What Does a Trauma-Informed Church Look Like? Part 1

A question I received via email in response to 3 Steps Every Church Can Take To Become Trauma-Informed is “What does a trauma-informed church look like?”

That’s a great question with a complex answer. I’m going to tackle it anyway.

First and foremost, trauma-informed churches are more about relationship than they are about proper behavior. As I said in the article linked above, trauma is a buzzword. Churches are hopping on the bandwagon and saying they are sensitive to attenders who have had trauma, all the while, making sure everyone’s behavior measures up. I’m going to focus on kids here because that’s what I’m trained in (mostly through experience).

Trauma-informed churches don’t expect kids to regulate (behave).

Most churches who are trauma-informed say that relationship trumps behavior. Acknowledging the idea is a great start. Do they follow through?

At- risk children can easily feel alienated and cornered, alone against the world. Feeling that way, it almost guaranteed that they will come out fighting, manipulating or fleeing. Then the only adult attention they receive is endless scolding and punishment. Soon this dysfunctional dynamic becomes a habit, and the the children learn to seek familiar and available attention by acting out. What a scary and miserable way to live!

The Connected Child

When a child can’t stay in a seat for worship, is the behavior a detriment to the relationship? In other words, will the child be put in time-out, shamed, sent back to parents, berated, or fill in the blank? Does sitting in a seat, being in an environment that produces sensory overload, or the inability to regulate due to stressors cause a break in the relationship? Is the child put on the chopping block and asked to measure up to a standard before he is accepted? This is not what a trauma-informed church looks like.

The concept of “being good” in church.

I totally understand the concept of “being good” in church. When I my kiddos were younger and I sang in the choir. I had to be at church early for warm-ups. With hubby out of town or at work, all seven of my kiddos had to sit on the front row while I was up on the risers with the choir. I got pretty durn good and shooting looks at my kiddos that meant “behave or else!” I grew up in an era when everyone had to be respectful to adults, especially those in the ministry no matter how we felt about it. If I got in trouble at church or school, I was sure to get double trouble at home. No explaining away my behavior. No excuses. Kids submitted to authority or suffered the consequences. If you grew up like I did, it may be difficult to shift gears to a new way of thinking especially in a spiritual or religious setting.

A new way of thinking about behavior.

Things have changed. Science has discovered many ways that trauma effects kids. I have written many articles about that, for the sake of brevity, let’s say – Kids who have had trauma cannot behave, not – will not behave. When Sunday school teachers, children’s church workers, youth leaders get that scientific fact firmly placed in their belt of truth, we will see more effective ministry for kids who have had trauma. If we want our churches to be trauma-informed, we’ll be the adults that say, “It’s up to us to figure out what works to build relationship with each child.”

Start with talking to the parents (or whomever brings them to church).

Trauma-informed churches ask foster parents, adoptive parents, parents of kids with capital letter syndromes what the kiddo needs to feel safe and what helps the child regulate. Trauma-informed churches put needs of kids who have had trauma on the list right next to severe allergies. If one child cannot have peanuts and another goes into overload if the music is too loud, skip the peanuts and have some noise reducing headphones. It looks like an away room with headphones, adults to help a kiddo regulate, and someone to connect with even if there has to be a correction first. Especially if there has to be a correction first.

If you need help with how to train your staff on correcting, try the “Instead of Tips” here and download a printable resource here. Trauma-informed churches have a system set up that everyone can follow. All of the staff and volunteers use the same approach which give another layer of felt-safety to the kiddos. If you’re interested in an e-course to accompany the graphic, make sure you get on our email list to get the link when it’s live.

A short word on Teens

If a group of teens comes to the after-school program at your church and you know they have had various levels of trauma, make sure you have trauma-trained staff to supervise. This usually means more staff, more supervision, and more structure.

It’s a fallacy to think when teens who have had trauma or a capital letter syndrome will be able to regulate just because they have large bodies. The truth is most of these kiddos are half their physical age emotionally. Teens with large bodies and little ability to self-regulate in response to stressors can quickly spiral out of control.

I’ll continue this line of thought in one of my articles.

National Adoption Month and Some Thoughts on #adoptionrocks

It’s national adoption month and a friend of mine shared a post on the #adoptionrocks by Tara Vanderwoude, Social Worker. You can find her whole post on her Facebook page. I’ll share some snippets here. 

