Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Maximizing Instead of Minimizing

icebergQ: I am teaching a book study based on "Help for Billy." You mention that one of the effective strategies to use with children who have a traumatic background is "maximizing." I am not sure I understand what this is and was wondering if you could expand on it. Thank you.

A: Traditionally, we've always been taught to stop or change children's behaviors by redirecting them or helping them to see a broader perspective. Most of us can easily give examples from our own childhood of this tactic. Responses such as, "Calm down honey, it's not that big of a deal." or "Honey, look over here, I see
something you're really going to like." are imbedded in us. These types of responses shift children away from the issue at hand to stabilize them emotionally.

For children impacted by trauma, this approach is often one of the worst approaches you can take. These are children who've had experiences of not being heard, being ignored, feeling unwanted, or worse. These are children who are in desperate need of being validated, understood, and heard. By giving them a response to their struggle that minimizes or diverts away from the struggle, they will see this response from a reflection of who they are. They personally take this dismissal of their feelings to heart.

Children who live in a state of survival (which is what trauma does to a child) do not have the ability to dissect an adult's response into a complex interpretation such as, "This adult (parent/teacher/caregiver) loves me enough to give me a response that will help me see the bigger picture." Instead, a child impacted by trauma thinks in simple, rigid, and linear terms such as, "This adult (parent/teacher/caregiver) isn't addressing my need directly. Therefore, he/she doesn't love me."

Children impacted by trauma will feel invalidated, unloved, unimportant, and unworthy when we give them responses that essentially minimize their requests; if you minimize their need, you minimize them personally. They've lived (or are living) through situations where there wasn't or isn't certainty. Their brains have become wired for survival, which means they will see everything from a negative and rigid perspective. They are out to protect themselves--everything you say or do is going to be interpreted from a deeply personal level.

They need you to maximize their struggle. In turn, this will "maximize" them as human beings--it is their way of feeling loved, worthy, and validated. They lack the ability to separate their self-worth from your response. Simply, your response to them equals their interpretation of their worth and "lovability."
Maximing Graphic
Additionally, many children don't know how to express the issues troubling them in appropriate ways. They will use roundabout ways to get you to hear their internal struggles. They work very hard to avoid being vulnerable which keeps them from being able to clearly express their real troubles. Thus, you have to open up the first layer of the conversation to get to the second, third, and fourth layers of the conversation. Maximizing helps you to get to the conversation behind the conversation.

In the following chart, two examples (a minimizing response and a maximizing response) are given to compare and contrast the differences in the same scenario with "Billy":
Maximizing Table

In the example above, it could have been any number of reasons why Billy didn't like the book. However, by going into the conversation to validate his dislike of the book, the core issue behind the book was revealed. Maximizing means accepting the child's response without the need to correct. It means going into the conversation with a sense of curiosity, saying to yourself, "What is this really about?" Maximizing is about getting the full story instead of just a smidgen of the story. Instead of getting the tip of the iceberg, you're maximizing to get what is lying underneath.

Follow Billy's linear thinking and follow his/her pattern of thinking through your response. Maximizing is an expression of love in Billy's eyes. By maximizing, you will be saying, "I love you, Billy. You're safe."

Press on in maximum love,
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 18, 2017

Interactive Regulation

father and son
The Power of Love and Relationship

 Humans are designed to be in relationship. We are designed to grow  up in families and live in communities. What is considered the most  severe punishment of an inmate in prison? Solitary confinement. This  is because we are neurologically and biologically designed to be in  relationship. Being alone for extended periods of time goes against    our physiology.

Children need connection in order to feel loved, accepted, and safe. They cannot sufficiently create this on their own. They need to experience this first from the adults in their lives before they can give it to themselves. Children, especially babies, do not have the ability to "regulate" on their own.

A baby crying in a crib is communicating that he is in need of help. The baby is seeking regulation. The baby has slipped into a state of dysregulation, needing to be fed, rocked, cuddled, or have a diaper changed. The baby is incapable of shifting from this state of dysregulation to a state of regulation on his own. If the baby is not cared for, he goes into a hyper-aroused state, whereby the stress hormones excrete excessively until ultimately, the body will protect itself from creating internal damage by shutting down. The baby then stops crying and appears to have settled down.

