When we sign up to be a foster or adoptive parent, we are most likely unaware of the depth of the task ahead. Most of us enter this parenting with an assumption that we have the needed skills. We may have parented other children, had good role models, or a preconceived idea of how we intend to proceed. Unfortunately, we will enter the parenting world with children who had their attachments disrupted. Due to these early traumatic experiences of loss, abuse, neglect, abandonment, etc, our children are filled with overwhelming fear. Our parenting must change to a new model because our children’s fear will cause them to be reactive, “pushing us away” in these very attempts.
Parenting a traumatized child is difficult, but not impossible. Our (Jeff and Faye’s) previous programs have been referred to as “trauma programs on steroids.” In the same way our programs were labeled as “on steroids,” this parenting requires the same elevation. The depth and strength required to parent traumatized children goes well beyond “normal.” As in parent quality #1, anyone can recognize the fear in the child quivering and crying behind a chair when a big dog enters the room (normal level). The task become more difficult when we have to recognize the fear behind a child hitting us or stealing ice cream or lying to a teacher about being feed at home. Parent quality #3, anyone can remain regulated when a child brings home a report card with a few less than stellar grades (normal). Can we remain regulated when our fourth grader is caught on video pooping in the hallway at school? Parent quality #6, anyone can still enjoy a child playing too roughly with their dog. Can we enjoy that child while dealing with her having had sex in the school’s hallway closet between classes?
We offer seven parental qualities that must be deepened and strengthened to become the healing agents our children need. At this point, some parents may be asking why they need these qualities to be present at a stronger level than what previously may have been successful? This is not just normal parenting. The additional goal of healing their early trauma calls for a radical increase in these qualities. We are not just being parents; we are transforming ourselves into “healers.”
The following parental qualities are drawn from the Seven Principles of Emotional Parenting available on our website (www.earlytrauma.com). These are principles that are at work in every family and intentionally utilized to varying degrees. Since they are at work whether we recognize them or not, when we ignore them, our families will suffer. In the same way, these parental qualities are a great asset when present, but they can cause great harm by their absence or minimization.
Our goal is to expose parents to seven parental qualities that will support attachment with their traumatized children. As parents intentionally demonstrate and model them, their children will internalize the same skills.
- Parents must be emotionally aware, especially of fear. (Limbic brains prioritize fear)
- Parents recognize the presence of fear in themselves, their children, and others.
Because all bad behavior is generated by fear, and because children who have been traumatized early experience fear all the time, parents of traumatized children need to recognize and label what that fear looks like in non-verbal communication and behaviors. No one gains this ability without correspondingly learning to recognize the three other emotions: Happy, sad, and angry. This calls for a recognition of the circumstance generating the emotion.
- Parents recognize the impact of that fear on humans
This recognition is particularly important because of the near impossibility of the children changing behaviors that are currently serving as expressions of their fear. Too often, we ask children to change behaviors caused by fear before giving them alternative ways of dealing with that fear. Many problematic behaviors stemming from fear, may not appear to be problematic. For instance, over compliance, overly charming and engaging, even being driven to be #1 can be problematic. This calls for the ability to link the fear to the behavior as well as alternative methods of dealing with that fear.
2. Parents must be able to understand and act on the impact of shared emotions in the family (Limbic brains harmonize)
Parents need to co-experience emotions with their children
As referenced in the introduction, our children are filled with overwhelming fear. They were born hardwired to share their emotions with first their mother and then, gradually, other people. This hardwiring does not go away. Their early experiences of not being able to healthily connect or remain connected to “mom” left them vulnerable and alone in their emotions. Because of this, they frequently overshare fear and become avoidantly reactive to the sharing of emotions in general. They live in a perpetual state of striving to make emotional connection while at the same time avoiding the pain they anticipate from the experience. Families are the training ground for human emotional sharing. We as parents must develop the skills to share the levels of fear these children contain before asking them to process their fear in ways other than poor behaviors.
- Parents need to recognize when emotions are being co-experienced between family members and others
The sharing of emotions within our family systems cannot be ignored or minimized. It is sometimes hard for us to understand that our disrupted dinner table conversation was an outcome of the fear and anger that “Johnson girl” was acting on (sharing) during math class that morning.
