As Mother’s Day approaches and we contemplate getting breakfast in bed, a dinner out, or a hand made card, it is useful to reflect on where we are and where we’ve been. It is good to give ourselves a lot of credit for all that we do and have done for our children to counteract all those times when we feel that we are not doing well enough. We wonder if we are spending or have spent (even if we have adult children) too much time just trying to get through the day (and sometimes the next 10 minutes) and not enough time creating meaningful experiences that help our children thrive. Oftentimes, we compare ourselves to some sort of perfect parent who never struggles to just get through the day, or until her child is in bed at night, or is toilet trained, or graduates from high school.
Triggers, Trauma and the Brain
Erica Moltz, MA, NCC
Children may behave in ways that parents find strange or upsetting. For children who have experienced abuse, neglect and/or have been adopted, it can be especially hard to know if a child’s “challenging” behavior is part of being a kid, or if it is related to past traumas and adoption. Here is some info about trauma and triggers and how they affect the human brain and behavior.
What is trauma?
Trauma occurs when someone hears, witnesses or experiences an event that is life threatening, violent or unexpected. In response, he or she feels overwhelmed, helpless and out of control. A trauma can be witnessing violence or a crime, or it may be abuse/neglect. Separation from birth parents can also be traumatic.
What does it mean when my child is triggered?
Triggers are things that remind people of traumatic events and bring up strong feelings of anger, sadness, fear or anxiety. A trigger can be something unexpected like an object, smell or other strong feelings. And, it can be something expected or even anticipated, like a birthday, holiday, or the changing of a season, that is a reminder of the trauma. Many times, a child is being triggered and they don’t know it themselves. They also may not have the words to tell you that they are having strong feelings in reaction to the trigger. Children express their feelings through behavior so that changes in your child’s behavior may be a clue that he or she is experiencing a trauma trigger.
Flight or flight and trauma
When someone feels like they are in danger or being threatened, even from a trigger, their “fight or flight” reflex gets triggered and they may feel like they need to protect themselves from the threat by literally fighting or running away. All of us have a “fight or flight” reflex that is designed to protect us from danger & threats – like if we suddenly encountered a grizzly bear. The “fight or flight” reflex responds without us thinking about it. Children who have experienced trauma may experience the “fight or flight” reflex every time they are reminded of a past traumatic experience. For some kids, that may literally be all the time.
An exercise to understand a “triggered brain.”
Try this exercise to get a picture of what it’s like for a brain to be triggered – or for a child to “flip his lid”.
Make a fist with your thumb tucked inside your fingers. The fist is the brain, and the wrist & forearm is the spinal cord. The bottom of the palm is the brainstem and controls things like breathing, heart rate and digestion that happen without us thinking. The thumb, tucked in the middle of your fist, represents the midbrain, where our emotions and memories are created and processed. This is also where the “flight-or fight” reflex is started. The midbrain is our “emotional brain”. The functions that take place in our midbrain happen without us thinking. The back of your hand and fingers represents the cerebral cortex where more advanced functioning occurs. It allows us to think with logic, reason and to act with kindness. It is also where our problem-solving abilities are housed. The cerebral cortex is our “rational brain”. Your fingernails are the prefrontal cortex; it sits behind your eyebrows. It is where logic and reasoning begins, and what gets kicked into action when there is a problem to solve.
The Brain Flips Its Lid
Sometimes the emotional brain (thumb) and the rational brain (fingers) don’t communicate too well. The emotions of the midbrain are too overwhelming (like when a child is re-experiencing a traumatic event), his “fight-or-flight” reflex gets triggered, and he “flips his lid.” With your fist, make all your fingers stand straight up. Flip! Of course, our brains don’t actually move and change shape in this way, but this activity can help us understand what is happening in our brains when we are feeling strong emotions, like when we, or our child experiences a trauma trigger. Notice how far your fingertips are from your thumb. When we “flip our lids,” our rational brains are poorly connected to our emotional brains. In other words, it is really hard and sometimes not possible to think logically when we are triggered and/or feeling strong emotions.