Yet in actuality, the baby has not shifted back into a state of regulation. The baby has simply shifted from a state of active arousal to a state of passive arousal, still dysregulated at the internal level. He has been denied an interactive experience with his caregiver. He has missed the vital experience of being calmed and soothed, or regulated, by his caregiver.

This same concept is true for any child, whether in a school or home. When a child is acting out, it is a sign that the child has slipped into a state of dysregulation. If the child has not had enough past regulatory experiences of being soothed through the power of a loving relationship, the child's ability to self-regulate is insufficient to shift to a state of regulation on his own. Whether describing an infant or a 15-year-old child who is dysregulated, the role of the adult (whether it is a parent or teacher) is always to join with the child in order to help the child regulate back to a state of calm arousal.

Science is showing that essential regulatory functions occur in the right hemisphere. The right hemisphere is responsible for the processing of positive and negative affective states, such as interest, excitement, and joy, along with pain, fear, and overwhelm. The right hemisphere controls the human stress response system and cortisol secretion as well as vital functions supporting survival. When a child's experiences do not include predictability, quality care-giving, loving interactions, and safety, these functions of the right hemisphere are impaired and the ability to regulate is compromised.

When interacting with a child exhibiting difficult behaviors, look into the child's present and past experiences and you are likely to find a cycle of disruption and unpredictability. In order to help a child get back on track, it takes connecting with the child at the emotional level. This connection happens in the right brain, so it is not the words that are important. It is the facial expression, tone and volume of voice, as well as the posture, tempo, and timing of movement. It is about learning to simply be present with the child and allowing the child emotional space to process through the stress.

This is an interactive process between the adult and the child, and thus, it is imperative that the adult be in a state of regulation. If the adult is stressed out and dysregulated, the adult's ability to create a state of regulation for the child is severely compromised. Have you ever been in a store and watched a stressed-out parent instructing the child to, "Calm down. Calm down, right now!"? The words are effective words; however, the delivery of the words is far more important to consider. It is not what you say, but how you say it.

Imagine having the opportunity to sit next to Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mother Teresa. How do you think you would feel simply sitting next to any one of these individuals who radiates pure love? Would your system automatically shift to a state of regulation? You undoubtedly would feel a sense of calm and peacefulness, even if words were not exchanged.

While this may be an extreme example, you do have the same ability to create this type of connection with a dysregulated child. This is the power of love and relationship. This is "interactive regulation." Interactive regulation is the ability to easily regulate one's emotional state through interactions with others. As the child experiences these interactions with you and through you, he will gain experiential knowledge of what it feels like to be regulated. He will have experiences of going from a state of dysregulation and upset to a state of peace and calm.

As the child experiences this interactive regulation through your relationship with him, he then learns how to self-regulate, or as science is terming it, to "autoregulate." This is the ultimate gift we can give children--to be able to self-regulate in times of stress, without others and without external measures.

Childhood is the most opportune time to accomplish this goal. Science is showing that positive emotional experiences carve permanent pathways into a child's developing neurological system. Every interaction you have with a child is an opportunity to help the child regulate, make a positive emotional connection, and literally lay down neural networks that will enhance his brain's capacity to handle stress and overwhelm later in life. Conversely, research states that if a significant amount of a child's emotional experiences are characterized by fear, then a negative and hopeless perspective becomes part of the child's personality framework.

It is important to realize these experiences influence a child far more than we once believed. In the past, it was believed that children who grow up with an abundance of experiences of distress, fear, separation, and rage simply develop bad behaviors and bad habits. We now know that it goes much deeper than this; they develop ingrained negative neurological pathways that control much of what they do.

The good news is that our brains are ever changing and ever creating new neuropathways. Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections based on life experiences. Yet it is vital to the healing process of children that these new neuropathways are formed from emotional experiences, not intellectual or cognitive experiences.

