Monday, August 22, 2016

Teaching Trauma in the Classroom

Teaching Trauma

Children are vulnerable. In an optimal environment, they are not expected to experience this vulnerability until later in life when their minds and nervous systems are equipped to handle elevated levels of fear, stress, and overwhelm. Yet, the key phrase here is "optimal environment." Unfortunately, we live in the "real" world, so children will often find themselves in situations that are far from the optimal and the result can be childhood trauma.
Childhood trauma happens at both the emotional and psychological level and it can have a negative impact on the child's developmental process. During a traumatic event (abuse, neglect, adoption, accidents, birth trauma, etc.), the lifelong impact is even greater if the child believes he powerless, helpless, and hopeless. When a child experiences one or all of these feelings, he begins to believe the world is dangerous. Repeated experiences of these feelings will create a lasting imprint from which he operates and behaves. A framework based in fear and survival becomes the child's viewpoint of the world around him.

These early life experiences then influence the child's ability to "behave," or more correctly expressed, the child's ability to stay "regulated." Trauma impacts a child's ability to stay calm, balanced, and oriented. Instead, children with traumatic histories often find themselves in a "dysregulated" state, which manifests into a child who does not behave, cannot focus, and/or lacks motivation. It is not a matter of choice or a matter of "good" child verses "bad" child; it is simply an imprint from the child's past history. It's the child's new normal.

When working with children like this in the classroom, the most effective way to work with them is to work at the level of regulation, relationship, and emotional safety instead of at the level of behavior. These children's issues are not behavioral; they are regulatory. Working at the level of regulation, relationship, and emotional safety addresses more deeply critical forces within these children that go far beyond the exchanges of language, choices, stars, and sticker charts.

Traditional disciplinary techniques focus on altering the left hemisphere through language, logic, and cognitive thinking. These approaches are ineffective because the regulatory system is altered more effectively through a different part of the brain known as the limbic system. The limbic system operates at the emotional level, not at the logical level. Therefore, we must work to regulate these children at the level of the limbic system, which happens most easily through the context of human connection.

When the teacher says to a non-traumatized child, "Andy, can you please settle down and quietly have a seat?" Andy has the internal regulatory ability to respond appropriately to his teacher because trauma has not interrupted his developmental maturation of developing self-regulation tools and feeling like he is safe in the world. However, when Billy (the traumatized child) is asked the same question, his response is much different. He takes the long way around the classroom to his seat, he continues to not only talk but projects his voice across the room as if he is still out in the playground, and once seated continues to squirm and wiggle.

Traditionally, we have interpreted Billy as a disruptive child, pasted the label ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) onto him, and reprimanded him for his "naughty" behavior. What we have failed to see is that Billy cannot settle down on his own. His internal system has not experienced the appropriate patterning to know how to be well behaved like his classmate Andy and Billy does not know he is safe in this world, even if he is now in a safe environment.

The brain-body system is a pattern-matching machine. A child with little internal self-control will pattern himself according to his past external experiences. If his past experiences have been chaotic, disruptive, and overwhelming (trauma), he will continue acting this way until new patterns are established. Thus, a child coming into a calm and safe classroom is still likely to be acting as if he is in his previous chaotic and unsafe environment. A child can be taken out of trauma but not so easily can the trauma be taken out of the child. Past patterns of chaos are now the current framework for navigating his world; he knows no different.

The most effective way to change these patterns comes through safe, nurturing, attuned, and strong human connection. For the student in the classroom, it comes through the teacher-student relationship. The reality is, for our traumatized children to learn and achieve academically, science is showing that they must be engaged at the relational level prior to any academic learning.

Press on,
HeatherHeather T. Forbes, LCSW
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2,
Dare to Love, and Help for Billy.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Growing and Healing Through the Struggles

Emotional SpongeFrom Heather's Daily Reflections:

"In order for children to open up to their past trauma memories, the parent has to be willing to be a 'parental sponge'--acknowledging, absorbing, and experiencing every feeling, every tear, and every fear associated with the trauma. Now that is connection!"


