Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Celebrate and Stop the Crazy Loop

Q: I have a 15-year-old son who has established a pattern of running away. I've been advised to call the police when this occurs. What do you suggest?

Running away is indicative of a child who has entered a fear state. When we, and all animals in the animal kingdom become threatened, we go into a primitive response called the "Fight or Flight" response. It is an inborn genetic response, which helps to protect us; it is a survival response.

With this understanding, it perplexes me to think that calling the police on a child in this survival response pattern would ever be recommended. Why would you call out the police to address a child who is simply acting from his body's primitive, automatic, and inborn response? Your child is acting from an unconscious level. It isn't a conscious response; it is an unconscious reaction. Addressing it from an authoritarian and fear based approach will only keep your child in this pattern; hence, you described it as an "established pattern."
We have somehow come to believe that we can force change by provoking fear and threat. This is completely unnatural. Have you ever seen nature force a seedling to grow? This is a choice that has to come from an internal place from within a person.

To give such advice about sending the police is an example of doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result (this of course, is the definition of insanity). Statistics reveal that more than one in 100 adults in the United States have been in jail or prison. This is an all time high. When are we going to realize that this isn't working?

Our own fear keeps us in a constricted place, locked in from seeing other alternatives. Fear keeps us in a crazy loop of trying harder, "upping the ante," and driving more consequences in order to get our children to behave and to be compliant.

Here is the traditional parenting crazy loop:

  • For young children, we start by picking them up and putting them in the time-out chair.
  • When they get too old to sit in time out, we began removing privileges in order to get them to comply.
  • When this becomes ineffective with a "whatever" response from them, we increase the stakes and ground them for a week.
  • Finally, as teenagers, they realize they have the ability to just leave and run away.
  • Then we call in the big guns and call the police.
None of the craziness above is effective in the long-term, and only limited in the short-term.
This problem is, love has not been a part of the solution...that is why the crazy loop has continued. If you want to end the cyclical turmoil in a family, put love into action. Unfortunately, many of us have no blueprint for what this looks like, so it challenges us at a deep level to consider that it would actually work.

The next time your son runs away (and I also suggest looking closely at the circumstances that led up to this event and determine how much fear from both you and him contributed to the situation), I want you to plan a celebration for his return. Instead of calling the police, call the caterer! Seriously, bake a cake or some cookies. Make a banner that says, "Welcome home, son. We missed you."

When a child returns, what we typically do is dump our fear onto the child. Instead of saying, "I was scared for you," we typically say, "How dare you leave this house and not tell us where you were going!" We need to realize that it took a tremendous amount of courage for the child to walk back into that door, knowing the parent was going to lecture him about everything he had done wrong.

Put love into action when he walks in the next time. "Son, I'm so glad you're home. We missed you." It takes putting your fear aside and getting down to your core feelings. You did miss him. You are glad he is home. Let him know how special he is in your life. If you've lost these loving feelings towards your child due to the intense dysregulation going on, revisit pictures of when he was younger and when times were calmer and more pleasant. Get yourself back into a loving place with him.

Later in the day, take the time to be with your child and listen to him. Talk about what it is that drives him to leave. Really listen to him. Give him space to voice himself. Stay out of being defensive. Know that when he feels heard, he will be able to hear you. When you give him the gift of being understood, you then can take the opportunity to express your fear. "I just get so scared when you leave. When I don't know where you are, I can't do anything to help you at that point. I also can’t do my ultimate job for you as a parent, and that is to keep you safe."

Be courageous enough to try something different. You have the capacity to interrupt the negative crazy loop and to change this established pattern with your child. It takes trusting that love never fails.

Press on,

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A New Recipient for the Notorious Gold Star

Q: I understand many of the Beyond Consequences principles and the idea of relationship-based parenting resonates with my heart. However, could you please explain more about why I should see my child’s issues as “regulatory” instead of “behavioral” and the neuroscience that supports this concept?

A: Yes, I often say, “A child’s issues are not behavioral, they are regulatory,” because we need to parent children at the level of regulation and relationship. This is imperative, especially with a child who experienced childhood trauma, because we can then more deeply address the critical forces within this child that operate at

deeply address the critical forces within this child that operate implicit levels, beyond the exchanges of language, choices, stars, and sticker charts.
The brain is growing at a rapid pace the first two years of life. Forty thousand (40,000) new synapses are formed every second in the infant’s brain. This growth and maturation is experience dependent on the social interactions from right-brain to right-brain between the parent and the child. The right brain is dominant for all children during the first two years of life in order to fully receive and interact with these non-verbal visual, tactile, and verbal communications from the parent.