How to Be Calm and in Our “ Thinking” Brain
In order to tap into our rational brain again and to turn off the “fight or flight” reflex, we need to calm our strong feelings. Then our prefrontal cortex (or fingernails) can “reconnect” to the midbrain (or thumb) and our brain can settle into its typical state (close your fingers and thumb again). Everyone experiences a flipped lid from time to time, but it happens more often to children because their brains aren’t fully mature yet. And it happens even more easily to children who have experienced trauma.
What Parents Need to Remember
Children need a lot more help from parents and caregivers to “re-connect” the prefrontal cortex to the midbrain, or calm down and learn how to handle strong feelings. Children learn this from parents through PACE: being playful, giving them affection, being open and curious, and empathizing with how your child is feeling. Remember, parents flip their lids, too, so you may need to calm down when you’re feeling strong emotions to restore your ability to think rationally.
Adapted from “What Happens to the Brain When We ‘Lose It’”, by Kelly Bartlett, on www.theattachedfamily.com
Effective Methods of Discipline: Why Spanking Doesn’t Work
Back in the day, it was not uncommon to hear about children being spanked as a means of punishment. Some adults who were spanked as children say that since they turned out fine, there must not be anything wrong with physical punishment for inappropriate behavior.
We now know, however, that there are many reasons why any type of corporal punishment should NEVER be used. In addition to the fact that it is now considered to be a form of child abuse, which may be punishable by law in some states, it is also now widely understood that it is completely ineffective in teaching children more appropriate behavior, self control and good decision making. Adoptive parents are required to sign a document stating that they will never use any form of corporal punishment with their child.
In addition to the legal ramifications, the following are additional reasons why physical punishment is ineffective as well as potentially harmful to children:
- Teaches children that violence is acceptable.
- Teaches them that it is OK to bully people who are weaker and smaller.
- Creates an atmosphere of fear and tension in the parent-child relationship.
- Produces negative emotions for both the child and the parent.
- Can erode respect for the parent.
- Not effective in the long term.
- Does not offer an opportunity to correct mistakes or make better choices.
- Focus is on negative consequences, rather than rewarding positive behavior.
- Focuses on shaming and blaming the child.
- Associated with an increase in delinquency, antisocial behavior and aggression in children.
Use of discipline, on the other hand, can be very effective in teaching children right from wrong, self control and good decision making, while also strengthening the bond between parent and child. Use of effective discipline techniques can have the following impact:
- Helps a child to learn self control.
- Holds children accountable for their behavior.
- Empowers the child to correct mistakes and make better choices.
- Focuses on positive reinforcement for desired behavior.
- Focuses on preserving the child’s self-esteem.
- Creates an atmosphere of trust and communication between parent and child.
Some methods of discipline that can be effective include:
- Set consistent rules, limits, and boundaries. Remember that it will take time, repetition and modeling of appropriate behavior.
- Make certain that other caretakers are consistent with your established rules and boundaries.
- Remain calm when your child has a tantrum, rather than escalating with him. If he is screaming, try speaking with him in a much softer voice than usual, while making eye contact with him. This will get his attention and be much more likely to de-escalate his behavior than yelling at him would.
- Emphasize and praise desired behavior. Behavior charts, where a child receives a star or sticker every time he performs a task that is expected of him (ie: completing homework, using proper hygiene, making their bed, setting the table, etc.) or makes a good choice, can be very effective. Reward the desired behavior with time together doing a special activity that your child enjoys, like having a pizza and movie night, going bowling, etc.
- Withhold a privilege for unacceptable behavior, with an opportunity to earn it back over time with improved behavior.
- Help your child to come up with alternative solutions to the problem she is dealing with.
- Take the time to recognize what may be triggering your child’s behavior, and help her to figure out a better way of handling the situation.