“For the past handful of years, #adoptionrocks has been popular across social media. A quick query on Insta shows nearly 500k photos hash-tagged with this sentiment. It’s mostly APs using it, and photos come up with adoptee toddlers at the apple orchard, adoptee tweens reading a book on the couch or adoptee grade-schoolers on the first day of school. Other photos show newly adopted kids in the courtroom on finalization day, while other photos are fun selfies of a white parent with a kid of color.” – Vanderwoude

when Adoptive Parents don’t feel the right to Celebrate.

I’d already been thinking about the topic of adoptive parents because recently because of an alarming trend not to celebrate kiddos because we might offend someone. I’ve talked with some parents, who adopted/foster and want to protect the rights/feelings of birth parents.  Because of this, adoptive parents seem as if they hide in the shadows. Afraid to post. Afraid to talk about the joy the kiddos bring or have in their homes. It’s just not right. We shouldn’t hide. We should brag that these wonderful kiddos exist. They are precious.

– One of my adoptees.

“Simply stated, I just don’t get #adoptionrocks .

In light of #passTheMicToAdoptees this November for #nationaladoptionawarenessmonth, I’m wondering:

– For whom does adoption rock? The AP? The birth parent? The adoptee?” –

Vanderwoude

In this world of “tolerate and love everyone” it seems as if there should be no rules. No heartache. No disrespect to any people group, culture, or gender. But there is disrespect when you tell a family not to hashtag something in a celebratory way or say that adoption shouldn’t rock for them. Also, just so you know, when a white parent adopts a child with a different skin tone, that child will retain the skin tone throughout their lives so it will show up in all the family photos. Celebrate it. Adoptive parents  should not feel guilty, condemned, and carry the trauma the child has on their backs like a sack of rocks. We can’t help our kiddos find hope or healing in the position of guilt and condemnation. Or maybe they should get down on their knees and crawl on glass for penance? When are we going to stop 1984-ing every aspect of everyone’s lives? Really? 

Hashtags

I’m not huge on hashtags. I use them but they aren’t something I put a lot of thought into. If hashtags were more important to me I might use #NiCUrocks right now. Not because I’m thankful that my grandson was born eight weeks early. Not because I want to glorify one of the six risk factors for trauma. Not because of the science I know about preemie births and the possible outcomes. No, because, there are nurses, doctors, equipment there to help my grandson survive and thrive.

Just as when I was in Iowa one summer when my dad was teaching a summer class at Waverly. The tornado siren went off and we all walked to the basement and hid out there until the tornado passed. The tornado took out a gas station a few blocks away. #basementsrock.

What #Adoptionrocks is Not

I’m going to be pretty blunt here because other people feel the right to be blunt about what we should or should not say, tag, feel, do, think, or write. #adoptionrocks is not synonymous with #birthmotherstinks or #trauma is great. 

Guess what? Adoption is there because there has been trauma. Period. No use or avoidance of hashtags will change that. If you are a trauma-informed adoptive/foster parent you know that. What I don’t get is when adoptive parents aren’t allowed to celebrate the child. Yes, birth parents of  bio children post pics of apple picking days, farm days, Christmas tree hunting, summer swimming, and hashtag all sorts of things. Why? Because it’s our new form of scrapbooking. It’s our way of storing photo memories. It’s our way of storing snippets of celebration.

The Origins of Adoption

As Christians, let’s not forget the origins of adoption. It was God’s idea in the first place. Ephesians 1 says: 

4 Even as [in His love] He chose us [actually picked us out for Himself as His own] in Christ before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy (consecrated and set apart for Him) and blameless in His sight, even above reproach, before Him in love.

5 For He foreordained us (destined us, planned in love for us) to be adopted (revealed) as His own children through Jesus Christ, in accordance with the purpose of His will [[b]because it pleased Him and was His kind intent]—

Our adoption into God’s family rocks. Our adoption is not something we should hide. We should celebrate. And when we adopt, we follow in the Father’s footsteps. We acknowledge the world is broken. Just as God gives us place in His family, we give our kiddos a place in ours.

Adoption Gives Us a Voice

Therefore you are no longer outsiders (exiles, migrants, and aliens, excluded from the rights of citizens), but you now share citizenship with the saints (God’s own people, consecrated and set apart for Himself); and you belong to God’s [own] household. – Ephesians 2:19

Once we become part of the family, we have voice, we aren’t outsiders. We have a place at the table. We have security. Adoption provides the same for our kiddos – a Voice. 

Adoption helps the child say:

I have a family.

I’m clothed.

I’m fed.

I’m safe.

I am loved. 

I am valued.

I passed the mic to my adoptees.

