Raising Children with Trauma in Their Past

correct:connect

Because of my own family story, I love working with families with foster and adoptive children. These families have to be adaptive and attuned to help their children work through difficult memories.  Even after a child has been moved to a nurturing environment, it takes time for the child to feel like he is safe. It is usually not something a child can even verbalize; their body is subconsciously vigilant, and the child may seem more reactive to what a person with no trauma in their past would think necessary.

 

If you are caring for a child that was in an environment like this, normal behaviors that you might see because of this bodily sense of danger are:

 

Anger                          Inattention

Aggression                  Sleep Disturbances

Defensiveness             Fidgety

Impulsive                    Anxious

Hostile                        Irritable

Irrational                     Delayed physical and mental development

Poor Focus

 

The body tries to create a way to handle the overwhelming feelings of danger, so you might also see children do one or more of these things:

 

Freezing                      emotional numbing

Distraction                  self-soothing behaviors like thumb sucking, rocking, or

Shy                                self-harming.

Sadness                       Withdrawn

self-centered

 

 

If you understand these behaviors are a child doing their very best with their trauma history, it is much easier to have compassion and focus on connection with a child who very much needs to know they are safe with you.

 

I encourage you to seek out a counselor for you child that has an expertise in attachment and trauma in children. But as a parent, there is so much you can do to help your child heal as well.

 

The best thing you can do is stay calm and get quiet when you child gets loud. Show empathy and stay as close as they will let you. Focus on regulating your own emotions, take deep breaths and stay calm so that your child will be able to attune to your behaviors and eventually regulate.

 

After your child has calmed, explain to your child the effects of trauma on their brain and body. This gives them knowledge, knowledge is power and reduces shame. You child is NOT a bad kid, they are doing the best they can with the skills they have. Together you can work on him feeling safe and learning new skills to regulate.

I have much more to say on this topic, if you are an adoptive or foster family, please reach out and schedule a coaching session with me. You are the primary source of healing for your child and I can help you with skills and tools to help you and your child.

 

Reference:

Rhoton, R. (2017). Transformative care: A trauma-focused approach to caregiving. Arizona Trauma Institute. Phoenix, AZ.

 

Choosing Connections: Problem Solving with your Child

problem solving

Choosing Connections is a positive parenting approach in which the goal is to keep communication and connection open with your child. It is helping a child solve a problem instead of causing a child to suffer because he has a problem.

 

To choose connection is to see past the behaviors of a child and realize that he is trying to communicate through his behavior. I help parents build their skills to see what a child is trying to communicate through their behaviors and help the parents to stay in a calm, regulated body to stay connected with their child. When a parent chooses to be available, calm and curious, the parent and child can work together to meet both of their needs which will build connection and trust.

 

Children can also understand what parents are communicating through their own behaviors. If a parent yells, criticizes, complains, nags, and blames, the child understands that the parent is trying to control a child’s behavior. This may result in a child’s choice to obey to a parent’s wishes, but they will not do it from a place of connection, they will do it because a parent has the greater power.

 

We are all good at wielding our parental power and telling a child how we are going to solve his problem-

“Go to your room!”

“Get your shoes on!”

“Stop doing that!”

 

Instead of telling a child how you are going to solve his problem, try asking your child to help you solve the problem. The problem-solving rules are that each of you can only offer what you are willing to do to solve the problem. No blaming, no criticizing. Stay calm. Make sure you both understand the rules.

 

“The problem is that we need to get to that appointment. Let’s see, I could get everything in the car, and get it running, or I could help you put on your shoes if you need help.” Then see what your child has to offer.

 

By offering what you can to help solve the problem, it keeps communication open helps you both feel closer and gives the child a shared sense of power and freedom to solve the problem. He has options. You may find out that your child has some impressive problem-solving skills when given the chance to solve a problem with you.

