Therapeutic Parenting at 2am

{Author's note: this is a 2am riff of my current thoughts on therapeutic parenting. It isn't especially well put together or connected. Let's pretend we are all sitting around my living room late at night chatting and I am just talking to you about what is swirling around my noggin. Keep expectations low. It's just a conversation, not a treatise.}

There has been a call for adoptive parent bloggers to share their experiences with therapeutic parenting. My friend demanded I participate which is a shame because I feel like I am just learning how to do this. I am all theory with very little practice.

Hubs and I have been taking a class from the Post Institute and it has been a game changer for us.  Brian Post himself, who leads the recorded seminar himself expresses on the outset of the series his hopes that his words will lead to a paradigm shift for the viewers.

par·a·digm/ˈparəˌdīm/  A worldview underlying the theories and methodology of a particular subject.

We, Hubs and I, have been changing how we view our children. And frankly, our roles as parents, particularly parenting our kiddos who struggle. Isn't interesting that even in families with all biological kids some seem to fight uphill to calm down, go with the flow, deal with life crap? We probably see it in ourselves or in someone in our own families. Even in families where no kids went though any documentable trauma nor had vastly different experiences than the other siblings, some have more anxiety, more difficulty feeling secure, loved, etc than others. So really, therapeutic parenting doesn't care if you were adopted. Or hurt. The things we are learning in our training apply to the way we parent all our kiddos, and it boils down to three important things (in Scooping it Up's humble understanding)

1. disarming fear
2. teaching a person to feel loved and to connect
3. how to manage stress

So if "normal" folks struggle with stress (hello, the world is full of addicts attempting to shut out the noise of our worries and fears) when you add in significant trauma, neglect, grief, loss, PTSD, chronic illness; it isn't hard to understand that even minor occurrences of the above list can make coping with "every day difficulties" well, difficult for our children. It can make forming relationships difficult. They can become exhausting creatures to live with day in and day out. Why? 

Through this training course we are learning to see bad behavior and acting out as responses to fear. Brian Post teaches that there are just two emotions we experience as humans, that come right from our amygdala, the part of our brain were there is no processing, no thinking, just raw, subconscious emotion. One sensation is Love. The other is Fear. And the amygdala, interestingly enough, has nerves leading from it that go straight down to....C'mon, guess, where do we say we feel things on subconscious level? That's right, you guessed it: the gut.

Gut reactions. Gut feelings. Go with your gut. Well, that center of the brain tied strongly with the gut, when it is stressed and flooded with cortisol in a fear response, the hippocampus, the part of the brain that reasons and perceives reality, can shut down almost entirely. Fear literally takes over. It is very hard to reason with fear and stress.  Effective parenting when kids are acting out/freaking out starts with disarming fear so that connection and teaching (the two other goals stated above) can take place.

The challenge for me, you us: It's hard to see tantrums, manipulation, stubborn, defiant behavior as fear. But really, it is. Even in something as simple as a nasty attitude when a child is hungry, isn't that hunger driving a fear response?

If I don't eat I will die. I have to get food.  Most adults can disarm that unspoken but perceptible fear, we know food is coming. We will get it. But even our ability to understand it will eventually be okay doesn't keep many of us from getting cranky. That crankiness is fear masquerading as a short temper. We usually can keep it check, right? Some of the time?

What if you had experienced hunger on a regular basis? What if you didn't eat regularly? What if you were malnourished? What if you have seen family die from starvation, or felt your brain and body shut down due to that hunger? The fear that comes from the hunger is not even just a "gut stress reaction" anymore. Experience has proven that death is a possibility. That food might not come. Life has created a situation where now when you feel hungry, reasoning shuts down and you, in layman's terms are primed and ready to freak.thecrap.out. 

Respecting children's experiences enough and seeing their behavior as coming from fear helps me approach my kids with more compassion. It helps me see through the lies.