I even took this a step further and asked my adult adoptees if they had issues with the hashtag. Nope. My eldest said, “Most kids feel lucky to be out of the situation they were in and put in a better one so #adoptionrocks.”- Eldest Son

“I think it’s cool. It will show some people who always thought adoption was a bad thing that it’s a good thing.”- Youngest Son.

My other two adoptees agreed with their siblings sentiment. The question started a great conversation about birth parents and respect and such but that’s a post for another time.

We should be happy that parents are willing to build their families through adoption. All children are precious and should be celebrated. During this national month of adoption, let’s do that. Celebrate the avenue in which kids find family. Celebrating adoption is not celebrating trauma. It’s celebrating family. With the culture telling us to celebrate same-sex parents, transgender, or just about any life choice. How about we just say to ourselves, I respect your life choice to celebrate using a hashtag that says #adoptionrocks.

One final thought from a Facebook friend: 

“If we look at adoptions as we look at stepparenting, maybe we could come to a consensus that ALL parenting rocks, if you’re raising a kid, you’re a PARENT, and that is your CHILD whether by blood or love and that families are just that, families. Different, wonderful, traditional, nontraditional and families raising good humans just ROCK no matter what they came from or what they look like ❤”  – Megan Lake

Five Bs Affected by Trauma Part 3

I’ve been writing and recording a series on the “Five Bs Affected by Trauma.” You can follow along on the podcast and get your free printable resource here.

“An infant born into neglect learns slightly different lessons. For him, the bonding cycle is short circuited. Instead of experiencing need, high arousal,  gratification, and trust in others, he experiences need, high arousal to the point of exhaustion, self-gratification, and trust in self/self-reliance. Eventually this child develops less need, less arousal, more immediate self-gratification, and no involvement with others. He is likely to develop habits to gratify himself that may include rocking, head banging, sucking on his hands, hair pulling, etc.. He may grow up detached from others, appearing vacant and empty. He has few emotions and desires no interaction from others, even acting if no others are present in a room.

He has effectively learned that he can —- and needs—– to trust himself.”- Adopting the Hurt Child

One of the most visible effects of trauma is how is how it affects the body – medically, through sensory processing issues, or detachment.

Humanism tells us that everything is done by the power of a man. It teaches that man is able to sustain himself without God, without the Spirit. Studies on attachment beg to differ. Man is not sufficient on his own. He can not sustain body, soul, and spirit alone. The spirit of the child vacates when there is no attachment.

“Infants deprived of their mothers during the first year of life for more than five months deteriorate progressively. They become lethargic, their motility retarded, their weight and growth arrested. Their face becomes vacuous; their activity is restricted to atypical, bizarre finger movements. they are unable to sit, stand, walk or talk.”- Rene Spitz M.D.

Children who have been traumatized in infancy and early childhood cannot be expected to behave or respond to stimuli in the same way as children who have not.

Body –altered physical development and impacted ability to process sensory inputs.

Dr. Dana Johnson has described developmental delays and growth disturbances as one month of linear growth loss for every three months that children remain in an orphanage.

What we see in the physical are:

  • inability to process sensory inputs. 
  • Learning delays
  • Developmental delays

I’ve been writing and recording a series on the the five bs affected by trauma. You can follow along on the podcast and get your free printable resource here.

Sensory Issues- may be mistaken for willfulness and defiance, may up frustrated and disconnected.

Sensory over responsivity- OH NO!- you touch him on the elbow and he flies off the handle.

Sensory under responsivity – Ho Hum…. The child reacts less intensely to stimuli than other children. Slumps. 

Sensory Seeking- MORE! MORE!  Craves stimulus/sensation. Vigorous activity.

Sensory discrimination dysfunction- HUH? Difficulty discerning input. Shorts in the winter. Pants and cowboy boots when it is 90. Doesn’t know how he got that scrape. 

Most kids who have experienced trauma have some sensory issues. This doesn’t mean they need an official diagnosis of SPD. A great resource if you want to know more is The Out of Sync Child.

You can learn more on the Podcast series on the “Five Bs Affected by Trauma” and in the book How to Have Peace When Your Kids are in Chaos (and the accompanying course).

Five Bs Affected by Trauma Part 2

“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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!

Want a free printable resource to share? You can download “How Trauma Affects Kids” on our Printable Resource Page.

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.


8 “Instead of” Tips for Parenting Kids Who Have Experienced Trauma

Are you parenting a child who has had trauma?

Are you parenting a child who has a capital letter syndrome — such as ADD, ADHD, FAS, SPD, or Autism Spectrum Disorder — or another special need?

If so, then this is for you!