Susan whined, complained, and made nasty comments about the teacher as she sat beside Jane all through math class. Jane inadvertently shared the Johnson girl’s oppositional fear to the volume of work being asked by the teacher. Hours later that fear was still present in Jane. When asked to help Sally with a kitchen chore after dinner, Jane blew-up and began an argument about having to work “like a slave all the time.” Quickly and easily, Sally was infected with that same fear and questioned, “How dare Jane imply that she (Sally) was a harsh taskmaster?” Kurt became irritated because they couldn’t even have a quiet dinner together. Eventually, even the family dog tucked his tail and slinked out of the room.
In addition to recognizing how emotions are being shared, our role as parents also includes eventually teaching how to regulate and control the flow of those emotions.
3. Parents must be able to self-regulate. (Parents must self-regulate)
a. Parents must have the ability to self-regulate their own emotions
We will address two functions of parental self-regulation in this article.
- It is critical for parents to be emotionally regulated when encountering their children’s disruptive behaviors. A dysregulated parent is one whose actions are coming from their limbic brain. That part of the brain is always trying to place distance between itself and the fear trigger. This is not parenting. That part of our brain does not care about teaching or growing healthy children. Without emotional regulation, these limbic responses can easily resemble abusive or absentee birth parents and sacrifice opportunities for their children to heal.
Kurt heard the unusual scrunch and squeal from beneath his car as he pulled into the driveway. Quickly climbing out and dropping to the ground, he saw the mangled and broken form of his favorite golf putter. Kurt’s world went red! He began screaming for Jimmy to get his butt out here now. When Jimmy and Sally came around the corner, Kurt proceeded to berate Jimmy as a “rotten boy” for stealing the putter out of his golf bag and then, of all things, leaving it in the driveway. “What kind of son would do this? Didn’t he know Kurt had planned a foursome that evening?” Jimmy started crying and buried his face in his mother’s skirt. When asked about the event latter, Kurt would defend his behavior by saying he was trying to teach his son not to do that again. However, in reality, he was not teaching in that moment. He was feeling the fear of loss associated with his mangled putter. His limbic brain was trying to feel secure in that the event would never happen again. (As all dads have experienced, there are no such guarantee)
- Children are not born with the ability to regulate their emotions by themselves. They are born requiring adult intervention. We as adults cannot teach recognition and regulation skills we do not have. Every parent wants their child to gain functional emotional regulation skills, but fewer recognize themselves as the source of those skills. Many a parent have been surprised when they realized that their children learned the parent’s dysfunctional emotional regulation skills just as quickly as the more functioning ones.
- b. Parents must have the ability to self-regulate the emotions they are co-regulating from their children and others
Many of life’s adult roles can be at least minimally accomplished with the ability to regulate our personal emotions alone (though this is often a very isolated existence). Parenting, on the other hand, requires us to regulate not just own emotions, but also those of our children. Intentional sharing and regulating their own emotions and those of their children becomes the process of teaching those skills to the next generation. This can not be taught by lecture alone.
4. Parents must be able to perceive and communicate a positive outlook. (Parents project the positive)
Parents must have the ability to promote the awareness of positives in every circumstance
The Negative Internal Working Model of traumatized children heavily predisposes them to see, predict, and try to avoid negative life experiences. They will not expect positive outcomes to occur in any given situation. They may, however, try to scam or manipulate the world around them to avoid whatever they are fearing in the moment. Presumably, we as parents must have the ability to see, verbalize, and act on the positives present. When we cannot supply that vision, we cannot expect our children to mature and grow through the unavoidable process of “learning by mistakes.” Without our ability to visualize positives, why struggle to learn new skills? Why try to improve? Why work towards success? It is our ability to visualize positives, exercised consistently, in our relationship with them that eventually gives them the ability to do the same.