Coping Skills

.circumstances and decisions

When a child (or even an adult) is feeling big emotions he very much wants to feel just right again, and his body does too. When emotions take over, the body reacts, and the child might have fast breathing, feel wiggly, tense or tired that go with the big emotions. There are things a person can do on his own to calm the body and the emotions to bring him back to feeling just right. Teach a child some of these skills when he is not feeling the big emotions and practice them. Practice them yourself too. When the big emotions come you and the child can do some of these exercises to feel calm again.

 

  1. Deep Breathing. Take a breath in and count to 4 slowly in your head. Hold it for 2 counts and then breath out while counting to 4. You can pretend you are blowing on hot food to cool it off. Cup your hands in front of you, take a deep breath through your nose to smell the pretend food and then blow out through your mouth as if to cool off the food. This forces the body to pause and all the oxygen that is taken in in long slow breathes helps the mind and body calm and function better.

 

  1. Reminder stops. You can do this exercise throughout the day to help you remember to be calm and slow down. Pick something that will remind you to do the exercise such as every time you see a dog, every time you see a flower or a certain color, every time you enter or exit the house. When you see these reminder stops. Take a deep purposeful breath- count to 4 as you breathe in, hold for 2 counts and then let it out for 4 counts.

 

 

  1. Give yourself a hug. Cross your arms in front of you and wrap your arms around your body to give yourself a hug. Squeeze with your arms and hold it while counting to 5. Do it as many times as you need to until you feel calm. This helps you be aware of how your body feels and increases your focus and concentration.

 

 

  1. Arm massage. Grab your wrist with the other hand and squeeze, repeat the motion while moving up your arm until you get to your shoulder. Repeat with the other arm. This taps in to pressure points that help you relax, slow down and increase your focus.

 

  1. Hand massage. Take your thumb and push it along the palm of the other hand 5 to ten times to give yourself a little hand massage. Repeat on the other hand. This also taps into some pressure points in your body and helps it relax and slow down. It also helps wake the body up if you are feeling slow and tired.

 

  1. Finger Pull. Put one hand palm up, one hand palm down facing each other. Wrap your fingertips around each other and pull as hard as you can without losing the lock you created. Imagine that all your bad feelings are in in your fingers and you are pulling them out of your body. Pull as long as you need to until you start feeling better. This helps calm when you are feeling emotional or wiggly.

 

  1. Palm push. Place your hands together with the palms touching and push them firmly together. Hold it for 5 to 10 seconds. This helps when you are wiggly, emotional or tired.

 

 

 

Besides these practical exercises, guide the child in the religious teaching that he is being raised in. All major religions of the world deal with ways that a person can calm and deal with troubling thoughts and situations.

 

Another helpful exercise that isn’t something the child can do on his own is to give each other should rubs. A child from a traumatic past may have issues with being touched. This could help him be comfortable with comforting touch from a safe person. Rub the child’s shoulders and then switch and ask the child to rub your shoulders. It’s a good bonding tool to help you and the child feel close to each other. It also regulates the child by being aware of his body and feeling his muscles relax. If the child is not comfortable with it at first, go slow and just hold your hands on his shoulders or even the top of his head. When he is comfortable with that, you can rub his shoulders and ask him to stay with you and feel the muscles under the skin and how the rubbing feels on the muscles. Hopefully, as his comfort level grows, this will be a practice you both enjoy

 

 

References: Brukner, L (2014). The kids guide to staying awesome and in control: Simple stuff to help children regulate their emotions and senses. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Philadelphia

Rethinking Discipline

discipline

Positive Parenting is all about connecting to your child and keeping that the first goal in all communications with your child. Discipline actually means “to teach”. Someone recently asked me how I discipline my children, what they meant was, “how do you punish them when they don’t do the right thing?”  Discipline is helping a child solve a problem, not punishing them because they have a problem. We can do this as parents even when the child has not done the “right thing.”

 

Let’s assume your child has done something wrong, it probably won’t be too hard to go back in your recent memory to think of an example. The traditional way to “discipline” that child and teach that that is not ok is to get loud, lecture and dole out punishment. Think back to when you were a child, did that work? If you decided not to do that activity again, it was probably because the consequence was not worth it, not because you were convinced it was wrong. And if the consequences were not a deterrent to your activity, you probably just got better at hiding it from your parent. Walls are up, tempers are up, and connection is down.