- Avoid power struggles with your child, and choose your battles carefully.
- For misbehavior, use “time in”, rather than time out. This means instead of sending your child to her room for a period of time, keep her in the room with you for a period of time, without the benefit of any games, electronics, TV, etc.
- Use natural, logical consequences for undesirable behavior, while remaining loving and empathic toward your child. Love and Logic is a parenting style that teaches this method of dealing with difficult behavior, where the child directly experiences the consequences of his own choices and behaviors.
When parents are calm and in control in the face of behavioral challenges, children feel safer and more secure. We now know that while physical punishment may extinguish behavior temporarily, it does not teach or reinforce desirable behavior, and the negative impact can be long-lasting.
Using appropriate methods of discipline will positively impact your child’s self esteem, increase his ability to learn self control, and give him the opportunity to learn from his mistakes in the safe environment of your family.
Easing Home Study Anxiety
Prospective adoptive parents can feel quite anxious about meeting with a social worker during the home study process. What will she think of us? Is it okay to talk about the challenges we have faced? Will she examine our home with white gloves?
What is a home study?
A “home study” refers to the process of interviews with a social worker and providing documentation to demonstrate your readiness to be a suitable parent to an adopted child. In addition, the term “home study” refers to the written document that is a result of that process. The home study is required for most types of adoption.
o If you are adopting a child being placed by an agency, the agency will require the home study.
o If you are adopting a child from out of state, the Interstate Compact will require the home study. If you are adopting a child from overseas, the U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the foreign government will require the home study.
All of these entities are required to ensure that the best interests of the child are being protected. You may find it helpful to think of the home study as your first step towards becoming a parent through adoption.
What is covered in the home study interviews?
Your social worker will talk with you about many aspects of your current life, including:
She will also talk with you about your family of origin and upbringing, as that will affect what you bring to parenting. She will help you to explore what strengths you bring to parenting, and what challenges you may face. Your social worker does not expect you to be perfect. What is more important is how you have dealt with challenges and what you have learned from those challenges.
What will the social worker look for in the home visit?
The social worker needs to verify that you have an appropriate and safe home for a child, with adequate space for the child to sleep and play. She needs to have a tour of the home. She will not, however, be checking for dust on the furniture or under the beds!
What kind of documentation is required?
Each state has regulations for child placement agencies that establish what documentation must be obtained from a prospective adoptive family. Typically the documentation includes criminal clearances; child abuse clearances; medical reports; references; financial documentation; a safety inspection of your home; and copies of your birth certificates and marriage certificates.
What if I have a medical condition?
If you have a chronic medical condition, or have had a serious medical condition in the past, your social worker will contact your doctor and any specialists who have provided medical care to you. Your social worker will be seeking information in order to determine whether your medical condition will interfere with your ability to parent a child. The hope is that there is an expectation that you will be able to parent throughout the childhood years, so that the child will not experience the trauma of another loss. Many people with chronic medical conditions can be approved to adopt a child.
What if I have a criminal history?
It is important to disclose any such history on your application and to your social worker. Many factors will go in to determining whether you can be approved to adopt. State regulations, the nature of the history, and the age that you were at the time will all be considered. Many times “youthful indiscretions” will not prevent a person from being approved to adopt. Some foreign countries will not accept a prospective adoptive parent who has a criminal history.
What kind of training is required?
An important part of the home study process is to prepare for parenting an adopted child. There are many opportunities to obtain this training. There are in-person seminars and workshops available, as well as on-line training. The amount of hours and specific requirements will depend on the type of adoption that you are planning to do.
How come we have to do all this?
Some families may find this process intrusive and unfair, when clearly there are biological parents who could not meet these standards. If you think in terms of the best interests of children and of the responsibility to protect children, it may help you to understand why this is needed.
Is there anything that I can gain from this process?