- Parents must demonstrate the ability to move towards that positive outcome, verbally and physically
Early interactions with the primary caregiver enable the developing brain to produce neuropathways tailored to the child’s environment. Due to the early trauma, children will be unable to create the neuropathways to imagine positive outcomes. Because of this, they will lack the ability to form the habits designed to produce those positive outcomes in the world. It then falls on the parent to visualize, model, and encourage the real-world habits that produce success from failure. For example, we visualize, model, and encourage how to think about our mistakes in such a way that enable us to do better the next time. We do the same with actions, such as apologies, reciprocity, practice, etc. Even our work ethic is a model for how to create success in the world. This is done all the time! If the parent is working in the garden and the shovel breaks, our children watch our response. Do I stop working in the garden? Do I use a new tool? Do I go to the store and buy a new shovel? Each of these responses to a negative circumstance, teach our children how they should respond. This is doubly important in the realm of emotions. Do we throw things, curse? demand, blame, quit? Our positive response to negative circumstances, combined with their original hardwiring becomes their primary opportunity to correct this trauma impairment.
5. Parents must be able to make sense of and define the world, others, and their children. (Parents define)
By our words, our actions, and our attitudes, we define everything about the world to our children. We do this constantly. We do this in the face of their constant attention. We are defining the world at the same time infants and toddlers are discovering it. Every interaction with our children accomplishes this task. For example: A mom leaning over the crib and smiling into her baby’s face is alerted to the rain blowing in the window. She scrunches her face and furrows her brows, and curses. She breaks the connection with her child by walking away to slam the window closed. The child who had been experiencing the cool damp breeze flowing through the crib, now encodes the experience as “bad, needs to be addressed.” Because our children are part of the world we are defining, we end up defining them and their relationship to the world. This defining role is essential to their developing understanding of themselves and their world. For the purposes of this writing, we will narrow our focus to how this attribute directly applies to intentionally defining our children.
- Parents must have the ability to perceive the positive attributes of their children
While this may be considered a “no-brainer,” there are many situations in life that can inhibit a parent’s ability to perceive the positive attributes of their children. Here’s a short list: poverty, mental illness, domestic violence, family’s history, financial stress, etc. Perhaps the most difficult barrier is the traumatized child’s symptomatic negative behavioral presentation. Regardless of the situational presentation, a parent should have the skill to label for self and others the positive attributes of the child. Keeping ourselves aware of those attributes can become a fulltime job, but when we lose touch with them, we lose the ability to promote those attributes in our children.
- Parents must have the ability to model and promote positive attributes
In addition to keeping ourselves aware of those positive attributes, we must develop the actions and interactions that promote them. For instance, if I know my child likes to read, do I keep reading material he will enjoy around the house? (or find those acceptable to house rules, if needed). If I see he has the skill to play ball, do I take “loss of pitch and catch time” off the consequence list? Every parent, traumatized child or not, could probably benefit from asking the question, “How many of my actions and words were deliberately intended to build and define my child as positive today?” Amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday life, it’s easy to forget this role and correspondingly forget to exercise this parental attribute.
- Parents must have the ability to recognize and verbalize “success”
For a child (and sometimes adults), success can be defined as getting what they want. Parents want things for their children. In our scramble to get those things, we can sometimes forget that success for the child is getting what they want. Traumatized children have an overly developed part of their brain that “wants to be less afraid.” They may be totally unaware of this “want.” This becomes a “success” goal for that child. As we organize the home environment, we typically do so to achieve what we want (success) for our children; things like good grades, manners, hardworking, etc. Before families can benefit from the successes we want for our children, we must establish ourselves as the source of their successes. In birth situations, this process begins immediately. The infant’s needs for food, shelter, and interaction are met by the mother. By the time, the child begins to develop “wants” we are already established as the source. Because we are established as the source, it’s an almost automatic process to merge these two sets of successes. Statements such as: “How do we ask?” demonstrate the merging of these two success streams. The child gets what they want (success) by demonstrating manners the parent approves of (success). The predominate underlying goal to reduce fear present in traumatized children means we must set up our environments to help them recognize and reduce fear before we promote the successes we would like to see. This sequence is particularly exasperating because we are also required to work on age-appropriate milestones (successes) at the same time. It is a very tricky dance to provide socially acceptable successes while knowing our children are working on a completely different success definition. An example of this can be seen in the dilemma, “I would like my son to play baseball, (so would the social worker and my son) but I know he becomes too aggressive when stressed.” Our job as parents is to highlight both sets of “successes” and to facilitate both. In this case, help him reduce his fear (become less aggressive) in order to meet the parental goal (see my son enjoy a sport) and the social worker goal (community involvement) and even my son’s higher goal to have fun.
