Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Dinnertime Tantrums

crying boy at breakfast Q: My four-year-old sits down to dinner and says, "I don't like that." He either won't eat at all or won't eat his vegetables. He then gets annoyed, trying to leave the table, whining and refusing to eat. This happens five out of seven nights. How do I respond without consequences?

A: Meal times are clearly a stressful time for not only your child, but for you as well. I'm certain that for you at this point, even the thought of dinnertime creates a stress reaction in you.

Create new experiences around food for you and your child (and your entire family). Have your child sit in your lap to eat. Feed him as you would feed a young toddler. Emotionally your child is probably much younger than four years old. Expecting him to be able to sit down at the table during mealtime is probably well beyond his developmental capabilities.

You might even consider feeding him from a bottle during mealtimes. He may need you to allow him to regress all the way back to infancy in order to create a fresh start. Children with trauma around food missed some critical experiences that we need to recreate for them. It will give him a stronger foundation from which to grow and reach his full potential.

Recognize that his behavior is being driven from fear and that it isn't about him rejecting your efforts as a mother to feed him and nurture him. When he says, "I don't like that!" what he is really saying is, "I'm too stressed out to eat this food right now!"

We also need to recognize that we shouldn't eat when we are stressed anyway. Our bodies can't digest the food properly and it can become toxic in our bodies. More importantly, forcing children to eat during this time or giving consequences around food only creates negative food related issues as adults.

The refusal to eat vegetables has a direct link to being stressed out. As a human species, we gravitate towards sweets, salts, and fats when we are stressed. What is your regulatory food? Chocolate or broccoli? When we are stressed, we have a difficult time eating vegetables. Think about the last time you were physically sick (where your body was stressed due to illness). Even the thought of eating a salad was enough to make you nauseous.

Try feeding your child outside of mealtimes. Small snacks of carrots and celery during the day can provide nutricious intake for your child. Children are more apt to "graze" than they are to sit and eat an entire meal. While dinnertime is an important time for the entire family to come together, realize that expecting your four-year-old to be engaged at this point in his development is only creating a negative experience for everyone.

As you gain a deeper understanding of the stress driving your child's behavior, you will find more solutions that work for your family. Stay focused on your child's needs and "listen" to his behavior and there you will find the answers.

Keep focused on calming your child's environment around mealtime. This will in turn help your son settle his nervous system which will naturally bring back his appetite and desire to eat.


Q: In many of your articles, you mention that the parent should calm a child down by creating security for the child. I understand that much of a child's stress and fear comes from the threat of being moved to another home. Yet as a foster mom, I can never honestly say, "You are safe. You aren't going anywhere."

A: You're absolutely right. You would never want to say this to a foster child because the reality is that they probably would be moving on to another home in the future. Congratulations for being sensitive to giving your child only the truth!

What you have working for you is the present moment. The only moment we have guaranteed to us is the moment we are in. Capture this moment with your child. Say to her, "You are safe, honey. You are right here with me now." You can give security and nurturing at that moment. Help your child learn how to stay present with you in this precious space in time.

I recently had a foster mother relate a story to me that will help you understand the power of even short term loving relationships. This foster mother had a teenage foster child in her home for a period of only one month. Eight years later, after the child had aged out of the system and was on her own as an adult, she and the foster mother reconnected. The former foster child told this foster mother that the turning point in her life was when she was at her home. The love, safety, security, and acceptance that she was given by this foster mother changed her life and gave this former foster child the ability to move forward. She relayed how this placement, only one month in length, was the best placement she had EVER had.

You are an important part of your foster child's journey. Never underestimate the importance of your time with her, whether it is short or long term, and your ability to create safety and security in each moment, despite an uncertain future.

Press on,

Heather T. Forbes, LCSW
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2, and Dare to Love

Monday, August 25, 2014

Free Podcasts "Interview the Expert" Series

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Heather brings to you interviews with professionals who specialize in a large variety of areas dealing with the traumatized child and how the Beyond Consequences Parenting Model applies to reactive attachment disorder, school issues, aggression, defiance, video game addictions, the institutionalized child, stress responses in children, adoption, foster care, sensory processing, and more.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Shouldn't he be okay by now?

Q: For the past six years, we have been implementing the Beyond Consequences parenting model with our son and have seen a massive amount of improvements. We have changed our lifestyle, found the perfect school and teacher for him, and supported him with tutoring. I feel like my wife and I have even done much of our own work to keep ourselves from reacting and in a place of love with him. However, even after all of this, I still see our son struggling! I am frustrated because
I truly know that he has everything right in front of him to get better. Is there something more we should be doing that I’ve missed?