Actually, the home study process can be very helpful to you. Your social worker is experienced with adoption, and may be helpful to you in sorting through what type of adoption is right for your family. In addition she can help you think through whether this is the right time for you to proceed. Your social worker can help you to prepare for what the experience of adopting the child will be like, as well as what to anticipate in raising an adopted child. She can help you to identify resources within your community. Think of your social worker as your guide and as a resource. She can be a support to you throughout your adoption and after you bring your child home.
The Miracle of Sleep: Tips for You and Your Baby
Laura Teeter, LCSW, Family Specialist, Domestic Infant Program
The first several weeks home with your baby are often consumed with the simple, yet demanding task of responding to the needs of the new little person in your life. Typically, your days will be dominated by feedings, changing diapers, and negotiating sleep when and wherever possible! If your baby has been in a temporary foster home, you may already know what to expect in terms of a routine. Even then, that routine can change once you are all settled in together. Achieving a healthy amount of sleep is important for you and your baby. Here we hope to share some tips for getting your baby to sleep and helping him/her sleep longer and more soundly.
1. Have realistic (and flexible) expectations. It is good to keep in mind that specific patterns are very developmentally appropriate .
* 0-3 months: Typically sleep 18 hours out of 24, in 2-4 hour stretches.
* 3-6 months: Typically sleep 15 hours out of 24, are up approximately 2 times a night, and take at least 3 naps during the day.
* 6-9 months: Typically sleep 14 hours out of 24, possibly 7 hour stretches during the night, and probably take 2 good naps during the day.
* 9-12 months: Typically the baby will be sleeping for 11-12 hours at night, and taking 2 naps during the day.
2. Know the signs that your baby is overly tired. Sometimes they are easy to miss!
* Whines or cries with even slight interaction.
* Yawns and stretches often.
* Loses interest in toys or people.
* Rubs eyes.
* Becomes quiet and still, or stares blankly.
3. Create a calming bed time routine. Help your baby understand it is time to wind down. You can use methods such as a warm bath, cuddle time, reading, rocking, massage, singing, etc. Establishing a settling down routine is important, and also helps your baby to associate sleep with several different soothing methods.
4. Promote a lot of activity during awake time. A day full of stimulation can help your baby sleep more soundly during naps or at night.
5. Expect movement during sleep. Often times, babies will kick, squirm, or make noise while sleeping. If there is no obvious discomfort, give them a few minutes before deciding to wake them up in order to change or feed.
6. A full belly = a happy, sleepy baby. Make sure to feed your baby before sleep either with a bottle, or a few bites of cereal if age appropriate.
7. Sleep when your baby sleeps. Everything else can wait, or be done by other people. Your sleep is just as important as your baby’s. Also, give yourself permission not to bed share when you really need some rest. Being attuned to your baby’s every movement will disrupt your ability to get much needed sleep.
As you share this new adventure with other parents, there will always be those who swear by a particular miracle technique which may leave you feeling like an inadequate parent. Remember, every baby is different, and there is no one right answer. You are new at this, the baby is new at this, and with time and a little patience, you will figure it out together.
Developing Good Sleep Habits: An Age by Age Guide (Baby Centre UK) – http://www.babycentre.co.uk/baby/sleep/agebyageguide/
Baby Sleep: Helping a Baby Sleep through the Night (Mayo Clinic) – http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/baby-sleep/FL00118
New Parents: Getting the Sleep You Need (Mayo Clinic) –
31 Ways to Get Your Baby to Sleep and Stay Asleep –
Involving Teens in Permanency Planning
Written By: Angela K. Neal
Permanency Specialist, Baltimore City Family Find Project
As a Permanency Specialist who works primarily with teenagers, I have developed some useful skills for effectively involving teens in permanency planning. But, before I delve into a discussion about permanency and teens, I think it is beneficial to first define what I mean by permanency.