6. Parents must be able to design and implement an environment that support the children’s success and positive attributes: Recognize, verbalize, and create success-scenarios. (Children learn what works)
The principle this attribute is based upon is that children will learn what works. This principle working in children, combined with attribute #5-parents define the child and world, gives us the ability to set up home environments that develop
- Parents must have the ability to recognize and verbalize “success”
Because Principle #1 states brains will prioritize fear and because Maslow’s hierarchy of needs clearly states that success (what works) must be achieved at the lower level before humans are free to work on the higher levels, traumatized children are often internally conflicted as they “want” normal, age-appropriate successes, but “need” the lower levels of Maslow survival security achieved first.
- Parents must have the ability to influence the environment to provide opportunities for the child to “succeed”
As stated above, we want to be the source of our children’s ability to succeed or get what they want. Ideally, young children would contain an unspoken belief that they can get what they want by working with their caregivers. (Traumatized children lack this belief) This gives us the ability to alter the home environment to create circumstances/opportunities for the children to get what they want while simultaneously working on what we want. In short, they succeed with their desires as they succeed with ours. The simplest example of this process is the “if, then” directive. “If you clean your room, you may go to your friend’s house.” Traumatized children, unfortunately, often struggle with this type of directive. This is because it ignores the fear (and thus the desire to avoid the fear) generated by working with a caregiver they do not trust. When the “if then” directive was issued, success for the child was going to a friend’s house. Success for the parent was getting the room cleaned. Unfortunately, after the directive was issued, success for the child shifted to avoiding cooperation with a distrusted caregiver. In the early stages of recovery, almost every interaction with the traumatized child must include recognition and processing of the fear generated by that interaction. As meeting this “success” requirement gets easier, we can more easily set up out home environments to support the dual success most needed in homes.
7. Parents must able to enjoy their children, even during negative behaviors (Children must be enjoyed)
The concept of learning to intentionally enjoy something may be alien to many people. If I don’t like opera, for instance, they may argue “I can’t enjoy it.” However, our natural proclivities are not the sole determinate of our ability to enjoy. Our enjoyments change according to time, age, knowledge, and a host of other variables. A parent must have the ability to intentionally choose to enjoy. A good example of this is the sometimes-painful screeching present in a child’s early music recital. Few people pulled from the street would say it was enjoyable, but we as parents must intentionally find the positives in the circumstance and express our subsequent enjoyment.
Foster and adoptive parents are often challenged to be authentic in their enjoyment of their children with a history of early trauma. This is not as easy as it sounds. Some parents have struggled with the desire to enjoy their children. “How can I enjoy him. It seems like he starts the day with the intention to irritate me?” Other parents note the fear they feel when their children are dangerous or aggressive. Enjoyment is never easy when our brain is being triggered with fear. (Note Principe #3, Parents must self-regulate) We understand the difficulties in having this quality, but it is still a “must do.”
To enact this principle, let’s begin with the Trauma Lens Paradigm Shift. When parents can see how the trauma changed their child’s brain, the fear permeating through the child, and the emotionally triggering that frequently occurs, they are more likely to agree to change their interactions more quickly and with more empathy for the child’s experiences. They can see the hurt child through the behaviors and as healing continues, parents will link the behaviors to the child’s fear.
The ability to see the child through this new lens allows parents to offer healing and recovery to their child. As parents, we define our child through our eyes, words, and actions. Using this new paradigm, we are able to convey that we have a good kid with a history of terrifying experiences-which changed the child’s brain and permeates the child with fear. Our new perception will free us to convey love and acceptance (enjoyment) for the whole child, not just when they are being good or compliant. We have to project the child we see underneath the behaviors: the child who can be successful at…, the child that enjoys…, that child that loves to…. It is our vision the child can build on. The blocks of this building are the “enjoyments” we perceive and reflect back to the child. Lacking these enjoyments, we provide the negative vision, as some parents do in anger, “You will turn out just like your birth parent if you keep…” The positive building, we desire cannot be built with negative blocks. We end up dooming our children to recreating their history. Our goal is to build (rebuild) our children in order that their positive qualities will become the positive blocks needed for a strong building.
© 2022, Jeff and Faye. All rights reserved.