Not their lies. No, the lies we as parents believe in order to justify our own poor reactions: That anger, frustration, hatred, impatience, defiance, manipulation are anything other than just fancy ways our kids (and adults for that matter) have of processing and covering up what they are really feeling, which is fear.

I've seen in my own experience and the Post seminars have reminded me it's harder to convince a fearful, stressed out child that everything will in fact, be okay, if I am failing to regulate my own stress, my own fear.

Raised voices, yelling, throwing things, freaking out, overreacting, angry, snippy, exasperated, out of control behavior cannot ever teach good behavior or lessen fear. Even worse, it cannot convince my children to trust that I will help him or her. In yelling, in allowing stress and fear to affect my body language, my voice, my words, I am hurting our connection. I am hindering their healing. Because it is crappy, trantruming behavior attempting to pass itself off as authority.

Everything I do can either trigger one of those two emotions: Love or Fear.

Lately, I am trying to react to the bad behavior in a way that doesn't trigger more fear. I may not have caused it, no, but I sure as heck can do a fabulous job of making it worse if I am not careful. I want to do a better job of disarming the fear, and with my own example, teach my children how to regulate their stress and return to a calm place when upset. The only way to do that, I've found, is to summon way more self-discipline and be more intentional in all my interactions with my kids. And a little prayer in the morning  doesn't hurt either.

So to cut to the chase here, these are some specific things I am trying to do now that I have this shifting paradigm:

First, I am trying to do better at regulating my breathing. Kids are not dumb. And they pick up on a eye twitch, an eye roll, a fast-paced walk, a slammed door, tense shoulders and faster breathing. Children who've experienced fear regularly can pick up on those signals faster than we can see it in ourselves. I have been doing yoga with my kids recently (more on that in another post) and for me, when I feel myself getting tense, breathing more deliberately helps. I try to signal to myself that I am getting deregulated.

Second, I am trying to not yell. This sounds like a no brainer, but actually, with four kids this young, sometimes raising my voice is literally the only way to stop someone from doing something stupid and harmful, because my arms are busy, or I am far away and can't get there. My voice is an extension of my body and I use it to get their attention. I don't scream often, but I raise my voice all the time to be heard above the caterwauling fray. I am trying to do this less, and respond in a Dr. Karyn Purvis way. The IDEAL way.

Taken directly from her book The Connected Child, this is how a therapeutic parent approaches rudeness, defiance, harmful or otherwise poor behavior choices from children: 

I - Immediate   The response must be quick. Within 3 seconds of the misbehavior when possible

D - Direct   Be near. Make eye contact. Avoid distractions.

E - Efficient   Use the least amount of firmness and words necessary to make the point clear.

A - Action-based   Lead the child to a "do over," redirecting him or her to an appropriate behavior.

L - Level the response at the behavior, not the person.

I will add my own tidbit to this: All of my kids respond even better to correction in this IDEAL way when I am touching them. Hands on shoulders or in a hug while we are speaking. They all crave and need affection. I don't have a kiddo who doesn't want this, so I cannot speak to a situation where children are sensory defensive or uncomfortable with touch. 

When I do these things, which again, really, just takes a lot of discipline in not getting worked up myself, I see my children softening their mad faces, body language, submitting to my directions. Sometimes it doesn't work right away. Sometimes, I find I cannot sit there long enough to get the reaction I am looking for because someone else has done something naughty or unsafe and requires immediate, direct, etc, response from me. That is one of my biggest challenges. One of my children, who I will not "out" is the world's most stubborn child. S/he would rather sit and rot in his/her room for three hours than say sorry. I do not always have the time to coax him/her into a happy place where s/he can apologize for the behavior and make things right. Hubs and I are still working on the strategy for this child due to our sheer numbers of little people.

Fourth, I am still learning how to enforce consequences. I learned from One Thankful Mom about Five Minutes Earlier to Bed cards for my kids. Accrue enough cards and someone could miss stories for the night, which is highly motivating for my children.