Research suggests that the regulatory interactions between the child and parent during these primal years is essential in order for the brain’s synaptic connections to develop normally and for functional brain circuits to be established. The attachment relationship is a major organizer for the brain during these primary years due to its ability to help the infant regulate emotions and states of stress.

Additionally, relationships that offer emotional availability from the parent give the child a chance to develop healthy and responsive regulatory systems. An emotionally available parent provides a dyadic interaction that is socially stimulating and rewarding. This attachment communication is dynamic, multi-sensory (facial expression, auditory, verbal, and tactile), and reciprocal.

These relationship-based interactions continue to be a driving factor in a child’s development well beyond these primary years. The engaging and safe social interactions in infancy provide the foundation and backdrop needed to later communicate with and understand and successfully read future caretakers. The child’s interpersonal neurobiology continues to crave connection and relationship throughout childhood in order to ensure healthy development into adulthood.

However, when much of a child’s early life experiences have activated his fear response system, the child develops a negative and hopeless blueprint rather than a blueprint organized by affection and optimism. Dominant experiences of fear, loss, abandonment, terror, distress, rage, and indifference from the parent create ill-formed neurological pathways. Overwhelming amounts of stress in childhood create a child who is limited in his window of stress tolerance and ability to modulate emotional and affective states.

The good news is that children are resilient and plastic. Meaning, a child’s nervous system and neurological pathways have plasticity, the ability to change, adapt, acquire, and create new and improved neurological pathways. It was in the relationship and emotional states of fear and overwhelm that the damage happened so it stands to reason that it is in the relationship and emotional states of safety and love that the repair and healing happens.

Interactive repair, or simply, a safe relationship is what it takes. The most important and most effective “behavioral technique” your child needs in order to move him back within the behavioral boundaries of your home is relationship. Too much emphasis has been placed on what behavioral technique should be used or which punishment should be imposed. Well-meaning parents, who do not understand the concept of regulation nor understand the power of the relationship, use behavioral techniques far removed from human relational experiences. These techniques continue to fail over and over, keeping the family in chaos and potentially moving the family into crisis.

Historically, when techniques were used and they resulted in behavioral change, the credit was given to the technique itself. Upon closer inspection, however, the question begs to be asked, “Was the technique or the relationship the influencing factor that brought about change?”

The credit should not be given to the technique but rather the relationship that is at the heart of the child’s experience. The child values the relationship and changes his behavior in order to ensure his connection. It was the power of the relationship that created change, not the threat that came with the technique.

Build the relationship; it is the key. It is the relationship that does the work…that is where real change happens because it is in the right brain-to-right brain experience that children are able to get back on course. More importantly, it is change that brings not only behavioral shifts, but deep healing that permeates to the heart and soul of a child who has experienced pain and vulnerability. (Isn’t that what really deserves that gold star?).

Press on,

Heather T. Forbes, LCSW

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Survey Says...

 Survey Says                                                   Finding solutions for our children at school has proven in the past to be an arduous and difficult task. I have sat in school meetings with over twenty professionals, ranging from teachers, principals, district personnel, caseworkers, psychiatrists, nurses, parents, education advocates, and more, all working to find solutions for one challenging student. Discussions, both pleasant and heated, have lasted for hours on end, only to come to the conclusion that another meeting needs to be scheduled in order to discuss the issues further. Through all of this, I have come to one conclusion:                                                          