When it comes to parenting kids who have had trauma, I  struggle with imposter syndrome. I often ask myself, “How can I help other parents when I couldn’t do it perfectly or even well myself sometimes?”

We must let go of the myth that perfect parents exist. They don’t. And raising kids who have had trauma means a huge learning curve for us parents — especially if we have parented our bio children okayish with great results.

Traditional parenting is for securely attached children — kids who want to please. Any sort of parenting requires a foundation of connection with the child. That connection comes more easily with kids who haven’t experienced trauma. For those who have, the foundation is absent or shaky, and as a result, the child feels no need to follow commands or listen.

Traditional parenting tends to swoop in and fix the immediate problematic behavior. It is a short-term approach that doesn’t work with kids who have trauma. Instead, you need to take the time to consider the need behind the child’s behavior and focus on the ultimate goal of connection.

Kids who have trauma care more about control and survival. When a child has a disorganized attachment style born out of trauma, he will want to control his surroundings. Control will trump following instructions every time. In fact, the very thing that would make him feel more connected, he will fight.

As the authors of The Connected Child explain, “Children who encountered deprivation or harm before they were brought home lack many types of connections. They can lack social connections, emotional connections, neurochemical connections, cognitive connections, and sensory connections.” Because these connections do not exist, traditional parenting will not work. We must change our parenting to adjust to the fact that it will be different with these kiddos.

“Instead of” Parenting Suggestions

  • Instead of a lecture, use simple language (8- 12 words total).
  • Instead of waiting for behavior to intensify, respond quickly.
  • Instead of giving orders, offer simple choices.
  • Instead of just correcting, give immediate retraining and a “re-do.”
  • Instead of expecting a child to know, clarify expectations.
  • Instead of isolating when a child is dysregulated, keep the child near you.
  • Instead of only noticing the “bad” behaviors, offer praise for success.
  • Instead of taking it personally, remember there is a need behind the behavior.

Instead of a lecture, use simple language (8- 12 words total).

Many of us grew up with the lecture approach to parenting. For every infraction, Mom or Dad had a carefully selected and time-tested sermon they could pull from a database in the recesses of their mind. “If your great aunt Mary knew that you turned on a show in the middle of the night, [insert stories of monsters, bible verses, sticks in the eye, etc.].” You get the picture.

After a while, all our brains heard was the sound of a grown-up talking on Charlie Brown: “Wah, wah, wah, wah.” No matter how eloquent you are, your child may only hear the first 8 to 12 words. If you waste those first words, you have lost them. And long lectures aren’t the best way to get your child to listen and learn anyway.

Choose and use your words carefully. Aim them at the behavior, not the child — and there’s no need to bring other family members or what your parents would have done into it. Try instructions like these:

  • “Walk, don’t run.”
  • “We don’t hit.”
  • “Use your words.”
  • “Try that again.”

Instead of waiting for behavior to intensify, respond quickly.

We’ve all done it. We see the precursor to a meltdown or a potential fight brewing over a toy, but we wait. We wait because it isn’t that bad yet or hasn’t gotten violent. Next thing you know, the situation is out of control.

Sometimes it helps to stop and ask yourself: Why wait? Would you rather spend five minutes addressing the behavior and reconnecting now, or spend the next two hours living with the fallout? It’s a pretty simple choice in my mind. I’ve learned from experience how draining the two-hour or day-long fallout of a complete meltdown can be. As a result, I lean toward addressing an issue while it is a tiny seed instead of waiting until it grows into a giant oak tree.

Recently, my daughter and I were on our way to the zoo with her kiddo. We were meeting her sister and her kiddos for a day of fun (four grandkids + zoo = fun). As usual, we talked about our trips together when she was growing up —  zoo trips, field trips, vacations.

My grandson had been watching a show on the iPad while we talked, but it ended. “I can start a new one,” I offered. We had been hoping he would fall asleep during the first one, but no go.

“Are you sure you can get back there?” my daughter asked.

“Remember who you are talking to,” I reminded.

“Nevermind,” she said, and laughed. “You used to climb back and sit with us to get us to calm down.”

“Yep, I did.”

Some super safety-conscious parents are shaking your heads right now in disbelief. Yep, I crawled over seats and sat on the floor of the suburban to calm kids down or interrupt a fight before the trip turned into a giant meltdown.

Instead of giving orders, offer simple choices.

When I was a young and naive parent, I thought I needed to have control all the time. There were no choices. My first child blew that theory out of the water. She was very much an “I can do it myself” child. If I didn’t offer her choices, she offered them to me. I got a lot of flack from family members for not being more strict, harsh, or punitive with her.

