Investment Parenting with Co-Regulation

Susie, a friend of mine (plus foster and adoptive Mom), shared a conundrum she had recently while teaching four year-olds during Sunday school class. A new little one melted down and hid under the table. She had no special instructions for the little one and wasn’t sure how to handle it. You see, there is a big difference between disobedience and a reaction based on past trauma. Turns out the little one was a foster child who was placed in the home just the night before. Susie would have been better equipped to help him if she had only known. I could do a whole post on taking a fresh foster or adoptive placement to church, but I’ll save that for another day. I’d like to focus on trauma and it’s effect on self-regulation.

As I talked about in my last post, trauma produces children from hard places. Children from had places have altered brain development. The main outwards sign of past trauma is what we often refer to as “bad behavior” or the inability to self regulate (if you want it to sound more science-y and less critical).  The truth is, when it comes to behavior, we must remember that every behavior expresses a need.Can't

When it comes to a child from hard places ability to self-regulate, it’s CAN’T not WON’T. In simple plain language that means, he cannot calm himself. He can’t help but be overwhelmed to the point that he is either hiding under the table (flight), not responding to what you are asking of him (freeze) or running away from the situation (flight). He CAN’T. Not physically able. Not emotionally able. In this scenario, the adult must take the reins and help the child by co-regulating. Co-regulation helps a child develop a new pattern for stress regulation.

“The early developing right brain, where attachments develop, is largely dominant during the first three years of life (Schore, 2003). It contains the initial and lasting template for stress regulation. Revisions to this template will require intentional efforts.”-Deborah Gray, Nurturing Adoption

What does co-regulation look like? Think of a two year old being tired and falling on the floor having a meltdown because she doesn’t want to take a nap. Clearly, she needs one, so Mom takes control of the situation. Mom takes the little one to her room and reads her a story and rocks her to sleep. She takes a nap. Mom is co-regulating because unless you have a rare toddler, she is not going to recognize her need for a nap and put herself down for one.

With a child from a hard place, no matter what their age and size, we must co-regulate when they cannot. A twelve year old who cannot recognize his body’s signals to eat or drink, must be provided with a snack and water every two hours or he will enter the flight, fight or freeze zone. A nine year old who has sensory processing issues may lose the ability to voice his need to escape the noise and over stimulation of a loud birthday party. Mom and Dad must be watching for cues and either leave the party or take the child to a quieter place. It’s important to remember that a child from a hard place is emotionally at least half his physical age, sometimes more. His regulation skills may be that of a two year old while he is teen size.

The good news is, as we connect and co-regulate, we change the brain chemistry, wiring and development. Scientists tell us that relationships and experience shape the brain. Think of a developing brain like a multi-storied house under construction. At birth the downstairs brain is developed. This is the part that tells the child when to breath and keeps the functions of the body on track. This is also where survival mode resides, the fight, flight or freeze mechanisms. The upstairs brain is the higher functions of the brain. It is more sophisticated and houses reasoning, speech, regulation of emotions, the ability to be flexible and adaptable. Trauma skews the wiring of the brain. Trauma triggers the amygdala, the watchdog of the body. If the brain stays in this state too long, it rewires to stay stuck in fight, flight or freeze. Chronic stress takes a heavy toll on the prefrontal cortex. It is involved in impulses, aggression, anxiety, decisions, changing gears and self-regulation.

At this point, you may be thinking, I thought you said there was hope. There is! Remember the Hebbian Principle, what fires together, wires together. That is the more you experience something, the more your wires go that direction. So, how do we rewire a child’s brain that is stuck downstairs in the survival (fight, flight, freeze)? With co-regulation and fresh new experiences that show him he can trust us. We call this felt safety. When a child feels safe, his adrenals calm, he produces less cortisol and he is able to function in his upstairs brain.

I know, I feel like this is all over the place, so let me end with three reminders.

If you are parenting a child from a hard place:

  1. Expect to co-regulate a lot more than your peers with bio children (who aren’t from hard places, because some are). Don’t base your expectation of whether you need to help them regulate on their physical age and size. “Many children who do not have early experiences of proper care also lack proper physiological and emotional regulation. This is because both of these regulation systems are developed through an attachment relationship.” (Nurturing Adoptions)
  2. Make sure your children feel safe. It’s not about really being safe. It’s about feeling safe. If they feel safer with a light on, not going to the noisy party, staying near you at a function, comply, don’t complain.
  3. Keep the positive, connecting experiences coming. “The brain is also “experience-expectant.” We come hard wired for connection. For eye contact, touch, playful interactions and co-regulation.These fill up the kid’s emotional tank and help their brains rewire. Blow bubbles. Ride bikes together. Make cookies and eat them. Read a favorite book fifty times. Swim with them, don’t just watch them swim. Hike with them. Take the time to invest positive experiences. This is investment parenting.