These emotional experiences are not experiences that can be created in a therapist's office once a week for 50 minutes nor can they be created by being isolated in detention or by being suspended from school. These healing moments need to happen through the context of the adult-child relationship. It is in the moments when your child or student is most "raw" and the most dysregulated that you are being presented with an opportunity to create change and healing. It takes interacting from not just a new perspective but from an entirely new paradigm centered in the heart.

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 11, 2017

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,
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 16, 2017

Why We Need Trauma-Informed Schools

The Trauma Informed School
 In the mid 1990's, the United States Congress, along with several states,  passed laws with the intention of reducing violence, notably gun violence,  in schools. These laws not only encourage harsh punishments but in  many cases, mandate them. Following the implementation of these laws,  there was a rise in out-of-school suspensions and expulsions. The  unfortunate fall-out for our most behaviorally challenged students is lost  educational opportunities and the labeling of them as delinquents and  criminals. Additionally, two decades of research shows no evidence that  these laws and mandates have improved school safety or student  behaviors.
These zero tolerance policies are the least trauma-informed policies ever put into practice in our schools. They ignore the mental and emotional needs of the most vulnerable of students in our schools and allow absolutely no understanding to the individual needs of students. Ironically, the students who need the most help are punished, judged, and pushed away, which only works to deepen their trauma related issues.

Trauma research is giving us answers as to why these earlier policies do not work. Neuroscience is showing how the brain is impacted when children grow up in stressful environments. Their brains are wired differently, they think from a platform of fear, and they have negative belief systems about themselves and the world in which they live. This creates challenges within the framework of our traditional disciplinary models. The result is that we are failing our students and asking them to be like all the "normal" kids yet they are neurologically unequipped to be able to do so.

For many of our students, they have experienced years of toxic stress in their home environments that shifted them into living every moment of everyday in survival mode. Their new "normal" is fear, reactivity, and failure. This is how they have survived. It is all they know. The result it that their brains are wired for fear...their brains are not "bad" and their reactivity isn't necessarily "wrong." They are products of their environments. They have survival brains and that's how they enter their classrooms everyday. What science is showing us, is that this is a brain issue, not a behavioral issue.

Using a trauma-informed approach within our schools is the answer. It is an approach that implements an understanding of trauma into the everyday practices and policies of an academic environment. Using a trauma-informed approach means changing how we interact with students and how we implement discipline in a way that is modified to be responsive to the impact of traumatic stress. A program that is "trauma-informed" operates within a framework that incorporates an understanding of the ways in which trauma impacts an individual's socio-emotional health.

Students who have been impacted by trauma carry a very heavy load and they operate at a perpetual high level of stress. For most, their trauma wasn't a one time-incident...it didn't happen overnight. It happened and continues to happen on a perpetual and long-term basis.

Children have a natural love for learning yet what we as a collective society have forgotten is that children are first emotional beings. They operate at an emotional level, not an intellectual level. That's the definition of being a child.

A survey was created by the Beyond Consequences Institute (BCI) to ask the opinions of students regarding what they need at school to make learning better. Students from first to twelfth grade completed the survey and their answers gave profound insights into the needs of these students. Only 2% of the students made suggestions regarding actual academic improvements. The remaining answers focused on suggestions to meet their social and emotional needs.

The students' responses centered on identifying ways the school could meet their physiological needs, safety concerns, relationship needs, and self-esteem needs. The collective responses from all the students created a similar framework to psychologist Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory. Maslow suggested that the needs of individuals must be met before they will have a strong desire for improving themselves and moving forward in their growth. In order of priority, Maslow theorized that individuals must have their physiological, safety, love/belonging/and esteem needs met prior to being motivated at the self-actualization level. He also believed that when these basic needs are deficient in one's life, the feelings of being anxious and tense are typically present.

Taking this framework of human motivation developed by Maslow, the same basic principles can be applied directly to the student in the classroom. The "Hierarchy of Learning" pyramid describes why we need to have a trauma-informed approach in our schools. 
Hierarchy of Learning
Instead of addressing the top of the pyramid, which is what we have traditionally done, we must first address everything below the top in order to ultimately reach the top of the pyramid. Trusting the process of meeting the social and emotional needs of our students to achieve high test-scores and successful graduation rates is the ultimate in making the shift to a trauma-informed school.

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.