Trust Based Parenting DVD series – Chapter 3 Empowering Principles: Laying the Foundation for Change
As promised, here are the cliff notes for a longer (but excellent) DVD series produced by TCU Institute of Child Development. When you’re in the trenches, you need help and you need it fast! If you haven’t read my first post in this series, you can find it here.
So, for those in the pit right now – the grasp of the Lord is not so short that He cannot reach you where you are. Take a deep breath – there are answers and you are not alone.
Creating an Environment of Felt Safety:
When a child is deprived of tenderness in the formative years, it is equivalent to depriving the child of food (the reality of that statement grips my heart). A child from hard places must experience Felt Safety before trust in the parent is earned. It is a cornerstone of attachment.
Knowing that your child is safe with you is not the same as the child feeling safe. It is not a cognitive response on the child’s part, but one that is deeply emotional and perceived. If our children are growing under our care, then the mulch in their garden must be sensory rich and attachment plenty to feel safe. There are two major (and easy) ways to promote this.
1. Attention to diet – drinks, snacks and meals must be often and plentiful in nutrition. Children from hard places are chronically dehydrated and need their levels kept steady with food every few hours.
2. Attention to activity – Every two hours or so, physical activity using fine and gross motor skills helps to down regulate stress levels. Healthy kids play and love when parents play along with them.
Self-Regulation – Raising Self Awareness:
The idea here is that children learn to “calm yourself by yourself.” (Can I get an amen?)
As parents we monitor and help modulate this process. One of best ideas to help this process had me asking, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Several times in the day, ask your child, “How is your engine running?” In an easily accessible spot, place a simple paper plate with a paper arrow in the middle, fastened with a bracket. Color three sections on the plate with three colors (blue, green and red to represent a low engine, an engine steadily going and an overheated engine). Check in with your child periodically to check on their engine. Children from hard places learn young that being in a calm state can be very scary and cause them harm. Having the visual of the paper plate engine to help guide their assessment of feelings and emotions keeps the “engine” in check.
Likewise, sensory and muscle stimulation helps the nervous system organize. This can be as simple as teaching pressure points to relieve stress, doing chair dips and counting to 10 or snuggling with a weighted blanket or warm neck weight. Even pushing against a wall (I’m picturing my entire family lined up down the hallway) can help reorganize and monitor stress.
Food can be a stimulus here too, with sweet foods producing a calming effect and sour foods alerting the systems that were low. The key is that there are things the child can control and manage to self regulate behavior.
Be a Detective – Discover Your Child’s Sensory Needs:
There are often perplexing, if not damaging behaviors that children learn as a result of trauma. A child can be extremely sensitive to sound or touch. Sometimes a child may watch television upside down or spin constantly, all in an attempt to regulate behavior. While odd, these behaviors are crude attempts to create a comfort zone, even if it means bumping into people to do so.
Start to observe what the child avoids, seeks out, is drawn to in activity, or fights against in areas such as food and connection to others. Recognizing these sensory issues can help understand the behavior. Becoming a detective takes the personal issues out of the equation so that a parent can scientifically understand the root cause.
How many times have I desperately stated, “The behavior seems to come out of NOWHERE. I didn’t even see it coming.” The solution given is to keep a journal for a week, writing every instance of peculiar or difficult behavior. Children from hard places either fight, flight or freeze. Start looking for patterns in meltdowns and reiterate to the child the truth that “safe people listen.”
Celebrate Your Child’s Needs and Making the Day Predictable:
Simply stated, celebrate when your child tells you what he or she needs. Even if the need is irrational or odd, celebrate the communication practice and trust it takes the child to ask with the expectation that you will come through.
In a child with speech and language delays (shout out to all the cleft lip/palate parents) this is a really big one. You are celebrating the mechanism of speech and articulation as well as the decision to trust and communicate, instead of resorting to behaviors that stop that healthy flow of interaction.
In my house, this looks like announcing transitions and gearing down to the activity with steps and warnings, then truly celebrating the speech and calm that comes with a job well done.
“Thank you for asking with kind words for more milk at breakfast.”
“Thank you for using your big girl words to tell me how you want your hair fixed today.”
“I am happy to brush your teeth first and then you can. Thank you for not throwing a fit! Look at how pretty your teeth look now! Thank you for telling me you wanted to put the toothpaste on yourself. That was a great job!”
“In two minutes we are leaving so please find your shoes and put them on.”
“Look at how fast you put your socks on – you are so big!”
“In one minute we are leaving – thank you for asking if you could bring that giant bag of Fisher Price Little People in the car – I completely understood you!”
“Let’s pick just one ok?”
“I love that Little People elephant! Good choice!” (Insert mom’s need for celebration as all of this took place prior to morning carpool. Starbucks will work just fine).
Sharing power as a parent is really the greater show of strength (If you need to, write that one down 8 times or so. Or put it on the fridge on a Post It note. For those with alpha personalities, if you share power, you win!). Sharing power when appropriate actually empowers the child and often gives the child the satisfaction of completing a task.
Predictability and appropriate levels of control can support vast gains in behavior. The child needs to know that the adult is “in charge” or “the boss” with kind and firm boundaries and expectations. In a place of shared control when possible, the child knows that there is a safe adult on duty who will offer flexibility but still give them the “felt safety” of knowing the adult is bringing structure and guidelines.
Balancing Nurture and Structure:
Most of us drift from one extreme on this spectrum to the other. We have to pursue a balance. In this foundation of change, I think back to the “engine check.” If a child’s engine is low, there likely needs to be a little more nurture. If a child’s engine is running high, a little more expectation and boundaries must be given, but nurture must follow to achieve a “felt safety” to level out in.
My favorite line of the chapter was given in this section, when the adult simply stated, “We’re gonna stick together.” In the midst of learning the right balance, the safe adult tells the struggling child that no matter what, they are like glue. The balance may shift but the closeness and proximity do not.
I hope that these foundation cliff notes help. I know they helped me (head in hands repeating, “Why couldn’t I think of the paper plate engine check???”). Start detecting, start sharing and start celebrating.
Grab some Starbucks because this is no easy job and I celebrate you for the gritty work of empowering your child to grow and change. I celebrate me too while we’re at it! Don’t forget to check your engine too!
More to come……
Photography by Tish Goff