 

Also, think of the last time you were reprimanded as an adult, how did that feel? You probably felt belittled and angry even if you deserved the reprimand. Your child has similar feelings and wants the same thing you want in those situations, empathy and connection.

 

So. when you need to correct your child, think of these three things:

Stay calm

Stay connected

and teach

 

Stay calm is the biggest one. Once you can control your own impulses to react and slow down and take a deep breath before engaging with your child, the rest should come easier.

 

Stay connected by validating the child’s feelings if you know what they are. If you don’t know what they are, be curious and ask questions.

“I know you don’t want to share your toy with your sister, that can be frustrating.”

Or

“You seem angry, can you tell me about it?”

 

Take the time to connect especially when your child is caught in the act of doing something they know you wouldn’t approve of. This helps the child keep his own thinking brain online instead of being reactive, and is able to listen and engage by mirroring your calm and connection.

 

 

Depending on how emotionally charged the situation is, you may decide to teach now or later. If you are upset, please talk to your child later about his behavior. When you feel like it is a good time, talk with your child about the incident.

“Hey about that thing that happened this morning, that didn’t go so well, what do you think we can do next time?

 

This type of discipline affords the child with respect and empathy and allows him to make his own path to right a wrong to maintain connection rather than out of feelings of shame and anger. It’s connection.

How do you Feel?

face in a reflection

If I’ve learned anything about trauma, regulation and parenting it is that first you have to know yourself. That applies to your children and it applies to you. If you aren’t in the habit of self-reflection and asking yourself how you feel and what do you need, you are most likely a reactive person who is comfortable telling yourself that your reactions were justified because someone else “made you do it”.

 

While it is very true that we attune to people and tend to match the emotions we see in someone else we focus our attention on (see my previous post on Atunement), it is important to be able to have enough self-awareness to understand when you are having negative feelings and examine those feelings before you disconnect with that person- in this case your child.

 

If you are not in the habit of self-reflection, I would suggest you look up some mindfulness techniques. They don’t have to take a lot of time during your day. You can do something as simple as pausing every now and then during the day and labeling your feelings at that moment to yourself. “Right now, I’m feeling- happy, anxious, calm, angry…” Remember behavior is communication. It’s true for your child and it’s true for you. If you are being short with your children, label your feelings and that can help you identify why you might be behaving the way you are.

 

Now for you children, self- reflection and attunement might be hard concepts for them to grasp. But you can still teach your children how to know themselves. I’m big on family time, family meetings, family meals whatever ritual you establish that pulls your family together so you can talk and share. Our family gets together before bedtime every night to talk, read, pray and dole out goodnight hugs and kisses. This is the time where I sneak in some sort of mindfulness activity we do as a family. One exercise we tried recently was that we each had to say how we felt at that moment and put a label on our emotion. It may be difficult for your kids to put a word to how they are feeling as we typically don’t say much about our emotions beyond, “fine”, “good”, “tired”, or maybe even an eye roll when a parent asks how a child is feeling. It’s a good place to start building up self-awareness. Try it!

 

Another exercise you can do with your children that is fun is playing a sort of feelings charade game with them. Have each person take a turn choosing a part of their day to act out and they have to show in their face how they felt about that experience.  By focusing on non-verbal communication with no words. The rest of the family will be attuned to the person’s body language and facial expressions to try to figure out how they are feeling. This game has a two-fold benefit of helping the person who is acting out to again label their emotion to themselves and then tie that emotion to a facial expression, it links the left brain label/category and words factory to the right brain sensing and expressions to help them process how they felt about a part of their day. The rest of the family trying to guess the emotion, will be attuned to the person and their mirror neurons will be activated as they watch the expressions and register the feelings themselves in the right brain- then say the word- activating the left brain. Its’ a fun way to integrate thoughts, feelings and empathy by using both sides of the brain while building self-awareness skills.
And self-awareness brings knowledge