A: Six years later with all the parameters in place (just the right school; an amazing teacher; a patient tutor; a home environment that provides understanding, love, and support; a less stressful lifestyle; and parents who have done their own emotional work) and your son is still struggling. I know it's so easy to ask, "Shouldn't he be okay by now?" Sometimes yes, but sometimes no. The reality may actually hold a different outcome and the reason comes down to one simple truth: Your son may not be ready to receive this understanding and help.

Ultimately, we have to understand our children are on their own journeys. They are on their own timetable and their own organic paths to healing. Healing takes courage and the ability to break down massive protective barriers, barriers that were created to protect the heart and soul from more overwhelming amounts of pain and fear.

Our work as parents is done after we have provided what you describe, all with an overabundance of support, understanding, and love. The only step after this is to detach--detach from the outcome. There is nothing more to do at this point. Just detach.

Detachment is hard because we live in a world that is outcome based. To stay focused on the process requires us to find the courage to place confidence in the power of love, to have certainty, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that love will never fail. What has failed us in the past is that fear got in the way and created more problems and more resistance.

We are asking our children to change and to trust in love; we must do the same. We are asking them to let go of their defenses and internal protective forces, thus we must also make these changes in order to complete this process for them.

Let go of your son's outcome. It is not about giving up; it is about letting go and changing the tool of measurement. Ask yourself about the process in which you engage with him: "Did I give him understanding, acceptance, and validation today?" These are the things that should be measured because these are, in reality, the only parts over which we have any control. We cannot control the outcome of any child, especially a child with a trauma history. Thinking that we can is in essence ignoring and discrediting the strength and power of free will.

We are on this planet in a framework of free will, all of us. This is why every one of us is resistant to power and control. We were given this gift to learn and experience what true love is. Each of us is here to migrate back to the essence of our origins--back to the fullness and completeness of unconditional love. For this reason, a controlling and fear-based model within any organization, whether it is a home environment, a corporation, a personal relationship, or a classroom, will always fail in the long term.

The solution is to flip the evaluation and focus back to us--the parent, the support person, the teacher, the therapist--because nothing is guaranteed except for the gift of giving love. It is then up to the receiver to receive the love or reject it, to either change or stay the same.

Your ability to give love and stay mindful is the new outcome.

At the end of each day, each year, each decade, or an entire lifetime, look back and ask yourself if you did all you could to make a loving and positive difference. We have been asking the wrong questions, which can only lead to feeling utterly unsuccessful. We have been asking whether our children behaved, whether or not they won the top honors, or whether they were accepted into Harvard. If you ask the wrong questions, you'll get the wrong answers.

The questions that each of us parenting and working with children should be asking are, "What was my level of love?" and "To what extent was I able to get outside of my own desires and agenda to be able to be in the shoes of this child?"

When you have been able to fully and unconditionally deliver everything your child needs, your work is complete. There is nothing else to do. It is then up to your child to receive the help and make the needed changes.

Sometimes our children can change, sometimes they cannot. Or perhaps they simply are not ready to change and it is not the right timing. At this point love is about letting go and stepping back to give our children their right to free will. There is nothing else to do but love them, create boundaries for them, be clear about expectations, and continue doing your best because your best is good enough. Let love take over from here and be kind and loving to yourself, always.

Press on,

Heather T. Forbes, LCSW
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2, and Dare to Love

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Sibling Rivalry

sibling rivalry Q: My son is constantly fighting with his younger sister. They can’t seem to ever get along. How do I put an end to this negative behavior?

A: Whenever you want to stop a behavior in a family, always ask yourself, "What is driving this behavior?" Getting to the root cause, rather than addressing just the behavior, will lead you to the solution.

Typically, however, we tend to ask the wrong question when addressing a child's negative behavior. We ask, "How do I stop this (or put an end to this) negative

behavior?" If you ask the wrong question, you're going to get the wrong answer.

In this instance, the "right" question would be, "What is driving the sibling rivalry?"

Traditionally, we have seen sibling rivalry as a conflict between the children. Countless parenting resources describe sibling rivalry as jealous and competitive fighting between brothers and sisters.

This is not the root cause. Sibling rivalry is driven from the lack of relationship or the lack of security that children have with their parents. Hence, sibling rivalry is between the parent and child, not child and child.