Within the context of child welfare, permanency is achieved when a child or youth has a life-long connection with an adult who assumes a caregiver role. Some child welfare practitioners define permanency as simply a “forever home”. By definition, permanency is not transient, and arguably the most important component of permanency is an unconditional commitment to a child or youth.
Initially, permanency planning efforts focus on reunifying children with their birth parents; however, if it becomes evident that the birth parents are unable to consistently provide a safe home for a child, the focus becomes identifying another adult, preferably a relative or kin of the child, who is able and willing to assume this responsibility. Finding a relative or kin to provide permanency is ideal, but this is not always possible, and some children achieve permanency within a new family.
When involving teens in permanency planning, it is important to remember that each teenager is unique and deserves to be treated accordingly. Creating an exhaustive list of “do’s and don’ts” when working with teens is impossible. Nevertheless, the youth with whom I have worked have taught me that keeping in mind some universal guidelines can be useful.
First and foremost, achieving permanency is nearly impossible without the youth’s participation. In other words, involving teens in permanency planning is a must! This is not as straightforward as simply asking the youth to participate. Often, motivating any teenager can be difficult, and I have discovered that genuine “buy in” is much more likely when adults not only take the time to develop a relationship with the youth, but also understand the importance of truly listening to what is on his or her mind.
Relationship building is an on-going task that does not happen overnight. Permanency planning should always be done with a sense of urgency, but it is much more effective when a youth trusts his or her permanency team. Trust cannot be rushed—it takes time and commitment. I think that adults sometimes make the mistake of assuming that a teenager wants nothing to do with grownups and is only concerned with his or her peers. But, in my experience, when it comes to permanency, teens are looking for someone they can trust. Preparing for permanency as a teenager can be extremely scary. Having someone who supports a teen through the peaks and valleys of permanency planning is more important than having someone who watches the same TV shows or listens to the same music.
Another important skill when involving teens in permanency is the ability to listen with both your ears and your eyes. Getting a teenager to talk about emotions can be like pulling teeth–especially, if the teenager’s experiences with adults have been overwhelmingly disappointing. Nevertheless, teenagers are always communicating to us. Even silence is a form of communication. The task becomes deciphering what a teenager really means when he or she does or does not say something. For example, “I’m not interested in being adopted” may really mean “I’m afraid nobody wants to adopt me”. Silence is not always a sign of disrespect or lack of interest. It may mean, “I’m too scared to talk about this right now”. Not taking the time to figure out what a youth really means can make permanency planning much more challenging.
Although permanency may look different depending on the situation, all children and youth deserve permanency. As a child gets older, the need for permanency does not go away. I believe youth who are about to age out of the foster care system need permanency as much as a newborn child who just enters the foster care system. Achieving permanency for a teenager may require more effort, but with a little creativity and a lot of commitment, permanency is possible.
Adoption can be a complicated issue to discuss and should be viewed as a lifelong conversation that evolves over time. Many adoptive parents worry about how to talk with their children and teens about adoption in a way that is honest, supportive and developmentally appropriate. Because I work in the field, discussion about adoption has always been a very natural, normal part of our every day existence. Beyond the work connection, our status as a conspicuous adoptive family has afforded additional opportunities to discuss and normalize adoption. My blonde hair and fair skin provides a sharp contrast to the dark hair and olive skin of my two children, so questions and comments from outsiders are not uncommon.
By the time my children were in elementary school, there had been numerous conversations about why birth parents might choose to make an adoption plan, and why adoptive parents choose to build their family through adoption. We had talked freely with our children about their birth families, and had responded to their questions and concerns as openly and sensitively as possible, keeping in mind their age and level of understanding. A concerted effort had been made to maintain ties to their cultures and birth countries, and they had always been around adoptive families who look like us.
