Parenting Kids From Hard Places

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When we bring a child into our home that has come from hard places, we have to evaluate and adjust our existing beliefs regarding children and parenting.  Whether they are in our home for a short time through hosting or foster care, an extended time, or if they are permanently there through adoption, these children have experienced trauma in their lives that has rewired their brains and changed the biology of their body in a way that requires a very different approach to parenting them. 

A brain that has been exposed to chronic stress becomes “stuck” (or reverts easily and often) in fight, flight, or freeze mode.  The brain remains in a primitive state of survival deep within the brain in a structure called the amygdala.  Unfortunately, this state also takes the thinking part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, “offline” any time the child is stressed.  Stress can include the uncertainty of a situation, fear of doing something wrong, new experiences, new places, new people --- basically, LIFE.  

My own daughter experienced a flip back to this state of her brain about 2 years after coming home through adoption despite phenomenal progress and growth up to that point.  She was 18 at the time, we were at a doctor’s appointment, and she was filled with many anxieties.  As she filled out the intake paperwork, she got to the line: address - and simply froze.  She looked at me and said, “I can’t remember.”  I helped her through the rest of the process and on the way home, she explained to me that she suddenly felt like she couldn’t think at all.  She couldn’t formulate any concrete answers.  She said she was just so nervous and that her brain was hurting within.  We talked about “fear-brain” and what physiologically happens when facing stressful situation, and she came away feeling empowered and committed to handling stress and anxieties in ways to allow her to function in the world.  I came away feeling more aware of the real neurological changes happening within my precious daughter’s brain when she feels anxious and committed to helping her with real strategies to help her succeed as well. 

This fear brain looks different for different children and can vary by situations as well. 

A child may exhibit “fight” with an argumentative demeanor, a series of “no” answers to requests to do a chore or even asking if they would like to go somewhere.  Their body language will be tense and many parents liken this to “looking for a fight.”  

“Flight” looks just like what one would imagine - running.  It may not mean physically running away, but seeking escape.  This could be the child that retreats to their room when a guest comes over or the child that steps out of a group activity and opts to observe vs. participate any further. However, yes, it can also mean the child that runs from a caregiver at a park or store as well.  

“Freeze” is the child who literally can’t move.  It can be the child that will resist getting out of the car at the supermarket or the one who seems completely paralyzed when caught in trouble and asked to come speak to the adult.  We also see this a lot with host children when a family will take them to a store to pick out items - whether it’s foods or shampoo and body wash.  We hear over and over, “she just stood there and wouldn’t pick something.  She smelled all of the scents, but wouldn’t choose.”  They simply can’t get their brain out of the mode of being afraid of making the wrong choice - and into the one where they can rationalize the thoughts. 

Understanding some of the neurological, biological, and physiological challenges happening within a child’s brain and body are key steps to being able to effectively parent them.  But understanding is only one piece.  So what can we DO?

The hardest of the work has to begin with the parent.  Yes, I understand we are talking about how to parent the hurt child, but the work does actually begin with the parent.  Dr. Karyn Purvis is considered an expert on parenting children from hard places through Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI).  She famously said, “You cannot lead a child to a place of healing if you do not know the way yourself.”  These simple but profound words set the foundation for being able to meet a child in their messiness and having the ability to successfully navigate it.  As parents, we are all human with our own set of life experiences and hurts along the way.  Parenting itself is a journey of facing our own insecurities and faulty thinking.  When you add in the hurts our new, older, children bring with them, it will expose every bit of our character - the good, the bad, and the ugly.  No one goes into this journey of hosting, foster, or adoption without the intention of good things and helping a child.  My experiences with families, however, is that the inner reflecting is often not something we do until we are well within the trenches and have a lot of our own ‘yuck’ bubbling to the surface and interfering with our ability to connect with our children in the most effective way.  Counseling, mentoring, and work on both personal and spiritual growth will help a new parent ahead of their journey with their new child/ren.