Q: I just read my first reflection, regarding being a parental 
sponge and while I agree with the spirit of it, my concern is this: "Experiencing your child's or client's trauma at such an intensity, couldn't that create 
trauma for the person being the 'sponge'?" I feel I am very empathic but how can I do that without hurting myself?


A: This is an insightful question. Traditionally, most of us are empathic and give compassion in a way that ultimately drains us. This is because of a core belief that tells us that by giving empathy, we will be able to make this person better or that we have the ability to "fix" the problem for this person.

We own that it is up to us to get this person to shift into a calm, peaceful, and regulated state. Their issue then becomes our issue and we stay focused on the outcome of them being better.

It becomes a simple mathematical equation. If I give empathy (E), if I listen (L), and if I spend my time with this person (T) , he will be better (B). E + L + T = B

Yet, when we give these three and the result is not what we expected, we feel a sense of failure. We turn it back on ourselves and hear the old negative tapes playing in our head, "I didn't try hard enough." "I'm not good enough." "I should have done something different." BAM! The negative feedback loop then feeds on itself right within our own mind. Fatigue, overwhelm, and even resentment begin to brew within our internal selves.

In order to be a sponge, the only action we need to take is to simply be present with our child (or friend, spouse, coworker)It is not up to us to make this person better. The reality is that we cannot change or fix another person. We can surround them with support; we can love them unconditionally, free of judgment or control; we can set appropriate boundaries, and we can align with their pain. Yet in doing this, it is still ultimately up to them to make their life work.

Additionally, if we enter into an interaction with a child, expecting him to be better, we are actually adding more stress to the equation, which will create more fear and hinder the healing process. We must stay focused on giving our love without expecting anything in return. That is the essential definition of love.

Entering into an interaction with an expectation of an outcome is not true love. This is conditional love.Conditional love drains us. Unconditional love energizes and liberates us.So that is the theory and I know you are reading this and wanting some meat to chew on--you want application to your 16-year-old teenager whose girlfriend just dumped him and he is feeling like the entire world is coming to an end. You see how his past abandonment issues are being triggered and how this situation is being magnified due to his early adoption history.

Reprogram your thinking to see that what he needs is your support, your attention, and your unconditional acceptance. It is not up to you to make this okay for him. Trust that it is in the struggles of life that we learn and grow to our maximum potential.By being empathetic, by listening, by spending time, and being present with him you are doing EVERYTHING for him. Stay focused on the outcome of you being the absolutely best parent you can be, no matter the outcome of his emotional state at the moment. Your "success" cannot be tied to his feeling better instantaneously.

Keep being the sponge for your child's pain. Become energized by the power of putting unconditional love into action. There is no greater state to be in on this planet!

Press on,
HeatherHeather T. Forbes, LCSW
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2,
Dare to Love, and Help for Billy.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Power of Parenting


Mother and Daughter
Q: I'm having a difficult time keeping myself focused on parenting in the Beyond Consequences way. I read several of your books and agree with them, but there are days that I feel like it is all for nothing. We have one good day where I think, "Great, this is it." Then the next three days we all are dysregulated and I feel discouraged. I keep thinking that I'd rather go back to my full-time job, working 60 hours a week with deadlines due yesterday! Do you have any words of wisdom?

A: A few of days ago, I was attending a small group meeting and in order to introduce a few new members at this group, an icebreaker was given. We were asked to go around the room and instead of telling what we did for a living, we were asked what our parents did for a living when we were growing up. Several of the participants, after describing credentialed careers of high cultural status of their fathers, remarked, "But my mom was just a housewife."

Just a housewife! How sad I was to hear this coming from grown men and women who had a parent home with them to support them, guide them, and teach them around the clock. Parenting is the most important job on this planet. You know this, I know this, but there has not been enough recognition in our society. Perhaps this is due to the intangible nature of this job. This job does not have a paycheck, there are no holiday bonuses, and there is no big desk to sit behind with plaques and certificates to recognize the accomplishments or to present the significance of this job to others.

Good news - this has changed! We are now living in a time where we can show real, tangible evidence of how important this job of parenting is for children. We now have solid, objective evidence that shows the need and importance of safe, attuned, and supportive parenting.