Fifth, I've gotten better about saying "when" instead of "if." I don't bribe my kids, at least, not as much as I used to. I no longer say: If you do this you will get blah blah blah. 
I now say *When* you finish your school work, you may play outside or color, which do you choose?

There is such a profound difference in changing one small word coupled with giving children choices. Those little opportunities for them to determine their fate help counteract all the times I need to say "no." It gives my kids control which feels good.

Sixth, we do a lot of Redos. Which I take from the "Action" part of the IDEAL approach. Sometimes, we need to do four or five "redos" until the appropriate, respectful voice and body language are found. Even the two-year-old is getting the gist of Redos. His therapist flipped when she heard him stop mid crying and say "May I have a...?"  I think the beauty of presenting a semi-infinite number of attempts to get it right is that it is not a punishment. It isn't even a consequence. It is saying to a child "I am not mad that you acted or spoke badly. You just need to make it right, and I will show you how to do that." Sometimes being too stern during this exercise is my weakness and it kinda ruins it, if I am honest. I have to work to smile to show them Mommy's Not Mad. (Oh how hard this is!)

Finally, after all this blathering, I wanted to share my admission that I cannot expect my kids to not act with ineffective stress-induced survival skills if I myself act like I am just in survival mode. Survival mode to me means parenting to address the moment, with little long term benefits to our family or each child as individuals. Many of our children survived some serious crap, including parental death, neglect, abandonment, hunger, institutional living and worse. They learned important skills to get through that time. It means most of them are ridiculously smart and perceptive and observant. Nothing escapes them, sometimes to a fault. They lived. They survived.  But those skills do not work well in families. They don't serve them to form relationships. I, as a mother, need to not develop my own survival skills to deal with survival skills. You can't fight fire with fire. Or rather, fear with fear.

You can only can only fight fear with love. And that means staying away from survival mode parenting and parenting more therapeutically.

Now, I am going to go tattoo all of this on my forehead so I don't forget tomorrow.

I cannot wait to learn more from the other writers on this wonderful, humbling topic.

{One more edit: a commenter asked if I could make the "five minute cards" printable since right click is disabled on this blog. You can copy and paste it from my FB page here. Enjoy!}


Jennifer said...

This is great stuff! Thanks for the links and I was wondering, you have "right click" disabled on your blog, is there a way we can use your five minutes earlier to bed cards?

dcorey said...

Wow. You spelled it out very clearly here. I'm going to have to bookmark this post and refer back to it when I need a reminder (which is often).

It makes so much sense when written out and it really does work when you can do it, but it can be SO HARD to do. To keep myself regulated and always want to respond with love and compassion, not frustration and anger (especially with our one kiddo that has been harder to bond with from the beginning and therefore does not necessary trigger love and compassion response automatically).

I guess with practice and continued focus on why its important and works, it will become more automatic? What are you doing to keep yourself in that place that allows you to be an IDEAL parent as much as possible?

Kyra said...

Thank you, this was very helpful. You are amazingly coherent at 2AM. I'm sure I'll be coming back to this post.

Mary Kathryn said...

I am a mother of five children- the oldest 8 the youngest 5 months- none of which are adopted, none have sensory issues, and none have been through any kind of life trauma. But I find this post to be very, very, very helpful. I have been trying to make a change around here and have had some of the same struggles as you in the sense of letting my loud voice carry through the house to help my point get made. I have been making a conscience effort on my own to stop that and get better but just the other day we had a situation where I lost all self control. In that moment when I was letting everything I had worked on slip away I didn't care because I wanted the severity to be understood. BUT after- I felt horrible and knew I probably just made things worse rather then better.

Your words today have given me a better base for how to accomplish this goal. Thank you for that. I can't wait to read and re-read this post and to see how it changes our home.

Jenn said...

so yesterday i am at kid to kid talking to the lady that works there about stuff and this lady checking out hears us and tells me about her 2 year old and he was so bad that morning she thought is something wrong with him and i proceed to tell her about theraputic parenting and books to read and that its all normal, etc.and finally she tells me she is a FREAKING CHILD PSYCHOLOGIST

The Busters said...