This is way too complicated! We need to ask our children what they need. And I did just that. In my most recent eNote and on my FaceBook page, I invited children to give their opinions about school. Here are the amazing results:
1. What do children need at school to make learning better? What would make you look forward to getting up and going to school every day?
  • Be more understanding of our ever changing abilities (due to stress even if you don't see it).
  • Less students and more one on one with the teacher.
  • The students need their peers to be supportive. So maybe have a game once a week that will involve the students with their other peers working together to figure something out. By doing this, other students will get to know their classmates better and build positive relationships.
  • Kids shouldn't have to line up and wait. They bother each other when in line.
  • Having teachers and other people at school greet us in the morning, like they are happy to see us.
  • I look forward to technology, because it makes me feel a part of the world. I get confused from a book. I can look up on the Internet to learn better.
  • Teachers who are more hands on with their students. Don't just hand out assignments and lecture; they get more involved with the students.
  • Knowing that I am waking up to a happy family.
  • Would be great if it started later because I'm always stressed out about getting up and having to run to get dressed and rush to school.
  • Teachers should make people feel good in the class and not bullied.
  • Keeping things the same on set days.
2. Did you like school this past year? Why or why not?
  • Yes, because I had the best teacher ever and she helped my class become a family.
  • Yes, because my grades have gone up than last year. At my old school, they didn't sit down with me and explain what to do. But at my new school my teacher would always keep me after school and ask what are you having problems with and how can I help? She works with her students.
  • No because the teachers were mean to me and punished me and put me in detention every day when I didn't even need it.
  • YES - I liked my teachers alot better this year because they understood me.
  • Yes, I liked playing at recess and I liked math. But I didn't like when the teacher yelled at kids, it made me scared.
  • No, I did not like school this past year because my teacher called me stupid in front of the entire class, she sat me in the back of the classroom away from all my peers, and also by a window where she knew I would not pay attention.
3. Do you think homework helps you learn more? Please explain.
  • No, because it just fries your brain and doesn't allow time for break and bond with your family.
  • Homework should be school work because at home you're supposed to spend time with your family.
  • Yes, cause sometimes you get homework that you don't know and then your parents help you with it and then you know it for the next time it comes around.
  • No. Homework causes stress and stress causes nightmares.
  • I don't think lots of homework is good because we want time to ourselves after school.
4. If you'd like to add anything I haven't asked in regards to school, please list it here:
  • The teacher helped me succeed, by calling on me when I knew the answer and it made me feel better about myself. She taught me to never give up.
  • I think they should use less books and more technology along with hands on training (everyone learns differently).
  • I wish that other kids understood my disability better, so I would have more friends.
Out of the mouths of babes, we have brilliant, yet very easy solutions that can be implemented into the classroom. Additionally, most of these solutions do not require any additional funding or resources. They all simply require being able put oneself into the perspective of the child and to feel what it is like to be the student once again.
Incredibly, the responses, randomly collected from students in various grade levels, all reflected five key ingredients:

  • Relationship
  • Regulation
  • Encouragement
  • Understanding
  • Emotional Safety
And these five ingredients add up to same word: LOVE.

Press on,

Heather T. Forbes, LCSW

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Back to School Success

defiant boy 

Q: My son is an angel at school but a terror at home. He was even student of the month last school year. But when he gets home, our home is absolute chaos and he is just nasty to me.
A: Many children work to be 'normal' all day long at school so when they get home, they are exhausted. The result is they collapse into negative behaviors. When they are stressed at school, they hold it together all day long and then in their 'unwinding' of the day, they become "terrors."
Due to early experiences of trauma, children can become sensitive to environmental stressors. Their regulatory systems have been compromised and they have difficulty remaining calm and behaved when faced with the challenges of a school setting.

Additionally, children become fragmented and split between home and school. Many parents report that they literally have two different children in these two different environments. This fragmentation is not healthy to the child's overall development of the self so it is important that this be addressed effectively for the child.
When we look at the dynamic of the school setting, consider the energy it takes for your child to maintain appropriate behaviors at school is far greater than the average student. He may look well put together externally, but internally, he is running at high speed to ensure he becomes the perfect student. Thus, when he gets home, it is as if he has run a marathon; he is exhausted, unable to hold it together anymore.

In order to create more balance for your child, consider ways to reduce some of the major stressors he experiences at school:

  • Social stress - Peer interactions are exceptionally stressful, especially for children who function at a lower emotional level than their peers. Some children may need less social time and more time-in with a regulated adult at the school.
  • Transitioning from one activity to another - Transitions such as going from the playground to the classroom, from art to P.E., and from the cafeteria to the classroom, are difficult for many children. Many of the traumatic experiences of children happened around transition, so they are going to be sensitive in this area and may need additional support.
  • After school care - Staying at school for an additional hour or two is stressful after a full day of school. Children just need to go home after school. After-school care is typically less structured and less predictable, which is a horrible combination for a child who is already stressed out by this time of the day.
  • Teachers - The type of teacher your child has can determine the entire outcome of the child's school year, both positively and negatively. A calm, regulated teacher, who has control of the classroom, well-established boundaries, and reasonable expectations for your child will help your child maintain his own level of regulation during the school day.
  • Riding the school bus - If your child is sensitive to loud environments and chaotic social situations, the school bus is not an option. He needs you to take him to school and pick him up from school. Helping your child transition from home to school through a peaceful car ride can set your child up for a successful day. Remember that the number one responsibility you have as a parent is to drop your child off at school as regulated and calm as possible. This gives him at least a fighting chance and a larger window of stress tolerance as he faces a stressful day.
  • Stress-inducing requirements - Alternatives that reduce stress instead of increase stress need to be explored and established for your child either through a 504 Plan or an IEP (Individualized Educational Program). Many times it is the small things that can make a huge impact. For example, timed testing can completely throw a child into a stress reaction, impacting your child’s ability to think clearly, and should be avoided.
    Also, just the thought of coming home and doing homework for many children creates a stress reaction. Some families have been able to write into the child's IEP that homework will not be required because it creates too much chaos in the home.
Another major point to consider is that your child's relationships at school are very different from his relationships at home. School relationships are indiscriminate. They don't require close connection, thus they are safer. Close relationships, like parent-child relationships, require intimacy which requires vulnerability. For children with traumatic histories, their trauma happened in the context of close relationships. This sets your child up to be in fear of connection of you, not with the milkman or of teachers, but of you, the person closest to him.
As you are able to parent within a love-based framework, you are establishing an environment that decreases the threat of this relationship. If you need more examples of how to parent in a loving way while still maintaining rules and boundaries in your home, see my Q&A book, "Dare to Love." Real examples of how to apply the Beyond Consequences principles are given throughout the entire book.