All things considered, my husband and I feel like we have managed to discuss adoption with our children in mostly healthy and positive ways as they have grown. That does not mean that it has been all smooth sailing or that there have not been difficult and heart-breaking moments, like when my then 8 year old daughter asked (with tears in her eyes) why her birth mother “gave me away”, but decided to “keep my brother”. Was he a better baby? Did their birth mother love him more? Did my daughter do something wrong? This discussion was initiated from the back seat of the car as we were pulling out of the McDonald’s drive through after a lovely, peaceful day of playing at the park. It seemed to come out of nowhere, and I must admit that I was caught off guard.
What my children have taught me over the years is that talking about adoption is not a one-time event. As typical middle school students, my kids stay busy with activities, friends, and homework, and adoption is not a topic that consumes our daily lives. Yet, I am not naïve enough to think that there won’t be more questions or bumps in the road. New questions and concerns will arise as they mature, and their feelings about adoption may not be roses and sunshine all of the time. On occasion, they will undoubtedly experience feelings of confusion, anger, grief and loss. This does not mean that thoughts of adoption will occupy their every waking hour, or that our adopted children are doomed to a life of misery. What it does mean for us, as adoptive parents, is that we need to be aware and prepared to respond openly and honestly, using positive and appropriate adoption language. We must be mindful that how children understand adoption will change according to their age, and that our words and strategies will need to be adjusted accordingly. While we may not have all of the answers, one of the best things we can do for our children is keep the lines of communication open so that during times of confusion or distress, they will feel comfortable reaching out to us for support.
If you would like to learn more about how to talk with your children about adoption, consider joining us for our Annual Family Connections Conference, “Talking About Adoption: What to Say and When to Say It” on May 19th from 9:00 am – 1:00 pm. There will be something for the entire family!
During the conference, we will explore the following critical questions and more:
· What will my child understand about adoption at different ages and stages?
· What if I don’t have the answers?
· How much should I share if my child’s birth history is difficult?
· How should I respond to intrusive questions from others?
· How can I empower my child to answer questions and tell his story?
For more information or to register, visit the Education and Training page on our website and look for Family Connections Conference, www.adoptionstogether.org.
Art activities exist on a continuum from simple activities that you can do at home to art therapy with a licensed professional. It is appropriate for children with a wide range of skills and abilities, and there is no one right way. Few would argue with the fact that artistic pursuits spark creativity, enhance imagination, and encourage self expression in children. Beyond this, art can also play an important role in the development of cognitive, motor, language, and social/emotional development. For example, painting and drawing help children develop fine motor skills, while creating a clay sculpture hones perceptual, planning and spatial abilities.
Finally, you have so many decisions out of the way. After much deliberation, you’ve decided to adopt an infant or an older child and pursue domestic or international adoption. You’re adopting privately, going through an agency, or adopting from the foster care system. You have successfully navigated the stressful world of the home study replete with many questions from a social worker during several home visits, collected numerous documents, got fingerprinted, divulged information about your personal finances, and participated in mandatory pre-adoption training. You thought the hoops you had to jump through would never end, but at long last you have an approved home study.
For many folks, the hardest part begins now when there is nothing to do but wait and you have no idea how long you will be waiting. There are still so many unknowns. You are told that you will eventually adopt the perfect child for your family, but how do you believe that when you don’t know when that will happen? You are told that the waiting is like a “pregnancy” but there is no end in sight and what do you tell your employer about when you will be taking maternity/paternity leave? You are uncertain about whether readying your home for a child will help keep the hope alive or be a painful reminder that there is no child in the empty room. You were willing to talk to family and friends throughout the home study to get their support and references from them; but how much do you count on them to understand what you are going through?
Living in a diverse society, families come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors and experiences. Being an adoptee can bring up identity issues for children and teens. Transracial adoption is when an adoptee is of a different cultural and/or racial heritage from their adoptive parents. With transracial adoption, an adoptee’s identity formation can become more complex. With that in mind, how can parents honor, support and connect with cultural and ethnic experiences for their child and family? This may seem like a challenge so let’s explore some ideas and strategies.