To give you an example, the image below shows the brain scans of two different three-year-olds. On the left side is a healthy three-year-old who has been in a nurturing and loving home his entire life. This child is showing an average size head (50th percentile). On the right side is a three-year-old who suffered severe sensory-deprivation neglect. This child's head is significantly smaller than average (3rd percentile). These images are taken from Dr. Bruce Perry's research ("Childhood Experience and the Expression of Genetic Potential: What Childhood Neglect Tells Us About Nature and Nurture." Brain and Mind 3: 79-100, 2002).
 The Brain 

While this example is extreme in nature, other examples of research have shown the significance of nurturing care. Research is showing that simple changes in a child's environment can literally change a child's physiology. We are seeing that by placing children with trauma histories in calmer environments with more love-based parenting techniques where a deep level of emotional safety is created, stress hormones within these children's body systems are decreasing. This means that parents have the ability to literally change the chemical make-up of their children (not to mention themselves, as well)! Certainly this is a job is just as powerful as the attorney next door or the mayor of your city.

From the research today, our responsibility, or "job description," as parents, is to help our children heal. While not an easy task, it is possible. It takes us changing our perspective not only to understand our children and ourselves, but a change in our understanding as to the significance of parenting. No more "just a housewife."

So, instead of waking up in the morning thinking, "I've got to get up, fix my children breakfast, pack their lunches, somehow get them out to school on time through the tantrums and meltdowns, and then prepare myself for the dreaded homework after school!" I encourage you to say to yourself, "Today is the day that I will press on to help change my child's brain. Today is the day that I have the ability to create safety for my child through predictability, understanding, and loving support in order to help my child heal at a physiological and emotional level." 

Wow! Now that is something worth jumping out of bed for!

Press on,
HeatherHeather T. Forbes, LCSW
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2,
Dare to Love, and Help for Billy.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Success or Failure



Success or Failure
Q: I have to say that in the two weeks we used the techniques in the book, my son has gone from occasional and minor non-compliance to a constant source of rude talking, anger, misbehavior and general disruption. As of yesterday we are trying to forget everything we learned in an effort to recover from this catastrophic experiment. I guess it doesn't work for everyone.
A: I certainly want to address this Email I was sent by a discouraged parent because I know that it can be frustrating and disheartening to see negativity in a home intensify when trying to make positive changes. Implementing a new technique in the home can create disruption for families. A new technique is change and in our children's perspectives, change is inherently bad because something bad is going to happen, thus threatening their relative sense of safety.

The Beyond Consequences paradigm is an absolute 180 degree shift from what many families have traditionally used. Yet, an increase in negative behavior can actually be seen as a step in the right direction for families beginning their journey down the Beyond Consequences healing road. Let me explain...

We traditionally use behaviors as a gauge to determine whether our child is "good" or "bad." We are a behaviorally and outcome based society, where the behavior determines either success or failure. Unfortunately, we deny the process and only focus on the end result. With sensitive children (i.e., children acting out with defiant and severe behaviors), losing our focus of the process creates fear within us as parents. If we only see a child as being rude, misbehaving, and angry, then all we see is failure.

In this example, I want to encourage the parent to see that the change in behavior, albeit an increase in negative behavior, is actually a sign of an improved process. This child is expressing more of himself and sharing his pain and fear with the parent. The child is discharging past trauma. Trauma gets stored in the mind and body of a child and it has to be released. The releasing of trauma is never "pretty." Allowing the discharge of trauma then allows the process of healing to begin. 

Emotional expession is a learned behavior. Most children coming out of trauma have only learned to express themselves in negative and rude ways. The process of recovery and healing involves first allowing for a short period the child to express in the only way they know how and then tightening up the boundaries around how to express appropriately. It is our job through the interactions with our children to teach them how to express themselves in positive ways. In the beginning, try to think of attitudes and sassiness simply as a communication of a deeper trauma issue, knowing that as you build the relationship and the trust, then it is time to teach and expect better ways of communicating from your child.

