Journaling Your Triggers

Change Begins With Us

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.”

(Romans 8:28)

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?

*This is an excerpt from the course How to Have Peace When Your Kids are in Chaos.

Want to know more about the E-course and Sample a module? Click Below!

Making Sense Of and Peace With Your Past

“We parents often believe that our past — that is, the way we were raised — is just a book on a shelf of memories. It’s not. Triggers are where past and present intersect. We can’t assume our past isn’t affecting our present parenting.”

How to Have Peace When Your Kids Are in Chaos

If we don’t make sense of and peace with our past, we will be in constant conflict with our children.

You’re probably taking this course because you are in constant conflict with your kiddos. I get it. I’ve lived there. When I finally understood where their behaviors were coming from, I made a tiny bit of progress. I had some brain science and psychology under my belt, but my house still often felt like a war zone. Let me emphasize the word FELT. I was feeling all sorts of things. By that I mean, my kid’s behaviors were triggering things that happened in my past and I was feeling it all over again. I was taking their behaviors personally because I was personally affected by them. I had a past that needed to be examined. I was the last person to think the problem was actually ME. But I was the part of the problem that I was responsible for. I didn’t want to face the truth. I wanted to stay stuck in my cycle of blaming my kid’s behavior for the chaos in my home. When I finally got ahold of the truth that my past was parenting my children. That I needed to face it and make sense of it and peace with it that I was able to move forward.

Often our daily tussles are not about our kids at all — they are about us. That’s not to say that our kids from hard places don’t have a past. It just means our past is running interference on the play. Take a few minutes and journal the last interaction that you think triggered you to react to your past instead of the present.

Adverse Childhood Experiences

An ACE score is a tally of different types of abuse, neglect, and other hallmarks of a rough childhood.

Ace Assessment – Take yours now! Make sure you read the whole article to find out what it does and doesn’t mean.

Let’s end this day with some nurturing. If you have never taken the time until today to process some of your childhood, you may be overwhelmed right now. I’ve been there. Lots of people have. I was conducting a workshop for some social workers and nurses once and during this the topic of the how your past affects your now – a nurse yelled out, “I’m not going to parent my kids like my mom did, I’m going to hug them.” We can and should have those sorts of reactions to facing our past, not to throw our parents under the bus, but to decide to where to go from here. What is nurturing to you?

I’ve provided some questions for you to work through just that. 

  1. What is a deep source of comfort and emotional nurturing for you?
  2.  How do you recognize nurturing?
  3.  Are you comfortable giving emotional support?
  4. Does your own childhood weigh heavily on your heart and mind? If so, how?
  5. Do you comfort others in order to comfort yourself? What does this look like?
  6. Are you able to recognize your own emotions as well as others? If not, what steps can you take to start recognizing emotions in yourself?

*This is an excerpt from the course How to Have Peace When Your Kids are in Chaos.

Interested in the course? Read more about it and try a free module!

Deciding When to Accept Outside Help For Your Kiddos

Deciding When to Accept Outside Help

As I mentioned yesterday

As Adopting the Hurt Child says, many health professionals blame the adoptive parents for the child’s current problems. This statement summed up how I was feeling: “It is an unfortunate fact that many of those who attempt to provide treatment to adoptive parents with disturbed children know very little about issues related to adoption.” Rafal’s issues were a result of me not caring, nor were my present strategies ineffective. 

As a parent, it is my job to protect my child. That’s true for any parent, but medical issues can be especially scary and complicated when a child has been through traumatic circumstances — especially if those experiences include past medical issues. It is important for parents to know as much of the child’s medical history as possible. This is not necessarily just a bunch of papers that record history; there needs to be an understanding of how a child has received medical care.

It is difficult to make decisions about medical help for children who have had trauma

It is difficult to make decisions about medical help for children who have had trauma. Myriad services are available to adoptive families: counseling, speech therapy, play therapy, camps, feeding clinics, and much more. Jerry and I both settled into the conservative camp on this issue. We decided we didn’t want our home to be a revolving door of services. Our children had spent enough time in institutions, including orphanages and hospitals. What they needed now was to see what a secure home looked like. 