I also encourage you, as the parent, to check in with yourself. Determine how you are feeling and what messages are swirling around in your mind. It's easy to get into a framework that says to your child, "If you can behave for your teacher at school, then my gosh, I'm your parent...you can certainly behave for me!"

It's very easy to take it personally and to interpret your child's negative behavior as an attack on you. As a parent, you are working so hard as to help your child, to heal them, and to love him/her. Yet, the reality is that they don't know what to do with the stress from school and they are still living in fear of connection with you. The struggle is not with you; it is with themselves. Continue to go beyond the obvious and reach to the core of the issue---fear and stress.

Press on,

Heather T. Forbes, LCSW

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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Cleaning Out the Emotional Closet

Emotional ClosetQ: How do you give a narrative to a child that suffered neglect as an infant during the first three months of his life, especially when I do not know the details? A: What a great question! Children need to know their stories. This helps them understand themselves and gives them an understanding of who they are.

The actual details of the story are not important, and in fact, should not be the focus. This is especially true for trauma that happened preverbally (before the child was speaking). Infants and young children are 100% emotional beings, so the story needs to be told from this level to connect with the child's early experiences.

When giving your child his story, focus on how the child felt (helpless, scared, terrified, sad, hungry, etc.). A child who was neglected missed the warm and nurturing touch of a parent, so hold your child next to you or in your lap while giving him his story.

The important factors are your tone of voice, facial expressions, posture, and tempo of movement and speech. These are all right brain expressions that will speak to the subconscious experiences of your child.

Dr. Allan Schore, the "king" of affect regulation, explains that the right brain is the unconscious processor of the emotional self. The attachment bond is an emotional bond, so it takes expressing yourself and your child's story at the emotional level. What you say isn't as important as how you say it.

A dialogue might sound something like this:
"When you were a little baby, sweetheart, you were really scared. Your mommy wasn't able to help you like you needed her to. There were many times that you were left in your crib alone. Babies get super scared when this happens because they are helpless. I'm certain this is how you were feeling. It probably felt like you weren't lovable, also. I do wish I could have been there. I'm so sorry this happened to you, honey."
I was speaking to a mother just the other day about giving her daughter who was severely neglected for the first year of her life her story. The mother's fear prompted these questions, "Do you think that this will just make it worse for her? Won't this only bring up bad memories and get her upset?"

This is a fear that parents have…and, of course. You're just trying to get better and move on in your healing process and I'm suggesting a trip back in time to expose the pain and overwhelm. The paradox is that in order to move forward, it takes going backwards, seeing the fullness of the trauma and experiencing it at all levels.

When your child's story goes unexpressed, he will be subconsciously living out it everyday. This pain and overwhelm will continue to influence him and drive him in his actions. You're not giving him anything new by giving him his story. You're simply bringing the subconscious to the conscious so it doesn't have the power to create dysregulation anymore. When these stories, connected to the feelings and emotions, can be expressed, healing happens.

So the question then becomes, "Whose fear is this really about?" Resistance is about the parent's fear of going back to experience the depth of darkness that the child experienced. Just the thought of what some of our children went through is completely overwhelming to us.

I remember one day my daughter, who was also severely neglected, was beginning to open up to her early life experiences. I was getting so overwhelmed by her pain that I had to call a friend over to be with me so I could stay present with her. I needed support. Interesting that it was too much for me as an adult, so why is it that we expect our children to live alone in this kind of pain by themselves and be okay?

Find the courage to experience your child's early life with him, feel the impact of his feelings of being unworthy, and validate how bad it was for him. Then, you will have opened up the space for healing and a connected and happy future.

Remember that attachment is about decreasing negative emotions. But even more than that, attachment is about increasing positive emotions. Clean out the closet to make room for joy, happiness, peace, and love!

Press on,

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