The funny thing is, I was judged for being too strict with my kids with trauma just a few short years later. That’s another story for another time.

The point is, Audrey taught me the value of giving choices. I’m not talking about moral choices. I mean giving kids simple choices like:

  • Do you want to wear black tennis shoes or purple?
  • Do you want a peanut butter sandwich or a ham sandwich?
  • Do you want to read this book first or that one?
  • Do you want to give Uncle Bob a hug or not?

Instead of just correcting, give immediate retraining and a “re-do.”

A re-do is simple. Remember when you missed five on your spelling test and your teacher had to write the ones you missed each five times? Or when you were in gym class and missed the basketball hoop on the first shot but kept trying until you made it? Or when you got married and were trying out your cooking skills for the first time and something didn’t taste just right, so you called Mom and with her help tried again? Those are all re-do’s.

As the Empowered to Connect training manual explains, “Offering your child a chance to “try it again” and get it right — what we call a re-do — is often an ideal way to respond. In addition, this approach provides your child with body memory for doing the right thing and offers an opportunity for you to then give praise and encouragement once she re-does the task, follows the instructions, or interacts in an appropriate manner. This approach can help your child to experience doing the right thing and deepen your connection with her as well.”

Practice Outside of the Moment.

When teens or adults start a new job, they go through training. Usually, this training is practiced outside the moment. Training is not introduced when an employee is melting down over not knowing how to use the computer system (although that can happen). Practicing outside the moment allows you to teach a child when his upstairs brain is activated, instead of waiting until he flips his lid.

The authors of The Whole-Brain Child explain the concept of your upstairs vs downstairs brain: “Imagine that your brain is a house, with both a downstairs and an upstairs. The downstairs brain includes the brain stem and the limbic region, which are located in the lower parts of the brain, from the top of your neck to about the bridge of your nose. Scientists talk about these lower areas as being more primitive because they are responsible for basic functions (like breathing and blinking), for innate reactions and impulses (like flight and fight), and for strong emotions (like anger and fear).”

The downstairs brain is survival mode. No logic or reasoning is applied — just illogical, knee-jerk responses. When a child gets stuck in their downstairs brain, his body shoots cortisol through his system, and he lives on the edge. A simple request sounds like YELLING.  IN FACT, EVERYTHING IS AMPLIFIED. A CAR THAT PASSES THROUGH THE NEIGHBORHOOD IS A THREAT. A COMPLIMENT IS TWISTED INTO A CORRECTION.

You get the point. Scary, huh? It’s no fun to live there.

I did lots of practicing outside the moment with my kiddos before we went somewhere. My funniest story using this tool is practicing to go to the library. My newbies had recently come home from Poland, so I had kiddos aged 12, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, and 1. Four of them had never been to a public library before, so we practiced at home. We pretended the bookshelves were the library. I showed them how to get a book, whisper, sit down at a table, and look at the book they had retrieved.

Our town had a small library with an unusual practice. When you got a book out, you replaced it with a ruler to mark your place in order to return it if you didn’t check it out. My kids loved this practice a little more than I realized. When we got to the library, they used all of the rulers to mark places and got a giant stack of books — which ties in nicely with my next point.

Instead of expecting a child to know, clarify expectations.

Traditional parenting often relies on assumptions. We assume that the child should know how to behave in an environment or know what to expect. We say things like, “You should know better” or “Be quiet! This is a library,” as if a child who has never been to a library would know that information. Just like my kiddos didn’t recognize the implied rule that you should only get one book out at a time.

You can practice outside the moment for about anything:

  • Going to a restaurant.
  • Going to a ball game.
  • Flying on a plane.
  • Shopping.
  • Skating.
  • Visiting a friend’s house.

Not only does this help your child know what to expect, but it also alleviates fears. Many kids need to know what’s next, and if you have informed them and practiced with them, it will be a smoother ride for both of you.

Instead of isolating when a child is dysregulated, keep the child near you.

One of the popular parenting tools frequently used is time out. As the authors of The Connected Child explain, “These isolating strategies may be useful for biological children who are already connected and emotionally bonded to their families. But isolating and banishing strategies are extremely problematic for at-risk children because these kids are already disconnected from relationships, attachment-challenged, and mildly dissociative because of their early histories of neglect and abuse. Isolation is not therapeutic for them.”

Instead of isolating, keep the child near you so that you can co-regulate for them. Your presence as a calm center can help them become calm down more quickly.

