When I first started parenting kids with a trauma background, I thought that all of the challenging behaviors and tough days we had stemmed 100% from the kids and their challenges caused by the trauma they'd faced. I didn't exactly blame the kids (eh sometimes I kinda did), but I didn't ever stop to consider my role in what was going on, either.
I never thought about how certain behaviors were triggering for me.
I never thought about how I was less patient and more reactive when I was tired, or touched out, or eating lots of junk while not getting enough exercise (that last one happens like, WAY too often).
I never thought about how some of my initial core beliefs about parenting (Poor behavior at school must be PUNISHED at home! Screen time has to be super regulated all the time! Being in tons of extracurricular activities is what's best for kids!) were actually preventing me from parenting in the way that was best for the children that I had in my home.
I learned some things about managing my own emotions and being more flexible while I was parenting my first two foster sons, but honestly there were a lot of ways in which I still made things worse for all of us. There's a lot that I should have done differently then, and would do very differently now. And even with all that I've learned, I still stumble a lot when parenting my boys.
I'm always so geeked and honored when future or current foster or adoptive parents ask me for my opinion on things, or to share bits and pieces of our story with them. I LOVE THAT because my dream is that every person who thinks they can offer a safe landing for kids in need of one will feel emboldened to go and DO THAT because ya'll are so needed, so needed it's not even funny. But sometimes my "advice" comes out like judgement, especially for people currently in the trenches of parenting a child who experienced trauma.
When you're in the shit with your child, you don't really want to hear about all of the things that YOU need to change in order to help them. So instead of doing that, I'm going to write about my own past (and current) fuck ups, in the hopes that it will help some of you avoid them (Like, stop copying me! Make an original mistake of your own!)
1) I don't always identify when I'm at the end of my rope. Several of our boys have had behaviors that trigger the hell out of me. I can feel my heart start to race, my breathing becomes faster. I feel like I might cry, and if I'm able to catch it before it happens, I can recognize that I'm not in a mental space to interact with them right then. If I get into that head space and try to address the behavior, it almost never ends well for anyone. I'm WAY more likely to snap at them or throw down a consequence that is not enforceable or overly harsh if I'm actively stressed and upset with them. I've gotten better at this for sure, but even just yesterday I snapped at one of our kids whose behavior was triggering me. Snapping at him and vaguely threatening consequences that I don't actually want to use felt good in the moment, but in the long run it set us and our relationship back. I wish I had taken some deep breaths and plugged my headphones in to drown out what was upsetting me, then talked it over with some trusted friends later about what the underlying causes of the behavior might be.
When you're at the end of your rope, take a break to calm down before trying to tackle the behavior.
2) Our kids don't have to be grateful for the life we're giving them. Imagine for a moment that one day you and your family were in a horrific car accident, and you lost your partner and beloved children, sustaining several painful injuries yourself. Then, you were placed in another home with a new partner and several new, different children. The partner and children gushed about how happy they were to have you there and devoted themselves to your health and healing, doing their best to make you feel comfortable and saying over and over again how happy they were that God brought such a wonderful new family member into their lives. However, when you failed to respond by immediately bouncing back and becoming the joyful family member they longed for, they began to make comments like "We just wish you'd be more grateful, we are sacrificing a lot for you," and "You know, not many families would put up with all this crying and staying in bed all day like we do."
...Sound familiar? Unfortunately it does for me. I struggle with feeling like our kids need to be grateful, even though I know in my heart that they have already lost that which should be every human being's right: the chance to grow up safely in their family of origin, with people who both love them and have a sacred biological connection to them. This option, our family, will always be second best, and me trying to make them be "grateful" is not considerate of the losses they've lived through.
When you're tempted to tell your child to be more grateful, or you start to think that they're being spoiled or selfish, remind yourself that they've already sustained more loss in their short time on this earth than most of us will experience in a lifetime.
3) When verbal threats or physical aggression are happening, the MOST important thing is deescalation. Yes, I know hitting and biting and threats are wrong and need to be taken seriously. I know it's really upsetting when those behaviors are happening (from past experience, I know). But when we are reactive in those moments, we are making it worse and increasing the chance that someone might get hurt. Consequences and "cracking down" have no place in those types of scenarios. The focus needs to be on calming the escalated child and preventing harm to other children in the vicinity. Ideally, triggers can be identified so that you can get better at predicting the violent behavior BEFORE it starts so that siblings can be removed from the situation. I often make the mistake of asking the escalated child to give others their space, a direction that they're not capable of following when they're in that headspace, or being like "I'll address this just as soon as I finish XYZ" even though I know that the situation needs my immediate attention.
When behaviors become threatening or unsafe, deescalation is the only immediate goal.
4) Put the dang phone/show/chore down, and give the child your FULL attention. Oooooo guys this is a HARD one for me. Karyn Purvis talks about this a lot in The Connected Child. It's especially hard when you have a child that has a HUGE appetite for mom's attention, and will engage in problem behaviors in order to get it (*cough cough MOST OF MY KIDS cough*) because you start to feel like damn, am I just on call 24/7 to interact with you? But I noticed that if I drop everything for my kids at the BEGINNING of our interaction, and front load them with attention for about 10-15 minutes, they cope better when I try to finish my text message/Netflix episode/chore. I've also noticed that if I want to have an afternoon of chilling on the couch on social media, or listening to a podcast while I clean, it is more likely to go well if I fill my kids' love tanks that morning by doing something fun and special with them BEFOREHAND.
When your child walks into the room, make them the focal point of your attention, at least at first. They need to feel like they're the #1 priority for you.
5) The only person you can control, or heal, is yourself. Yep. Read that one again. One more time. Let it sink in. You can provide great therapy and connected parenting and utilize every strategy in the book and encourage an amazing sensory diet and throw money at their challenges and do EVERYTHING POSSIBLE to get your child to heal and do the things you want them to do....and they can still choose not to. There is no way to MAKE another human being do anything, even if that human being is our child. This is one thing that is not talked about in the foster care and adoption worlds, and it needs to be: Some behaviors don't go away. Some wounds don't heal. Some kids don't make the strides we wish they could.
Our kids are battling huge obstacles, and their childhoods are only a short snapshot of their lives. Sometimes, the seeds we plant for healing and growth don't take root, or they might not bloom until years and years after we thought they would. If we pin all of our hopes on our child's healing and growth, we are liable to be disappointed.
But we can work on ourselves. We have full control over our own progress, our own healing and growth. This blog that I love has a great post on this.
The only thing you can give them for SURE is an emotionally healthy, healed and present parent. So start there.
A lot of the time in our house, the problem is me. It's annoying and hard for me to admit that, but I'm gonna go easy on myself. That girl, the girl that is me, is still learning. I'm going to be patient with her, but I'm not letting her off the hook. I know she can grow and change her approaches and become a better and better mom every day.
I believe in her.
I believe in you, too.