For example, if your Billy is mean and upset with his sister Sally, is it really between Billy and Sally? No. Billy's interpretation and perception is that his parents love Sally more. If Billy "gets rid of Sally" or picks on Sally, then the love will go to him, not his sister. Billy sees love as a commodity--there is only a limited supply. In his eyes, if Sally is getting the love, then there won't be enough for him.

Billy is creating attention for himself; he is creating relationship but in a negative way. What we have to remember is that any form of attention, whether positive or negative, satisfies a child's need for attention, connection and love. Billy is working to calm his internal need for parental connection through a negative means.

This leads us to the solution. What Billy actually needs is time with his parent(s) in order to help him feel special, wanted, good enough, and loved. Spending more individual time with Billy will give him the attention he has been seeking all along. When the relationship between each child and the parent(s) becomes more secure and more deeply connected, the need for Billy to create negative attention dissipates and in many cases, disappears altogether.

Another strategy to help Billy learn that he is unconditionally loved is to address his attacks on Sally in the moment. When Billy is being mean to Sally, instead of rejecting Billy by sending him away to his room, he needs you to bring him closer to you, giving him more security. When you can truly see that behavior is a form of communication, it will make sense to do this instead of being scared you are rewarding Billy for bad behavior. Billy NEEDS attention in order to calm his nervous system and to secure his place in the family system.

Remember, the true issue behind sibling rivalry is the lack of relationship. Your goal is to decrease Billy's fear and stress and to create connection with him. Don't mention his behavior in the moment (you'll have a chance later to teach the life lesson) but focus on how you can calm his nervous system and secure him in relationship.

Traditional techniques are actually damaging because, for a child like Billy, sending him away to his room and punishing him actually create more insecurity and more rejection. If we want our children to heal and improve their behaviors, we can't be creating more of the same.

The dictionary defines "discipline" as "Training expected to produce a specific character or pattern of behavior, especially training that produces moral or mental improvement." To discipline Billy for this behavior means to teach him a new pattern that is morally right. Some children don't know any other way to solve conflicts other than by fighting. A conversation with Billy might sound like this:

Dad: "Billy, when you get frustrated and aggregated with Sally, instead of hitting her or taking her toy (because this is NOT okay to do in our family), I want you to come to me so I can help you feel safe. You're not in trouble. My job as your daddy is to help you find a better way so everybody is okay and nobody gets hurt in this family."

Dad is working to take away the fear and the punishment. Dad's "discipline goal" is to teach and guide Billy to develop a better way through the influence of the parent/child relationship and to help Billy communicate his need for attention more effectively.

Dad also helps Billy learn to communicate his feelings and to express his needs to his parents through verbal communication instead of acting out negatively. There are five basic feeling words children of almost any age can learn, "I'm mad, sad, glad, scared, or happy." Opening the lines of emotional communication is one of the keys to helping any child through almost any behavior.

Put love into action to secure your little Billy and you'll spend more quality and fun time instead of breaking up all the fights!

Press on,

Heather T. Forbes, LCSW
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2, and Dare to Love

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Teaching Trauma in the Classroom


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.

Heather T. Forbes, LCSW 

To read more on this topic, check-out Heather’s latest book, Help for Billy, at www.help-for-billy.com. Available as a paperback and E-book.
To attend a live training, check to see if Heather will be in a city near you for her upcoming training series, Help for Billy Live, at: www.helpforbillylive.com

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

When Fun Is Too Stressful

Mom and son playing spy Q: My son with trauma history is aggressive towards his friends at home or in the park. He will be playing fine and then any tiny thing that happens (he doesn't get a long enough turn or someone throws the ball "wrong") and he will just start yelling mean things at the other children, throwing things, and freaking out. I've tried removing him from the situation but then he'll start hitting me. Afterwards, he says he can't stop himself.

A: Social experiences are completely overwhelming for your child, especially if he is being aggressive.

When a child is being aggressive towards other children, he is feeling threatened. It is a fight or flight reaction—a basic primal reaction that happens instinctually (hence, he says he can't stop himself).

Your son needs a safe social environment. Try having only one child over for your son to play with while you are in close proximity of the play experience. Maybe he even needs you to be directly in the middle of the play: you, your son, and the friend all on the floor and playing with Hot Wheels. This gives you a chance to teach appropriate social skills and to be a regulatory figure for your son.