While a traditional time-out may not be a good idea, you can still have a “calming corner” in a public room (such as the family room or kitchen) with a pillow and a few toys for toddlers. This is a think-it-over place and can become more sophisticated as the child gets older. You can say, “Sit here and think it over. When you’re ready to talk, let me know.”

Just a caution — your child will not turn into Pollyanna just because you created a think-it-over space. When the child is ready to talk it over, he may say “ready” with the voice of a Balrog. That’s okay. Meet him where he is. Let him tell you in his own words what he did wrong, and if he doesn’t know, give him the words. Lead him through an apology or a redo or both. Make sure you finish connected. Then it’s done.

And when it’s over, it’s over. Don’t keep bringing it up. Saying things like, “Earlier today, you did that thing so I don’t trust you” or “You couldn’t handle yourself earlier, so never again” or any other broad statement makes the child feel less-than. If you know a child can’t handle participating in whatever brought on the meltdown, keep that to yourself and parent. Arrange the environment to give him something else to do.

For example, if the child has had too much screen time and it caused the meltdown, play a board game together (even if you don’t want to). You are investing in your child.

Instead of only noticing the “bad” behaviors, offer praise for success.

When parenting a child from a hard place — i.e. one who has had trauma — it’s easy to get into a pattern of only noticing “bad” behaviors. Because the child already believes he is worthless or of little value, harping on the negative only solidifies his belief.

When my newbies first came “home,” they were in a state of disorganized attachment. At times, I felt as if my home would never stop feeling chaotic.  My kiddos had a survival-of-the-fittest mentality, and finding something praiseworthy was difficult in those beginning stages of “family.”

Instead of waiting for my kiddos’ behavior to rise up the bar I had set before I offered praise, I set my sights on something other than measuring up. I began by praising them for playing with Play-Doh, creating something with LEGOs, putting on a puppet show, eating food — pretty much anything I could praise. The kids sometimes bristled at the praise. They may have wondered what my motive was, but eventually they began to accept it and even expect it. “Mom, look what I built!” This is connection.

Imagine if you never received any praise at all. Imagine if your life was just a fight to survive, and everything you did was wrong. You couldn’t sit right, eat right, speak right, or behave right in general, and people pointed those things out constantly. How would you feel? How would you feel if suddenly you started receiving some praise for things? Wouldn’t you keep doing the things you received praise for?

Instead of taking it personally, remember there is a need behind the behavior.

When we look at behaviors as needs, we are less likely to take them personally. For instance, when we remind ourselves that the child can’t regulate — not won’t regulate — we can set our personal feelings aside. When we set our personal feelings aside, we can take the reins and parent. It’s not us against them; we’re all on the same team.

So before taking a behavior personally, ask yourself what the child needs. Is the child. . .

  • Hungry?
  • Tired?
  • Over-stimulated?
  • Triggered?
  • In his downstairs brain?
  • Unsure of the expectations?
  • Unable to adjust to a change of plans?

It’s our job to be the emotionally stable person in the relationship. In an article for PBS, Katie Hurley explains one thing you can do to help your child become aware of their emotions: “Express your own emotions. Parents have a tendency to hide their own emotions from their kids. While kids don’t need to be involved in the fine points of adult problems, it’s okay for them to see you sad, mad or overwhelmed. When you label and talk about your own emotions, you show them that we all have big feelings to cope with and that you trust them just as they can trust you.”

Two of my kiddos struggled with recognizing emotions in themselves and others. I made flash cards with different expressions on them: happy, sad, angry, afraid, frustrated. We practiced recognizing emotions with a mirror and with the cards.

Sometimes, the things we take so personally are emotions the child isn’t equipped to express. In that sort of situation, the child often reverts to anger — the go-to for kids in survival mode.

Using the IDEAL Approach

For all interactions with your kiddos, use the IDEAL response as a guide. The IDEAL Approach is among the best tools for parenting, teaching, or supervising kids who have had trauma:

I: You respond immediately, within three seconds of misbehavior.

D: You respond directly to the child by making eye contact. Get down on their level.

E: The response is efficient and measured. Use as few words as possible.

A: The response is action-based. Lead the child through a re-do.

L: Your response should bed leveled at the behavior, not the child.

One final note: The suggestions in this article are simply tools for parenting. Not every tool is useful in every situation or with every child. You must find which work for your child. In extreme cases, a child may be so violent that he is a danger to himself and others the home. In that case, you need to get professional help. Don’t try to go it alone.