Now be honest with yourself when answering this question: When you've been stressed out, felt like you are not being heard, and felt completely overwhelmed, did you ever react to those closest to you in a disrespectful, angry, or inappropriate way? I'm thinking your answer is "yes." We act like this when we have no other means to get someone to connect with us and to connect with our needs.

I believe that by implementing the Beyond Consequences paradigm in this home, this parent actually created more safety and more emotional space for this child to move out of a hypo-aroused state (inwardly shut-down state) into a hyper-aroused state (outwardly, angry state). By increasing the level of safety, removing the threat of punishment, and responding instead of reacting, this parent created space for this child to express himself. This is a victory. Yet it is only a victory if we stay focused on the process.

It is vital to accept that the process may be "ugly" and "uncomfortable" and yes, "disrespectful" (as seen from the traditional model) but if we truly understand that our children need to time discharge the trauma and "unlearn" poor communication skills, it should not be difficult to accept this as part of the healing process.

Meeting our children exactly where they are is the only way to move them forward to bring them exactly where we think they should be. 

When a child shifts from a hypo-aroused to hyper-aroused state, celebrate. Yes, celebrate that tantrums are happening! Finally, the child is venturing out of his/her shell and is getting out the fear, pain, and stress instead of keeping it locked down. This is the healing moment. This is the opportunity to reach in and connect with the child in order to demostrate through experience what a safe relationship with a parent can be like.

Creating emotional safety and space for emotional expression is scary and it takes courage. I do believe that love works for everyone. It is simply a matter of focusing on the relationship, focusing on the process of trauma recovery, and giving our children time to re-learn appropriate ways to express their emotions. In doing so, the ONLY possible outcome to follow will be "good behavior."

Press on,
HeatherHeather T. Forbes, LCSW
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2,
Dare to Love, and Help for Billy.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Uncertainty Breeds Resistance


uncertaintyQ: What do you do with a child who is so compelled to a repetitious behavior that he can't be redirected to the task at hand?
A: As humans, one of our basic primal needs is that of certainty. It feels good to know for certain what is going to happen, when it is going to happen, and how it is going to happen. We also seek certainty through our behaviors and actions. For some, repetitive behaviors create certainty which reduces the level of internal fear. OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) is about an intense need for certainty. For others, food creates certainty. Food makes us feel good, thus gives us an instant feeling of certainty.
Additionally, many parents seek certainty through controlling parenting techniques.
On the other hand, uncertainty is a basic human need as well but only if there is enough certainty in our lives to create a balance between the two. For most of us, we enjoy an occasional surprise, it creates excitement. We like change, to a small degree, because it creates variety in our lives. For some, a higher level of uncertainty creates a rush of being "alive" like riding a roller coaster, watching a scary movie, or even jumping out of an airplane.

For children with traumatic histories, they have experienced an over abundance of uncertainty. There has not been a balance between the amount of uncertainty and certainty in their lives. If an imbalance of the two creates a level of fear for the average adult then it is understandable for a child, with limited coping skills, such an imbalance creates an exponential amount of fear.

The result is a child who will constantly seek certainty, at all costs. He is working to live in a heightened state of certainty in order to calm the fear of uncertainty that is programmed in his nervous system.

When we as parents then try to redirect this behavior, we are creating yet more uncertainty. The child, in his desperate attempt to return to a state of balance and regulation, will resist the parent and refuse to be redirected. The parent typically interprets this as "bad" behavior, "defiant" behavior, or "disrespectful" behavior. Worse, the parent takes this lack of responsiveness personally as if the child is behaving in this manner simply to push the parent's button or to be revengeful.

The negative neurological feedback loop is thus in full swing. Both the parent and the child are working to attain certainty, yet they are both doing it from a self-absorbed framework. The relationship becomes more strained, thus breeding more uncertainty! 

If the parent can understand that the child is simply working to create certainty in his uncertain world, this negative loop can easily be interrupted. The parent can acknowledge that the compelling behavior (as given in this question) is helping the child feel better and that switching to a new task is incredibly difficult and scary. A conversation might look like this:
Parent: "Tommy, it is going to be time for us to go out and rake leaves in a few minutes."

