helps me see where I’m going. If all this information is new to you or you don’t know which way to turn, start below. The video gives a great map of what may be going on with your kiddos. Below the video are some resources that can help you and your kiddos on the road to healing.
We’re doing a Back to Basics Series here on The Whole House. This week we’re focusing on brain development. If you missed the beginning of the series start here.
What does food have to do with brain development? Everything. You’ve heard the old saying, “You are what you eat?” That’s not just for grownups. As teens and children, we are told we have a fast metabolism and we can eat anything. But, should we?
Should you be concerned about what your kids are eating? Or should you just wait until they are old enough to know better?
The value of good nutrition.
“When you child eats regular, balanced meals and snacks, blood sugar levels remain constant and steady. This boosts learning and stabilizes moods. When we cheat ourselves out of meals, however, we’re also reducing our brainpower. Skipping breakfast or snacking on sugary sodas and sweets are just some of the ways that our daily habits can undermine healthy brain functioning.” –The Connected Child
Good nutrition isn’t just counting calories. When my newbies came home through adoption, they had health issues, including rotten teeth and malnutrition. The dentist informed me the rotten teeth were a result of the malnutrition. My kids hadn’t had access to sugary sodas or candy. The kind of calories my kiddos needed were specific and intentional. They needed protein and complex carbohydrates to grow their bodies and their brains. All kids do.
Deficiencies go hand in hand with a variety of health and behavioral problems. ADHD and diabetes have been linked to a shortage of magnesium. I’m not a doctor or a scientist, maybe you are in the same boat, but you want your child to have optimal health and brain function. My advice? Do some research. That’s what I did when my kiddos come home. Don’t take my word for it.
My youngest son, who is on the spectrum ate gluten-free for years because it “calmed his inner hulk” (his words). Children who have health and behavioral problems may need more vitamins and minerals in the form of a supplement. It’s not a cure, just support. It may be the difference between their inner hulk raging all the time and just making appearances.
“A growing and compelling body of research suggests that nutritional supplementation is extremely beneficial for at-risk populations. In one study at a Canadian hospital, two boys with explosive rage and volatile moods showed dramatic improvement – without lithium or other traditional psychpharmacolic agents – when they took a daily vitamin and mineral supplement. When taken off the nutritional supplement, their rage returned, but once the supplementation was restored, their behavior improved again.” – The Connected Child
Maybe your child is neurotypical. Maybe he doesn’t have any capital letter syndromes or behavior issues. Should you be concerned about his nutrition? YES!
Eight years ago, I watched a Teresa Tapp seminar about health and nutrition. She said something that haunts me to this day. If we don’t change our eating and exercise habits, then this generation will have more serious health issues in their thirties and forties as opposed to their seventies and eighties our grandparents did. I’m serious paraphrasing here, but she said if we don’t start eating God-made (closest to their natural form) foods and moving, our kids could end up in nursing homes in their forties. YIKES! We don’t want that.
Throw out the myth that because our kiddos have fast metabolisms, they can eat anything and everything. Food is fuel. Food is medicine. We must fuel our kiddos’ bodies with what will grow healthy brains. What they are eating now is building their future body, brain, and immune system.
“The food your child eats becomes the building blocks of his or her brain chemistry.” – The Connected Child
Just a few tips from The Connected Child to end on. You may already have a handle on this, if so, GO YOU! Maybe you just need a restart, some reminders to get you back on track. I need those often!
Make sure your kiddos drink lots of water! Dehydration cause mental (cognitive) function to deteriorate. (I notice this in myself. If I have been working at my desk for hours, I start craving coffee and sweets. I get a quart of lemon water instead and feel fresh and ready to go!)
Avoid deep-fried foods. They make the brain sluggish.
Use yogurt as a healthful snack. The live cultures improve digestions and intestinal health. The intestines help produce serotonin, the feel good neurotransmitter. Get the whole fat kind with lower sugar content. Kids need good fats! Don’t do fat-free! Use probiotic supplements for kiddos who can’t do dairy!
Keep a food dairy. I love this suggestion. Sometimes we don’t know what the food offender is until we take the time to write down reactions.
Get your kiddos eating as many God-made foods as can and go you! Every time you get nutrition and water in your kiddos, you are enabling better brain function. You’re building strong bodies and immune systems for a long and healthy life.