When Teens Who Have Had Trauma Are Judged More Harshly for Their Behavior

This week on the podcast, the topic was “Kids With Capital Letter Syndromes Are People Too.” Lori and I talked a bit about how teens who have had trauma or a capital letter syndrome don’t know how to act differently in front of adults. By that I mean, they don’t put up false fronts while adults are in the room and then go back to misbehaving when they leave.

Judging Teens Who Have Had Trauma

Teens who have had trauma are judged differently for their behavior than kids from traditional two-parent families. When we’re talking about teens from traditional two-parent homes, we tend to say things like “they’re just sowing their wild oats” or “teens will be teens.” We naturally assume they’re exploring, finding their own way, etc. When we’re talking about adopted kids, foster kids, or kids who have had trauma, however, we tend to take a different perspective and jump to the conclusion that they are just bad kids.

If a kid in a two-parent home wrecks a car because he’s buzzed or drunk, it’s kept on the down-low. But if a kid from a traumatic background flips a car because they panic at being near an abuser’s home, then they’re just “crazy” and “wild.” The incident becomes a story TOLD about them as if they’re just messed up and horrible and careless and ungrateful. 

If a kid in a stable, two-parent home is confronted with something they did wrong, they might get a little angry, but they also know the language of remorse (genuine or not). They know how to say sorry and how to stop. Kids from hard places often don’t.

The Social Age Factor

Also, because of the social age difference, trauma kids end up being labeled “bad” for things they do out of immaturity. They are perceived to be willfully acting immaturely because we assume they possess a certain level of maturity based on their physical age and appearance. However, physical maturity does not always correspond to emotional or social maturity.

Kids with trauma issues have a harder time hiding behavior or putting on the brakes. They’re caught more often, and they tend to lean into the destructive behavior when they’re caught and told to stop, whereas non-trauma kids might be better at genuinely stopping, hiding their behavior, or faking obedience.

The Effects of Neglect and Abuse

“Neglect and abuse delay cause-and-effect processing and, specifically, seeing accurately how our actions impact the world. When the infant cried in need (cause), there was no comfort response from the caregiver (effect). Over time, a child learns there is no connection between what they do and how others respond.” – Executive function #6 in Wounded Children, Healing Homes

Kids who have endured trauma end up giving themselves permission to behave badly because they THINK of themselves as trash.
Kids who have endured trauma end up giving themselves permission to behave badly because they THINK of themselves as trash.

Two-parent kids with a stable home life have this underlying perception of themselves as baseline GOOD, no matter WHAT their behavior is. Bad behavior is just something they’re DOING and can stop at any time. It’s not who they are.

Traumatized kids think that even neutral behavior is probably awful because it’s just who they are. They overhear discussions about themselves as the “bad” kid. Traumatized kids tend to blow up more spectacularly, and with only one parent, with foster parents, or with an entire community watching them, it’s not as hush-hush.

“Bad kids” are “bad kids” because when they’re caught, they act angry and “selfish.” They don’t apologize, they internalize self-hatred, they shift the blame, and they sometimes blow up more in retaliation.

An Inability to Self-Check

“Monitoring refers to the ability to self-check work as you go. …It is tempting to jump to the conclusion that the child is willfully unmotivated to self-monitor, and for some kids, that may be true. … for children whose brain development is affected by exposure to complex trauma, the capacity to monitor may be outside of the realm of will power.” – Executive function #3 in Wounded Children, Healing Homes

When a child can’t monitor or self-check, more behaviors are evident as he tries to negotiate needs. His response to transitions or stimuli is over the top. When that child becomes a teen, his body size makes his reactions appear more violent (because they are). When a 16-year-old hits a wall, his fist goes through it, whereas a 4-year-old would just hurt his fist. Remember that the social age factor is in play here.

What Do We Do With This Information?

What do we see first when observing teens? The way they act. I get it. As my mom said when I was a teen, “You only have one chance to make a good first impression.” When ministering to teens from hard places, throw that out the window. Don’t discount the first impression, but learn to look beyond the behavior. Just because the teen isn’t polite or sweet doesn’t mean we should pull out the judgment card.

Look Beyond the Behavior and Love the Person

“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” – Gal. 6:2

A teen who has had trauma in their life has some heavy burdens. Lighten the load by giving them some grace. Don’t be so quick to judge. Look beyond the behavior to the need. What does that teen need? Does he need a listening ear? Does he need you to help him figure out some coping skills? Maybe he just needs an adult to say, “I’ve been through some junk, too. I hear you. You aren’t alone.”

Remember the Social Age of the Teen

Teens and kiddos alike hear this all the time: “Act your age!” Guess what? Kids and teens from hard places are acting their age.