Tommy: ignores his mom and continues to keep pushing his Hot Wheels up and down the hallway, over and over again.

Parent: Sitting down near Tommy, acknowledges his behavior, "You like running your cars up and down this hallway, don't you? I think you've been doing for over an hour. Wow! That does look like fun and I bet it makes you feel good."

Tommy: "I don't want to go rake leaves."

Parent: "I know. It isn't easy changing from one activity that makes you feel good to another activity that you don't even like."

Tommy: "I hate raking leaves."

Parent: "I know. I want to help you today. I don't want you to feel so overwhelmed with this type of stuff anymore. If I'm with you, I'm certain it will be easier for you."

Tommy: "Humph"

Parent: "How about we do this in about 5 minutes?"
The parent works to connect with Tommy's fears and acknowledges his struggle of shifting to a different activity. The parent creates certainty by being with him now while promising to be with him during the new activity. Through their relationship, the parent is working to create the certainty he is seeking through the toy cars. The parent's goal is to help Tommy shift from using the toys as security to using the relationship with him as the security. Giving him five minutes also gives Tommy emotional space to consider making this change and time to process this change, which reduces the element of surprise.

As human beings, we are constantly working to create balance in our lives. Your children's behaviors are often times reflective of this need for balance. Look beyond the typical interpretations of defiance, disrespect, and retaliation, to identify the significance of your child's behaviors.When you can do this, you put yourself in the most powerful position - the position of a committed, loving, and understanding parent!

Press on,
HeatherHeather T. Forbes, LCSW
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2,
Dare to Love, and Help for Billy.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

This is Your Brain on Trauma




Q: I've been avoiding my 16-year-old daughter's room because I simply can't stand the mess she creates. I admit, I just didn't want to deal with one more argument. I was looking for something the other day and I needed to go into her room. Oh my goodness...what a disaster! After years of teaching her how to organize (she came to us at age three after an early history of trauma), I simply can't figure out how her room could be this horrible and downright disgusting. Please help!

A: The art and skill of organizing takes a well-developed brain. The prefrontal cortex is the area of thebrain that gives us the ability to plan, organize, and problem solve. To keep a room clean and in order, it takes all three of these skills. Science tells us that this area is one of the last areas of the brain to mature and it can take up to 25 years for someone to fully develop his or her prefrontal cortex when living in an optimal environment for all of those 25 years.

Early childhood trauma can severely impact how the brain develops throughout the entire developmental journey into adulthood, even if the child is taken out of trauma and placed in a loving and positive environment. The early wiring of the brain, as in your daughter's case from birth to three years old (and perhaps even in-utero), will influence how the brain continues to develop throughout her life, especially in her teenage years.

While it is very frustrating as a parent to continually see your child's room resemble a war zone, I believe one of the best ways to curb this frustration is to understand what trauma does to a child's brain. It isn't that your child "won't" keep her room clean, it's that she "can't" keep her room clean (at least not yet..there's still time for the brain to develop).

In the late 80's, you may remember the commercial for the anti-drug campaign that showed an egg on a hot frying pan with the slogan, "This is your brain on drugs." I'll take the creative liberty here to modifythis for our children impacted by trauma to say, "This is your brain on trauma."



When you see your daughter's room, simply repeat this phrase in your head, over and over again. It will help keep you from being reactive, frustrated, and feeling as if she is just being lazy, defiant, or unappreciative. It truly is why she is having such a difficult time.

Trauma also puts children in a place where they get overwhelmed very easily. Perhaps you helped her clean and organize her room a few months ago but once a few things were left on the floor, then a few more, and then a few more, in a very short amount of time, a point of no return was reached. The quick build-up of mess would easily have gotten her so overwhelmed and stressed-out that she simply had to shut-down the idea of cleaning it up again.

Additionally, some children with histories of trauma often have a hard time throwing items away. What may look like trash to you, is not trash to them. Objects, and I mean any objects, are tangible and they can represent value. And most importantly, they represent security. If you felt safer surrounding yourself with items of value, you too would most likely completely fill your room with items, no matter the mess.

