On April 7th and 8th I had the opportunity to attend an “Empowered to Connect” seminar, offered as a simulcast through a church in Beaver. It was 16 hours of education and insight into the effects of trauma on kids and how to parent kids from hard places.
I attended with hope that I would glean even a crumb of knowledge that would help me parent my adopted sons. We have been in crisis mode for the last six months and it has taken its toll on our family. I went, desperate for help, hoping for the missing key…and I got it.
It is not an exaggeration to say it was life changing.
And for the first time in a long time I felt HOPE.
It has been a dark, long, lonely winter and it was as though I had caught sight of the first frail crocus pressing up through the snow with promises of spring on its petals.
I felt the hope of “what could be” course through my veins as I drank in the answers to all the “whys” and hows” that have consumed me for so long.
I felt God calling.
I finally had the map to this foreign land I have been wandering through for the last four years. The key is in the trauma and how we address the trauma, rather than focusing on the behaviors which are the external manifestation to the trauma.
It was my Oprah Winfrey “ah ha” moment.
We had some pieces of the puzzle. Some of these things we were doing instinctually, some were tips we had read, and much of our wisdom came in the form of puzzle pieces given to us by our therapist, Miss Tina , but this experience was as though someone finally showed us the lid to the puzzle box. I finally understood what all those pieces were meant to look like when put together and it gave me an end vision of what we were working toward. It finally all made sense.
Now that we have answers we jump into this new way of parenting. It will be hard. It will require commitment. It will be a long, tiring, ever evolving road. But we now understand where that road began and where we are headed, and so we will begin again, better prepared for the journey!
I now give “an out” to all of you who follow and support us but perhaps aren’t in the trenches yourself from having to finish reading the second half of this blog in which I share a small sprinkling of this amazing therapeutic parenting strategy,
But if you are one of my fellow RADish families, or you are a friend or family member of someone who is struggling, perhaps you will find a nugget of wisdom that will help ease some of the weight you carry or someone you love is carrying.
For local friends: If you read this and feel so called to learn more there will be a rebroadcast of this incredible seminar, “Empowered to Connect”
“Pathway Church will be hosting the rebroadcast of the Empowered to Connect conference on Friday and Saturday, April 28th and 29th from 10:00am.-6:00pm. The program was developed by the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, a child development expert. Since its a rebroadcast, it will be a free event however childcare and lunch will not be provided. If you would like more information about the event, please contact Michelle Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org
(What you will get from the conference far exceeds what little information you can glean from my notes!)
Here is a smidgen of what I learned:
Understanding the science behind the effectiveness of TBRI:
The trauma our kids have experienced have had a neurological effect on how their brains function. Kids from hard places tend to have an underdeveloped “upstairs brain,” the part of the brain that allows us to think, reason, learn, remember and regulate our emotions. They also have a hypersensitive “downstairs brain,” that is responsible for survival responses. This means kids who have been traumatized react in extreme ways and take more time to regulate and calm down. They may even perceive non-threatening situations as threatening.
Trauma is a wounding. It overwhelms the ordinary adaptations to life. Trauma can create PTSD. This is not just an emotional response to troubling events; it’s the expression of a persistent deregulation of body and brain chemistry. Brain is assaulted by neurotransmitters — brain chemistry can be altered for decades. With this change, arousing events can trigger flashbacks.
Trauma creates chaos in our brain. The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped portion of the brain. It’s the emotional part. It’s the primitive part of the brain. It interprets messages that there’s danger or it’s safe. It knows nothing about reasoning or cognitive functions. It deals with feelings and emotions. It controls emotional reactions such as fear & anger.
(Amygdala) It’s the alarm portion of the brain. It becomes highly active during and while remembering a traumatic incident. It controls our behavior. When you’ve been in trauma it’s hypersensitive–overreacts to normal stimuli.
Trauma freezes thinking.
Traumatized people have alterations in their brain. Memory is affected by lapses–there are deficits in verbal recall.
The frontal cortex ability is decreased. Less ability to do left-brain functions–it can’t distinguish a real threat from a false threat. Intense stress or trauma is accompanied by the release of hormones. A nerve running out of the brain to the adrenal glands triggers adrenaline and noradrenaline secretions. Adrenaline and noradrenaline surge through the blood stream causing the heart to beat faster and prime the body for an emergency.
Then these hormones activate receptors on the vagus nerve running back to the brain. This causes the heart to continue to beat faster, but also signals various parts of the brain to supercharge that intense emotional memory. These hormones assist the individual to mobilize in the event of emergency. They also sweep through the body, return to the brain, and trigger the release of more equally powerful hormones (cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine, oxytocin, vasopressin and opioids).
This flood of hormones produces the “fight-flight” response in most people. When a trauma hits up to 70% of your brain-bound oxygen is diverted into your muscles to propel you somewhere else.
(This will read as bad behavior in our kids…hitting, breaking, biting, bolting)
But for a few individuals, it produces a “freeze” mode. In this instance, all those hormones are rushing through the body and have no appropriate physical response. The stress has paralyzed the victim.
(This can read as defiance in our kids)
The behaviors can’t be fixed through consequences or bribes because what we are dealing with isn’t a “I won’t” issue. It is a “I can’t” issue. The response is a deep seeded physiological response to a perceived threat.