Typically, a child who had trauma is, emotionally, half his physical age (many times, the gap is even greater). You know what’s great about that? You can appeal to their inner child. You can play with them. Teens love to play. They love games with Nerf guns, squirt guns or  _______ (fill in the blank).

Meet the teens where they are at emotionally, not physically. Don’t let their size fool you! They need to play! This disarms a child’s fear, and the result of that is more regulation.

Remember, don’t judge a teen by his behavior. If he has had trauma, he may not be skilled in the area of hiding behavior or putting on the brakes. Look beyond the behavior to the need. What does that teen need? Look through your trauma-informed lens and see the teen. 

 

Adoption – GEESH… It’s a Wild Ride

* Guest post by Kylie Gray

Adoption, geesh! It’s a wild ride.

When we first brought our boys back home almost two years ago, we didn’t have a CLUE what the heck to expect. No one can prepare you for adopting a 6-year-old and two 4-year-olds. I remember when we first got the boys being in dire need of someone to come alongside me and show me the ropes, or so I thought. In fact, not having someone who had gone through the same thing brought me closer to the Lord than ever before. He had gone before me and that’s all I needed.

When people ask about our adoption…

I get asked often about our adoption, whether people are curious about their own adoption journey and wanting advice or just wanting to hear our story of how we did it, I always say the same thing:

1. Make sure your spouse is all in as much as you! I cannot stress this enough. If my husband wasn’t wanting this as much as me then anytime there was conflict or an issue to come up, our marriage or adoption would have failed. Start together on the same team so no matter what comes up you can tackle it together. And by golly, crap will hit the fan, it’s a matter of when not if.

2. DO IT! It’s a big step and people are always a little leary when it comes to officially pull the plug. At the least go take the intro class, its free so what is the harm. I believe adoption is not right for everyone, but I always encourage people to find out if it is.

My Biggest piece of Advice…

3. PRAY! That’s it. If you are like me adoption will drive you to pray more than ever. It’s changed me. I now have 3 children but that’s not the only reason why I am different. I believe my prayer time changed my whole life. Relationship with my husband and children certainly, but also my extended family and close friends. I am still a workin’ on a lot, don’t get me wrong but, heck I have come along way.

Finally, I came to terms with this…

And lastly…..

4. Okay, this is the first time I am saying this out loud to anyone, but it needs to be heard and will be added to my repertoire from now on. When these children come into your home they come with hurts of all sorts. I don’t mean physical hurts, that can happen too, I mean emotional hurts of baggage, trauma, triggers, and so on and so on. You want it to go away. Just leave!!! I wanted to pretend it didn’t exist for a good solid… oh who I am kidding. This week, this week is when the Lord really spoke to me and allowed me to see what I didn’t want to see for the past 2 years. Their baggage doesn’t just go away. I heard on The Whole House podcast this week Kathleen saying how I am feeling, “their past doesn’t go away, as much as I wanted it to” I am paraphrasing here, but essentially that’s how I feel. I want their horrible past to vanish! But it doesn’t.  And that…. Is…. OKAY! It’s okay for them to be able to have the feelings that come with that too. It’s okay for them to have triggers. And you know what?? It’s not your FAULT! It has taken me this long to be able to come to terms with this, it’s hard, man. I love my children and I hate seeing pain come back onto their faces. I didn’t cause the pain and didn’t have any CONTROL, that’s why I wanted it to go away. But they have the pain, nevertheless. Not taking their actions and mainly behaviors personally is one of my biggest struggles still. Like I said, this week I finally let the Lord show me this, imagine if I had allowed this into my life from the get-go. I know one thing, it sure would have saved me a lot of embarrassment, guilt, anxiety, worry, and tears!

 

So, is adoption worth it?

Adoption is 100 million percent worth it, I would never take it back if could. Although at the beginning you might second or the twentieth guess yourself, but don’t give up!

“Trust the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.”

-Proverbs 3:5

Listen to Kylie’s podcast and read her bio below!

Episode 67

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I am Kylie Gray, 29 years old, I married Trey, my college sweetheart. We live on a small 5-acre homestead in Central Oregon with our 3 boys! We adopted all three of our boys out of the foster care system here in Oregon about 2 years ago. It’s been a wild crazy road, but totally worth it! We keep busy by fixing up our old farmhouse, taking care of our growing population of farm animals, trying to figure out gardening, all while homeschooling all 3 of our boys! Come follow along with our journey on my blog blackwhiteandthegrays.com and Instagram/Facebook at Black White and the Grays.

 

https://blackwhiteandthegrays.com/