If you see your children struggling with regulation, what parts of this article resonated with you? Are you willing to try to do a few things differently? If you do, please share your stories! I’d love to hear from you!

Understanding Your Adopted/Foster Child’s History

“A scar is evidence of a wound, but also evidence that we can heal.”- Scott McClellan

Empowered to Connect

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, he/she is so manipulative, I don’t know.” As if the child will pull the wool over my eyes (as he may do with some) or their situation is so unique, so individual that I won’t be able to grasp it. It is this pit of ‘aloneness’ that foster and adoptive parents feel. 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. What should we do? Who has the answers? To move forward with understanding, we must first have knowledge.

  Foster/Adopted children have had trauma in their lives. Trauma changes the neurochemistry of the brain in these children. 

Every behavior is a need in appropriately expressed.

In adoption/foster circles we hear the phrase ‘children from hard places’. As Ryan North, Executive Director of Tapestry Ministries, reminds us, this is not a geographical location. As explained in The Connected Child, there are six primary risk factors that characterize children from hard places:

  1. Prenatal stress and harm-over 80% of children adopted/foster care have been exposed to drugs or alcohol. The Mother’s high levels of cortisol cross the placenta,  alters the structure of the brain and damages the immune system. 
  2. Difficult labor or birth.
  3. Early medical trauma -hospital stay, surgery, etc..
  4. Trauma- house fire, natural disaster, auto accident, death of parent.
  5. Neglect-  Neglect says,”You don’t exist.”
  6. Abuse – Abuse says, “You don’t matter.”

Five things are impacted by early trauma (any one of the six risk factors).

  1. Brain- altered brain development, overactive amygdala. It’s as if the child is chased by a bear all the time. Our experiences shape the connections in our brain. Hebbian principle- What fires together wires together.
  2. Biology- Neurochemistry is altered. Hormones altered. Serotonin is often low. Dopamine is low or high. Some young children have the adrenals of a ninety year old.
  3. Body- Learning delays, developmental delays, sensory issues.
  4. Beliefs- What’s one firmly held belief that you have? What would it take you to change that belief? Adopted/foster children may believe: People don’t love me because I’m not worthy. If I was worth something, people won’t treat me this way. Everyone leaves.
  5. Behavior Regulation. Co regulation. Self Regulation. – A child from hard places has difficulty regulating because he has not had the natural progression. Remember, a behavior is a need inappropriately expressed.  These kids get stuck in survival mode or Fight, Flight, Freeze.

Traditional parenting doesn’t work with these kids. In the ETC course for adoptive/foster parents, we teach 25 parenting tools to help these kids have hope and healing. The tools are based on the TBRI model- Trust Based Relational Intervention, created by Dr. Karyn Purvis and Dr. David Cross at TCU in Texas. This approach was turned into a training curriculum by Michael Monroe and Dr. Purvis called ETC  Parent Training for Adoptive and Foster Parents. I am a parent trainer (along with my husband). We teach a variety of trainings, one for professionals (3 hours), a Prepare Course a six week class,  for those considering foster or adoption and a Connect Course, a nine week class, for those who have adopted/foster children already in their homes.

If you read this article and see yourself in the opening statements, maybe you feel isolated and alone, at the end of your rope. Or..maybe your adoption/foster experience isn’t quite as rocky, but you would like to learn more about some parenting tools and spend some time with other adoptive/foster parents, if any of these are you, then look into the parent training. You can click here to go to the map and find a trainer near you.

Also, check out the Empowered to Connect Site for more articles and videos to help you in your adoption/foster care journey.

Should You Attend the Empowered to Connect Conference?

Remember that old commercial, “Silly Rabbit, Trix are for kids!” That rabbit never gives up, he keeps trying to capture his share of the sugary cereal.

That’s the same scenario that plays out when people see the banner, post or tweet about the Show Hope’s Empowered to Connect Conference (April 8th and 9th) They think, “Silly me, that conference is for foster and adoptive parents!” It’s not just for for adoptive/foster families. It may be for you:

 

If you counsel  families and children….

 

If you are a teacher…

If you are a judge….

If you are a psychologist, teacher, therapist, have a special needs child, have a specialization in child development, work with children on the spectrum or work with children on a daily basis, this conference is for YOU.

If you are scratching your head, wondering what T.B.R.I. (Trust Based Relational Intervention), watch this intro video and share!

If you are interested in attending the Show Hope Empowered to Connect Simulcast and you live in the Fairmont, Clarksburg, Bridgeport, Morgantown (WV) area, you can find more info here. If you would like to attend and live elsewhere, click here to find a location near you. Hope to see you April 8th and 9th at the Empowered to Connect Conference!

*For CEUS, make sure you register here. This is a separate registration than regular attendance and MUST be done online.