Every behavior has a function so we must ask ourselves, “What is the need behind the behavior?” In other words, “The behavior is the smoke. The need is the fire. We must train ourselves to look past the smoke to see the fire.”
When parenting kids from hard places we must see the trauma behind the behavior if we are to respond in a healthy healing way.
“If we attack behavior without compassionate insight as to why a behavior exists, then we never generate true lasting healing for our children.” -Karyn Purvis
What does that mean in a practical sense?
Step 1: Recognize what is happening in that moment by practicing mindfulness in our parenting. We must think “trauma” not “behaviors” when we see our children losing control (ie: fight, flight, or freeze mode.)
Step 2: Once we are in the trauma mindset we must step in to help our children regulate. We do this by approaching our children calmly and connecting by getting on their level, making eye contact, through touch, behavioral matching and playful interaction. “Connection must come before correction.”
Step 3: Ask our child two key questions:
- Do you need help regulating? (We need to serve as our child’s external modem until they learn to self-regulate)
- Then ask, “What do you need?”
Step 4: As you engage with your child apply strategies that empower our kids to succeed.
- Consider their physiological state. Are we addressing their cognitive well-being by meeting their physical needs? (i.e.: sleep needs, managing hydration, managing blood sugar, regular physical activity, etc.)
- Apply ecological strategies. The ecological strategies help us design our schedule and environment so that we can avoid common breakdowns through the day. We do this by:
- Managing transitions. Transitions are hard for our kids (even good transitions) because they represent change and the unknown. Consider our children’s life experiences and what transitions they have lived through and we suddenly become more empathetic with the heightened emotional response we get when a daily or life transition takes place for our kids. We can help them manage by giving them reminders, announcing upcoming transitions, and giving five minute warnings.
- Develop regular rituals (routines that foster connection) to anchor parts of your day which will increase feeling of security in kids that come from hard places (i.e.: prayer times, bedtime stories, playtimes)
Step 5: Give our children the tools needed to self-regulate. Help them discover a tool box of self-regulation tools that help them regulate when they go into fight, flight or freeze mode. Some ideas include: the use of a weighted blanket, chewing gum, physical activity, or calming activities.
Step 6: Respond in an IDEAL way.
Immediately. We should be addressing behaviors within 3 seconds.
Directly. Go to them, make eye contact, use an authoritative voice, use appropriate touch and playful interaction.
Efficiently. Our level of response needs to meet the level of the behavior. “Don’t use an elephant gun to kill a fly.”
Levels of escalation:
Level 1: (Playful Engagement) Low level of escalation, sassy tones, interrupting. Parent response: playful engagement, “re-dos,” actively learning.
Level 2: (Structured Engagement) Higher level but there is no physical threat. No one is in danger. Parent response: Be firmer, try to get them to express their needs verbally through negotiation rather than using behaviors to express their frustration.
Level 3: (Calming Engagement) Situation has escalated to the point where a child needs help regulating and calming themselves. Parent response: help the child regulate.
Level 4: (Protective Engagement) Active threat of danger and harm. Parent response: Provide safety for all involved.
(If engaging in an IDEAL way the situation should never escalate to a level 4.)
Action Based. Resolution should be action based, allowing our kids to make amends through their actions.
Leveled at the Behavior. We never attack the child’s character. That only feeds into feelings of self-loathing and shame. Correction should ALWAYS be leveled at the behavior not the child. Making it clear that while their behavior is not o.k. they are still deeply loved. Children who come from a trauma background have a very powerful shame core. Our interactions with our children should never feed into that internal shame. “These children bled before they came to us. They shouldn’t bleed in our care.”
Step 7: Powerful response tools to help our children and the situation from escalating:
- “Are you asking me or telling me?” (level 1)
- “Try that again with respect.” (level 1)
- “Do you need a re-do?” (level 1)
- “No hurts. Please try that again.” (level 1)
- Give two choices. “Which one do you choose?” (level 2)
- “Do you need a compromise?” (level 2)
- “It looks like you are having a hard time regulating. What do you need right now?” (level 3)
Step 8: After the interaction everyone involved should leave the experience feeling calm, connected, and content. That is successful engagement.
Step 9: Other strategies that build trust and foster attachment:
– Say “yes.” For every “no” you give your child you should be seeking seven opportunities in the day to say, “yes.”
– Use Time-in rather than Time-outs.
– When things are hard bring the child closer rather than sending them away.
– Parent with resolutions rather than consequences.
– Have daily planned one on one time daily to connect with each child. This time (10 minutes) should begin with connection (eye contact and touch), should be child led play. During this time the parent should not teach, parent, or question. Let the child lead the play. Match their behavior, praise their character and engage in healthy touch. Daily one-on-one time fosters attachment.
– Create purposeful learning activities to teach life skills during non-escalated times. During a meltdown is not the time to teach the importance of saying, “please.” Instead these important life skills should be taught through playful engagement. (ie: playing “Mother may I “PLEASE” take three steps?”)
So how will you know if TBRI is working? Karyn Purvis’s answer:
“You will know it is working when joy and laughter return to your home.”
“Equipped with deep understanding of attachment, sensory processing, brain chemistry of fear, the impact of my history, and strategies to connect, we can bring deep healing to our children.” – Karyn Purvis