The foundation of forging a relationship with new children is connection.  This is the essence of all of the TBRI work mentioned above.  This can be an incredibly tall order.  We are working with children who have experienced abuse, neglect, and abandonment.  Their life experiences have taught them to trust no one - especially grown-ups.  However, this connection is also a critical component of the journey forward.  Connection comes in many forms.  It is eye contact, healthy touch, our time, kind words, responsiveness to needs.  This link explains the overview of what TBRI is and how this connection helps alter the brain chemistry to a more balanced state - allowing the parent and child to move forward in their relationship - together. 

This all makes this sound so simple.  And the basic building blocks are very simple.  However, there are challenges within all of this as well. 

When a child misbehaves or acts out, more often than not, the behavior is communicating an unmet need.  This goes for all children.  A hungry or overheated child will be more likely to melt down at the amusement park.  A child who has had a difficult day at school is more likely to come home and unload the day and anxieties toward their parents and siblings.  Children from hard places are no exception to this, but they DO have multiple layers of trauma that also compound it.  Their past has taught them to always be in survival mode.  Their brains are re-wired to do whatever it is to get their needs met.  This may mean lying, stealing, or manipulating. It may manifest as being demanding, always taking over a situation, pushing themselves to the front of the food line at a barbecue, sneaking things, hoarding, aggression, pouting, or an intense struggle for power - just to name a few behaviors.  

The key when parenting these kids is to understand that these are not survival strategies they chose -- they are a product of their past.  It takes time to build trust and to replace these strategies with new, healthier ones before we can ask our kids to lay down their existing weapons they’ve been carrying - in trade for the healthier ones we’re trying to teach.  This process doesn’t happen in days or weeks - it is many months and years long.   As the parent, we can be empowered because once we can see the behaviors as an exhibition of hurt, it gives us the ability and strength to continue forward with a bit more compassion and grace - which in turn helps build the trust and diffuse the behaviors over time. 

In the confusing, exhausting, and frustrating times - and there will be all of these - reminding ourselves that it’s you and the child, together, against their history can be paramount for the extra boost and drive forward in your quest for connection and relationship with this tiny (or not so tiny in size, but still tiny emotionally) person you’ve committed to loving unconditionally and are fighting for a brighter future for - and with. You have the opportunity to see the underlying child and recognize the pieces of their behaviors that were brought on by their past - and attack that together!

This journey of parenting kids from hard places is a counterintuitive marathon at many times, but employing the principles above will be a great kick-start whether you are yet to meet your child, have been parenting them for days, weeks, months, or years.  You have a community of parents championing you and your child/ren as you charge forward!

Valued Resources:

I have found the Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) principles to be the most transformational for my parenting, my relationships with others, and myself.  Below are some of my favorite resources I've utilized and suggested through my journey:

  • The Connected Child by Dr. Karyn Purvis
  • Wounded Children, Healing Homes: How Traumatized Children Impact Adoptive and Foster Families is an important perspective when families consider the impact of bringing a wounded child into their homes.  
  • TBRI 101 - a great video series seeing Dr. Purvis in action.  With over 6 hours of helpful information, tips, and strategies, this is an enlightening series to "see" TBRI come alive.  **Free 30-day rental through the month of August 2020 
  • Trauma Competent Caregiver (TCC) now offered through Trauma Free World:  I took TCC at one of their in-person trainings in May 2018.  The depth of knowledge and getting to better understand the impact of trauma on the developing brain as well as therapeutic ways to best connect with these kids was paramount for my own journey - even though they were things I believed to have already understood.  Having the multi-day course and have everything taught together gave me so much hope!  
  • ReMoved is a series of three videos on YouTube and I found this to be a powerful reminder of what kids may have endured.  This little girl's words about her self-worth wrecked me.  And the scene with the dress is a constant reminder that children face memories and wounds every day that we know little to nothing about.  Remembering to not take situations personally is a key to success. 
  • What is TBRI?   This video gives a brief overview of the bigger picture behind TBRI. 

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Traci Mai


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