You will also want to limit the time your son and his friend play. Social interactions are stressful, even if they are fun. Keep it to 30 minutes, maybe even 20 minutes. This may not seem fair to a child coming over to only spend 20 minutes but we have to start reducing and identifying how large (or small) the window of stress tolerance is for your son.

Some children are so threatened they are not ready for social interactions, yet. Setting such a strong boundary may be what he absolutely needs but that does not mean he will like it. A conversation to set this limitation with him might look like this:

  Mom: Sweetheart, I've had to make a decision that you probably are not going to be happy with. Just for a while, we are not going to have friends over. It is my job to make a safe environment for you and to make sure you are okay...

Son: (Interrupting mom) You don't love me! You don't love me if you won't let me have friends! You hate me! You never wanted me!

Mom: What makes you feel like I never wanted you?

Son: You don't care. 'Cuz nobody wants me. Nobody ever wanted me. I'm a bad kid. I always do bad things so nobody wants me.

Mom: (Pausing to "absorb" the son's pain)......What else?

Son: None of my friends like me.

Mom: Sweetheart that has to be so hard--so hard to feel like nobody wants you.

Son: I hate myself!

Mom: (With compassion and understanding) I know you do.

Son: They're going to take me away. You want them to take me away. And then you're gonna tell them all the bad things I've done and then you're going to tell them to take me away.

Mom: That's what happened before. They took you away right? The minute you acted badly.

Son: Yah.

Mom: Honey that's so scary. Tell me you're scared.

Son: I'm scared. I'm scared. And I want to play with friends and they're saying I did stuff that I didn't do and they are telling lies about me. And you need to go tell them to stop telling lies about me because now they're telling everybody and now nobody wants to be my friend!

Mom: Okay, I'm going to take care of that. But what's really important right now is that you and I get connected. Right now, nothing else matters. You matter so much to me. I have to make sure that you are okay. I need to do that for you. Someone should have done that for you before. Someone should have made you feel okay! That's my job now, okay?

Son: But I'm not okay… I'm not okay.

Mom: I know. That's what I'm here for now. I'm never going to give up on you but it's going to feel like I will. It might feel like I'm going to leave you. It's going to be really, really tough for both of us but we're going to make it, honey. I am here. And I just want to be with you. I want to know you better and to do things with you. I want us to be okay. I just want you to be okay, finally.

Son: I don't want to be home. I don't like to be home. If I'm home, I just have to do boring things and it's boring and Dad doesn't like me to be here and makes me do boring stuff like read. And I want to be playing and you'll just make me do not fun stuff.

Mom: Okay, how about we change that. Because you're right; it hasn't been fun being at home. How about I work to change that so we can still be home and still find a way to have fun? Do you think we can do that? Do you think that's possible?

Son: I don't know.

Mom: How about we give it a try--just a few days to start. Let's see how we can do this differently. And you help by coaching me because you have very good and creative ideas. Will you help me figure out how to make this house fun again? Because that's what you deserve. You deserve to have fun and have a fun home again. What do you like to do at home?

Son: I don't like to play at home. I like to play basketball and run outside and do tricks and do karate and fight people and play spies all the time. I wanna play spies all the time.

Mom: Could we play spies together?

Son: You don't like to play spies. You don't like guns; you always tell me guns are bad.

Mom: I know but how about you and I just play the two of us. We play and we make it safe. Okay? Just the two of us though but you get to be the head spy. What do you think?

Son: You have to dress up.

Mom: Okay, you tell me how to be your partner, your partner in crime. You're in charge as the head spy, just when we're playing, okay?

Son: Okay.

As the parent, notice that I didn't argue that guns or crime games were bad. Instead, I agreed to play in order to get a better sense of how scared (even terrified) my child is. The question has to be asked, "Why does this child gravitate to guns, karate, and violent play?" The answer: these help him feel in control and safe.

Later, after playing with the child and the connection is more intact between the parent and child, the parent can open up the conversation about why it feels good to play fear based games. Let the child know you understand that he doesn't want to ever get hurt again. Talk about how it is your role, as the parent, to protect him and to keep him safe. As he learns to trust you more, the shift into games that are more love-based can be introduced with success.

Shut down the world for your son. Make it a small world. It's not forever; it's simply about helping your son find a way back into trust, safety, and love.

Press on,

Heather T. Forbes, LCSW
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2, and Dare to Love

P.S. Check out my Ask the Expert Interview with Sherrie Eldridge, as she speaks out adoption, adopted children and how their parents are drawn closer. http://www.asktheexpertinterviews.com