Even with these explanations, I still believe it is our duty as parents to help our children overcome the deficiencies they have in keeping a room organized. First, you must let go of the negativity and accept the disorder and chaos in her room as a byproduct of trauma. Then, work with your daughter to help her organize. This may require dropping your expectations of her being able to do it on her own because she is 16-years-old. When your offer to help is free from anger, frustration, and disapproval, she is more likely to be able to accept your help.

Chunking the task of cleaning her room into smaller segments at a time can help to minimize the overwhelm. Start with just the dresser one day. The next day, tackle underneath the bed (or maybe that will take two days!). Then move to the closet, and so onThis may be something you need to do with her for several months or maybe even a year or two years. You'll be setting into motion new patterns and new habits, which will eventually lay down new neuropathways in the brain.

No matter how long it takes, just keep saying to yourself, "This is your brain on trauma." and I know you'll get there! Trust in the process and trust that love will never fail.

Press on,
HeatherHeather T. Forbes, LCSW
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2,
Dare to Love, and Help for Billy.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Blueprints

blueprintQ: My child's early years were spent in a home that was chaotic and unpredictable. Later, he lived in several foster care homes before coming to live with us. Today is our four-year anniversary of being adopted but I find myself still frustrated on a daily basis. After four years, he still continues to be a disruptor in our home and anything I do to try to make life a positive experience for him, he flips it around to be negative and chaotic. Please help!
A: Congratulations on your four-year adoption anniversary! One of the first thoughts that came to mind when I read your question was that you can take a child out of the trauma, but getting the trauma out of the child takes much effort. Your child's early history impacted his blueprint of the meaning of family and of life.

When children grow up in traumatic homes, that kind of environment is the familiar and they come to believe this is "normal." They just assume that this is the way life is for everybody. A deep subconscious imprint is formed and they live out of this blueprint for the rest of their lives, unless it is consciously changed.

For children growing up in the type of environment your son experienced, their definition of what love and family means is skewed and distorted. Listed in the left-hand column are words that describe your son's early blueprint of love and family. Conversely, children who grow up in loving, predictable, and emotionally sensitive homes, develop blueprints for love and family that are much more in line with reality. In the right-hand column below are words that define what these children perceive as love and family.

Your son is still living out of this early blueprint, despite being in your home for four years. That is why it feels like he is sabotaging and disrupting everything you do to create a loving environment for him. Your family is uncomfortably juxtaposed between the left-hand column and the right-hand column listed in the chart above.

Some children learn to redefine their blueprints simply through repetition and time. Other children, however, need more intentional and conscious work to finally let go of distorted blueprints. Why? It all depends on the depth of the trauma, the child's perception of the traumatic experiences, and the child's personality type. It isn't a reflection of you being a "good" or "bad" parent. It's just the nature of trauma.

Bringing a negative blueprint up to the child's conscious awareness can be a valuable exercise in helping him change these early definitions. Take a large sheet of white poster board or paper and draw the chart given above. When your son is in a calm state, go through these two sides of the chart with him. Add in more about his early life story and help him see that what he experienced years ago is influencing his life today.

Tell him that your job is to help him learn what the true definition of family is. It also helps to take responsibility for not being there early on to protect him from these traumatic experiences. Although it wasn't your "fault," our children need someone to take responsibility for what happened to them in order for them to move forward in their healing journeys. When you can say, "I'm so sorry I wasn't there to protect you and give you everything you deserved as a baby/toddler. I so wish I was able to have been there for you!" from a heart-centered, authentic place, it helps him to know you really understand him.

Keep this poster up in your house and when he starts to go back into these old patterns and that old blueprint takes over, lovingly remind him of what true family is all about. It is important to not just talk about this old blueprint but to show it visually, as shown in this chart. Most children with trauma need visual communication along with auditory communication to have it make more sense and for it to be retained within their memory systems.

Trauma recovery is a life-long developmental process. Keep connecting with the left-hand column to understand how to bring him into the right-hand column!

Press on,
HeatherHeather T. Forbes, LCSW
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2,
Dare to Love, and Help for Billy.