I felt confident that I could do the research and help my children with speech, physical therapy, feeding, and whatever other challenges came our way. I am not saying that every family must do this. I think parents should make informed decisions and do what is best for each child. 

Shortly after Rafal’s hospital visit, I attended a workshop for parents who wanted to handle the speech therapy at home. I went to work with Ania and Hunter right away, and later with Rafal. 

Ania and Hunter are nine months apart in age. Hunter helped Ania learn English quickly. He also gave her his slight speech impediment. They developed the same speech pattern — a New Yorker accent, I called it. Woild for world, goil for girl. They were extremely funny to listen to and oblivious to the fact that they had developed their own accent. 

Yes, I did receive flack for my decision to not receive a great deal of outside help, but as a homeschooler, I’m used to that. It is scary to step outside of the realm of the professionals — and to clarify, I did not lose my faith in the medical establishment as a whole. I understand that professionals are human beings who have diverse backgrounds and subjective opinions based on their own presuppositions. I guess that is just a fancy way of saying I don’t trust people based on titles. I trust my mother’s intuition more. 

Parents should not be afraid to question professionals who work with their children.

Parents should not be afraid to question professionals who work with their children. Has this professional treated children who have had traumatic hospital experiences, RAD, or FAS? Do they even know what any of these terms mean?  Will they support your morals/values and back up your work at home?

Parenting the Hurt Child recommends: “Parents should be seen as a part of the treatment team. After all, they are the only ones who can actually help the hurt child.”

Our society is built on professionals, but that hasn’t always been the case. Parents and extended family used to be the only thing that a child needed. Outside help was only sought in extreme circumstances. Nowadays, parents are offered prenatal help, lactation consultants, Birth to Three services, mommy and me classes to ensure the child is moving and talking properly, and preschool to socialize and learn basic concepts. It’s enough to make mothers feel as if they are incompetent. 

Since young mothers are told they need help, they assume they do. It is an unfortunate turn of events. These services are offered to help, not to tear down the confidence of parents. Traditionally, grandparents and extended family helped mom and dad when they were perplexed. Should Johnny be walking by now? Should he speak at nine months old?  These used to be questions you would ask family. Now pediatricians have handy checklists for each age and stage. 

As nice as they are, these lists shouldn’t be taken as gospel truth for each child. My older brother is a genius by IQ test standards. Sometimes I have a hard time with understanding the explanations that come from his complex brain — I’m just not that smart. Yet, according to my mother, he did not speak to adults until he was three. When he did begin speaking, it was in paragraphs. My mother was not extremely panicked about it because she once overheard him practicing speech in his bedroom. She figured he would share conversation when he was ready. If he had been three today, my mother would have been advised to accept in-home help for a genius who was busy privately perfecting his speech.

Parents are the Experts

My point is this: Parents are the experts. The decision of whether extra help is needed should not be left up to someone outside the home (such as Social Worker 1). Parents should not be pressured into receiving the all of the resources available. I have seen articles in newsletters and online where new adoptive parents are plopping children in speech therapy, school therapy, and more. 

My concern for these families is this: Are they building a family, or are they just a continuation of a government institution? Again, my point is not that outside help is never beneficial or necessary — just that it shouldn’t be the default. Each family should ask themselves these questions before embarking on the professional help route:

• How will this help affect the child?  

• What happens if help is refused?

• What are the long-term results if no help is received?

• What is necessary?

Once you have the answers to these questions, proceed with what you think is in the best interest of the child.

This is an excerpt from the chapter “Medical Issues” in How to Have Peace When Your Kids are in Chaos.

The Habit of Celebration

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.

Five Bs Affected by Trauma Part I – The Brain

“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.

Brainaltered 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.

Want to know more? Listen to the podcast below.

*This article is excerpts from How to Have Peace When Your Kids are in Chaos for Adoptive/Foster Parents.

You can find the accompany course here.