Great post! Great reminders! Thank you!

scooping it up said...

Dcorey, already I yelled twice or three times today, which is why this is such a humbling topic. I am human. my gut reaction to my kids doing demonic infuriating things is to want to be louder than they are so they will shut the ( ) up. It's so hard to find the space in my heart to pause my reaction long enough to choose how I will respond instead of just react. Still working on this big time.

Jamie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jamie said...

THis posts other title could've been "from surviving, to thriving". No nix that I may use that title!!!
How can you be so amazingly insightful and coherent at 2 am? You make it all sound so easy, and right, and so much a huge chastisement, I hung my head and did a bit of deep breathing while reading it!!!
Amazing, and worthy of sharing with all parents, even spouses, maybe you could next work ona therapeutic marriage post? Kidding about that, but really great as always, want to check out those classes too!

Jamey... said...

This is why I demand that you write posts because then you churn out something like this! Thanks!!

Ingrid said...

I stand up and applaud this post. My husband and I just received the same training in the mail this past week... I'm looking forward to watching it now. The only (okay, maybe not only) thing I'm concerned with is how much I'm going to hate myself for having screwed up so much to this point....

hotflawedmama said...

so great. you are awesome.

Claudia said...

I'm really glad you did the double link-up here - thankyou, thankyou!!!

Does this all mean that I shouldn't have shouted at my little girl earlier today with the words 'You are very stubborn but you are NOT AS STUBBORN AS ME!!!!!' Yes. Yes it probably does.

Maegan said...

I was excited to try your ideas out and although I only remembered a few here's what I tried over the last 2-3 days:
When a misbehavior happens- respond quickly. While touching the child, look them in the eye and tell them what wasn't working (person is hurt, not respecting a thing, running away from mom). Then I say we try again and I help the child.
I tell you what- my two year old is getting it! He is tapping in to not 'getting away' with misbehavior, but about how his choices have consequences. My 6 year old is understanding that her whining isn't just noise but I look her in the eyes and she gets embarrassed that's she acting that way. I like that I have a executable action plan so I'm not over reacting or ignoring stuff. My 7 year old I still struggle with connecting on misbehavior so I will just praise the Lord where the good is happening.

Sha Zam- said...

Scoop? Did you link this to Claudia's linky on purpose? I thought this was for the Z family blog? Or are you doing a twofer?

Little Ethiopia(n) said...

Followed Claudia's link to find you. So glad you reminded me of IDEAL...I had totally forgotten it but now it is posted around our house. I would love to know exactly how the "5 mins earlier to bed" cards work. We have 3 yr old twins... are they too young? I feel like I make a lot of threats but nothing that really sticks. Maybe a visual would help. I would love some more details! would you mind emailing me? gospaulding@yahoo.com thanks!

Reba said...

Love this! I am in the same place you were when you wrote this. We have four kids. The first two are biological. The next two are adopted. We are realizing (5 years later) that how we parent the first two is NOT effective with the next two. So this summer I read The Connected Child and found someone who had studied with Purvis. It has changed our lives. We are still learning and I don't do it all right yet. But we are making an effort to change and meet our children where they are, not just where I want them to be... :)

Owlhaven said...

Yup, excellent post here. A couple tweaks I have made to be more effective with my challenging teens: multiple do-overs at our house cost a kiss. Sometimes smooching mom on the cheek ticks them off (thus motivating them to get the do-over right NEXT time to not have to TOUCH their mother when they're peeved) but more often it makes them laugh (which ALSO usually means they do it right the next time.)

And we tried early bedtime as a consequence, but some of ours actually prefer to skip story time (it's close, it's cozy, it's family time = it's scary) so instead I consequence teens with an early wakeup call.

It is SUCH a job to figure out what best motivates kids. But as your post stated, HUGER is our own ability to keep calm and warm. Such incredibly challenging work.

Mary, momma to many, including 2 from Korea and 4 from Ethiopia